The Kingdom of Fotla, Pictland. Winter 843
Mairi, Princess Annella of Fortriu, sank onto the edge of the bed and grasped her aged husband’s hand. The candles flickered in the incessant drafts from the ill-fitting window shutters, and black shadows loomed across the cold, stone, walls of the chamber.
She took a deep breath. It would do no good to show fear. “I will send for the royal physician from Fib. You must recover, Nechtan.”
He squeezed her fingers, a gesture to convey comfort, but his grip was weak, and the black fear curled tighter in her chest. “It’s too late for that, my jewel. The veil is parting. You know this.”
Of course she knew it. She had known it for weeks, even before Nechtan had fallen sick, but had chosen to ignore the warnings. The sight she’d inherited from her foremothers was not, after all, always right.
Yes, it is.
She ignored that truth, also. Nechtan, quite simply, could not be allowed to die.
“Then I shall offer great sacrifice to the goddess and beseech her to delay your journey.” Tenderly, she stroked his gray hair back from his brow. She had never loved him as a husband, but she loved him, nevertheless. “Pictland needs your strength, my lord.”
Pain flared in his faded eyes, and he struggled to pull himself upright. Faithful Bhaic, her husband’s dearest friend and advisor, and their constant companion, emerged from the shadows and came to their side. With infinite care, he helped Nechtan to sit, before taking a respectful step backward.
“Mairi, listen to me.” Nechtan tore his lingering gaze from Bhaic and focused on her. “When I’m gone, you must wed Bhaic. It’s the only way to protect you from MacAlpin’s poisoned web.”
Her stomach knotted at the sound of the hated name. Kenneth MacAlpin, upstart king of the Scots who had so recently murdered nine Pictish nobles with matrilineal ties to the throne of the Supreme Kingdom of the Picts, Fortriu.
He was the reason she’d been hiding like a common criminal, in her own beloved land, for the last six months. The reason she hadn’t seen any of her royal relatives, for fear that her presence might endanger them.
She’d heard how MacAlpin was ensnaring the princesses of Pictland and binding them to his cursed Scots warriors through forced marriages. A political tactic so he could encroach ever further into their precious highlands and claim it for his own.
Vengeance burned deep within her heart. She would make him pay for everything that her people had lost, or die in the attempt.
With difficulty, she forced the image to the back of her mind. Nechtan knew nothing of her thirst for retribution, and he never would. In his last hours, she owed him his peace of mind, at least.
But his words could not be ignored. “I will not wed Bhaic. There is no need.”
Nechtan sucked in a rasping breath. “If MacAlpin discovers you’re still alive, he will kill you, Mairi. You’re the only one who could challenge his claim for the throne of Fortriu. He must never discover who you are.”
“He won’t.” Until I plunge my sword through his corrupt heart. It was a wild dream, but it had kept her focused during her exile. Goddess willing, she would achieve justice for her people.
MacAlpin’s lies could not be allowed to taint the future of Pictland.
“Promise me.” There was a fierce light in his eyes now, and his grip on her hand tightened. “Never reveal who you truly are. Mairi, Princess Annella of Fortriu died six months ago. You are my second wife, and you’ll inherit my stronghold in Fib. You’ll be safe, but only if you conceal your birthright.”
“Nechtan.” She knew he was only trying to protect her. But it hurt, having to pretend to be someone she wasn’t. When they had fled the palace of Forteviot, six months ago, she had never imagined their ruse would fool anyone. And yet no one had questioned it.
But that didn’t mean she wanted the rest of her life to be a lie. Her beloved grandfather, King Wrad, had united the seven kingdoms of Pictland. Sorrow squeezed her heart at his recent passing, but she could not afford the luxury of succumbing to her grief. As the last of his bloodline, when the time was right, it was her duty to bring the kingdoms together to stand against the Scots upstart. “I can’t hide forever.”
“You can. You must.” His grip became painful, and his breath erratic. Bhaic stepped closer and grasped Nechtan’s shoulder in silent support and she crushed the flare of resentment that burned through her. Always, they had protected her. She had to remember that, even though whenever there was dissent, they both sided against her. “Mairi. I will not rest easy unless you give me your word on this matter.”
She drew in a shaky breath. She couldn’t save his life, but she could save him from bearing this heavy burden when he passed through the veil. “I give you my word. I’ll tell no one my true name.”
He sank back onto the pillows, the strength seeming to drain from him now he had her promise. “You have been a good wife, my jewel. Better than I deserved.” He kissed her fingers, the way he had so many times in the past. There was no passion in the action. Merely the regard a father might feel for a beloved daughter. Her smile was sad as his gaze locked with hers, for perhaps the last time. “I need to speak to Bhaic alone.”
