Kingdom of Dal Riada, Pictland
Connor MacKenzie stifled the irrational urge to flinch as Maeve Balfour, possibly the most beautiful woman in the great hall that evening, drifted her fingers across his. He attempted without success to ignore the blatant invite in her seductive hazel eyes and instead downed his tankard of ale. God, he was tired. All he wanted was for this victory feast to end so he could fall into oblivion in his bed.
Lies. What he wanted was to sink into Maeve’s welcoming heat, feel her arms around him, forget for a few precious moments the bloodied images imprinted in his brain.
But their liaison could no longer continue.
“You look tense, my love.” Maeve offered him a smile that during the last year had never failed to rouse his interest. Tonight was no different, except tonight everything was different. “Come to my chambers later,” she whispered as she raised her goblet to her lips. “There’s no chance of MacDougall catching us now.”
Corrosive guilt cramped his gut and strangled the heated lust that threatened to override good sense. “The man’s not cold in his grave yet, Maeve.” The hypocrisy of his words choked. He’d held Iain MacDougall in contempt during his life. Why did death suddenly elevate his status?
He’d been a bastard to every soul he owned. His wife included.
A blush heated Maeve’s aristocratic cheeks. “Aye. And I won’t pretend to feel grief when all that fills my heart is relief. You know how it was, Connor. He lost my respect long ago.”
“I know.” Briefly he squeezed her fingers and once again battled against the lust that speared his loins. He recalled how hard Maeve, as a young bride six years ago, had tried to win the love of her arrogant lord. How MacDougall had abused her. Had continued to fuck any female unlucky enough to catch his salacious eye. “But I saw him fall.” Saw the Vikings behead him. No matter how much he’d despised the man, no warrior deserved such barbaric fate. “He was still my countryman. And I failed to save him.”
Maeve studied the cut of lamb she’d barely touched, before picking it up between thumb and forefinger and slinging the bone to the prowling dogs. “Does this change things between us?”
Appetite lost, he shoved his plate aside. The raucous laughter and jeers around the long table hammered into his brain. The stink of ale and sweat and canine drenched his senses.
The memory of Maeve in his arms haunted his twisted conscience.
“How can it not?” He glanced across the table at his half-brother, Fergus, who was stuffing his mouth with one hand and fondling a dull-eyed slave girl with the other. “You know it does.”
He turned to the young woman by his side, but from the corner of his eye saw Fergus stumble to his feet and drag the reluctant girl from the hall. Weary disgust roiled Connor’s stomach. There were women aplenty who’d share Fergus’ bed, yet he found more pleasure in taking those who had no rights of denial.
“Aye.” Maeve’s voice was soft, as if it were no great revelation to her. “But I hoped—I prayed—it wouldn’t.” She offered him a smile that magnified his guilt, illuminated his self-loathing. “You honored me with fidelity this last year. That’s more than my husband ever did. I can wait until you’re ready.”
Aye, he’d been faithful to his mistress. But Maeve had given him what he needed. A warm body to slake his need. Pleasing conversation to soothe his mind.
And the safety of knowing she would never—could never—demand any more from him.
He had no more he could give.
* * * * *
The chill night air was a welcome respite after the stuffy confines of the crowded hall. He dragged in a great breath, filling his lungs, clearing his head. Dunadd, the royal stronghold of Dal Riada, and the center of existence for its surrounding chattels and farmsteads dominated the hilltop. For three hundred years, the hill-fort’s formidable ramparts had repelled enemy attacks from both the Northumbrians in the south and the Picts to the northeast. But now they faced a new invader. One that dared to stake their claim on the Scots’ islands heritage, who dared to look across the Firth of Lorn to the heart of their kingdom.
Light spilled from the narrow window-slits of the fort, illuminating Fergus as he dropped a couple of coins into the girl’s hand and staggered back. She curled her fingers against her breast and huddled against the stone wall, making her way back toward the massive timber doors.
Then she stilled, like a rabbit sensing a predatory fox, as she became aware of his presence. Biting back a curse, he stepped away from the wall to allow her unimpeded access, but she remained frozen, obviously expecting him to take his turn with her. And even though it had been weeks since he’d lain with Maeve, the thought of slaking his pent-up lust with an intimidated slave was enough to cool any ardor that still heated his blood.
