© Sophia Nye, 2022
Deep in the heart of the Kingdom of Mumhan, the legendary King Brian Boru has brought an ancient brotherhood back to life: The Fianna. Now entering his senescence, King Brian has all but achieved his dream of becoming High King of all of Éire. He will need the aid of the Kingdom’s best warriors to complete his vision.
When her elder brother leaves to join the ranks of the king’s new elite band of warriors, Ethlinn knows his life will be in danger. If, by some miracle, her poet brother manages to survive the challenges of the Fianna, his future will surely be short and violent. Determined to thwart his ill-conceived plan, Ethlinn sets out after her brother in order to save his life.
When Illadan’s uncle, King Brian, approaches him for help in recruiting warriors to his new Fianna, Illadan jumps at the opportunity. The least he can do is offer aid to the man who has all but raised him.
The last thing Illadan expects when the newest recruit arrives in Cenn Cora is for a troublesome woman to start sabotaging the trials of potential warriors. At first she is a mere nuisance, lurking in the shadows and disappearing into the forest. When she threatens to interfere in the trials themselves, she becomes a menace. With no recourse left to preserve the integrity of the Fianna trials, Illadan sets off to hunt down the mysterious woman before she ruins all his carefully laid plans.
Lord of Stone is a noble/commoner forced proximity romance.
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Ethlinn’s head felt as though she’d been hit by a stone. For that matter, her entire body felt much the same. She tried to open her eyes, only to find they wouldn’t budge.
“I’m going to kill him.” Her brother’s voice, smooth as a river rock and trembling with fury.
“Not if I find him first.” Her father’s voice, rough and loud. Too loud. Ethlinn tried to lift her hands to her ears to stop the ringing that had begun. She hadn’t bent her elbow fully before a sharp pain ran up her forearm, causing her to cry out.
She heard someone walk away, followed by the familiar creaking and clanking of a leather sword-belt being donned. She must be in her family’s cottage.
“No one is killing anyone.” Her mother’s voice, even and sure. “If you go attacking the man who owns our land, he’ll do worse than beat us.”
“We cannot let such a crime go unpunished!” Finn, her brother, shouted from the other side of the room. He must have been the one to grab the sword. “And you know he’ll get out of paying the fine.”
Ethlinn had let this go on long enough. She couldn’t do much at the moment, but she was fairly certain she could speak. She tested her jaw to ensure it wasn’t broken. “I’m alright.”
“You can’t even open your eyes, they’re so swollen!” Finn argued.
“I’ve a compress right here, a stór,” her mother said softly.
Moments later, a cold, wet cloth landed gently on her battered face.
“The swelling will go right down,” her mother reassured them all.
“She’s right,” Ethlinn agreed slowly. “You’ll only get yourselves killed going after him.”
“Aye, but if we kill him first at least we’ll have vengeance,” her father growled. “He cannot beat my daughter without consequences.”
“If you die, who will work the field? What do you think will happen to us? His son is just as cruel—we’ll be in the grave next to yours.” Her mother’s practicality often irritated Ethlinn, but today she was grateful for it. “And, in spite of Finn’s thoughts, it is possible he will pay the fine and justice will be done according to the laws.”
Though Ethlinn and her mother eventually talked her father and brother out of rash action, there was still a good deal more grumbling from both men.
The next few days saw Ethlinn slipping in and out of sleep as her body healed. The first morn that she attempted to wash her face, she found she could scarce touch it, so tender was her torn flesh.
Finn offered to take her to the little silver stream that trickled through a yew hedge not far from their cottage so that she could wash properly. Normally, she would throw her hands to her hips and remind him that she wasn’t in need of his protection. She had more than enough skill with a bow to defend herself. But after being beaten senseless, Ethlinn wondered if her brother had known more than she all along.
“You’ll feel like yourself again once you’ve had a good soak,” he assured her as they picked their way to the stream.
Lord, she wanted to believe him. Yet even now, days later, she still shook like a leaf when she remembered the moment Ernin’s fist connected with her cheek. Absently, her hand brushed the spot where she was certain he’d cracked a bone.
The playful trickle of the stream pulled her out of her turbulent thoughts. Sitting beneath the twisting green branches, she carefully pulled off her bróga, the small leather shoes she always wore. Her feet were the least injured part of her body, but reaching them meant putting pressure on her aching ribs. The healer said she’d cracked at least two, possibly three, but they would heal and she would live. She reached just a touch too far and sucked in a breath when a sharp lash of pain struck her middle.
Finn was kneeling beside her before she realized she’d made a sound. “Can I help?” He asked, reaching to remove her left bróg without waiting for an answer. Offering her his hand, he led her to the tepid water.
Ethlinn dipped her toes in, sighing in contentment as the ripples lapped at her ankles, soothing her. “Thank you.”
Finn grinned at her. “Water is good for the body and the soul,” he intoned, repeating one of their father’s favorite sayings. “Perhaps he’s onto something.”
“Let’s not get carried away,” Ethlinn giggled. She sat on the bank of the stream to wash her face, but Finn halted her before she could lean over the water.
“You may want to wait,” he suggested.
“Why?” Hadn’t he brought her here to wash up and reclaim some small part of herself?
But her brother stood speechless, unable to explain his concern quick enough.
And before he could get a single word out, Ethlinn leaned over the stream and carefully positioned her face above the water to wash up. She realized instantly why he’d tried to stop her.
She wasn’t herself at all.
A wraithlike creature gazed up at her from the water, as though it weren’t her reflection but that of a corpse. Streaks of purple, blue, red, and every shade between bloomed from gashes on her skin. Somehow her right cheek was still swollen.
“Ethlinn,” Finn tried to intervene, “it will fade. In time, you’ll look just as you did.”
Tears pooled in the corners of her eyes as she looked at the destruction he’d wreaked upon her body. She fought against the rising panic that accompanied every thought of the attack, her chest constricting uncomfortably.
“How long?” The words, barely audible, somehow reached her brother. “How long until it fades?”
Finn blew out a heavy breath. “I’ve taken my fair share of beatings,” he began cautiously, “but, Eth, that man tried to kill you. If the smith hadn’t turned that corner, you might never have come home. It will take some time to heal from that.”
He was right, though she’d never tell him as much. Telling your older brother he had a point, no matter how serious the topic, was as good as digging your own grave. So instead Ethlinn yanked his arm as best she could and pulled him to sit beside her.
Tension rippled through him, just as it had every time Ernin had approached her. The grim look on his face hurt her more than her broken ribs.
“I’m alright, Finn. Really.”
“You’re not,” he grumbled. “But you will be.” His eyes narrowed sharply.
She knew her brother well enough to recognize that look. He was getting riled and thinking about doing something stupid. “Look, we’ll just all stay home,” she suggested, hoping he understood. “We don’t have to go to the crannóg for supplies for a while, and it will give us time to move forward before we have to see Ernin again.”
“I have to go to the crannóg tonight.”
“No!” Didn’t he see that there was nothing to be done? “You can’t, Finn. It won’t help anything.”
He hung his head, gazing attentively at the trickling water running past their bare feet. “Trust me, Eth, I’d love to beat Ernin just as senseless as he did you. But that’s not why I have to go. Tonight is the performance.”
“It’s tonight? Already?”
He grinned at her, though the smile didn’t reach his eyes. “Yes, well, sleeping for days on end can really alter your sense of time.”
Ethlinn splashed him, but they both went quiet, captured by their own thoughts. Her brother had a rare gift, one that he had spent his entire life thus far developing further. He could coax music from a harp as easily and sweetly as flowers bloomed in the spring. Effortless, it seemed to everyone else. But Ethlinn knew it was anything but.
He worked in the fields with their father, did all his chores around the cottage, and then practiced for hours. He’d done so as long as Ethlinn could remember, the only exception when he left for several years to foster with their uncle. Then, he’d spent most of his time practicing with tutors. Aye, he’d been born with talent, but it would have amounted to naught without all the hard work he’d done. All so that one day he could become a master bard, an advisor to kings and one of the most important men in the kingdoms. Everyone, from his tutors to the local wisewoman, said he could do it.
Apparently, tonight was his chance. Once a year, the master bards of each kingdom made a circuit through their lands, so that they could find musicians worthy of studying their craft. Tonight, they gathered at the home of the local lord, who hosted the performance.
The same lord who had done his best attempt at beating Ethlinn to death several days’ past.
Ethlinn glanced at her brother out of the corner of her eye, trying to gauge his mood as he prepared to face Lord Ernin for the first time since the beast had attacked her. What if Finn loses his temper and gets himself into trouble? What if Ernin decides to attack Finn as well?
A deep, shuddering breath coursed through Ethlinn as she realized what she had to do. It was her battle with Ernin. Not her brother’s, not her father’s. Hers. Her loved ones shouldn’t pay the price for her troubles. She wouldn’t let harm come to them as it had her — not while she could stop it. The only way to ensure her family’s safety was to follow Finn to the crannóg tonight.
And to be prepared to hand herself over to protect her brother, should it come to it.
By sundown that night, Ethlinn had no clue what was going on. It had all begun simply enough. She’d followed Finn to the crannóg and waited outside, keeping an ear and an eye out for trouble. And, of course, she’d brought her bow with her. To travel alone unarmed would have been foolishness, especially when heading back to the lair of Lord Ernin.
That was when things went sideways. In truth, Ethlinn had expected it to be a boring evening. Her brother would play, get accepted as an apprentice to the master, then head home victorious. If she were unlucky, Ernin would get involved somehow.
Finn had played, just as magnificently as she’d ever heard. Ethlinn knew the moment he began—an all-encompassing silence descended, broken only by the sound of his skillfully-played harp. She had no doubt in her mind that he’d impressed the master. How could he not with such a melody? Until he stormed out of the crannog.
A man that Ethlinn didn’t recognize followed him out. They spoke for several minutes before Finn came back across the bridge, furious.
What on earth had happened? Surely they hadn’t turned him down after a performance like that? Ethlinn considered coming out of her hiding place to console her brother, for he was clearly upset. Mayhap Ernin had goaded him after all. Before she set a foot on the road, another man appeared behind Finn.
Nearly as tall as her giant of a brother and of a similar age, the man pulled Finn aside and spoke with him in a hushed tone. Ethlinn strained but couldn’t make out what they said. Then they took off down the road together. Only they weren’t headed back home.
They were headed north.
Two days. Two days she followed them, treading a careful line between minding her own safety and getting caught by the pair of them. She still hadn’t managed to get close enough to hear anything useful, and she still hadn’t the faintest idea of who this man was who had appeared out of nowhere and convinced her brother to run off.
Honestly, what was the fool thinking? Why would he leave home, without telling anyone, with a complete stranger? What a perfect way to get yourself killed.
Over the past days, Ethlinn had doubted her decision to follow Finn. Though she wanted to grumble and complain over his own clearly questionable decision-making, Ethlinn had no illusions about her own position. She was here entirely of her own doing.
Perhaps she should have returned home and sent her father after him instead. As if the good Lord sent her a sign of his thoughts on the matter, her stomach growled louder a roll of thunder, reminding her that she had yet to eat more than a few wild garlic plants and some mushrooms. She felt herself weakening as the hours passed, but it was far too late to turn back. If she were attacked by marauders or some similarly unseemly folk, she could call to Finn and his companion. If she turned around, she’d be entirely on her own.
Every trip, every stumble, every scrape reminded her that she was in no condition to be off on such a grand adventure. After all, ‘twas only three days ago that her injuries had healed enough for her to walk. Yet a small, stubborn voice within urged her onward.
Finally, just before sunset on the second eve, Ethlinn shadowed Finn and his companion as they reached a settlement along the banks of a lake. A large round hall and its outbuildings stood like guardians, perched upon a hill overlooking woodlands all the way down to the glistening lakeshore. The hillside facing her was cloaked in oak and ash, slowly giving way to fertile fields and small farms. Finn and his companion chatted and laughed as they walked the dirt road through the farmlands. Ethlinn hung back, using shadows and brush to get her from tree line to tree line.
‘Twas a quietly beautiful sort of place.
Sadly, Ethlinn knew she couldn’t possibly go walking through the center of such a sweet little town looking like she’d been run down by a boulder. Her bruises were purpling nicely, a few were even beginning to fade, yet no one would forget having seen her. Many would likely try to convince her to give up her journey until she’d healed. Ethlinn knew with certainty that it would cause problems to try walking through the farmsteads as Finn had done.
So she veered sharply to the east. Keeping a good distance between herself and the settlement, Ethlinn picked her way through prickly brush and hidden brambles. Because, really, what she needed were more bruises and scrapes. As she came round the southern base of the hill, she stopped in her tracks. It was covered in tents, looking for all the world like a small standing army camped in this sleepy little village. And she’d been just short of walking straight into one of them. Stumbling backwards, she found the nearest copse of trees and hastened towards it, ducking from lone tree to lone tree along the way.
With care she’d not normally take, Ethlinn lifted herself gently into a young oak tree. Though the rough bark aggravated her tender skin, she managed not to reopen any wounds. Her efforts paid off, and she was finally able to catch a handful of words spoken by some of the men moving among the tents. But she only needed to hear two.
One of King Brian’s most beloved fortresses.
Ethlinn’s breath caught. So that was what her brother planned. Word had spread across the kingdom of late that King Brian Boru searched for the most skilled warriors in his lands. That he planned to use them as his right hand, to finally bring the kingdoms of Meath and Ulla under his dominion. To subdue any more trouble with the Ostmen of Dyflin.
Either Finn had performed so well that he’d been sent straight to the High King himself, or he’d been received so poorly that he felt endangering his life to be his only option. Based upon his extreme anger that night, Ethlinn was betting on the latter. Which meant her brother was even more foolish than she’d believed.
Aye, Finn could wield a sword. Their father had made certain of that. But he had trained his entire life as a bard and a poet, not a warrior. This could only end poorly.
Before Ethlinn could begin forming a plan, movement caught her eye. Three men made their way up the hillside toward the hall, walking past her a furlong away. They stood out because all three were impressive on their own. Together, they were the stuff of the great poems her brother so loved. Mighty warriors, each tall and broad in his own right. Two dressed as nobles, the third as a guard.
One of the men hollered and waved his hands bossily, urging everyone who hadn’t yet headed to the hall to be on their way. The Bossy One, Ethlinn decided. He seemed to be in charge. The second man, the other noble, paid him no mind whatsoever. He focused entirely on his own thoughts, for it was clear he hadn’t even heard The Bossy One speak. Enjoying her little game, Ethlinn determined that he was The Serious One. The third man, the guard, grumbled at The Bossy One with a great frown. Obviously, he was The Grumpy One.
A single giggle escaped her when she thought of that, and all three men turned in her direction. She held perfectly still, just as her father had taught her, trusting the leaves to conceal her so long as she didn’t move. When they turned back toward the hall, she let out a slow breath. She’d need to be more careful than that in the future. Though she had greatly enjoyed their expressions. Already they were living up to their names.
Curiosity replaced her amusement when one of the warriors camped on the hillside approached the trio. They stood just near enough for her to catch bits and pieces of the conversation. More than enough for her to realize precisely what the encampment was about. It was just as she’d feared. All these warriors had answered King Brian’s call, gathering at Cenn Cora to prove themselves worthy of a place in his guard. This particular warrior asked about the challenges to be set to them.
The Bossy One answered. Of course. Although, she admitted grudgingly, she could see even from her perch he was the handsomest of the three. Though momentarily distracted by his charming smile, his words hurtled her back to reality.
The men would perform the trials of the Fianna, legendary warriors from the old tales. Trials which, if memory served her, included defending yourself from spear throws whilst at a disadvantage—much like an archery target with a larger projectile—and charging into a losing battle.
A familiar sinking feeling returned to Ethlinn’s gut. Now she was certain this whole business would end poorly.
Which meant she needed to ensure it never even began.
The wind picked up as they ascended the hill, weaving their way through the forty-four tents that had already been set amongst the scattered trees. Forty-four was not enough, Illadan realized bleakly, doing his utmost to ignore the manner in which the tents had been laid out. It looked as though someone had taken a handful of grain, tossed it toward the sky, and pitched a tent where each had landed.
“To the hall!” Illadan shouted impatiently. They’d already been told as much. What kept them from following, he could hardly imagine. Turning backward he watched them scramble in and out of the tents, grabbing sword belts and donning cloaks. Shaking his head and grumbling in frustration, he kept walking. First thing tomorrow, they’d be resetting those tents. In rows. Such utter nonsense.
“God’s bones, Illadan,” Broccan grumbled beside him. “‘Tis not as though the world will end before they make it to the hall. Give the lads a moment to ready themselves.”
Illadan turned to regard his friend but didn’t stop walking. “Their training begins now. They will live or die by how well they train. When we command them to the hall, they go.” He took another glance at the tents, mostly behind him as he crested the hill.
Broccan followed his glare, shaking his head and frowning pointedly at Illadan. “At least they set them up in good time.”
Illadan groaned in frustration. “I thought you, of all people, would understand the importance of order in battle.” Broccan was, after all, the leader of the army of the High King of Éire. One could argue that, next to the king himself, Broccan was the most powerful man on the island for where he led, the army followed.
“Battle is not order. Battle is chaos in its purest form,” Broccan argued. “To believe otherwise is to lie to yourself.”
“The pair of you sound like wives without husbands to berate. You’d better quit your bickering before Brian hears you.”
Illadan and Broccan turned their attention in unison toward the man in front of them. Cormac, son of the King of Connacht and distant kin of King Brian, had fostered in the High King’s household alongside Illadan since they were lads. Both were the second sons of kings, kin to one another through their great-grandsire.