She inclined her head, stood, and bestowed a chaste kiss upon his brow, before making her way across the chamber. At the door she paused and glanced back at the bed. Bhaic had taken her place and his head was bowed, and he and Nechtan grasped hands.
Familiar sorrow weaved through her heart. Once, long ago, she had dreamed of finding a love so powerful that not even the veil would separate them. Her dreams had died five years ago on her wedding day, and perhaps that was for the best. She was no longer a naïve maid of fifteen, pining for her handsome Pictish prince.
High King Wrad’s blood flowed in her veins. Not only was she the last of his line, she was also the last remaining princess of her royal foremothers of Fortriu.
The future of Pictland was at stake, and she would not allow their legacy to die.
The Kingdom of Dal Riada
The wind was bitter, freezing his skin and whipping at his hair as Finn Braeson drew his horse to a halt. It was late afternoon and dark clouds hung low in the sky, obscuring the sun. As he dismounted, fierce pride and bone-deep relief surged through him as he drank in the sight of his hillfort, Duncarn.
It had been two years since he’d acquired the property but even now the knowledge that his family was safe was something he never took for granted.
It was small, compared to many of his compatriots’ estates, but it more than served his purposes. And, most importantly, it was tucked into the north-eastern corner of Dal Riada, as far away as possible from the royal stronghold of Dunadd, without encroaching into the savage lands of the Picts.
His steward hurried towards him. “Welcome home, my lord.”
Finn grasped his shoulder. Even though the man was his stepsister’s husband, he refused to call Finn by his given name. But it was a small complaint. Norval was a good husband to Annis. “It’s a fleeting visit. I need to leave at first light.”
Because MacAlpin wanted him at his damn council meeting in Dunadd the following day. God alone knew why. He hadn’t demanded Finn’s presence at such an assembly before. Why the fuck would he? Finn meant nothing to the king.
He shoved the disagreeable notion of his king to the back of his mind. Time enough to think on such things the following day. Norval accompanied him into the great hall, bringing him up to date with the estate’s management, even though it had been barely three weeks since he had last visited.
The door to his mother’s private chambers swung open and his little niece, followed by her young brother, ran to him. He laughed and scooped the pair of them into his arms. “It’s been too long since I’ve seen you, Nessa. You’re bonnier than ever.”
Nessa giggled and wound her arms around his neck. He dropped a kiss on her soft curls, and the tension that invariably knotted his shoulders eased, the way it always did when the wee ones were near.
She took a deep breath, excitement bubbling from her. “Iver has a new tooth!”
“Does he, now?” He turned to the boy, who obligingly opened his mouth. Finn inspected the array of teeth. He had no clue which was the new one, but they were all delightful. “Well done.”
Their mother Annis approached, her smile lighting up the hall. “Brother, it’s so good to see you again. I will ensure your chamber is made ready for you.” She glanced over her shoulder. “Our lady mother awaits you.”
He kissed Annis’ cheek and she patted his arm. How confident and strong she was. So different from the terrified child of seven he’d first met fourteen years ago, when his mother had wed the tavern keeper.
His gut curdled at the memory of those dark years, and instinctively his grip tightened on the bairns. They were safe. No harm would befall any of them, not under this roof. Not on his watch.
He strode into his mother’s chamber. She sat by the hearth, and the fire cast a welcoming glow, but it was the smile on her face and the exclaims of pleasure from his stepsister and young half-sister that warmed his heart.
“How long are you staying for?” His half-sister Rhona stood, and dropped her embroidery onto her stool. “It has been so dull here without you.”
“Dull is good.” He set the bairns down, nodded a greeting to his stepsister, Glenna, and tossed a grin at his mother. “Has Rhona’s embroidery improved since my last visit?”
Rhona gave a disagreeable sniff. They were all well aware she would rather be on horseback than concentrating on her needle, but noble blood ran in her veins. He was resolved that she learned every art a gently bred lady possessed.
She would never toil in degradation, the way their mother had. He forced the simmering anger down and thrust it once more into its cage. True vengeance for the way she had been wronged would never be his to claim, but at least now she could enjoy a semblance of the life that should have been hers.
“Her diligence has been most enlightening.” There was a teasing gleam in his mother’s eyes as she glanced at the exasperated Rhona. “It seems the promise of her own mare has wrought a miracle.”
He laughed, and ruffled Rhona’s hair. She batted his hand away and sighed dramatically. “I’m not a bairn, Finn.”