“Get back to the kitchens.” His voice was unintentionally gruff and she flinched, sinking into the shadows of the ancient stone. And who was he to tell her what to do? She’d obey her master. And if serving the warriors’ every need was her order, then she had no choice in the matter.
He waited until she scurried away before striding toward Fergus as he unsteadily took a piss. He turned at Connor’s approach and offered a welcoming leer.
“Alone, little brother? You need to learn how to enjoy life more.” He adjusted his plaid then rolled his shoulders, clearly well satisfied.
“We have different definitions of enjoyment.” Connor narrowed his eyes as he stared down from their mighty hill toward the Firth and beyond where the Isle of Iona braved the western ocean. Where the Scots had so recently beaten back the Norse invaders who cast their shadow across the outer islands like a hell-borne plague.
Fergus slapped his shoulder and attempted to pull him into a bear hug. The drunker Fergus became, the more inclined to familial intimacy he descended. It didn’t mean much when Connor still bore the scars from his brother’s childhood beatings.
But, after all, he was his only brother. Buried deep inside, somewhere, lay the tattered remains of his boyhood hero worship. And it had been thirteen years since Fergus had dared lay hands on him in anger.
“If you can’t find pleasure in fucking every beautiful woman you come across, then you might as well tether your balls in another marriage.”
Connor grunted, disinclined to discuss such matters. Fergus didn’t take the hint.
“Not that a wife would keep my cock leashed.” Fergus grinned at his wit and aimed a less than steady punch to Connor’s chest. “But such unnatural chastity comes easily to you.” He staggered and steadied himself against Connor’s shoulder. “Tell me. How many whores have you had these last four years?”
“None.” Connor shoved his brother upright. “I don’t fuck whores.” He and Maeve had been scrupulous in their efforts to keep their affair private. Neither had wanted to arouse MacDougall’s suspicion. Not because he feared the other man’s fury, but because he had no intention of allowing such knowledge to besmirch Maeve’s reputation.
MacDougall would have dragged her naked by her hair through the filth of the middens had he discovered her infidelity. And in the challenge to avenge honor, Connor would have run his sword through the bastard’s heart.
And marriage to the widow would have been the inevitable conclusion.
“Then it’s a wonder,” Fergus said, “how you manage to lift your sword, considering the exercise you must inflict upon your wrist in pursuit of self-gratification.”
Sometimes it was easier to agree than argue when Fergus floundered in ale-induced stupidity. Especially when Connor had no intention of enlightening him as to the error of his convictions. “Aye.”
* * * * *
The sharp tang of salt from the sea flavored the westerly breeze as Connor strode toward the stables the following morning. Clouds scudded across the pale blue sky and rain threatened on the horizon, but it would take more than a spring thunderstorm to prevent him from leaving.
His hill fort in the east of Dal Riada, small as it was, had been neglected too long.
“Connor.” Ewan MacKinnon, fellow warrior, lifelong friend and the only one aware of his attachment to Maeve, hailed him from the fort. Connor turned, raised a hand in greeting and waited until Ewan reached his side. “The king wants to see us.”
“Do you know why?” Connor abandoned the stables to fall into step beside his friend as they returned to the fort. God, he hoped the king didn’t have another imminent battle plan in mind. He’d die for his king, but he’d like a short respite first. The thought of returning to the killing fields without so much as a week of peace knotted his guts.
Treacherous thoughts. Ones he would never utter. But still they polluted his mind.
Ewan shrugged and looked as grim as Connor felt. “Can’t be the Vikings back already. Probably the Picts this time.”
Slaves were clearing the great hall of the remnants of the previous night’s feast, and a couple of dogs fought a bloody battle under the high table as he and Ewan passed through on their way to the king’s inner sanctum. A couple of older warriors emerged as they approached, eyes hard, expressions of stone. An aura of secrecy and intrigue clung to them as palpable as the mist that obscured the hilltops at dawn.
Through the open door, their king waved them in. As Connor went on one knee and bowed his head, he knew he wouldn’t be returning this day to the place he called home. The war room vibrated with scarcely concealed anticipation.
“Connor. Ewan.” Kenneth MacAlpin, King of the Scots, flicked his hand in an impatient gesture, ordering them to rise. Four of the king’s advisers flanked him, staring at Connor and Ewan as if they were cockroaches they’d like to crush beneath their heel.