Illadan had already been living in Caiseal, the fortress of the king of Muan, nearly four years when Cormac had come to learn from Brian. He remembered well the excitement of greeting a new friend, kin no less, who shared his age, interests, and social standing. Several such lads all lived under Brian’s tutelage, but Cormac had always been his closest friend among them. Where Broccan brought fire wherever he went, Illadan and Cormac were as steadfast as stones in the river.
“Let the water move around you. Stand strong and still, letting the currents break around you instead of carrying you with them,” Brian had explained to them early on in their training. He had a fondness for riddles and stories which often appeared in his teachings.
When Brian had approached Illadan about overseeing the formation of his elite guard, his Fianna, Illadan insisted that Cormac must also be a part of it. Cormac was the strongest man he knew, inside and out—the perfect model of what a Fianna ought to be.
“It’s never good when he’s quiet,” Broccan mumbled to Cormac under his breath.
Illadan shoved him sideways. Broccan chuckled before his frown reclaimed him. Cormac returned to his silent contemplations. Every one of them felt the pressure of the honor they had been given as judges of the trials.
The man who had raised them from childhood as a father—who had given them his wisdom, his protection, his love—that man now relied on them more than he’d ever admit to secure the borders of his lands from further invasion. Though the King could still wield a sword and ride a steed, he was a far cry from the warrior of his youth. To protect the people of Éire from more death and destruction at the hands of the Fin Gall, the raiders from the north who carved seaside settlements from the blood of his kinsmen, to stop lesser kings from destroying the peace he had spent his life creating, Brian needed help. The warriors strewn in haphazard tents across this hillside would decide the fate of the kingdom by the strength of their deeds.
The least they could do was put their tents in order.
The moment Illadan, Cormac, and Broccan stepped into the hall, Lowery, the steward, ushered them into the small solar where King Brian stood near an open window. “He’s been waiting,” Lowery warned in a whisper before shutting them in with the High King.
“It’s about time,” Brian’s deep, rumbling voice echoed off the walls in his solar. “Where have you been?”
Illadan stepped forward. “Apologies, lord. We were inspecting the encampment.”
Brian raised a brow. “And?”
“I find it wanting.” Illadan knew better than to hide his dissatisfaction from the King. Of all of them, Brian had the most at stake in this venture. He deserved the truth.
Brian thought on his assessment before a smile claimed the corner of his lips. “I don’t find that terribly surprising. More will come, Illadan. Give them time.”
Time, Illadan thought, keeping his morbidity to himself, was the one thing they didn’t have. Brian was old for any man, but he was especially old for a warrior king. The need to secure both his borders and his accession could not be more pressing.
“We’ll ensure everything goes as you will it,” Cormac added confidently.
“I know,” Brian replied. “‘Tis why I’ve put you three in charge. Which leads me to the next matter at hand. We have an unexpected participant. Dallan mac Murrough, prince of Lein, has come for his sister.”
Broccan swore an unholy oath behind them. Illadan laughed aloud in disbelief. Cormac stood silent, eyes wide.
Eva nic Murrough, princess of Lein, had been the agreed-upon hostage following a bloody battle several months back. All of them had fought in it, a final push to put her irritating cousin, the foreign King of Dyflin, in his place—beneath Brian’s rule. The Fin Gall were defeated and Eva given as security for the conquered king’s good behavior. ‘Twas a matter of course in peace negotiations.
“But,” Illadan searched for the words. ‘Twas truly a complicated situation. “She’s the hostage, newly given. To take her back so soon, it would negate the peace. Has he come to start a war, then?”
“He says he wishes to take her place.” Brian shrugged his shoulders, as though the ridiculousness wasn’t lost on him either.
“Did you allow it?” Broccan’s voice was rising in volume, which meant his temper wasn’t far behind.
“Not precisely. If he becomes one of the Fianna, I will accept him as a hostage in her place. He would need to take an oath of loyalty to me by then, and would have proven himself a worthy exchange.”
An entirely reasonable solution. Illadan was forever impressed with the king’s sharp mind.
“And what of Eva?” Cormac asked a moment later. “Where is she to go once freed?”
“You assume he will pass all the trials?” Broccan countered in outrage. “I’ll be impressed if he manages the poetry, let alone the combat.”
Cormac leveled him a withering look. “There’s a good chance he will fail one, aye. But if this is the plan, we must have the end in place also. What will happen if he succeeds?”
“If he makes it to the last trial, summon me,” Brian replied. “We’ll deal with it then, and you’ll know the man better as well. Until then, however, he is not to speak with his sister. The last thing I need is the pair of them escaping or rebelling in the midst of the trials. Keep them separated and keep the peace. If he’s earnest in his intentions, we will honor them.”
The men left the solar for the hall, taking their seats at the king’s table. Brian sat in the middle next to his wife, directly before the fire. Cormac sat to her left, and Broccan beside Cormac. Typically, Illadan sat to the king’s right. But tonight, he had other duties to attend.
The large hall, round as was tradition, easily held the men who had come for the trials with room to spare. A great fire roared in the center, before the king’s dais. Therefore ‘twas a simple task to identify Dallan mac Murrough, seated at a table on the far right of the room. Illadan had met him several times before, the last being at the battle over Dyflin.
On the opposite side of the battlefield.
“Here to be my nursemaid, are you?” Dallan looked up as Illadan took a seat on the bench opposite him.
“Do you need one?”
Dallan narrowed his eyes, as though making his assessment of Illadan. “I meant what I told Brian,” he said at last, tearing a bite of bread from his trencher. “I’m here for my sister. Not to cause trouble.”
“Does Sitric know of your plan?”
Dallan choked on the bite of bread, taking a deep drink of ale and glancing at the other men seated near them.
“They’ll figure out who you are eventually,” Illadan continued. He found it difficult not to smile at how unsettled Dallan appeared. He was rather enjoying their conversation. “But, as I was saying, does not Sitric need to approve the exchange as well, as it is his truce?”
Sitric Olafsson, King of Dyflin, had been the one to arrange for Dallan’s sister as the hostage. He had been the one defeated in battle, forced to finally submit to Brian’s sovereignty.
So, while ‘twas saintly of Dallan to offer for his sister’s place, Illadan knew that Sitric would need to approve it as well. He had, after all, chosen Eva for a reason.
“He will allow it,” Dallan asserted.
Illadan noted that though Dallan’s voice committed to the boast, his eyes did not. Sitric likely had no notion of Dallan’s plan.
The next few months would prove interesting, indeed.
Ethlinn’s parents reminded her at every opportunity to exercise more caution in her life. No one had ever accused her of being dull or of taking too much consideration with her actions. She’d accepted long ago that her heart led, and her mind and body followed. When an idea swept her up in its current, she rode along no matter how wild the waters grew. Of course she’d tried to be mindful. It simply never stuck.
Sitting in the branches of the tree, Ethlinn regretted—for perhaps the first time ever—her rash decision-making. Aye, it had hurt like the Devil himself to climb that tree with all her myriad bruises, but she’d managed it. Broken ribs be damned. Fear of discovery and the need for swiftness gave her the strength to ignore what pain the climb had caused.
Strength that now failed her.
Tentatively swinging her legs to lower herself onto a slim branch beneath her, Ethlinn realized a moment too late that her arms no longer had the strength to hold her weight during such a maneuver. They crumbled like old mortar beneath her as she fell from the branches straight onto the hard ground.
Which is precisely how Ethlinn ended up on her back beneath the oak tree, reevaluating her life choices.
Either the hunger, the exhaustion, the injuries, or some combination thereof, rendered her immobile for far longer than she liked. Anyone could have stumbled, literally, over her, and she would be entirely at their mercy.
At that thought her breathing grew shallower and shallower, images of Ernin’s hands around her throat overtaking all other thought. Each breath brought excruciating pain, as though he kicked her sides all over again. It took all her remaining strength not to cry out, in fear and anguish, in hopes of escape.
Her breathing became so labored that faintness overtook her, even though she already lay flat on the ground. When she finally came to, the sun hovered dangerously low over the horizon. Any time now, the men would be returning from the hall to their tents.
She wiggled her fingers then tested her arms, sending a quick prayer of thanks heavenward when they obeyed. Her legs, which had taken more kicks from Ernin than her arms, pained her constantly no matter what she did. The lash of fire that struck her legs as she rolled onto her knees came as no surprise.
Stumbling like a man in his cups to the cover of the forest, Ethlinn somehow managed to make it under the trees before she heard the men’s voices rolling down the hillside toward her. Propped against a pine tree, she shivered. The night air pricked her skin like the pine needles carpeting the ground where she sat.
Perhaps, she admittedly grudgingly, she’d pushed herself too far.
The next fortnight proved even worse. Ethlinn learned that if you are gravely wounded, even if ‘tis only stupid bruises, and you travel overland without eating or sleeping much, and then fall out of a tree, you can, in fact, develop a fever. She also learned that ‘tis terribly difficult to harvest willow bark whilst shivering so hard your teeth clatter.
By the third night following her fall, Ethlinn knew her condition worsened. By the fifth, she struggled to track her own movements, let alone her foolish brother’s. She’d have to come back to that later. For now, she needed to get herself functioning again.
She managed to get down to the lake shore, grateful that no one witnessed her bumbling efforts to descend the wooded hillside without falling.
Several ancient willows grew along the lake. Ethlinn’s father had taught her well. She knew to take stock of her available resources when entering a new area of forest, and she always searched for willows. Taking out her hunting knife, something her father insisted she carry at all times, Ethlinn removed the outer bark from a young shoot until she found the cream-colored layer beneath.
Cutting with precision whilst shivering proved challenging. Instead of the perfectly bite-sized squares she normally produced, she cut away a rather odd-looking piece that barely fit in her mouth. The wickedly bitter flavor brought a grimace to her face as she chewed the tough bark, swallowing the healing juices.
Leaning against the willow’s strong trunk, her mouth worked the bark and her thoughts wandered. In her mind, her father’s voice berated her for a string of careless decisions. Why would you leave without telling us where you’re going? Why would you travel so far while so badly injured? Why don’t you swallow that damned pride of yours and ask your brother for aid? Do you have any idea how worried we are?
Ethlinn exhaled through her nose, taking another bitter swallow. She knew no one would understand, and there’d be hell to pay when finally she returned home. If she returned home.
Initially, she’d left to protect Finn from Ernin, thinking only of her brother’s safety. But the longer she’d traveled the more she’d come to realize that Ernin wasn’t interested in bothering Finn. He only wanted her.
Every nightmare that woke her, every memory of his attack, every thought of being anywhere near that man or that place terrified her. Her home was an easy walk from the crannóg; she wouldn’t be any safer there than sitting in front of his house should he have a mind to go after her. And if Finn discovered her, if she went to him for help, he’d send her straight back home.
Aye, even starving and sick as she was, Ethlinn was safest out here, in the woods on her own.
Ethlinn lost all track of time. She took willow bark until her fever broke, then she foraged as best she could given her weakened condition. When finally she could move up the hill again, panic set in.
How many days had passed? What if Finn had already begun his trials?
She needed a plan. She’d already wasted precious time during her illness. But first, she must learn which trial was next and when it would occur.
Though her father had trained her well in woodcraft, Ethlinn found it more difficult than usual to navigate the dense foliage on her way toward the tents. She cracked several twigs and snagged her cloak on thorns, but she did manage not to utter any curses at her clumsiness.
The gods must have been with her, for not ten paces up the hillside, Ethlinn heard someone walking parallel to her on the path leading down to the lakeshore. She had carefully avoided using the path, exploring only within the depths of the forest, so that she could evade discovery as long as possible.
She stopped walking, letting the man—she assumed, since there were dozens of them here at the moment—get ahead of her. Then, pushing her beaten body to its limits, she somehow managed to follow him all the way up the hill without arousing enough suspicion for him to come looking for her.
Stopping at the edge of the forest, she crouched in stillness, hidden in the shadows of a hazel thicket, watching.
She nearly toppled over when her brother, of all people, walked across the grassy hilltop in front of her, headed toward the tents.
Obviously, she followed him.
When she reached the tents of the men, she noticed that they had been moved at some point during her illness. On the day she spied the three men from the tree—before falling out of the tree—the tents had been scattered like chaff in the wind. But even in the dim light of the half moon, Ethlinn noted that they sat in orderly rows. Ten rows of five tents, and one with only three. She supposed that meant fifty-three men participated in the trials.
The forest didn’t extend far enough toward the tents for her to lurk among the cover of the trees and still overhear anything useful. She had to step carefully from tent corner to tent corner until she spotted Finn walking to his tent. Another man of an age with her brother, his hair a cascade of dark, wild waves, followed Finn into his tent.
She crouched nearby, keeping watch for anyone who might be approaching, and listening closely to their conversation.
“…sure you’re alright?”
“I’m just tired,” her brother replied tightly. He was lying.
Ethlinn had known him long enough to know when he was withholding something. Though a gifted storyteller, Finn was a terrible liar.
“I’ll let you rest, then.” His friend sounded concerned. “Though you have little cause for worry at tomorrow’s trial,” he added with a laugh. “I wager you could perform all twelve books in your sleep.”
“You’ll do just fine, Dallan. You know them nearly as well as I do now.” She heard the smile in her brother’s voice when he spoke and could see in her mind’s eye the dimple that formed just on his left cheek when he gave a reassuring grin.
Ethlinn sighed in frustration. Gods, she loved her brother. If only she could save him from his own stupidity. Thankfully, the trial they spoke of was the least dangerous of the lot of them: a test of intelligence through the memorization of far too many lines of poetry.
Unfortunately, the trial was taking place the following morn, which meant she had but hours to concoct and enact some sort of plan to get Finn out of the trials. Ideally without giving herself up in the process. For, as much as she loved her brother and her family, and though she initially left home to follow Finn, Ethlinn knew she wasn’t ready to go back. Her chest ached at the very notion.
Armed with the knowledge she needed, Ethlinn took a step away from Finn’s tent, deep in contemplation over what manner of mischief she could cause to stop his trial and get him sent off.
Which meant that she wasn’t paying attention when she turned a corner around Finn’s tent. One of the men she spotted that first day stopped mid-stride. The Bossy One. Even though ‘twas night and there lay a great distance between them, he turned toward her.
A full head taller than her and twice as broad, his hair fell to his shoulders, its color indiscernible in the dim light.
Everything within her cried out a warning. Here was a man far larger than the one who’d attacked her before, and this time she was utterly alone. A sinking feeling hit her in the gut as she hastened backward, around the tent and behind the next row of them as quickly as she could manage.
He followed her.
A moment of panic welled up from her belly to her chest, threatening to burst her from within. She stopped, frozen, as she stared back at him for only a moment. When he took a step toward her, she bolted like a hare from a fox.
For some reason, The Bossy One chose not to pursue her. She counted her blessings heading straight back to the wooded hillside. As she came crashing through the edge of the forest, desperately diving for safety, two owls hooted at the bottom of the hill somewhere near the lake.
Then an idea struck her. Birds!
Or, more precisely, one bird: a lone raven.
Folk around here were generally a superstitious lot. If she could create an ill omen during Finn’s performance, that might be enough to get him sent away. Short of injuring Finn herself, it was the best she’d thought of so far. Even if it didn’t immediately disqualify her brother, it would almost certainly cause enough concern that they would delay the trials, giving her time to concoct a better plan.
Yes, a raven would be a good start. But how would she ensure it was associated with Finn? And how could she get it to be where she wanted without also being there herself? Perhaps she’d need a hare as well.
As a devious plan took shape in her mind’s eye, Ethlinn set off to catch herself a raven and a hare before dawn.
Just like her father taught her.
Illadan stood at his bedroom window, watching dawn break over the eastern horizon. He could watch the sun rise the whole day. It never ceased to amaze him that the same four or five colors could appear in the same order each morn, yet each sunrise was new unto itself, looking different than all the ones past.
This morn held great potential as well as great beauty. Illadan had worked tirelessly the past six months to prepare for the Fianna trials. He had overseen all of the details of housing and feeding the men, the rules of the trials, the manner of carrying out and judging each. He had dealt with every mundane detail because he wanted more than anything to make this endeavor a success for the King.
Seven months from now, Illadan would present Brian with warriors he handpicked through rigorous trials and tests of their mettle. It would be his greatest achievement to date. It would give him a way to ensure Brian’s legacy survived whenever death came for him. Most important of all, it would please Brian. Though the king was his uncle, Illadan considered Brian his father in every way that mattered. His father by blood died when he was so young, Illadan couldn’t remember him at all. There was only Brian.
Three knocks at his door abruptly ended his introspective moment.
Broccan opened the door before Illadan responded, his face pale. “You need to come quickly.”
Illadan’s jaw tightened when he noted Broccan’s tense stance and wild eyes. It took a good deal to rile the leader of the greatest army in Éire.
“What is it?” Illadan asked, grabbing his cloak and hurrying out the door beside Broccan.
“A raven,” he grumbled.
Illadan’s step faltered. “Who has seen it? How many of the men?”
Broccan shook his head. “I don’t know, precisely. Eva found it, and some of the servants have seen it. I don’t know that any of the men have yet.”
“Where was it?”
“It was inside the hall, sitting in the rafters above the hearth.”
Illadan looked askance at him. “Were the windows open then?”
“Sealed shut. The doors as well,” he replied tightly. “And the servants swear the bird wasn’t there last night when they left.”
Illadan swore. As far as problems to have at the first trial, ‘twas a serious one. A man’s mind can be easily convinced of reason. But his heart is another matter entirely. The ill omen of a solitary raven anywhere near Cenn Cora on the morn of the first trial could destroy all his efforts in one singular moment.
Illadan could explain a hundred times and more why the raven signified naught, but the men would only see a harbinger of death to come. If any men had sighted the bird, the trials could be over before they began.
When they arrived at the hall, the bird had flown off and left a crowd of murmuring servants in its sinister wake.