No, she wasn’t, and it sobered his mood. She was twelve, and soon it would be his duty to find her a suitable husband.
But not yet. She could enjoy a few more years untroubled by such things.
He went over to Glenna, where she stood beside his mother’s chair, and took her hands. “How are you faring?”
“Well enough. I’m more than ready for this babe to make its appearance.”
“You have everything you need?”
She squeezed his fingers. “Aye. This bairn will be the most spoiled creature in Dal Riada—after Nessa and Iver.”
“They’re not spoiled.” He offered her a mocking grin. “Who else should I provide for, but my family?”
She shook her head and released his hands. “I know.”
“But, Finn.” There was a worried note in Rhona’s voice. “What will happen when you wed? Your bride will be your family, then.”
“Duncarn is big enough for all.”
Rhona frowned. “Your wife will want her own household. What will become of us?”
A noblewoman would expect nothing less. But the chances of him securing such a woman as his bride were remote. No influential father would give his daughter’s hand to an unclaimed bastard, no matter how wealthy.
He wasn’t wealthy yet. But in another year or two, when he’d firmly secured all their futures, he would look for a bride from those whose blood wasn’t tainted by the nobility. A woman to cherish who wouldn’t care about his past. A lass who would love him, the way Annis and Glenna loved their husbands. And God willing, she’d provide him with beloved bairns of his own.
“Nothing will become of you,” he assured his young sister. “When I choose my bride, I’ll ensure she knows Duncarn is the home of the lady Brae.” He glanced at his mother, but her answering smile looked oddly strained.
“Come, Rhona.” Glenna held out her hand to her half-sister. “Let’s go and help Annis with all the preparations I’m sure she’s making for Finn’s arrival.” Once they had ushered Nessa and Iver from the chamber and closed the door, Finn sat on a stool beside his mother.
“Are you well?” He knew she still suffered from the years she’d labored in the tavern, and from the fist of the piece of shit she’d wed, but she never complained. Her honor forbade it.
“I’m all the better for seeing you, my son. But enough of me. Are the Norsemen repelled from Iona?”
After leaving Duncarn three weeks ago, he’d been ordered to the sacred Isle, which the northern barbarians had, once again, invaded. By the time he and his fellow warriors had arrived, they had already fled. But not before ransacking yet another holy site in their quest for treasure.
“Aye. For now.” But they would return. Of that he had no doubt.
“How long can you stay?”
He let out a frustrated breath between clenched teeth. He was overdue for time away from the battlefields, but MacAlpin appeared oblivious to such considerations. And he’d rather tear out his own tongue than ask the king for such a favor. He would never lower himself to ask the king for anything.
Finn was certain that as far as MacAlpin was concerned, the debt Finn owed him would take a lifetime of unquestioning acquiescence to repay. The prospect weighed heavy in his chest, but despite that, it was better than the alternative had been.
“I’m expected back at Dunadd tomorrow.”
“Is the king at Dunadd? I thought he was in Fortriu.”
“He was. But he met with two Pictish princesses at Dunadd, who are now wed to our warriors.”
“Strategic alliances, to be sure.”
He grunted. He had no doubt they were, but what kind of marriages could they be? It was just as well MacAlpin barely acknowledged his existence. There was no way he wanted to be used in such as manner as both Connor MacKenzie and Cameron MacNeil had been.
Unease snaked through him. He’d joined the ranks at the age of sixteen. Why, after six years of service, had he been summoned to MacAlpin’s inner sanctum? Only his most trusted advisors were invited to his war chamber. Or warriors such as MacKenzie and MacNeil, whose fathers had enjoyed the friendship of their king.
“Did you see the king, Finn?”
He dragged his attention back to the present. He knew his mother dearly wished for MacAlpin to show him favor, but it would never happen. Finn might fight for his king and country but that didn’t mean he had to respect the man. Or want anything more from him than he afforded any of his other warriors.
Although a few months respite would be appreciated.
“Only from a distance. He was busy with his machinations.” He couldn’t keep the contempt from his voice, although he certainly managed to do so when he was with his fellow warriors. Any hint of disapproval regarding MacAlpin was considered nothing less than treason.
But he could say anything to his mother. Even if there were some things he would never share with her.
“A strong king must make many unpleasant decisions.” There was a wistful note in his mother’s voice and Finn set his expression into a stone mask. It wasn’t that he disagreed. There was no place for a weak king yet he still despised MacAlpin’s schemes.
I have no proof of my suspicions.
No proof that his king had betrayed the alliance between Scot and Pict, except for the certainty in his gut. A certainty he would take with him to the grave.