They probably would. None of them forgot that, until four years ago, both Connor’s and Ewan’s fathers had been MacAlpin’s most trusted of intimates. But along with so many others during that bloodied battle of ’39, their lives had been lost defending their king. And their noble positions had been filled with those less scrupulous.
The king folded his arms and leaned back against his heavy timber desk. “If we want continued success against the Vikings, we need the Picts’ allegiance.”
Connor refrained from glancing at Ewan, but only just. Of all the things he’d expected the king to say, it hadn’t been this.
“I can’t see them deferring to a Scot.” Especially since they didn’t even formally recognize MacAlpin’s kingship of Dal Riada. “Why should they offer us their trust?”
“Wrad is dead,” the king said.
Connor waited, but it appeared MacAlpin considered that explanation enough.
“Why does the death of their high king affect us?” Ewan said, clearly as much in the dark as Connor. “Their heathen tribes will only fight among themselves again until they elevate another to the position.”
The king bared his teeth in a feral smile. “They won’t. Because in accordance with their customs of inheritance the kingship of Fortriu now belongs to me.”
This time Connor did catch Ewan’s eye. “I can’t see the Picts agreeing without bloodshed.”
“They don’t have a choice.” The king strolled around his desk and glanced at the map that covered its surface. “My birthright is unchallenged through the bloodline of my royal mother.”
“And claiming Fortriu will secure the loyalty of all the Pictish clans?” Ewan didn’t sound convinced and Connor agreed. While there had been intermittent peace between the two peoples over the last three hundred years, trust had never taken root. And to mean anything, loyalty had to be freely given not extracted by brutality.
He caught the guarded look that passed among the king’s advisers. As if they knew exactly how the king intended to exact such loyalty. Connor’s gaze sharpened on the king, who appeared absorbed in studying the borderlines of the seven Pictish kingdoms that swallowed up the land northeast of Dal Riada.
There was more at stake here than the claiming of a matrilineal heritage.
“Marriage will claim their loyalty.” The king finally looked up, iron purpose glinting in his eyes. “Their daughters and our warriors. And a Scot ruling the supreme kingdom uncontested.”
Aye, he could see that working. In theory. In practice, he doubted the Picts would so easily give up their royal daughters. “But what if they don’t want such alliance?”
The king tapped his finger on the map and Connor and Ewan dutifully stepped forward. “The northernmost clans are most affected by the Vikings. Fidach is weak and relies on the neighboring Ce.” He jabbed his finger at the relevant clan territories. “Rex Bredei mac Lutin of Ce has at least two if not more daughters. He’s the one we need as our ally. Assure him of our undivided support against the barbaric Norsemen in return for political favor. Once we’ve secured his eldest daughter in marriage, our hold on the north strengthens.”
“Who does my liege consider worthy of such marriage?”
“A man,” the king said, “who will beget heirs without delay.”
Unease trickled along Connor’s spine at the piercing glare MacAlpin arrowed his way. Surely the king wasn’t suggesting he was to be married to this foreign princess? Connor’s ties to the king were absolute, by virtue of his heritage and personal actions. But he did not possess royal blood. Why would any Pict king agree to such a union for his daughter?
“It’s a pity,” the king said, never taking his eyes from Connor, “the eldest princess Devorgilla of Ce has a reputation as a cantankerous shrew. She’s also reclusive and, I fear, has the countenance of a belligerent hag.”
And MacAlpin expected him to impregnate her?
The king continued, apparently deriving perverse pleasure from cataloging every possible fault he could. “It’s likely her first husband welcomed death with open arms as a chance to escape her scolding tongue.”
“How old is the princess?” Ewan sounded horrified, as if convinced he might be the recipient of such foul bedfellow.
The king gestured and one of his advisers stepped forward. “She’s no longer young. She’s been widowed many years now. But our sources reliably inform us she is not yet past childbearing.”
The information didn’t alleviate the unsavory image forming in Connor’s mind. His own lady mother was not yet past childbearing age.
“As two of my most trusted warriors,” the king said, “I charge you with the task of delivering this proposition to mac Lutin.” He held out his hand and an adviser passed him a scroll, the scarlet wax proudly displaying the elaborate royal seal. “It’s doubtful whether he can read, but he’ll recognize the authenticity of my credential.”