Illadan spotted Cormac attempting to calm poor Moira, the keep’s cook. The manic look on her face did not bode well.
“Moira,” Illadan interrupted firmly but gently, “why don’t you and the other kitchen maids get the morning meals set out. Once we’ve full bellies, we’ll feel better over the whole affair.”
The look she gave him told him she felt strongly otherwise, but she herded the other kitchen servants toward their domain without another word.
“She’s not going to forget about it, you know,” Cormac muttered. “And she’ll be telling everyone what she saw.”
Illadan sighed. “Aye,” he agreed. “But there’s naught for it now. Order everyone here to keep it to themselves and we’ll proceed as planned. I’m not going to let one raven steal our day.”
The men came up from their tents and broke their fast in peace. Illadan didn’t hear a single mention of any sort of bird or ill omen. After the meal, he led the men into the courtyard just outside the great hall and signaled the official start to the first trial of the Fianna. The men formed a semicircle around a wooden stool, where the performer sat with his back to the hall.
About halfway through the first performance, movement caught his eyes along the edge of the forest. At first, Illadan thought it a small creature.
But then it moved again, the shadows shifting about an undeniably human form.
With the ill omen of the raven fresh in his mind, Illadan pushed away the unease gathering in his mind. He wasn’t one to put stock in omens, but he also wasn’t about to ignore an intruder at Cenn Cora.
At first, he tried not to stare at the shadowy figure, lurking less than a league away in the woods. But as the first trial ended and he called the next performer to the center of the men, Illadan’s eyes remained fixed on the shadowy man.
Or woman. He hadn’t considered that it might be the woman he’d caught sneaking around near Finn’s tent last night. He’d already discussed the matter with Finn, who assured him he’d not had any women visit him. Though odd, Illadan hadn’t given it much thought since then.
If it was the same woman, then perhaps she only sought to see the trials or the men. Likely she was harmless, and it would be simpler to leave her be until the performances were over. If it was someone else, Illadan may need to address it sooner rather than later.
In the midst of debating whether he should go after the interloper or wait, the decision was made for him.
The figure moved quickly from the edge of the forest toward the smithy, the building at the far edge of the settlement.
‘Twas definitely a woman. Illadan could tell by the way she moved. Even in her long, careful strides, there was a distinctive sway to her hips, a litheness no man he knew could feign. Though her hood hid her countenance, Illadan was certain ‘twas a woman. As she rounded the smithy and crept toward the stables, Illadan noticed that she cradled something in her arms.
He narrowed his eyes, focusing on the now-squirming object. A hare.
Another ill omen.
The dastardly woman was planting ill omens at his trial.
Anger swelled deep within his chest, threatening to break free like lightning escaping a storm cloud. Why this woman was sabotaging his plans, he couldn’t say. But Illadan knew one thing for certain:
She was in for one hell of an interrogation when he caught her.
With a nod to Broccan, a commonly used sign between the two, Illadan slipped away from the crowd of men and ran behind the great hall to intercept the woman. Each step he took only increased his anger and frustration that anyone would cause such unwarranted mischief.
He reached the stables, where he found her crouched and moving slowly closer to the crowd of men, clearly preparing to release the hare into the crowd and cause absolute chaos.
She spotted him, leaping to her feet and sprinting back toward the woods, the hare dropped and left to its own devices.
Illadan’s blood raced as he followed her. He caught her in several strides without any trouble, just as they came upon the smithy. Illadan grabbed the woman’s arm to stop her from fleeing.
She cried out in agony, tripping and not quite falling.
He dropped her arm like a hot iron, shock threading its way through his fury. He hadn’t gripped her that hard, surely not tight enough to cause her serious pain.
The woman took advantage of his momentary confusion, closing the short distance from the smithy to the forest’s edge.
Frustrated, his anger reared up once more. Illadan followed her into the trees, catching her quickly. This time he grabbed a handful of her cloak instead of her arm.
He was going to give her hell.
He was going to demand an explanation for her behavior.
He was going to tell her she’d better leave Cenn Cora or there’d be real trouble.
Illadan couldn’t remember the last time he’d been so furious. But then again, he couldn’t remember the last time months of planning were nearly laid low by one insidious woman.
When the cloak tugged, preventing her from running further, the woman spun around.
And all that fury, all that anger and frustration that had been building in Illadan crumbled to pieces. Bruises covered every visible inch of her. Eyes the color of a cloudless sky stared at him in fear.
She was afraid of him. No, not afraid—terrified.
Because of what some bastard had done to her. In mere moments, Illadan’s anger shifted from the woman to whatever man had beaten her. He took several deep breaths to calm his temper before speaking so as not to frighten her further.
“You need not fear me,” he assured her softly. “Please, let me help you.”
She neither moved nor spoke, holding as still as a hare trying to hide in the brush, her eyes wide with fear.
Illadan took in the woman before him. She was young, perhaps near his sister’s age. That thought only further inflamed his temper. God’s bones, if anyone raised a hand to Orla, it would be the last mistake they made. Perhaps this lady had no one to champion her against her abuser.
“Who did this to you?” he demanded, louder than he intended.
The woman took half a step back, testing his hold on her cloak.
“If it was one of my men it will be the last thing he’s done. I do not tolerate violence toward women.”
“It wasn’t,” she whispered, her voice barely audible.
He calmed slightly at that. “What can I do to help you?”
She hesitated, her eyes flitting back and forth nervously. “I need my brother.”
“Who is your brother?” Illadan couldn’t tell if she withheld information or fidgeted from nerves, making it difficult to guess at her motives. Because, though she clearly required aid, she also had tried to undermine the trials.
Ah, that made sense at least. ‘Twas his sister who’d been sneaking around his tent looking for him. But why would she not simply speak with him? Why not enter the hall and ask for help? Why try to interrupt the trials instead of seeking her brother out directly? Whatever her reasoning, Illadan doubted in her current state of agitation that she’d tell him anything.
“You stay right here. I’ll go fetch your brother.”
“No!” she cried, stumbling forward. “You can’t!”
He moved to help her, and she again gasped as he caught her by the arm to stop her from falling. In that moment, Illadan understood the seriousness of her condition, why she had cried out when he grabbed her earlier. His anger returned, but this time it was wrath. He could not abide anyone having been treated thusly. “If you were my sister, I’d want to see you,” he argued, trying to keep his voice calm as he silently took stock of all the various ways this woman required medical treatment.
She was bruised from top to bottom. For all he knew she had broken bones as well.
Her clothes hung from a gaunt frame, telling him she hadn’t had a proper meal in some time.
The glassy sheen in her eyes spoke of recent illness.
Not to mention that she traveled alone, and from the looks of it unarmed.
“He can’t see me like this,” she protested. “He’ll be furious.”
“And rightly so.” Illadan certainly was, and he didn’t even know her. ‘Twas likely her brother didn’t know of her injuries yet as well, else he’d be tending to her.
“If you go get him, I’ll be gone before you get back,” she threatened. “I cannot see him.”
Illadan crossed his arms. “You came here for your brother, yet you refuse to let me retrieve him for you. You clearly need healing, yet you insist on living upon the brink of death alone in the forest. I’m afraid I don’t quite understand your plan.”
Her blue eyes hardened, a glint of defeat flickering over the lingering fear.
Whatever her plan had been, it appeared to be falling apart. “What is it that you want?” he pressed. “Why are you here?”
“Finn needs to leave the trials,” she offered. “But not with me.”
“Why must he leave?” Illadan pressed. “And why not with you? Should you not, too, be returning home?”
Illadan expected many things. He thought she’d argue, perhaps say naught at all. Maybe she’d even grant him a real explanation of her motives. Instead, she did the one thing he hadn’t expected.
She collapsed onto the forest floor in tears. Her hands hurried to cover her face as she fought to hide her weeping.
Illadan’s heart cracked. He’d not meant to drive her to tears; only to help her. He rushed to her side, careful not to touch her. “I propose a compromise,” he whispered. “I swear to you I will not let your brother see you, but he must know you are here. I would wish the same were I in his place. In exchange, you will allow me to help you. Get you food, a healer, and some rest.”
She looked up and swallowed hard, clearly considering his offer. “I can’t go home,” she choked out. “And I’d rather travel alone.”
Lord but this woman was difficult. Normally, Illadan would have ordered her about by now, but given her state he thought that wouldn’t help matters. He decided he could ask questions later. Now, he needed to get her cooperation.
“I will take you wherever you wish to go,” he promised.
She narrowed her eyes at him. “Aren’t you needed here?”
Illadan didn’t miss the suspicion in her tone. She didn’t trust him, and he could hardly blame her. “Would you prefer to travel with me or with a group of my most trusted guards?”
The corner of her mouth lifted into the hint of a smile. “You, alone, can defend me as well as a group of your guards?”
“Of course,” he replied with a grin, hoping he might gain more ground with her if her spirits lifted a bit. “So which will it be?”
When she didn’t answer, Illadan hazarded a guess at what may be causing trouble. “If it helps,” he began, “as one of the Fianna, I swore an oath of chivalry. I offer aid to any in need, regardless of their circumstances, with no desire for recompense. I will see you safely to any place you choose. You have my word.”
“You’re one of the Fianna already?” she asked, distracted for the first time since they began their conversation. “I thought the trials only just began.”
“They have,” Illadan replied, “for the rest of the Fianna. All three men judging the trials have already performed them adequately. How else would I be worthy of testing others?”
Hope rose within him as he saw her mind working.
“Prove it,” she challenged, “and I will go with you.”
Maybe he could win her cooperation after all.
Ethlinn had no intention whatsoever of traveling with some lord who’d succumbed to an overactive sense of valor and self-importance. She had no doubt he’d spend the entire day bossing her about as though she were incapable of making a single decision. She’d wager that he would disagree with just about anything she said, as well. Most importantly, she was not going back home today. Or tomorrow. Or any day soon.
And that was assuming he told the truth.
If he were lying, if he truly could not be trusted, the journey would be far, far worse.
Aye, she’d hit a bit of a low point. Her plan had failed spectacularly. Her bruises weren’t healing like they ought. And she weakened each day as she continued to push forward without a proper meal.
“What would you have me do?” her unwanted savior asked, arms crossed over his brawny chest. “Do you wish to throw nine spears at me?”
Did she ever. She tapped her lip, recalling the trials in the stories.
When she didn’t immediately answer, he tried again. “You can chase me through the forest, if you’d like,” he offered with a cheeky grin.
“It’s too easy,” she replied. “So is the one with the thorn—”
He scoffed. “I’d like to see you try them, if they’re so easy.”
Ignoring his jab, she considered the remaining trials. He couldn’t very well charge into battle, which left three: a recitation of twelve books of poetry, jumping over a tree, and vowing himself to be honorable. He could make promises until his face turned purple, but Ethlinn wouldn’t believe a word he said until he proved himself. Jumping over a tree seemed a good start.
“The test of movement,” she declared at last, smiling. There was no way he could do it. Which meant she’d be able to travel on her own again. “If you fail, I won’t go with you.”
“Seems fair,” he agreed, inspecting the clearing for a branch of the correct height.
“It must be as tall as you,” she reminded him. “No cheating.”
He chuckled in amusement. “I’m certain you’d never let me get away with such mischief anyhow.” He picked up a branch as thick as her arm and held it out at arm’s length to demonstrate the height. “Does this meet with my lady’s approval?”
Ethlinn didn’t care much for his jesting at her being a lady, but nodded graciously anyway.
He dug the branch into the ground, so that it matched his own height. Then, with no ceremony whatsoever, he actually jumped over it.
Ethlinn’s hopes crashed into the new reality of her situation. “How did you do that?” she couldn’t help but ask, doing her best to hide how greatly the feat impressed her.
He grinned at her again, his hazel eyes sparkling. “Practice.”
She narrowed her eyes in disbelief.
“Though, admittedly, even with practice few can perform such a feat. Which is why those who can are counted among our number. Now,” his voice took on that arrogant, commanding tone she’d heard him use with his men, “do we have an agreement?”
Ethlinn nodded numbly, plotting her next steps. She had only agreed to leave with him. She hadn’t agreed to stay with him. Either way, she was not above breaking her word to get out of a dangerous situation. His ability to complete the challenge certainly supported his claim to be one of the Fianna, and Ethlinn was inclined to believe that bit. What she didn’t know yet was whether she could trust him, regardless of his allegiance.
As she well knew, the moment she allowed herself to relax her vigilance would be the very moment she would be broken again. Ethlinn doubted she could survive the same nightmare twice.
And she very much doubted she could trust him.
Illadan, which she had finally learned was his name, returned to the keep to make arrangements for their journey. After some thought, Ethlinn had decided to go to Luimneach, where she could find her uncle, instead of going all the way home. Illadan was happy enough to oblige, as it was but a half day’s journey from Cenn Cora. He could be back at the trials tomorrow, or the following day at the latest.
He entered the clearing just after the bell rang for none, between midday and eve, with two horses. Both had saddlebags filled with neatly-wrapped packages.
Ethlinn felt a flush creeping up her cheeks. “Horses?” she squeaked, clearing her throat. “You brought horses?”
He raised a dark eyebrow, adjusting the saddle on the brown stallion. “How else do you propose we travel overland?”
Leave it to an entitled nobleman to be so obtuse. He was going to make her admit it, wasn’t he?
“We could walk.”
Now he turned fully to face her. “If we ride, we can reach Luimneach in time for dinner. If we walk, we’ll get there nearing full dark,” he told her evenly. “We’re riding.”
Ethlinn let out a resigned breath. “You’re riding,” she corrected. “I’m walking.”
“Now you listen here,” he warned, “I’ve put up with all your nonsense so far, overlooking your mischief and practically begging you to let me help you. But I’m through with arguing over every stage of this journey. I brought the horses specifically for you, as you seem in no condition to walk up to the keep, let alone for the better part of a day. Now,” he ordered, “will you please get on that mare?”
“I’d love to,” Ethlinn said, her sweet tone laced with venom, “just as soon as you teach me how. You see, my lord, I’ve never ridden before.”
Understanding dawned, followed by a grimace as he looked between Ethlinn and the beautiful steeds he’d procured. She’d only ever seen horses at the crannóg, and none so impressive as the two now before her. Oxen were far more practical on her family’s farm.
“My apologies,” he said, his voice gentler now. “It was not my intention to insult you. But I stand by my previous arguments. Whether you are able or not, you shouldn’t be walking so far in your condition. And I have no interest in being accosted in the dark by thieves. We’ll tie the horses together, and you can ride with me.”
It looked like she may not be escaping a journey with him after all. What was she to do, leap from the horse? Ethlinn’s small anxiety over riding a horse for the first time was utterly overshadowed by Illadan’s arrogant, imperious manner. Had he bothered to consider that mayhap she didn’t want to ride with him?
Before she could argue further, he offered her his arm to help climb atop the stallion. Even with the log he’d placed to give her extra height, Ethlinn could find no way to get her first leg up and over the beast.
Without a word, he kneeled and cupped his hands. “I’ll boost you.”
His push was enough to get her high enough, and before she knew it he had climbed up right behind her.
Her heart raced as she settled in front of Illadan. He was entirely too close to her, and she didn’t like it at all. She remembered when Ernin had forced her to ride with him, threatening her family’s livelihood if she didn’t comply. His hands had been all over her. She shivered, her breathing coming with greater difficulty.
“His name’s Anamcha, if that helps,” Illadan offered.
It didn’t. “It’s not the horse that concerns me.”
“Ethlinn, look at me.”
She swiveled around as best she could, terrified of losing her balance on her narrow perch and hoping her glare did justice to her current sentiments.
His hazel eyes locked with hers, deadly serious. “I will never hurt you.”
He meant it. She heard it in his voice, saw it on his face.
She only wished she believed it.
Illadan hadn’t felt so out of sorts in living memory. Of course he wanted to help an innocent woman to safety. Not only did he wish to aid her, when he joined the Fianna he vowed to champion those in need. In his mind, there was no question as to whether he would remain with her until she no longer needed aid.
The difficulty came with his duty to his uncle. Brian had granted Illadan the privilege of overseeing the Fianna trials. Illadan spent most of the past year working toward that grand event—one that was now underway.
Cormac and Broccan, the other two judges who had already sworn their oaths, were perfectly capable of managing the trials without him, but that didn’t make his absence any easier for him to bear. The entire affair was his responsibility, and he couldn’t shake the feeling of guilt for allowing it to fall to others.
And that was to say nothing of the awkward situation in which he now found himself. Ethlinn desperately needed his help, yet she seemed determined to refuse it, though her life clearly depended upon it. Her stalwart determination to starve to death or succumb to her injuries wasn’t the only puzzling thing about her behavior.
She came to get her brother, yet refused to see him.
She claimed her home to be safe, yet she refused to return to it.
She wouldn’t stay in Cenn Cora and she wouldn’t return home, yet she appeared to have no idea of what she would do. As far as Illadan could tell, Ethlinn had no plan whatsoever.
A creature of chaos if ever he met one, Illadan silently vowed to return to Cenn Cora as soon as possible. If there was one thing he couldn’t stand, it was chaos, and Ethlinn Ulfsson brought it with her wherever she went.
“How are you feeling?” Illadan asked her as they neared the midpoint of the half-day ride to Luimneach. Between her injuries and her first turn on a horse, he knew he ought to check on her welfare occasionally. She didn’t seem the sort to complain.
Her tight-lipped response did little to convince him of the truth of her statement. “We’re about halfway to the city,” he informed her, hoping it would help her to know their progress.
“I know where we are,” she shot back.
The horse beneath them shifted uncomfortably, as thought it, too, could sense the mounting tension.
Illadan sighed. Someone was cranky. “Are you hungry?” he asked, hoping that she was ravenous and her poor mood could be attributed to an empty belly. She’d agreed to eat an apple and a slice of cheese as they set out, but ‘twas far from enough.
“Do you wish to take a break from riding? We’re making good time, and if you’re uncomfortable—”
“My discomfort is naught that a brief pause can mend. Let’s just get to Luimneach.”
Illadan, quite literally, swallowed his frustration. Had he been through the same torments as Ethlinn, he, too, would be short-tempered. Perhaps empathy would be a better route to cooperation.
He gazed out over the rolling countryside, the low hills a silhouette on the horizon to the west. The sun descended lazily towards them. The well-worn path from Cenn Cora to Luimneach rose and fell with the farmer’s fields. In the distance, near as far in front of them as the hills of Cenn Cora lay behind, the sky shifted from a crisp sapphire to the luminous pale blue that signaled a large body of water.
The scent of the river, laced with the smell of the distant sea into which it flowed, put Illadan in mind of another trip he’d made to Luimneach, many years ago.
“When I was a lad of three summers,” he began quietly, “my father was the king, not Brian. After defeating a rival for the throne, the traitor conspired with the Fin Gall king in Luimneach to capture and kill him.”
“That’s how you came to live with Brian?” she asked. “I thought you’d only fostered with him.”
Illadan smiled to himself. He’d finally gotten her to speak with him. “I did foster with him, but from the age of three instead of seven.”
When she said nothing, he thought her done with the short-lived conversation. After they’d gone another mile, she finally spoke, her voice quiet, hesitant.
“Did your father die in Luimneach?”
“Have you ever returned?”
“It was difficult the first few times,” he replied softly, remembering how hard it had been to return to the place of his father’s death, a place filled with dark memories and danger, where his family’s enemies plotted and each moment felt more tenuous than the last. “Brian made me accompany him every time he went. He said that living in fear wasn’t living at all.”
“Until your bravery gets you killed,” she muttered. “I’d rather be terrified and alive than brave and dead.”
“Why must it be one or the other?” Illadan prodded her. “I think you’ve already proven your bravery, which means you are both brave and alive.”
Even without seeing her face, Illadan could as good as hear her eyes rolling. “In all seriousness,” he continued, “Brian taught me many lessons in those early years to help me overcome my fears. He, too, had great trials in his youth and knew well how to guide me. In all of his wisdom, one piece of advice truly gave me the freedom to relinquish the last of my fears.”
He paused, waiting for her to ask. Waiting to be certain he had her attention. He knew this conversation wasn’t only about his own traumatic childhood, but about her attack as well. He wanted her to hear his words, to heed them.
“Which is?” she finally asked.
“To realize that you are stronger than that which scares you.”
She scoffed at that, dispelling any illusion Illadan had of helping her.
“If I were stronger than that bastard,” she hissed, “he’d already be dead.”
“Strength isn’t only physical. You don’t have to land a single blow to defeat your fear of him.”
Ethlinn turned her head so that she could get a sidelong look of absolute disbelief to Illadan. “As long as he’s alive, I will be afraid,” she whispered. “So, unless I can land a killing blow, I don’t see how your advice will do me much good.”
“Allies help,” Illadan offered, his attempt at boosting her spirits. “Brian took my father’s place as King of Mumhain, killed the man who murdered my father and the one who captured him, and installed my brother as the greatest landholder in Luimneach. You need to find the people who would charge to battle to avenge you and trust them to do what must be done.”
Ethlinn said little the rest of the journey, leading Illadan to believe that his plan had failed. For two leagues the only sound was the clip-clop of his horse’s hooves and the occasional snort of obstinance when Illadan wouldn’t let Anamcha race down the road. He had hoped to give Ethlinn some small belief, a flame of hope that she could feel right again after her attack. That she could return home to those who loved her.
Clearly, he hadn’t said the right words. Or perhaps she didn’t want to hear them.
Either way, Illadan looked forward to visiting his family after delivering Ethlinn to her uncle. His excitement swelled as they entered the bustling port town, familiar buildings taking the place of forest and field along the road. He’d have to leave to return to Cenn Cora in the morn, but it had been several months since he’d seen his mother, sister, and brother. His sister, in particular, would be thrilled at his unexpected visit.
“God’s bones!” he ground out as they entered the gates of Luimneach.
“I forgot a gift,” he mumbled, looking around for a merchant’s stall.
“A gift?” she pressed. “You need to buy something?”
“Aye. I always bring Orla a gift when I visit, but I left rather unexpectedly this time. I’ll have to find a merchant still out, though I worry most will be supping by now.”
“My uncle should have something when we arrive,” she told him. “He’s a merchant, though he does most of his trade by ship. He always has baubles and bits. You should be able to find something suitable.”
Illadan let out a breath. “Wonderful. Now how do we get to this uncle’s home?”
Ethlinn guided him across town, quite near to where his own family resided. Her uncle must be doing well for himself. When they turned the final corner, a modestly sized wooden longhouse, in the style of the foreigners, came into view. Though by no means an estate of its own, a small courtyard just off the road hosted its own stables.
Ethlinn went rigid in his arms, inhaling sharply.
A trio of horses stomped impatiently in the courtyard of her uncle’s home. The groom watched them from the stable doorway, but nothing stood out to Illadan as problematic.
He leaned forward, not close enough to touch Ethlinn for he knew that yet scared her.
“What is it?” he whispered.
For the first time since she’d gotten atop his horse, Ethlinn scooted closer to him, pressing her entire body against his and gripping his arms as though she were falling from the beast.
“Ethlinn?” he asked again, allowing her to pull one of his arms across her belly in half an embrace. “I can’t help you if you don’t tell me how.”
He heard her breathing grow shallow, moments later she was gasping and shaking in his arms. Turning the horse back the way they’d come, he put some distance between Ethlinn and the house until he could determine the trouble.
Stopping along the side of an ox-path, he picked Ethlinn up bodily and spun her to face him.
As she threw herself at him, he saw the look on her face. She was terrified. She still struggled to breathe as she squeezed fistfuls of his shirt.
Illadan returned her embrace gently, running his right hand down the length of her pale plait slowly, as he’d seen his mother do hundreds of times with his own sister. He himself had never attempted to calm anyone in such a manner. “Just breathe, Ethlinn,” he instructed softly, feeling her heart rate slow with each stroke of his hand. “You’re safe. You’re alright.”
When at last she looked up at him, her eyes back in proper focus and her breathing returned to normal, Illadan placed a hand along the side of her face to reassure her. He knew she wouldn’t like his next question.
“What frightened you?”
Ethlinn swallowed hard. Her body started shaking again, but this time she did answer him. “That was his horse.”
Illadan’s calm evaporated like mist in the afternoon sun. Anger, barely controlled, rolled like a thundercloud in its place. “Whose horse?” he asked, his voice tight.
“Ernin’s,” she replied, a single tear escaping with a sniffle. “He’s here. He found me.”
She couldn’t stop shaking. Her mind knew she was safe for the moment, yet her body refused to listen. The spasms began in her chest.
Constricting her throat.
It was so hard to breathe.
“Ethlinn?” Illadan’s concerned voice interrupted her rising panic. “Are you alright?”
She tried to take a deep breath, to regain control.
It didn’t work.
He must have seen the fear on her face, for he grabbed both her hands in his, squeezing tightly. First one, then the other.
After what seemed an eternity, Ethlinn could finally breathe again. She gulped the dense, musty scent of the city as though she were dying of thirst.
“How did you know to do that?” she asked.
Illadan chuckled. “Brian’s second wife, Echrad. She taught me this to calm myself when I was afraid after my father was killed. It always helped.”
Ethlinn swallowed, breathing deeply yet again, filling her lungs and closing her eyes. She realized that Illadan still held her hands and pulled hers away.
“I know you don’t yet trust me,” Illadan told her, his voice tender. “In fact, you hardly know me at all. But I will not let any man harm you, that bastard or any other.”
She wanted to believe him. “What will I do now?” she asked, her voice hushed. “If he’s looking for me here, it’s only a matter of time before he finds me wherever I might go.”
A sudden thought brought with it a resurgence of fear. “What if he’s punished my family over my absence?” She gasped. “Finn isn’t there to protect them, and—”
“I will send someone capable to take them a message,” he assured her gently. “We’ll make sure they’re alright, and let them know that you and Finn are as well.”
Ethlinn nodded, bringing her hands to her face. She was surprised to find her cheeks wet with tears. “Gods,” she muttered. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me.”
“You’re afraid,” Illadan replied. “And you have every right to be. Now,” he declared, his tone cheerier, “though I know you aren’t overly fond of them, we will be needing a plan.”
Ethlinn’s eyes shot up, ready to do battle over his insult. When she saw his mischievous grin, however, Ethlinn realized he’d been goading her. His hazel eyes sparkled with mirth. His playful look warmed her, helping to dispel some of the worry.
“Very well,” she agreed reluctantly. “I cannot stay with my uncle. I cannot return home. What would you suggest?”
“My brother lives not far from here. His home is large enough to accommodate many guests, and my mother and sister live there also.”
Ethlinn’s stomach wrenched. She looked down at her tattered brown léine, her mud-covered arms and legs. She knew her hair was an unspeakable disaster after days of illness in the wilds alone. Looking back up at Illadan, she forced herself to ask the only question she had. “Will they let me stay?”
Illadan followed her gaze, his obvious assessment bringing a flush to her cheeks. “I see no reason why they wouldn’t.”
In spite of herself, Ethlinn smiled weakly at his words.
“Let’s get you a bath, a rest, and a hearty meal,” he declared, helping her to turn back around on the horse. “Tomorrow we can discuss everything else.”
Illadan led them back, away from her uncle’s home, and down several small alleys. When they emerged from the dark corridor onto a cobblestone road, Ethlinn started, holding the saddle as she adjusted to the new sensation of the horse clip-clopping through town.
A grand home, larger than all but Brian’s keeps and built of the finest materials, sat at the end of the paved road. A palisade as tall as Illadan circled the house and its outbuildings. Ornately carved wooden lintels and decorations hung upon every building. A small gate house, a stable, a kitchen, and a rectangular hall surrounded the cobblestone courtyard. Ethlinn couldn’t see all of it from the courtyard as they entered, but based on the expansive palisade, she wagered that many more buildings were tucked away within the enclosure.
Illadan dismounted, reaching up to help Ethlinn off the beast. She gripped his forearms tightly, letting him put his hands on her waist as she hopped down.
She sighed in gratitude the moment her feet touched the ground.
He chuckled. “Happy to be back on land?”
Ethlinn was about to glare at Illadan in response to his jest, when she heard footsteps approaching. She startled instead.
The groom, who had appeared just beside them, took the reins from Illadan with a nod to the hall. He looked to be around her father’s age, thin and short with a serious face and greying hair. “They’re still finishing up supper,” he offered helpfully.
“Thank you, Lachtna.” Illadan patted the man’s shoulder before leading Ethlinn to the rectangular hall.
Quiet conversation greeted them as they entered the feasting hall. When the occupants realized company had arrived, the room grew heavy with silence. Then everyone stood at once and rushed to greet them.
“Illadan!” A stunning young woman darted down the center aisle and straight into Illadan’s open arms. Her raven black hair whipped about her as Illadan spun her in a full circle.
“Orla,” he greeted her. “It’s good to see you.”
“You didn’t tell us you were coming,” she reprimanded, her eyebrows raised. “We would have had a meal ready for you.” Her bright green eyes went wide when she noticed Ethlinn behind him. “And your guest.”
“It’s good to see you back in this hall, brother.” A man who looked not much older than Illadan appeared behind Orla. He had a close-shaven beard and short hair, a shade lighter than Orla’s. He was of a height with Illadan, less broad across the shoulders but no less fit. “She’s right, you know. You should have given us warning. I’ll see if Marga has anything left in the kitchens.”
“There wasn’t time, I’m afraid,” Illadan replied, grasping his brother’s outstretched forearm and pulling him into a quick embrace. “My plans changed rather suddenly.”
The third and final person in the room, a tall, thin woman with auburn waves akin to Illadan’s, glided between Orla and the brother. Ethlinn realized Illadan had never mentioned his brother’s name. Faint lines creased the woman’s face, denoting her age yet not detracting from her beauty. Her hazel eyes, similar to Illadan’s, appraised Ethlinn from head to toe. Illadan clearly favored his mother in looks.
“I’m so happy to see you, my son,” the woman said, her tone colder than Ethlinn would have expected from a joyful mother. “What have you brought us?” She indicated Ethlinn, lifting her chin and looking down her nose disapprovingly.
From her position, Ethlinn saw the muscles along Illadan’s jaw tighten, but his tone remained pleasant as ever.
“Mother, forgive me. I didn’t mean to be rude. This is Ethlinn.” He paused, gently nudging her forward until she was right beside him. “Ethlinn, this is my mother, Liadan, my brother, Cillian, and my sister, Orla.”
“Welcome, Ethlinn,” Orla said kindly. “What brings you to Luimneach?”
Ethlinn’s stomach dropped. What should she say? She had no interest in sharing her personal struggles with complete strangers, especially when she couldn’t yet determine how they felt about her presence in their home.
“Ethlinn has had a rough few weeks,” Illadan explained, coming to her rescue.
This time, she was grateful for it.
“She happened by Cenn Cora and was gravely ill. We decided it was best to get her somewhere safe to convalesce, and came to Luimneach with the intention of delivering her to her uncle. When we arrived, he wasn’t at home, so I brought her here until further arrangements could be made. I hope that is all right with you.” He looked directly at his brother when he spoke.
“You have no other family?” Liadan, Illadan’s mother, asked cooly. “Where are you from, child?”
If Ethlinn had any strength left, she would have taken exception to both those questions. As it was, she felt bone-tired and had no desire to get into a brawl with her host on the moment of her arrival.
As though reading her thoughts, Illadan once more answered on her behalf. “Ethlinn is weary,” he told his mother. “We should get her a hot bath and a warm bed. She’ll be happy to answer your questions come morning.”
No, she won’t.
But Ethlinn was wise enough to keep her mouth shut.
“Of course,” Orla interjected, motioning a servant over. “You can take her to the garden room. It’s a wonderful place to regain your strength.”
“Perfect. Thank you.” Illadan bid his family goodnight, taking Ethlinn’s hand to lead her back out into the courtyard.
When they were out of earshot, he turned to her. “Don’t let my mother upset you,” he whispered, leaning so close she could see all the myriad colors in his hazel eyes. “She’s as wary of strangers as she is protective of her family. She’ll warm to you in time.”
Ethlinn sighed. “Let’s hope I’m not here long enough for that.”
He squeezed her hand, sending a surge of warmth up her arm as he led her to the guest quarters.
This time, when Ethlinn realized he still held her hand in his, she squeezed it back.
“Now will you tell me what’s going on?” Cillian asked, standing from his desk to pour Illadan a cup of ale.
Illadan closed the door to the solar behind him, checking the hall to ensure his mother wasn’t waiting to listen in on their conversation. He loved her dearly, but she did love to meddle.
He strode to his brother, taking the drink gratefully before dropping into a chair before the blazing hearth. “Only if you swear none if it will leave this room.”
“Mother will warm to her,” Cillian assured him.
The same words Illadan had uttered to Eth a quarter hour earlier. He hoped it was more than a mere platitude.
“I don’t want her involved at all, Kel,” he warned, using the nickname he’d had for his brother since they were children. “She’s well-intentioned, but rarely helpful.” That was an understatement of mythical proportions.
Kel waved a hand, taking a deep drink from his own cup and sitting across from Illadan. “Not a word,” he promised. “Now tell me what in the saints has come over you. I’ve never seen you so smitten with a woman before.”
Illadan couldn’t contain his laugh at such nonsense. “Don’t be ridiculous,” he scoffed. “I only met her this morn. I took an oath to help those in need, and Eth falls squarely in that category.”
His brother nodded, his face pensive. “Eth, is it? You only met her this morn, and she has a pet name?”
“It’s what her brother calls her,” Illadan defended. “And she needs our help.”
“Alright, alright,” Kel conceded, though Illadan didn’t believe his tone for a moment. “She’s just some poor soul you have no interest in, other than fulfilling your oath. Does she need a healer? I noticed she’s gotten into some sort of trouble.”
Illadan’s pulse raced at the mere mention of what Ethlinn had endured. And the insinuation that she was somehow to blame. “She didn’t get into any trouble,” he corrected, keeping his voice calm with great effort. “Trouble came to her.”
“Does ‘trouble’ have a name?”
“Ernin mac Shay.” Illadan took another long drink, as though he could wash away the foul man’s name from his mouth.
Kel’s eyes narrowed. “I’ve heard that name.”
“He’s a petty king just south of here. He enjoys tormenting the villagers in a town called Ath Dara.”
“And how is he connected to Ethlinn?”
Illadan took a deep breath. His mother couldn’t abide mixing with anyone outside of a noble bloodline. He and his sister could care less. Cillian fell somewhere between, depending upon the situation. “He’s her king.”
“And she is…” Kel prodded, sipping his ale.
“A farmer, I believe.”
Ale sputtered back into his cup. “She’s a peasant?”
“And her father is Fin Gall.” The Fair Foreigners. The name given to the men of the north who had burned countless religious houses and villages along the shores of Éire for generations. Illadan determined it was best to share all he knew from the beginning, so that Kel wasn’t surprised later.
“Saints, man!” He cried in shock. “Whatever you do, do not tell mother any of that.”
“She’ll soon figure out for herself that Eth isn’t a noblewoman. She’s a trained woodsman with a sharp tongue.”
“Alright, so this king, what? He loves her? He hates her? Why is he beating her?”