Connor took the proffered scroll. “If mac Lutin accepts the terms.” And of course he would accept the terms. What man wouldn’t want to rid himself of a daughter past her prime, a daughter with a reputation that would repel most suitors? A daughter who, far from spending the rest of her life as a drain on his resources, would give him legitimate reason to call on the Scots as allies in time of war? “Do you want the marriage undertaken at Ce?”
Among heathens. But since he had nothing but loyalty for his king invested in this marriage, what did it matter where the ceremony took place?
A frown slashed the king’s brow. “How the hell can it be undertaken in Ce? Your task is to win mac Lutin’s favor, secure the princess as our bride, and bring the entire royal family back with you. I’ll not trust the Picts to supervise a marriage of this import.”
“The entire royal family?”
“Aye.” The king’s sharp-eyed gaze bore into him. “We’ll be celebrating more than a wedding. It will also be the ideal opportunity to discuss my coronation at Fortriu. I doubt any of the minor kings will want to miss that.”
A politically sensitive wedding, a potentially contentious coronation and obviously MacAlpin was inviting the other Pictish royal clans as witnesses. A suffocating weight compressed his lungs. Far from serving out the remainder of his days fighting for his country’s freedom and receiving comfort from the arms of an undemanding mistress, he was to become a stud for his king’s machinations.
“When do you want us to leave?” He hoped his revulsion wasn’t apparent in expression or voice but the king’s eyes narrowed.
“You disapprove the plan?”
“No, my liege.” Just because he personally found it abhorrent didn’t blind him to the potential gains they could make in forging such strong connections with the mighty clan of Ce. “In principle we stand to gain a great deal by such an alliance.” And then he chanced voicing his dissent. “But I have reservations the king of Ce will accept my offer.”
Seconds passed, the air thick with distrust. Then the king’s frown faded and he laughed, a short bark of amusement that appeared to flummox his advisers as much as Connor.
“God Almighty, boy,” the king said, flattening his palms on the map and leaning across the desk. “You didn’t think I had you in mind for this marriage, did you?”
It had been many years since anyone had dared call Connor boy without risking a bloodied nose. MacAlpin might be seventeen years his senior but that hardly qualified him to utter such term of abuse.
His status, however, gave him the authority to say whatever he wished.
Connor mentally gritted his teeth and ignored the scarcely concealed sneers crawling across the advisers’ smug faces. His king was above censure. The same couldn’t be said for the fawning minions he now surrounded himself with.
“So that was the reason for your reticence.” It wasn’t a question. It sounded like a revelation, and a welcome one at that. Connor glowered, yet instead of striking him for such insolence it only made the king laugh again.
“And what of you, Ewan?” The king finally transferred his attention to the other man. “Did you think you might have been chosen for a royal bride?”
Connor didn’t have to look at his friend to know compressed anger simmered beneath the surface. He could feel it vibrating in tightly repressed waves.
“My liege,” Ewan said. It sounded as though he forced the words between gritted teeth.
The king shoved himself upright. “I have no doubt either one of you could charm even the princess Devorgilla into your bed if you so much as smiled at her. Alas, it takes more than the famed Scots charm and a hard warrior body to tempt a king to part with a daughter.” Again amusement flared across his face. Amusement and—something else, so fleeting, so bizarre he had to be mistaken.
“To hook a king,” MacAlpin said, “We have to offer royal blood.” Once more his attention focused on Connor. “Your half-brother, Fergus.”
“Fergus?” He’d watched his brother escape matrimony countless times over the years. But no amount of charm or bargaining would release him from this duty.
His brother could be a bastard but he didn’t deserve to be shackled to a heathen shrew. Then again, Fergus didn’t believe in fidelity. It was unlikely this marriage would change his mind.
“His mother’s connection to me through our grandfather gives him enough royal prestige.” The king let out a breath. “And by God, he’s sired enough bastards to prove his virility.”
Connor ignored the dull ache that knotted his gut at the king’s careless comment. Fergus produced brats as easily as he changed bed partners, and didn’t give a shit about any of them.
If nothing else, he would soon ensure the Pictish princess was with child.