Illadan shrugged. “I’ve only spent a day with her. Less, even. And she hasn’t been all that forthcoming about her situation. I’m assured that she’s already seen a healer, but she nearly starved to death only days ago. She needs to rest and regain her strength, and I need to find a way to ensure her safety when she returns home.”
Understanding flashed on Kel’s face. “So, when you told mother she had no family, what you meant was she had no family in a safe place?”
“Yes,” Illadan admitted. “She’s terrified to go back, that he’ll come after her again. The same is true of her uncle. He is at home, but we spotted mac Shay’s horses in his courtyard. He’s hunting her, Kel, like some sort of animal. She’ll be safe here for the time being.”
“Some depraved men see women in such a way,” Kel commented with disgust. “As prey to be caught.” He stood, placing his empty cup on the mantle. “We will protect her as long as she needs.”
“Thank you,” Illadan stood to take his leave. The hour grew late, and he knew tomorrow would be filled with its own particular challenges.
“Oh, before you go,” Kel called as Illadan neared the door. “What do you plan to do about this bastard? And what of the trials? Shouldn’t you be returning?”
Illadan nodded grimly. “Aye, I should. Once I’m certain of her safety I’ll return to Cenn Cora. As for mac Shay, I will send Domnall to check on her parents and ascertain his movements. I need to discuss anything further with Ethlinn.”
Illadan took his leave, grateful his brother had been so understanding. As he walked out of the solar and into the hall, checking once more for his mother and not finding anything suspicious, he considered heading to his usual sleeping quarters, not far from his family’s. But something stopped him.
He remembered Eth’s panic earlier that day when they’d gone to her uncle’s home. Her uncle, who lived nearby. Which meant that mac Shay could also be nearby. The odds that he would come to Kel’s house were almost too small for consideration, yet Illadan knew better than to disregard his instincts.
Eth was afraid. She was vulnerable. She needed protecting.
So he would protect her, as best he could.
Instead of finding his room, Illadan left the family’s quarters and went to the guest block toward the back of the property. He knew his mother wouldn’t like it, and that Kel would tease him mercilessly, but it was all he could think to help her feel safer.
Opening the door to the room beside Ethlinn’s, Illadan crept inside, leaving it open a crack so he could hear if anyone approached. He stripped to his braies and fell into the bed, succumbing reluctantly to a fitful sleep.
The following morning, Illadan shot out of bed. He needed to check on Ethlinn. Slipping his léine back on and walking next door, he knocked firmly.
Orla opened the door, furrowing her brow at him and pursing her lips. “Yes?”
Maybe he’d gone to the wrong room? Illadan looked up and down the row of guest rooms, but he was certain this was where he’d deposited Ethlinn. “I,” he began, floundering for the right explanation. “I was looking for Ethlinn?”
“She’s busy,” Orla declared. “You can see her at supper.”
Now it was Illadan’s turn to give her a sour look. “I need to speak with her. Privately.”
Orla smirked. “I’m sure you do. But it will have to wait.”
“Orla,” Illadan warned.
“She’s bathing, Illadan,” Orla hissed, rolling her eyes. “And she needs a good deal of help with all those bruises.”
Illadan swallowed against a sudden feeling of dryness in his mouth. “Are they improving any?” he asked. “I’d hoped they’d stop paining her so long after she got them.”
“I’ve never seen anyone so bruised as that,” Orla whispered sadly. “They’re healing, changing colors as they ought, but they were deep. Based on what she’s said, I’d wager it will take at least another week for them to disappear completely.”
“After her bath, will you send her to the solar? I’ve much to discuss with her.” Illadan grew impatient with his sister, no matter her good intentions.
“No,” she replied, with not a hint of remorse. “We’re busy all day.”
“God’s bones, Orla!” he exclaimed, preparing to lay into her for interrupting his schedule.
But his sister remained resolute. Obstinate, even. Instead of cowing at his outrage, she shot him a withering look and stepped outside, closing the door gently behind her. Then she lost it.
“Now you listen, you gigantic oaf,” she hissed, her fisted hands resting on her hips. “That poor woman has been through hell. You delivered her here to heal. To forget her troubles. To restore her good health and her sanity. She woke in the night screaming. More than once. Thank God I heard her and was able to come. How you slept through it, I’ve no idea.”
Illadan felt each statement she uttered like a spear to the chest. How, indeed, had he missed it? Before he could ask for further details, his fuming sister continued.
“Now, I’ve managed to get her mind off whatever awfulness has consumed her since that beating. She’s stopped flinching when I help her wash. She even laughed once. I’m going to take her shopping in the village and pamper her until she forgets everything but all the fun we’ve had this day. And I’ll not have you ruining one minute of it. Certainly not with any business pertaining to her traumatic past. Whatever it is, it will wait.”
Leave it to Orla to render him speechless. His little sister had always preferred vinegar to honey, and she wielded her words with vicious efficiency. The import of her sentiment wasn’t lost on Illadan.
“I have but one issue with this plan of yours,” he replied. “I don’t think she ought to go into the village. It isn’t safe for her.”
“Why? It’s safe enough for me to go. Why not her?”
Illadan sighed. If he told enough folk in the manor the details of Eth’s problem, his mother would find out as well. “Just,” he grimaced, fighting to control his reaction. Orla had no idea why it would be dangerous. “Just take ten men with you.”
She started to argue, but he interrupted her.
“Ten men, or I’ll see you both locked away. Orla, the man that beat her, he’s not far. And he’s searching for her. I can’t tell you more than that, but nowhere is safe right now. Ten men. Promise me.”
Orla backed off at his words. “He’s searching for her?” The horror in her voice tore at Illadan’s composure. “You’re certain?”
“Why do you think I slept in the next room?”
Orla’s cheeks colored. “Well,” she stammered, “I thought that…” Her sentence trailed off tellingly.
Illadan knew precisely what she’d thought: the same thing as Kel.
“It doesn’t matter,” he told her gently. “What matters is that you understand the danger Eth is in. You needn’t remind her of it, but don’t grow careless today.”
“I’ll have her back for supper,” Orla promised.
Illadan didn’t like it one bit that he wouldn’t be by Eth’s side today to see to her safety, but he had plenty to attend to while his sister entertained their guest. Grumbling his thanks to Orla for her well-intentioned planning, he headed to the solar to start writing letters.
It was going to be a hell of a long day.
“Orla, this is too much,” Ethlinn protested, moving to unlace the side of the ridiculous gown Orla had squeezed her into.
Orla swatted her hands away from the laces. “Nonsense,” she argued. “I went to Normandy last year, and this is what all the ladies are wearing.”
Ethlinn twisted from side to side, unused to wearing her gown like a second skin. “I feel so on display.” She looked down, trying to gauge the extent of its absurdity.
“Lady Emma’s was even tighter,” Orla told her. “And you should have seen the length of her sleeves.”
“Who’s Lady Emma?”
Orla walked a circle around Ethlinn, as though appraising a prize horse. “The Duke of Normandy’s sister. She’s a gem. She’ll be getting married soon, I imagine, now that she’s of age.”
Ethlinn frowned pointedly at Orla. “I’m not a lady,” she reminded her quietly. “I’ve never even met a duke or traveled over the sea. This is too grand a gown for someone like me.”
Orla’s hands went straight to her hips.
Ethlinn got the feeling that when Orla set her mind to something, naught could stand in her way.
“I disagree with everything you just said,” she declared, “but I can tell when my arguments won’t be heard. Instead, I’ll say this. No matter what you end up wearing or what you think you deserve to wear, you won’t be back in anything approximating your old clothes unless you kill me first.”
Ethlinn sighed. “Fine,” she conceded. “But can the second dress be less—constricting?”
Orla rolled her eyes. “It’s not like you’re going to be trekking through the wilderness in it. But yes, I have something in the usual style that we can adjust for you.”
She walked back to the trunk she’d pulled Ethlinn’s current gown from, rummaging for the other dress.
“Thank the gods,” Ethlinn muttered, relieved.
“Gods?” Orla rounded on her. “You’re not Christian?”
Oh, no. She hadn’t thought that one through. “My mother is,” she hedged, not wanting to turn Orla against her. Most folk’s attitudes changed dramatically when they learned her father was from the north.
But Orla’s sharp mind didn’t hesitate. She noticed Ethlinn’s omission instantly. “And your father?”
Ethlinn worried her lips, debating how to respond. If she told Orla her father was an Ostman, his brother a vikingr who settled in Éire, would she hate Ethlinn as everyone else did?
Only the blacksmith in Ath Dara even spoke with her family. If he hadn’t been at the crannóg when Ernin caught her, the rest of the village would’ve let her die.
Orla dropped the fabric she held from the trunk. She walked over to Ethlinn, her face softening. “I am simply curious,” she assured her. “There are many here who still follow the old faith. It’s not my place to judge you for it.”
Ethlinn hesitated, still unsure of what to say and unsettled by the memories the conversation awakened.
Plastering a sunny smile on her face, Orla hurried to grab the other gown, clearly working to smooth the awkward moment. “Let’s give this one a try, shall we?”
By the time the bell rang for dinner, Illadan had a good many things to discuss with Ethlinn. Orla had been right, of course, that Ethlinn should have time to forget her cares. And Illadan would ensure she got plenty of it in the days to come. First, however, they needed to decide on a plan.
How long would she stay with his family? Should they have mac Shay followed? Did she wish her family brought to her since she refused to return home?
He also hoped, perhaps in vain, that Ethlinn might eventually trust him enough to tell him what happened to her that day. Or at the very least what brought on the attack, so that he could ensure her safety in the future.
Did mac Shay hold some sort of grudge against Ethlinn? Her family? Was he simply cruel? Did Eth provoke him? Were they betrothed?
Aye, he had a good many questions. He only hoped he’d get some answers.
Pushing open the double-wide oak doors that led into the great hall, Illadan contemplated how he would ease Eth into the difficult topics they must discuss. He made it to the center of the room, utterly consumed by his own thoughts, before he looked up.
Then he forgot everything.
His sister and mother stood before the dais talking with Ethlinn. Only her bruises remained unchanged, but even those appeared to be improving. If not for the blue-yellow circles still marking her skin, Illadan would not have recognized her.
Her hair, which he had believed to be nearly black, was instead a rich brown, with strands the color of amber shimmering in the firelight. It fell in gentle waves down her back, far longer than he had estimated. She wore one of his sister’s gowns, a deep burgundy dress that Orla had made in the Norman style. The lacing along the side fitted the fabric to Ethlinn distractingly, and Illadan had to consciously return his eyes to her face.
How had he not noticed her delicate features before? The slight curve at the ends of her lips, that made it seem as though she kept a delicious secret. The smooth line of her nose, the perfect placement of her cheekbones.
Ethlinn was stunning.
And Illadan was stunned that he had somehow managed not to notice until this moment. Though an unwelcome complication, Illadan had met plenty of beautiful women. He quickly brushed aside the concern that any attraction he may feel would cause any trouble. It never had in the past. Why should it now?
Composing himself after the initial shock of seeing Ethlinn cleaned up, Illadan strode toward his family to join the conversation.
When Ethlinn spotted him, her face brightened, a warm smile gracing her perfect features.
No. Not perfect. Illadan took a deep breath, attempting to drive such ridiculous thoughts from his mind. Pretty. Harmlessly pretty.
Not tempting in the least.
She walked toward him, away from his family. “Are you alright?” Her perfect brows furrowed.
“You look—” Illadan paused, reminding himself not to say ‘perfect.’ Or gorgeous. Or anything equally inappropriate. “Different.”
A flush of pink flooded her cheeks, visible even beneath her bruises. “Your sister was kind enough to help me part with a field’s worth of dirt. I’m sorry you had to share a horse with me in such a state.”
“Don’t be,” he answered, far too quickly. What on earth was the matter with him tonight? Perhaps his lack of sleep was getting to him more than he’d realized. “I hardly noticed.”
“What did you do all day?” she asked, her voice curious. “Orla assured me you’d have plenty to keep you busy, but as you don’t usually live here, I couldn’t imagine what that might be.”
“I sent a messenger to your parents,” he whispered, “so they know that you and your brother are safe.”
“So she does have family.” His mother joined them, Orla on her heels. “We haven’t had an opportunity to chat yet,” she said with a pointed look at Ethlinn.
“Mother,” Illadan warned, his voice tight.
“You promised,” she replied, unshaken. “Last night, remember?”
“We can all talk together.” He refused to leave Ethlinn alone with his mother until he was certain of her intentions. At present, Illadan wouldn’t be surprised if his mother put Eth on the first horse back to Cenn Cora, should no other option present itself.
The servants began delivering platters of food to the tables, prompting everyone to take their seats for the meal. Illadan placed a gentle hand on Eth’s back, guiding her to the seat beside his own so that his mother couldn’t corner her.
As he’d expected, his mother narrowed her eyes at him, moving to her own seat beside Cillian. He’d be getting an earful from her later.
Turning to Ethlinn, Illadan decided to ease into the conversation. “So how was your day with Orla?”
“Wonderful,” Eth replied. But her voice was distant, distracted. She didn’t even look up at him, staring instead at her trencher.
“What’s wrong?” he asked, worried his sister or mother had upset her. Most likely his mother.
“I’ve never eaten any of this before,” she whispered, her entire face turning crimson.
Illadan didn’t know what to say to that. He looked at the food before them, as though seeing it for the first time. A hearty trencher of honey wheat bread held a savory stew with roasted boar and vegetables. Plums and spiced wine rounded out the modest meal.
But boar required a hunting party, horses, and good weapons to acquire. Wheat came from England. Peasants here ate oats and barley. The wine came from France. The plums from Italy.
None of these would be readily available to folk who grew their own foods and couldn’t afford even the luxury of a cart-horse.
He reached across the table, picking up one of the plums and handing it to her. “I’ve always like these. They’re sweeter and softer than apples.” Then he pointed to the large goblet of wine. “Drink that slowly, and never when you’re alone with my mother. It has a tendency to loosen the tongue.”
Ethlinn giggled at that, drawing a scowl from his mother and curious looks from his siblings. She bit into the plum cautiously, then she devoured it, licking the sweet juice from her lips. Though she took his advice regarding the wine, it became clear by the end of the meal that it had affected her regardless.
As soon as he could manage without being suspicious, Illadan excused them both from the hall, claiming exhaustion. In truth, he had no intention of discussing Ethlinn’s personal troubles in the same room as his mother and any of the servants, especially in her current state. He’d much prefer to start rumors of being her lover than have someone eavesdrop and alert mac Shay to her presence in Luimneach.
She wasn’t deep in her cups by any means, but she wasn’t out of them entirely, either. Eth managed herself just fine until they walked out of the hall, where she promptly tripped on the top step.
Illadan grabbed her waist, refusing to let go until they reached the bottom step.
“I’m fine,” she protested. “I forgot they were there is all.”
“Happens to me all the time,” he lied.
She glared at him. “I mean it.”
“It really does,” he amended, “when I’ve had too much wine.”
She let out a huffy breath, but allowed him to keep a hand on her as they wound their way back to the guest quarters.
Illadan would have her wine mixed with water for tomorrow’s meal.
He followed her into her room, closing the door and sitting in a chair beside the bed.
“What are you doing?”
“We need to discuss some things in private,” he told her. “I sent my most trusted man here to Ath Dara to deliver a message to your parents. We should discuss what to do after you’ve had some time to regain your strength.”
Ethlinn fell onto the bed, sighing. “Time? I don’t know how long I want to sit around doing nothing knowing that Ernin is looking for me.”
“He won’t find you here, Eth,” Illadan assured her. “He would never think to look here. And you should take some time. Which is one of the things we need to discuss.”
“How do you mean?”
Illadan kept his voice calm and steady, trying to upset her as little as possible. “I need to know two things,” he explained, “and I doubt you’ll be wanting to share either. I need to know the extent of your injuries, so we can be certain you’ve healed properly, and why mac Shay is after you, so I can better keep you safe.”
“‘Tis mainly the bruises,” Ethlinn told him, “but the healer said I’ve cracked at least two of my ribs. It could take another month for those to mend. She was surprised my arms and legs weren’t broken, too.”
A month. He let that sink in for a few moments. He’d hoped to return to Cenn Cora in a day, two at most. He’d assured Cormac and Broccan it would be a quick trip.
Now it seemed he needed to send them a message, for he wasn’t about to abandon Ethlinn while mac Shay was on the loose.
Illadan nodded. “We’ll bring in a surgeon to check in a few weeks, then,” he replied. “Can you tell me anything about why this bastard is after you?”
“I don’t see how that could be of use to you,” she argued, clearly reluctant to share any more. “It’s not as though you can sit and explain to him why he’s an arse, ask him to leave me alone, and have that be the end of it.”
Illadan smiled weakly at her blustery statement. “True,” he agreed. “But if I know what he hopes to gain, perhaps I can better thwart him without having to kill him outright.”
“He’s been after me for years,” she whispered, her voice shaking. “At first, I thought he was trying to be my friend. Then he started getting angry with me, for the oddest things. In the past year, he’s tried to force my father to give me to him as a mistress, but my father will not. Then he started threatening me, telling me if I didn’t cooperate he’d hurt me.”
Illadan’s blood boiled as he listened to Ethlinn. Maybe he wouldn’t spare mac Shay after all. Fury fell over him as he imagined the tormented life Ethlinn had lived up until he found her.
“Maybe you should send a messenger to my uncle’s home,” she suggested. “To see what Ernin wanted with him, if he said anything about his plans or where he’d be going next.”
“No,” Illadan replied, a little too harshly. “Since he knows your uncle is here, he’ll be having someone watch his house, in case you go to him. If I send a messenger, it could lead him here.”
“Isn’t that also true of sending someone to my parents’ home?”
“Not for Domnall. He’s the only man I trust to do it without getting caught. When he comes back, if you’d like, we can have him visit your uncle as well.”
He stood, walking toward the door to take his leave and let Ethlinn rest. “Goodnight, Ethlinn.”
“Goodnight, Illadan. Thank you.” She smiled at him, the gratitude in her sky-blue eyes making him wish there was more he could do.
Returning to his room next door, Illadan couldn’t stop thinking about her horrible treatment at the hands of that bastard mac Shay.
Or the touch of honey threaded through her silken hair.
Or the way he could see the outline of her body beneath that dress.
Perhaps this attraction would prove more troublesome than he thought.
Ethlinn rose with the sun, a bath of warm golden rays gently waking her. For the first time in longer than she cared to recall, Ethlinn felt rested. She hardly dared admit it, even to herself, but she even felt content. Not quite unafraid, not with Ernin and his men looming somewhere in the city, but no longer terrified either.
Donning the less ridiculous of the two gowns Orla had given her, Ethlinn stepped barefoot out her door. To her relief, she was alone for the first time since she’d arrived. She had been waiting for such a moment to go and explore the back half of the family’s estate, including the lush garden right outside her room.
She closed her eyes for a moment, enjoying the freeing feeling of the cobblestones beneath her toes. The solid, rough rock brought her such peace. And the gods knew she needed all of that that she could get. One slow step after another, she meandered around the guest houses until she found a gate into the garden. She ran her hands through soft spring leaves, still dripping with dew. She bent to smell a newly-opened rose, sorely tempted to pick a few petals to boil for an early morning drink.
Ethlinn turned when footsteps warned her of company.
Orla beamed at her, looking just as rested as Ethlinn felt. Her long, black tresses fell in a single braid down her back. “Would you like the tour?” she asked, locking their elbows together.
As Ethlinn took a step, her bare foot poked out from under her gown.
“What are you doing?” Orla asked, her mouth still hanging agape. “Where are your shoes? Did I forget to give you shoes?”
Ethlinn rolled her lips together to hold in a laugh. “I like walking barefoot in the morning,” she told Orla quietly.
“You do this often?”
“Good Lord, Ethlinn,” she muttered, looking heavenward. “Whatever you do, don’t let my mother or brothers see you in such a state.”
That piqued Ethlinn’s curiosity. “Even Illadan?” She knew him to be bossy and bull-headed, but he was also kind and gentle. Surely he wouldn’t care what she did with her own two feet.
Orla laughed. “Especially Illadan. He’s a man of routine and predictability. I doubt he’s gone barefoot anywhere since he was a boy.”
Ethlinn couldn’t help but feel sorry for him if that were true. How depressing it must be to not allow yourself the little joys in life.
Beds of herbs, vegetables, and flowers lined the outside of the path as they walked. Most of the plants were only just waking from winter now that the weather had warmed. A few had buds, and even fewer proudly displayed their blooms. The garden seemed to stretch on forever, though Ethlinn knew it must be smaller than it felt.
“That,” Orla proclaimed, pointing at a large hindberry patch, “is where the hares often nest.” The twisted vines formed archways several feet deep, of a perfect height for accommodating the small creatures. “They scared me half to death one year when I went to pick berries.”
“Do you have a groundskeeper?” she asked. “I cannot believe how much wild land you have living in the middle of town.”
“Oh, it only feels like the middle,” Orla replied. “Brian gave my brother almost all of the land surrounding Luimneach, and our house is on the edge of the town proper so that we can access it easily.”
They weren’t even to the first corner, though they’d been walking several minutes, when Orla took a deep breath, clearly preparing to ask Ethlinn something uncomfortable.
“I don’t mean to pry,” Orla began sweetly, “but I’m going to do just that.”
Ethlinn worried her bottom lip, not really knowing what Orla would ask and not keen to speak of herself at all. But her companion, who was fast becoming her friend, had shown her nothing but kindness and compassion. Ethlinn supposed it was about time she offered some answers to this family who had sheltered her so selflessly.
“How long have you known my brother?”
Ethlinn took a moment to be sure she counted the days correctly. “This will be the third day, I believe.”
Ethlinn raised an eyebrow. “I thought Illadan said as much when we arrived. I’d only met him that morn.”
“He did,” Orla agreed hesitantly. “I just thought he lied so as not to upset mother.”
“Lied?” Ethlinn stopped walking. “How do you mean?”
Orla shrugged her delicate shoulders, the silken fabric of her gown crinkling around her. “I’ve never seen Illadan speak with a woman for longer than absolutely necessary,” she explained, “let alone bring one home. I assumed he intended to wed you, whether that was the story he told or not.”
Ethlinn laughed aloud in shock. Of all the explanations she’d expected, that had never crossed her mind. “You can’t be serious.”
“You should see the way he looks at you,” Orla insisted, her fists rising to sit on her hips. “He likes you.”
Ethlinn crossed her arms to match Orla’s confident stance. “I was so covered in mud when we met, I doubt he could see much of me at all. Of course he’d look at me funny.”
The twinkle in Orla’s eyes told Ethlinn the answer before her friend even opened her mouth. “Don’t you think it’s possible he felt drawn to you, not your appearance? You’ve never seen him around other women. I have, and he has never behaved this way before.”
“And what way is that, precisely?”
“Doting.” Orla’s response was instantaneous. “Thoughtful. Worried.”
Clearly, she’d spent some time planning this conversation. Or her words held more truth than Ethlinn cared to admit.
Opening her mouth to protest such a ridiculous notion, Ethlinn found herself interrupted by the sound of hoofbeats. Both women turned as the man under discussion appeared in the field on the other side of the garden, riding alongside the fence. A second, much smaller horse followed on a lead.
“Good morning, ladies,” he called cheerily. “I’m afraid I need to steal Ethlinn away from her stroll.”
Orla rounded on him, but he continued before she could argue.
“We must speak of important matters. You have my word that I shall return her to you before midday for whatever it is you’ve no doubt planned.”
Orla frowned but relented. “If you insist.”
“I do,” he grinned. Then, turning to Ethlinn, he added, “I’ll meet you at the back gate.”
Ethlinn’s heart raced, though she couldn’t name the cause. Most likely, ‘twas the fact that he had brought a second horse. Surely he didn’t expect her to ride alongside him.
Lifting her gown in her hands, she ran toward the back gate, reveling in the feel of the cool stones beneath her bare feet as she went. When she reached Illadan, he stared openly at her feet.
“I suppose you’ve no need of shoes?”
She smiled wryly. “Your sister said much the same.” She lifted her foot, wiggling her toes. “She also told me you haven’t gone barefoot since you were a boy,” she challenged.
“She may be right,” Illadan admitted, jumping down from his giant horse effortlessly. “I’ll make you a deal, since I have a feeling you won’t like my planned activity for the day.”
Ethlinn narrowed her eyes at him. “If it has anything to do with the beasts behind you, then you’re correct.”
“I like the idea of going barefoot about as much as you enjoy riding those ‘beasts behind me,’” he replied. “I’ll take off my boots if you learn to ride.”
Orla’s observation, that Illadan behaved unusually around Ethlinn, came to mind as he bent to unlace his boots.
“Why?” she asked, unable to stop herself. “Why do you care whether I learn to ride or not?”
Illadan pushed a boot off his foot, tossing it next to the gate. “Because I vowed to protect you until you were safe. If we must travel by horse in the future, it will make my job easier if you’ve had some training.”
“How many people have you taken a vow to protect?”
Illadan leveled a look at her. “A few.”
Oddly unspecific. But Ethlinn didn’t need a number to make her point. “And how many of them did you train in a skill they lacked?”
Tossing his other boot to the gate, he took several steps toward her. “‘Tis not the same,” he argued. “They all knew how to ride.”
Ethlinn let out a sigh. “You’re avoiding the question.”
“Because you won’t want to hear the answer.”
His response appeared to surprise even Illadan. He took a step back, reaching to tie the reigns of the larger horse to the nearest post. “Now then,” he cleared his throat awkwardly, looking first at his bare feet and then back at her. “What shall I do next? How best do I enjoy this experience?”
Ethlinn couldn’t contain a grin of amusement. “You need to walk on the stones,” she explained, turning back toward the garden.
Illadan raised a brow but didn’t voice his skepticism. Instead he did as she suggested, following her along the cobblestone path.
“Well?” she prodded when he said nothing.
Illadan shrugged. “It’s not terrible,” he allowed thoughtfully. “I could see why you might enjoy it.”
“It’s freeing.” She hopped lightly from one stone to the next.
He did the same, stopping right beside her. For such a large man, he moved with surprising grace. “Your turn.” He whispered, hopping just as she had all the way back to the horses.
She tripped as she followed him, deciding her clumsiness was due to his obtuse reply earlier. Because you don’t want to hear the answer. What on earth did he mean by that, anyway? Did he presume to know what she did or did not want to hear? Bossy One, indeed.
“We’ll start with falling,” he told her. “The first thing I was told when I started learning to ride was that it’s not a matter of if you fall, it’s a matter of when. So, we’re going to practice falling without breaking a bone. I realize that you’re still recovering from your injuries, so I’ll make sure you don’t hit the ground. We’ll just practice form.”
Ethlinn’s mouth fell open at his statement. “Now hold on just a minute,” she protested. “You said we’d be riding. You said nothing about falling in our little deal. That’s not even close to fair.”
“Alright,” he conceded. “What will it take to even the deal?”
Ethlinn grinned at him like a cat who found the cream. “You have to tell me what it is I ‘won’t want to hear.’”
If she hadn’t known any better, Ethlinn would have sworn he actually blushed. But that would be ridiculous. She watched his gaze drop to his feet for several long moments before his hazel eyes caught hers.
“I feel compelled to protect you,” he admitted quietly. “More so than I have any others. But I’m not certain why.”
Ethlinn had spent many years listening to folk tell her half-truths. Pretending they liked her.
Avoiding her family for entirely made-up reasons.
Telling her she was a “nice girl” but never letting their children near her.
And she’d spent enough time with Illadan to know that he’d just kept something from her. Something she planned to discover by the end of this morn.
“You’ll want to wear shoes for riding,” Illadan informed her with amusement, tying the horses to the garden fence and gesturing for her to follow him back to her room.
“So are there actually important matters for us to discuss?” Ethlinn asked. “Or are we just riding?” Judging by his current disposition, she rather doubted he could discuss anything serious.
“We have matters of the utmost import to attend,” he replied. “We will be spending no small amount of time together over the coming weeks, and I know very little about you.”
Ethlinn took two great steps to catch up with Illadan. Even at a leisurely pace, it was difficult to keep stride with him. “You want to teach me to ride and get to know me better?” she asked skeptically. “Those are the matters of import?”
He shrugged in response, grabbing for the door as they reached her quarters.
Ethlinn quickly put on her shoes, dropping into a chair beneath the front windows. Illadan stood opposite her, his arms crossed, watching her in silence. Normally, the presence of a large man, particularly one so dangerous as Illadan, would have reduced Ethlinn to a fit of terror. At least it had done since her attack.
Forcing her heel into its shoe, she realized that instead his presence made her feel safer. Thus far, he had done nothing but aid her and defend her. Indeed, if he continued to insist on helping her, Ethlinn thought she might even come to trust him.
As she tied the last knot, she decided that she had had enough of his avoiding her questions. It would be a relief to have someone other than her family that she could trust, but she’d need to know more about Illadan first. One way or another, she’d start getting some answers. Smiling to herself, she determined that this ride might prove more entertaining than she’d thought.
A heavy sigh from Illadan made Ethlinn look up at him, only to see his brows knitted, a deep frown across his handsome face.
“What is it?” she asked.
“There’s no time to explain,” he muttered. “Do you trust me?”
Ethlinn laughed aloud. Had she not just wondered the very same?
His frown deepened at her reaction. “Well, pretend like you do. Don’t say a word. I will explain later.”
Before she could demand that he explain right now, the door to her room burst open and Liadan rolled in like a thunderstorm. She looked first at Ethlinn, then at Illadan, her face puckering as though she’d eaten a sour berry.
“I have been looking everywhere for you,” she scolded her son. “I have need to speak with you alone, though I suppose this presents a perfect opportunity to finally learn all about our dear guest.”
“There’s not much to learn,” Illadan lied.
He hid it well, a fact Ethlinn noted with some concern.
“You say she has family,” Liadan pressed, stepping further into the room. “Why, then, is she not with them?”
“They do not have the means to care for her at present,” he answered.
“They are poor?” Liadan shot Ethlinn a look of distaste.
“They are embroiled in a family conflict. It is not yet safe for her to return to them.”
Ethlinn listened as words fired between the two like arrows between two targets. It appeared that Illadan had given much thought to what he might respond to such questions. She would have to thank him later, once again, for his incredible kindness toward her. Listening carefully, she took note of the answers he gave, that she might say the same if asked later.
“Is this—conflict—the cause of Ethlinn’s injuries?”
“When will it be safe for her to return?”
“I don’t know yet.”
His mother didn’t like that answer. Her eyes narrowed. “A word, if you please? Outside?”
Illadan looked at Ethlinn. His hazel eyes softened the moment they met hers. “I’ll meet you at the horses.”
Illadan loved his mother. Truly, he did. She had lived through a nightmare in the years surrounding his father’s murder, caring for three small children and a crumbling kingdom. She was a strong woman, but the forge of her life had hardened her nearly to breaking. Situations such as these, where she responded with a show of strength in place of compassion, reminded Illadan of how deeply his father’s death had changed the woman of his childhood.
All her laughter had turned to fear.
Since he’d met Ethlinn, he often worried the same might happen to her if no one reminded her to laugh.
His mother walked until she reached the far side of the garden, the corner opposite where he’d tethered the horses, and turned to him. “What do you think you are doing?” she hissed.
“I might ask you the same,” he countered. “You’ve been nothing but rude to my guest.”
“You and your guest are keeping secrets from me, secrets that I fear will impact the safety of our family. She’s a pretty girl, I’ll grant you, but I’ll not have you bringing her family’s war to our doorstep. Imagine your sister being beaten so.”
“Imagine Orla having been beaten and no one willing to keep her safe,” he countered. “No one knows she’s here. No one who poses any sort of threat to us.”
That seemed to assuage some of his mother’s concern. Her stance relaxed somewhat. “And what of your duties to Brian? This is your chance, your greatest opportunity to secure your position in this kingdom and here you are, falling at the feet of some damsel three villages away.”
“I swore an oath, as part of my duty to Brian, that I would help any in need. As you can clearly see, she is in need of aid,” he defended, though he knew his mother had a point.
Worry plagued him every day since they’d left Cenn Cora that he had made the wrong decision, that he was failing in his duty to Brian by abandoning his post. Cormac and Broccan had sent word that he could stay away as long as necessary to see his oath through, yet that assurance had done little to ease the weight of his guilt.
“I will play nice,” his mother whispered, “but she must be gone the moment those wounds of hers are healed. I won’t have any trouble coming from this.”
“She’ll be gone in a turning of the moon,” he agreed. “The healer said she should be recovered by then.”
His mother nodded, though her lips remained pursed. “And you’d best mind yourself. Folk are already talking about you bringing some lone woman back. I don’t need a scandalous affair on top of all this other nonsense. Our family will lose all credibility.”
Illadan tensed at his mother’s insinuation. “Folk will always talk,” he shot back, a little too hastily. “It doesn’t mean they speak the truth.”
He didn’t wait for his mother’s response. He was finished with this conversation, and he was grateful that Ethlinn hadn’t needed to bear witness to all of it.
His mother thought Ethlinn some lesser noble, and already she cried scandal. He’d need to set Orla to work to ensure Ethlinn learned all the proper etiquette to blend in during her stay. If his mother found out she was a peasant, and a foreign one at that, all her worries would compound. Illadan had seen it happen before.
And he had no doubt that if his mother felt her justifiable concerns remained unheeded, she would take matters into her own hands.
Illadan strode back to the horses, determined not to let his mother ruin what was meant to be a pleasant diversion for both himself and Ethlinn. He needed to stop thinking about the trials happening without him. He needed to help Ethlinn stop thinking about the possibility that Ernin was somewhere in the same town.
As he approached, she turned to look at him, her bright smile raising his spirits measurably. Brilliant blue eyes, the same color as the spring sky above them, watched every step he took. It was the happiest he’d seen her since they met, in spite of his mother’s untimely interruption.
“Thank you,” she told him, her voice sincere, “for championing me with your mother. I’m sorry to be so much trouble for you.”
Taking the reins of both horses, he handed the mare’s reins off to Ethlinn. “I made you come here,” he replied. “You’ve naught to apologize for. Except your unwillingness to ride a horse, that is.”
The coy smile his comment brought to her face made her lips look eminently kissable. He shook that thought away, hurrying to continue the conversation so that nothing even more inappropriate could follow in its place.
“Let’s have a walk, shall we?” Holding Anamcha’s reins, he led them toward the nearby field.
Eth hesitated, holding the mare’s reins and staring Illadan down. “I thought we were practicing falling. Not,” she added quickly, “that I’m upset over walking, but I’m a bit confused.”
“I’m sorry about my mother,” he said sincerely. “I thought, in light of her interruption, we would do something less strenuous. Spending time around the horse, getting comfortable beside it, is just as useful as being on one. We have a full turning of the moon to turn you into a proper rider. We’ll ease into it. For today, at least.”
The field offered a good, even surface to walk the horses around for a turn, in addition to being open enough to see anyone approaching. He hoped Eth would feel more at ease around the horses by the end of the morning.
Illadan had a thousand questions he wanted to ask—about her family, about her life, about her interests. He sifted through them, struggling to choose one to begin their conversation. Before he had even landed on one, Ethlinn took matters into her own hands.
“I think that you do know why you feel so compelled to help me,” she challenged.
Illadan couldn’t hide his amusement. “Is that right?”
“Aye. And I’m going to get you to admit it before we’re done with our walk.”
“I find that most unlikely,” he replied.
“Ha!” she turned toward him, startling the horses with her accusatory shout. “So you do know. I knew it.”
Of course he knew.
But he wasn’t about to admit it to anyone. He could hardly admit it to himself. Ethlinn was strong, confident, willful, and as stubborn as anyone he’d met. Illadan held nothing but admiration for her, to have survived all the things she’d endured over the past month and to still be able to jest with him. He also found it more difficult with each passing day to deny his attraction to her. As the bruises faded and her strength returned, he could see the woman she had been before the attack. A woman he wanted to know better.
“Alright,” she conceded following his long silence, “how about we start with something simpler. Why aren’t you leaving me here with your family so that you can return to the trials at Cenn Cora? Don’t they need you?”
“Cormac and Broccan can manage just fine without me,” he told her. “‘Tis true I planned much of the trials, but I consulted them every step of the way. They know what needs doing.”
Ethlinn nodded thoughtfully, giving the mare beside her a wary look. “Still,” she pressed, “I know you’d rather be there after all the work you put into it. I appreciate all you’ve done for me, but I don’t want to hold you captive to my troubles.”
She held him captive alright, but for entirely different reasons.
Looking about to ensure they still walked alone—and no nosy sisters or troublesome mothers had followed them—Illadan leaned closer to her. “I don’t trust anyone else to do it,” he admitted quietly. “My brother would do his best, but he has many other duties occupying him. My sister could care for you, I have no doubt, and see to your healing. But she could not protect you as I can. And my mother,” he blew out a long breath, “she’s not the compassionate woman she used to be. She’s as likely to turn you out the moment trouble arises as she is to shield you from it.”
Ethlinn’s full lips tightened thoughtfully, clearly displeased by his honest answer. She looked about to protest yet again, so Illadan quickly changed to a different topic.
“Have you had any lovers?” he asked, hoping such a ridiculously personal question would startle her from her previous line of inquiry.
As he’d anticipated, her mouth fell open in shock, her brilliant blue eyes went wide. “You can’t be serious? I hardly know you.”
“So you have, then,” he teased.
The sternness of her glare made Illadan grateful she hadn’t any weapons on her at the moment.
“I have not,” she ground out.
“No one has courted you?” he asked, genuinely surprised. “Or asked for your hand?”
“Ernin is the only one,” she whispered, her voice dripping with disgust. “And, obviously, my father and I both rejected that offer.”
Illadan’s stomach lurched at the mention of mac Shay. He couldn’t stand even the thought of the man, let alone the idea of him courting Ethlinn. Thank the Lord her father had sense enough to deny him.
Illadan waved his hand, swatting away the mere mention of the odious man. “The only topic completely off-limits is that horrid creature,” he growled. “We won’t speak of him today.”
Ethlinn’s face softened, her shoulders relaxing at Illadan’s declaration. “In that case,” she continued, “no one has shown the slightest interest in me.”
“How can that be?” he asked before he could think better of it.
Her eyebrows lifted, one side of her mouth curving into a half-smile. “You think I’d make a good wife, do you?”
“Aye,” he admitted, regretting now his hasty reaction. “Surely every man can see your beauty, and those who know you will also be aware of your many useful skills. That is, if anyone could ever overlook your inability to ride a horse.” He shot her a mischievous grin at his last statement, hoping she wouldn’t think too much on the ones that came before.
“Perhaps some have thought such things,” she conceded, “but their kin would never let them near me. My family has never been particularly welcome in the village, as everyone knows my uncle came on a viking to Éire. Even though my father never raided, their disdain extends to him and his kin. Other children got into a good bit of trouble with their families whenever they were caught playing with Finn or I.”
Illadan’s heart ached as he listened. On top of continuously having to fight off the unwanted advances of mac Shay, her entire family was outcast from society. How lonely a childhood that must have been, shunned by other children and antagonized by the only one who noticed her.
“What of you?” she asked, turning the question on him. “Your sister tells me you’ve not shown much interest in women.”
“Does she now?” Illadan couldn’t help but wonder what conversation between the two women had led to such a statement. Had Ethlinn been asking Orla about him?
“She says you’ve never brought a woman to the keep.” Though it was a statement, her underlying question was clear.
“In truth, I’ve been far more preoccupied with repaying my fosterage debt to Brian than I have with any pursuit of marriage. I must prove myself worthy of his trust before I set aside time for my own desires.”
She looked at him, her shrewd eyes assessing. “I didn’t think any debts were incurred for fostering. Isn’t that simply the way of educating young nobles and building alliances?”
Illadan nodded, searching for the words to explain it better. “Aye,” he agreed, “there’s no formal debt. But Brian acted as far more than a foster father to me. I feel a personal debt of gratitude for his generosity and kindness toward me and my family. He was there when we needed him most and has been ever since. I owe him my life.”
A quiet smile crossed her face.
“Go on,” Illadan ordered, “tell me what you’re thinking.”
“I believe you feel a personal debt to him,” she began hesitantly, “but I think that as much as you want him to see your gratitude, you want to hear his approval. He is as a father to you. Every son or daughter feels the same.”
Illadan’s chest swelled at her suggestion. “I think you may have the right of it,” he admitted.
“Of course I do,” Ethlinn boasted. “But you still haven’t given me a straight answer. Have you or have you not had a lover or a courtship? Even my brother managed to bed a milkmaid once.”
“Everyone’s bedded a milkmaid.”
“I haven’t,” Ethlinn quipped.
Illadan had to laugh at that. “No, I suppose you haven’t.”
“So was it only the milkmaid? Let me guess, she had long, golden hair and skin the same color as the milk she worked?”
“You wouldn’t be jealous, would you?” He knew she was—the uncertainty in her voice was entirely out of character.
“Of course not,” she answered too quickly. He caught the bluster in her statement.
Emboldened by the knowledge that she was, in fact, jealous of some woman he’d bedded one afternoon in his youth, he gently grabbed a lock of her own fair hair. “Unfortunately for you,” he replied, looking at the tendril thoughtfully, “I have a fondness for golden-haired women.”
A rosy blush bloomed on her cheeks.
It took all his will not to place a hand upon them.
“So have you bedded any milkmaids recently?” she pressed, clearly unnerved by the entire conversation.
“No. I’ve been far too busy of late for any such distractions.”
“Will you?” Her voice broke. “After the trials, I mean.”
His pulse quickened, the blood running like lightning through his veins. Perhaps he was reading the entire situation wrong, but Illadan’s gut told him that she might return his interest. Was it possible that he was not the only one feeling this attraction?
“Right now,” he said softly as they walked side by side through the field, “there’s only one woman I’d want, but I don’t know that she returns my affections.”
“The only way to find out is to ask.”
Illadan’s heart hammered, his hands itching to touch her. He’d thought of little else since he met her mere days ago.
Did she trust him enough to let him near her? Would his interest frighten her after all she’d been through? He could hardly blame her, yet the rejection would still sting.
He stopped walking.
Her eyes sought his, unwavering. “Why is it you feel so compelled to help me?”
He’d never cease to be amazed by her cleverness. She’d known all along, and she’d somehow managed to create this opening in their conversation.
Which meant she must not be too upset over the thought of his attraction to her, or she’d have avoided the matter entirely.
The confident grin on her face told him she knew that she had him cornered.
Admitting defeat, he answered with the truth at last. “Because I can’t stop thinking about you.”
He took a step closer.
“And wondering at how bothersome I am?”
He stood near enough to touch her.
To kiss her.
“And wondering whether you’ve been thinking about me.”
Her cheeks colored again, and this time he did lift his hand to them. Slowly, so that she had plenty of time to stop him. The last thing he wanted was to upset her.
Instead, she leaned into his hand, a fire lighting in her bright blue eyes.
“I already told you,” she whispered back. “The only way to find out is to ask.”
Illadan didn’t need to ask. He could see it in her eyes, in the way her body reacted to his touch.
He leaned forward until his lips found hers, finally stealing the kiss he’d wanted all along.
Ethlinn’s legs melted beneath her as Illadan pulled her into his arms. She clung to him as though her life depended upon it, her rock in a storm-tossed sea. And he was. In all of the tumult of the past weeks, he had been the first and only bastion of safety.
His lips fell upon hers tentatively, as light as the breeze in midsummer. But she felt the tension in his body beneath her fingers. He was holding back, restraining himself.
Because, as he had since they met, he thought of her first.
Surprising herself, Ethlinn threw her arms about his neck, meeting his kiss with equal intensity. She felt his grin against her lips.
His hand lifted from her waist, tangling itself in her hair, his fingers brushing her head. His other arm tightened about her at the same time as his lips fully laid claim to hers. Once she returned his passion, she felt the change in his intensity. He no longer held back; his hands, his mouth, his whole body worshipping her own.
Ethlinn’s heart raced. A rushing sound filled her ears as Illadan pulled her in deeper and deeper. His mouth moved over hers, playing with her lips, teasing with his tongue until her own joined his in a passionate dance.
She couldn’t get enough of him.
The soft, intense pressure of his kiss.
The heavy sound of his breath.
The scent of wood and leather and him that was her entire world in that moment.
“Saints, you taste good,” he whispered, returning for another kiss in the same breath that the words left his lips.
His words brought a flush of warmth from her chest to her cheeks. Followed by a heady dose of reality.
What was she thinking?
Illadan clearly desired her and, she had to admit, she felt similarly. But it could never be more than stolen moments together. He was son, brother, and nephew to kings. He would marry a woman befitting his position.
Not a farm girl who caused nothing but trouble.
Would she be happy knowing it couldn’t last? Would it be enough to just have him for now? Reluctantly, Ethlinn broke off the kiss.
She should think this through before it went any farther.
Illadan was smiling like a fool, but when he looked at her, he immediately sobered. “Are you alright?”
No. “Of course.” She did her best to pass off her sudden change in temperament as unimportant, smiling at him as best she could given her worrisome thoughts.
He looked unconvinced but didn’t press the issue. “I must admit, I’m rather looking forward to tomorrow’s riding lesson now,” he teased, turning them back toward home.
Toward his home, she corrected herself. She would never belong there.
When they reached the long, narrow building that held a row of guest rooms, Ethlinn noticed Orla pacing outside her quarters. She looked to Illadan, who had clearly spotted his sister as well. His brows furrowed as he called out to her.
“What’s the trouble?” he asked, hurrying toward her.
Ethlinn followed close behind.
Orla looked first to Illadan, then to Ethlinn. Her face was squeezed in an expression Ethlinn recognized immediately—pained reluctance. “I’m so sorry,” she began, looking behind her. “Mother—”
“What has she done now?” Illadan growled, displeasure in every word.
“I told her Ethlinn would be tired, but she’d not hear any excuses.” The raven-haired beauty turned to Ethlinn. “She’s insisting you join us for embroidery.”
Illadan started in complaining but Orla stopped him before he got a word out. “Let me worry over it,” she offered. “I think she’s trying to include Ethlinn, she just doesn’t realize that it’s more trouble than kindness. She’s well-meaning, Illadan.”
His gaze softened, sending warmth through Ethlinn as he regarded her. “You do not have to go it you don’t wish it. Tell my mother you’re tired. You’re still recovering, she will have no choice but to understand.”
Ethlinn didn’t want to go. The last thing she wanted was further ridicule and more questions from his mother. But she also knew that the longer she avoided spending time with the woman, the more she’d suffer for it. Women such as Liadan didn’t take kindly to being ignored—particularly if her gestures were indeed made in an effort at kindness.
“I will go,” Ethlinn replied firmly. “It will only provoke her further if I do not.”
Orla took her hand, tucking it into the crook of her arm and leading her away from Illadan. “Do you know how to embroider?” she asked.
Ethlinn couldn’t express how grateful she felt that Orla even asked, instead of assuming she couldn’t based solely on her parentage. Unfortunately, she knew her answer would disappoint her new friend. She shook her head.
“Well,” Orla declared breathily, “it seems you’ll be learning two new things today, then.” Her smile of encouragement accompanied Ethlinn all the way into the great hall.
When they entered, Orla gave her hand a squeeze before dragging her over to the hearth. Three women sat in chairs around the crackling fire, their hands deftly working needle and thread as they chatted.
“Ah, Ethlinn,” Liadan called as she noticed their approach, “I’m so glad you could join us. Now that you’ve had a couple of days to settle in and recover from all that excitement, I thought you might appreciate returning to something familiar. I’ve found one of Illadan’s dress tunics. I thought it a fitting project, as you’re his guest.”
She gestured toward an empty chair opposite her, across the hearth.
Ethlinn walked over to find a huge green tunic and a pile of golden embroidery thread with several needles and a small wooden frame tucked neatly into a basket. She broke into a cold sweat as she picked up the basketful of materials and sat down.
Orla took the seat next to her. With deliberate slowness, Illadan’s sister picked up a sheer, silken veil and secured it to a frame. Her deft fingers made the process seem effortless.
“Is something the matter, dear?” Liadan asked Orla, watching her slothful work with a frown.
“Oh,” Orla smiled sheepishly at her mother. “Forgive me. My mind continues to wander. I’m certain my focus will return shortly.”
Liadan returned to conversing with the two other women, whom she’d yet to introduce, while Ethlinn fumbled to replicate Orla’s process. She decided to begin along the hem line. That way, at least, it was unlikely her poor efforts would come under any real scrutiny should Illadan have to wear the dreadful thing.
She could sew, of course. She and her mother made and mended clothes for the family, and she was passing good at it. But they had neither the time nor the inclination for something so superficial as embroidery. Their clothes were covered in dirt after a day in the fields anyhow—threads of gold would only make the washing that much harder.
Next, Orla threaded a needle, pulling a pale pink thread so that a short tail and a long tail hung from it.
That, at least, was a familiar task. Ethlinn threaded her own needle, feeling a little better about the project.
“Would you like to see what I’m working on?” Orla asked sweetly. “I think you’d really like it.”
Liadan looked up from her own work, the ever-present chatter ceasing only momentarily. When she determined nothing was afoot, she went right back to her guests.
Orla stood and walked the short distance to Ethlinn, bending and placing her handiwork next to Ethlinn’s own. “You can see here,” she began, pushing the needle through from beneath the fabric, “I’m working on some small pink roses.” She pulled the thread up, then put the needle back through from the top. “I find adding different shades of the color really brings them to life. I’m quite proud of this design.” The tip of the needle appeared again, moving from beneath the fabric to split the thread before she drew it taut.
Ethlinn would have to find a way to repay her later. For now, she focused solely on Orla’s instruction. “I think you should be proud,” she agreed, meaning every word. “It’s the prettiest veil I’ve ever seen.” She made her best attempt to copy the stitch and was pleased when it looked similar to Orla’s.
The trick would be turning it into any sort of design.
“Did you have a pattern in mind for the hem?” Orla asked. “Let me get your ink out so you can draw some guidelines. You’re so brave starting right in without them. I’m sure your work will put mine to shame.”
“You’re kind to say so,” Ethlinn muttered, suppressing a grimace as she stabbed herself.
“Are you having difficulties?” Liadan asked.
Ethlinn hadn’t noticed the woman’s attention shift to her. “It’s just been so long since I’ve done such fine work,” she lied. “After I was injured, I wasn’t physically able to do it. I’m afraid I’m quite out of practice.”
“Oh, of course,” Liadan replied. She held no contempt in her tone, only concern. “Just do your best. Orla can certainly help with any problems. She’s far more skilled than I.”
“Thank you,” Ethlinn said, finding Liadan’s company tolerable for the first time since her arrival. Maybe this hadn’t been such a terrible idea after all.
Orla managed to show her how to lay out a pattern using pale yellow ink and charcoal dust without making it terribly obvious that Ethlinn hadn’t a clue what she was doing. Once she was satisfied that Ethlinn needed naught else but practice, she returned to her seat.
As Ethlinn fumbled to keep her stitches straight, Liadan looked over at her once more. “I don’t believe I ever did introduce you to Aillean and Mary, in all of the excitement of your arrival. Aillean is the wife of Domnall, king of Corcu Bascinn. Just to the west, as I’m sure you know. And this is her daughter, Mary. I wondered if perhaps you were already acquainted with them?”
Ethlinn detected the curiosity in her statement, realizing only now that the woman was fishing for answers about her family.
Of course this couldn’t simply be a pleasant passing of time.
“I’m afraid I haven’t had the pleasure of meeting them until today,” Ethlinn replied, her voice too high. “But I am grateful for the opportunity.”
“I see,” Liadan hedged. “I had thought, since you must run in similar circles, you might have at least heard of one another?”
Apparently she wasn’t ready to let it go just yet. “My family didn’t socialize much outside of itself. There are likely far more noble ladies that I don’t know than I do.”
“How terrible,” Aillean commented with a tsk. “It’s good that you’re getting out and about now.”
“Yes,” Ethlinn agreed quietly. “It is.”
“What is your family name?” Mary, her daughter asked. “I’m certain we’ll have heard of you.”
“Likely you have,” Ethlinn lied, yet again, “but I’m afraid I’m under strict orders from my father not to share that until our feud dies down. Of course, I’ll let you know as soon as I’m able.”
“I hope, then, that your family’s troubles end sooner rather than later,” Liadan remarked with a pointed look. “How, exactly, are you staying apprised of the situation?”
“Illadan is helping me.”
All eyes strayed to her. Ethlinn imagined this must be how a mouse felt when cornered by hungry kittens.
“Of course he is,” Liadan muttered. She mustered a forced smile for Ethlinn. “Either way, we’re glad to have you join us.”
With her curiosity sated for the time being, Liadan left Ethlinn to labor futilely on Illadan’s tunic. She couldn’t even bring herself to look over at Orla’s flawless creation. She imagined hers looked much akin to the work a child of six summers might produce, with its uneven lines and puckering threads. She’d have to tear it out and start over tomorrow.
As they packed up their projects, Liadan drifted over to inspect Ethlinn’s work. Her mouth actually fell open as she fished for words like a trout on a line. She inhaled sharply, as though about to speak, then thought better of it.
“Perhaps Orla wasn’t exaggerating your fatigue,” she reasoned. “Get some extra sleep tonight. I’m certain things will go—better—after you rest.”
She shouldn’t be upset that her first ever attempt at embroidering fell short of what Liadan expected from a woman grown. Of course it did.
Yet even as Orla winked at her with a half-smile, a sinking feeling in Ethlinn’s chest confirmed what she’d known all along.
She didn’t belong here. It was such a silly thing to think, really. Orla and Illadan, and even Cillian, had been nothing but kind to her. Today, for the first time, Liadan had been polite and almost good company. All in all, things had gone well.
And yet, here she sat, her botched embroidery in her lap, Orla smiling at her cheerily. Which, perhaps, made it hurt all the more. Even when everyone welcomed her, Ethlinn still felt so far outside this cozy world in which Illadan belonged.
Try though she might, Ethlinn wasn’t certain she would ever feel like a part of this strange world.
Five days later, Illadan knew he was in trouble. Every morning, he stole Eth away for a riding lesson—and a few kisses besides. Though she wasn’t the first woman he’d romanced, she was the only one he couldn’t stop thinking about.
Which was, of course, ridiculous, as he’d only known her for less than a fortnight. He told himself it was his protective nature, that he felt drawn to her because she needed him. He told himself it was her rare beauty or her strong, stubborn personality. Her refreshing lack of pretension. But with each passing moment spent in her company, Illadan began to admit to himself that it might be something much more.
Of course, it was far too soon to be throwing about words such as “love” or “marriage.” But just because Illadan refused to put voice to such words didn’t mean they weren’t already intruding upon his thoughts. But Illadan was nothing if not practical, and he knew the mere mention of such a notion would push Ethlinn away from him. So, for now, he kept such ideas to himself. Once all this business with mac Shay was sorted, he’d court her properly.
Then, perhaps, he’d speak such thoughts aloud.
As they walked hand-in-hand back to her quarters, Illadan sensed an unusual tenseness about Ethlinn.
“Are you alright?” he asked. There was no way she could know what he’d been thinking, right?
Her deep inhale filled him with anxiety. “Your mother has been making me work on something during our embroidery,” she told him. “I’m terrified you might have cause to see it today.”
“Is that so?” he replied, keeping his voice light to put her at ease. “Why today?”
She looked down at her feet, her wheaten hair falling about her face. “I finished it yesterday. Sort of.”
“I told her it needed to be done over—it looks awful, truly—but she wouldn’t hear of it. I think she meant to give it back to you today.”
“It was your first effort, was it not?”
Big blue eyes looked up at him. “Aye. And it looks like it.”
He nodded, thinking on how best to diffuse her nerves. He knew that it was no trivial matter for her, for many reasons, but he also didn’t want her worrying over it.
“But have you considered,” he replied at last, “what it would look like if I tried to embroider my own clothes?”
She laughed aloud, the sound of it driving him to continue.
“At this point, you are the expert. You know more of the art than I likely ever will.”
“I’m hardly an expert,” she countered, the smile falling from her face.
He pulled her close to him, squeezing her shoulders against him. “But do you need to be?” He gave her a moment to consider his meaning. “Think of it as a fun diversion, an opportunity to expand your skills. Nothing more.”
“You mean because I’m a farmer’s daughter?” The hurt in her voice shocked him as much as her question.
“God’s bones, no!” he hurriedly amended. “I only meant that it is an art, not a necessity. For anyone. My sister could be the worst embroiderer on the island, but that wouldn’t change how anyone felt about her. That was my meaning.”
“Oh,” she relented, the bluster gone like a wisp of smoke in the wind. “Of course, that makes more sense. I’m sorry. I don’t know why I assumed you’d be insulting me.” She gave his arm an apologetic squeeze before handing him the mare’s reins.
“I do,” he said. “Because anyone who’s been treated the way you have would be filled with doubt and insecurity. If I grew up with all the people I knew speaking ill of my family, with someone like mac Shay after me at every corner, even trying to recover from such an attack in a place as foreign to me as a distant shore, I daresay I’d have trouble trusting others as well. But I want you to hear this, Eth. I’m always on your side.”
“I know you are.” Her voice rang resolute. “And I am grateful for it, for all you’ve done. For you.” Her cheeks reddened at that last, and she gave him a hurried farewell before disappearing into her room to get ready to spend the rest of the day with Orla.
She was grateful for him. Such a simple thought, such a profound effect on his senses. A warm, tingling sensation filled his veins as he headed toward the solar to check with his brother, Kel. Domnall was overdue. He’d sent him to check on Ethlinn’s family six days ago. Ath Dara was but a day’s ride—two at most, under the harshest weather conditions. Worry wound its way into his planning, as it was quite unlike Domnall to be unreliable. If he didn’t return soon, Illadan would have to take matters into his own hands.
His mother caught him in the courtyard just before he could slip into the solar.
“I won’t keep you long,” she promised by way of greeting. “I just wanted to offer some small advice.”
Crossing his arms, he awaited her advice in silence.
“I’m having a few friends join us for dinner. You should consider wearing your nicer tunic.”
She turned to go, but then spun halfway round as though she’d just remembered something. “However,” she hesitated, “I’d not wear the green one. I know it’s your favorite, but it—well, it may not be fit for company.”
It took him a moment to realize what she meant. When he did, anger bubbled up like water in a well. “The green tunic,” he repeated. “That would be the one you had Ethlinn embroidering, I imagine?”
“Of course. I knew it was your favorite. I thought you’d like having her work added to it. I—” she struggled. “Well, you’ll see what I mean. She’s well-intentioned, your guest, but she’ll need to continue practicing.”
Refusing to be baited by his own mother over the woman he was rapidly falling in love with, Illadan stormed into the solar without another word. His green tunic could have nothing but uneven blobs of color along it for all he cared.
He was wearing it.
That evening, after no further news regarding Domnall and no help whatsoever from Kel, Illadan opened the doors to the feasting hall expecting a large but intimate dinner party.
What he found was a painfully formal banquet.
The room, bare when he’d left it after breaking his fast that very morn, was filled from top to bottom and corner to corner. Bouquets of late spring blooms hung in garlands from the rafters, some two dozen more sat in water at every table. Silks hung from the walls and garlands cascaded over the trestle tables, which themselves were arranged to allow space for both feasting and dancing.
As his mind turned to dancing, Illadan quickly spotted the source of the gentle music which filled the bustling room—a group of bards played lute, harp, and fiddle* in a far corner. Warm candlelight flickered everywhere he looked.
And then there were the guests. Twenty-odd nearly complete strangers mingled up and down the hall. A few friends, his arse.
Spotting his mother in the crush of ornately robed bodies, Illadan thrust himself through the crowd—fury filling his every thought.
“Mother—” Illadan warned the moment he caught her gaze.
“Oh, hush,” she reprimanded him, as though he were yet a toddling infant. Her eyes narrowed when she noticed the tunic he wore. “Am I not permitted to host a feast in my own home?”
“Why now?” he asked, his voice strained to his own ears. He knew so many new people would cause Eth undue anxiety. “You haven’t hosted anything in ten years. Why have you chosen this day? And why would you not warn us?”
“Warn you?” she huffed. “I told you I was having a few friends over.”
“A few friends is not twenty people we’ve not seen in a decade.”
“I’m doing as you asked,” she hissed under her breath. “I brought her to our embroidery circle every day this sennight. Though, I must admit, her work was dreadful. She’ll need tutelage if she’s to make even the smallest item presentable. And I have invited other nobles nearer her social position so that she might have more appropriate company. I am making an effort to welcome her, though no one seems to appreciate it.”
A throbbing pain began in his temples. Rubbing them, Illadan relented, reminding himself that though she made life difficult for Eth at every turn, she did so unintentionally. If Eth really were noble-born, as his mother believed, her actions would have been entirely appropriate. “You’re right,” he muttered. “I apologize for the outburst. Thank you for all you’ve done.”
He offered a weak smile in his attempt to placate her before searching for Ethlinn. The moment he spotted her, he breathed easier. She was alright.
She sat atop the dais in her usual seat, her hands folded neatly in her lap, offering smiles to anyone who waved to her in greeting. Orla sat beside her, whispering to her and setting them both into a fit of giggles. Why he’d felt the need to worry so much was beyond his ken. She was a woman grown, capable of tracking her brother for two days overland while recovering from some of the worst injuries he’d ever seen. Of course she could handle a dinner party.
Walking over to join her, Illadan forced himself to put aside his worries over Domnall. He could decide what to do tomorrow. He took the seat next to Eth, kissing her hand softly as he drank in the radiant beauty beside him.
Maybe he was worrying over nothing. Surely he and Orla could help Eth through any difficulties. Maybe things would be fine after all.
Ethlinn’s frayed nerves held together by a single, precarious thread.
She didn’t know anyone. She didn’t know any of the food being served, as Liadan had predictably gone out of her way to impress her guests. She didn’t know what to do, or what to say, or even if she wore appropriate attire.
“Doing alright, Eth?” Orla leaned over, looking more like a queen than a princess in her wine-colored dress.
Before she could answer, Liadan appeared at the foot of the dais. “Orla,” she called sweetly, “several young men would like to speak with you. Could you come down here please? I think they’ll be wanting a dance later.”
Orla rolled her eyes, shot Eth an apologetic look, and followed her mother into the crowd.
Gods, there’d be dancing, wouldn’t there? She’d been delighted when she first noticed the bards serenading the impressive crowd of nobles. Then she’d realized that the wild dances of their village bonfires and festivals wouldn’t suit a party like this. Though she wasn’t above learning the dances of the elite, she absolutely wouldn’t be doing it in front of all of these fine folk. They believed she was one of them. The moment she took to the dance floor, they’d be dispossessed of any such ridiculous notion.
Illadan sat down beside her, distracting her from her frenzied thoughts by kissing her hand in greeting.
Her heart melted. Gods, he always knew what to do, didn’t he? She was forever amazed at his cool confidence in any situation, made all the more endearing by the sensuous, thoughtful side she’d been discovering as well. Even his bossiness could be charming—when she managed to win the disagreement, anyway.
As he regarded her with nothing but tenderness, Ethlinn’s resolve hardened. She wouldn’t let him down tonight.
He, and Orla as well, had invested so much in setting her up for successful inclusion in their home. Tonight would be an excellent opportunity to repay them—to show them it wasn’t wasted effort.
Mayhap she felt as though she didn’t belong, but whether that feeling was justified or not, she would show Illadan that she could belong. That she was capable of learning to be more than just a farmer’s daughter.
Her eyes wandered from his chiseled face down to his hard, wide shoulders. It was only after she’d admired them for several breaths that she realized what color tunic he wore.
“You didn’t!” she gasped. “I can’t believe you wore it!”
“How could I not?” he grinned at her wickedly. “After all, someone I care about deeply put great effort into making it just for me.”
“Gods, Illadan,” she muttered, thoroughly embarrassed that all these people would be subjected to her horrible handiwork, “No one should wear that. Great effort doesn’t ensure great results.”
He laughed aloud at that sentiment. It was another platitude her father loved to throw at his children. Never in her wildest dreams did she imagine she’d be using it with any sincerity.
“I’m going to steal that for my men,” he told her, picking up her cup of wine and handing it to her. “Now, it’s been a good while since I last attended one of my mother’s feasts but, if memory serves, the wine was always especially good.”
The loud clearing of a throat behind them startled Ethlinn so much that she nearly spilled her wine as she sipped it.
“I was complimenting you!” Illadan defended, looking up at his frowning mother.
“I’m not upset over the conversation. I’m upset that I’ve gone to all this trouble only to have the two of you ignoring all our guests. No one has seen you in years, Illadan. They all want stories of your great accomplishments in Brian’s court. And the mysterious Lady Ethlinn has captured the curiosity of many a man. Go and mingle!” She shooed them away from their seats like she was tossing out yesterday’s leavings.
“I am not going to introduce her to any ‘curious’ men,” Illadan ground out, his jawline so tight Ethlinn thought he might chip a tooth.
She rather liked it.
“God’s bones, Illadan,” his mother sighed wearily. “You know what I meant. Now get up and start talking. We have a while before the meal begins.”
Placing her hand on his offered arm, Ethlinn followed Illadan into the fray.
The first person they happened upon was a man, older than her father, she thought. His delight at seeing Illadan full-grown—for last he’d seen him he was a lad knee-high—was surpassed only by his kind words to Ethlinn.
Emboldened by such a successful introduction, Ethlinn found herself looking forward to meeting more of the people who had once filled Illadan’s young world.
That was, until they were intercepted by not one—not two—but three breathless women, who could do nothing but stare longingly at Illadan. The worst part wasn’t their sharp attention to him, but rather the nagging feeling that they somehow deserved him more than she did.
Ethlinn could do naught but watch, frozen in place, staring at the glittering women in a mixture of awe and concern. They were cultured, intelligent, and educated. They had families who could provide powerful alliances for Illadan’s own. They would likely never be caught running barefoot through the forest. Aye, these women were everything Ethlinn was not.
And the entire time they chatted and smiled with Illadan, Ethlinn wrestled with one simple question: Why would he ever choose me when he could have them?
By the time the bell tolled, calling all the revelers to their seats for the meal, Ethlinn had finally come up with an answer.
He wouldn’t. No sane person would. No one who was as dedicated to their family as Illadan would.
She worried from the first kiss that he could never be truly interested in someone like her. Ethlinn still hadn’t decided whether she could continue their intimacy knowing it would never lead to anything but heartbreak.
“Are you alright?” Illadan whispered as they sat beside one another at their table.
“I’ll be fine,” Ethlinn assured him, hoping that by saying it aloud she would also convince herself. “It’s just all a bit overwhelming.”
His warm hand reached toward her lap, giving her a reassuring squeeze.
The meal began well enough. But with every course his mother tossed another question to her, ever more prying. More and more eligible ladies had noticed the handsome man beside her, their eyes boring into her as she ate. With every breath she drew, the room closed in about her, threatening to suffocate her.
“Ethlinn?” Illadan asked, not for the first time since they’d begun to dine.
She turned to face him, trying to focus on his eyes, letting the mesmerizing swirls of blue and green and brown distract her from her rampant thoughts.
Without another word, he grabbed her hands in his, squeezing first one, then the other. Just as he had the day they’d arrived in Luimneach.
And now, just as then, Ethlinn’s racing mind slowed. Her breathing calmed.
And she wondered, yet again, how she’d been lucky enough to find a man like Illadan, no matter how short their time together.
Even if she did want him, she didn’t deserve him. She could offer him nothing but more problems.
“I think I’m going to retire for the evening,” she told him, unable to stop her spiraling thoughts from dampening her mood.
He stood, offering her his arm. “I’ll walk you to your room.”
“Thank you, but I’ll be just fine.” She turned to walk down the dais before he could respond.
His footsteps followed her until he appeared in front of her, cutting off her exit.
“I understand that you need some time to yourself after all this nonsense,” he said, “but I’m not letting you walk anywhere alone, whether you’re on my family’s land or in the middle of town. I promised to keep you safe, and I can only do so while I’m by your side.”
Normally his bossy pronunciation would have entertained her. Tonight, however, she was too spent to even enjoy his antics.
Shaking her head, she tried to push past him. He didn’t budge.
“Will you please just tell me what’s wrong?” he asked, his voice low.
Before she could answer, her eyes fell on the group of glittering ladies who had spoken with them earlier, renewing her horrid doubts. Orla materialized beside her brother, her brows furrowed in concern. “I’d be happy to walk back with you, Ethlinn,” she offered, extending her hand.
Eth reached for Orla’s hand, thinking she could talk with Orla about the matter. But before she realized what was happening, Illadan stepped between them, took her hand, and led her hastily from the room into the courtyard.
The warm evening air welcomed Ethlinn, a summer-kissed breeze filling her lungs and refreshing her senses. She hadn’t realized how the hall had suffocated her until she left it.
They headed deeper into the estate, toward Ethlinn’s quarters. Illadan pulled her into his arms the moment they were out of sight of the hall.
His hard, passionate kiss stole her breath away—and her thoughts as well. His hands squeezed her hips, wresting a sigh from her. The kiss deepened, his tongue telling her what words could not as it danced with hers.
All too soon, he pulled away, leading her the rest of the way to her quarters.
“Now will you tell me?” Illadan pried as they entered her room.
“It’s just,” Ethlinn fumbled, “I have nothing but trouble to offer you. There is no earthly reason why you should want me at all. Especially,” she added, quieter, “when you could have any of those other ladies.”
A deep frown creased his angular face, his brows furrowing. “You are the only woman I know who cares so deeply for her family that she would travel, whilst badly injured and with no provisions, for days through the wilderness to keep them safe. Every time I tell you what to do, I see the fire, the defiance of your spirit. You bring joy with you wherever you go, even if at times ‘tis difficult for you to keep any for yourself. If I wanted those other women, I’d be in there with them,” he whispered, his voice heavy. “I’m right where I want to be.”
A warm, tingling sensation rose up from deep within her belly at his words, though she struggled to find her own in response.
“In fact,” he continued, leaning against the threshold of the open door, “I can prove to you how little I am interested in anyone except you, should you desire it.”
Ethlinn’s mouth went dry. “And if I do?”
In response, Illadan stepped into her room, closing the door behind him.
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