Dunadd, Dal Riada
The westerly breeze from the sea whipped icy talons across Finn’s face and the tang of salt was heavy in the air as he made his way to the heavily fortified southern face of Dunadd.
There was still an hour before he was expected in the king’s presence, which gave him time to visit one of the royal Pictish hostages that MacAlpin had seized six months ago.
The warrior on guard let him pass without comment and he entered the fort. Two more warriors patrolled the passageway, where locked doors led to the chambers of the incarcerated. He halted outside one and rapped on the wooden door. It was common courtesy. Not merely because the hostage was a prince but because six months ago they had fought the Northumbrians side by side, and the prince had earned his respect.
One of the guards rolled his eyes in evident contempt. Finn ignored him. They’d known each other for years and had engaged in many bloody fights while growing up.
He lifted the deadbolt and opened the door. Talargan, Prince of Ce, acknowledged him with a sharp nod.
“My lord.” Finn stepped back to allow Talargan to leave the chamber and they made their way outside, the guard following at some distance. The prince drew in a deep breath and without a word they strode from the shadow of Dunadd.
“This existence is intolerable.” Talargan came to a halt and rounded on Finn. They were far enough away from the guard that their conversation wouldn’t be overheard, but not far enough so that a prized hostage could attempt to flee. “How much longer does your king intend to keep us from our land?”
“You know I don’t have the king’s ear.” Even if he did, he wouldn’t pass the information onto Talargan, despite his personal feelings, and the prince knew it. But he understood the other man’s frustration. If their positions were reversed, he would be desperate to escape the confines of Dunadd.
“I should be in Ce, where I can protect my kin.”
Finn grunted. They’d had this conversation the last time he’d seen the prince, more than two months ago. And again, he understood. Talargan wanted to provide for his widowed mother and his sisters, just as Finn did with his own family.
“My only consolation,” Talargan said, bitterness threading through the words, “is my sister, the eldest Princess Devorgilla of Ce, is happy to be wedded to Connor MacKenzie.”
Interesting. The notion that the princess might not loathe the situation she had been coerced into had never occurred to him.
“I’m glad for the princess.” He spoke the truth. He’d never met her, but he knew Connor well enough and had no reason to wish the warrior a lifetime of marital misery.
Talargan shook his head. “She deserves such happiness.”
They were silent, as from their elevated position they contemplated the distant firth of Lorn and where, across that stretch of water, lay the sacred Isle of Iona.
Finally, Talargan spoke. “Has there still been no further word on the fate of the Princess of Fortriu?”
While in Northumbria, Talargan had spoken of the princess and had confessed he harbored a hope that one day they might forge a future together. Finn couldn’t see it, but he hadn’t disputed the prince’s words. It was obvious he cared about this princess and even though, after MacAlpin had claimed the throne of Fortriu, rumors had reached Dunadd of her untimely death, Talargan refused to believe it.
“I’ve heard nothing of her, my lord.” In truth, it was just as well. If she was, indeed, still alive, she was wise to keep as far away from the political maelstrom that engulfed Fortriu.
“Or of her husband.” It wasn’t a question. More a curse. “Finn, if you discover anything about her, you must tell me.”
He’d already given his word, six months ago, when the prince had first been taken hostage. Nothing had changed.
“You know I will.”
Finn entered the king’s antechamber and swallowed a curse. The door to the inner sanctum was closed but Constantine, the king’s eldest son, was pacing the floor of the antechamber and when he caught sight of Finn, he stopped dead.
“What the fuck are you doing here?”
“I was summoned.” He gained a measure of grim satisfaction that Constantine had been unaware of that fact.
“Fuck that.” Constantine stalked across the floor, menace blazing from him. Finn curled his lip. It had been many years since the prince had been able to beat him in a fight. Even as a child, Finn hadn’t let the threat of spilling royal blood stop him from defending himself.
Or his mother.
The door to the war chamber swung open and MacAllister, the king’s right-hand man, cast his speculative gaze over them. “The king will see you now.”
Constantine marched inside, and Finn followed. MacAllister closed the door behind them. So this was where the strategies and plans were made that affected all their lives. The chamber was smaller than he’d imagined, with the king sitting behind a heavy timber desk and four of his closest confidents flanking his chair. Aedh, Constantine’s younger brother by a mere eleven months, came from MacAlpin’s side to stand next to the eldest prince.
It had never been a secret as to which son the king favored.
Constantine went onto one knee and bowed his head. “My liege.”
Masking his unwillingness as best he could, Finn also dropped onto his knee. “My liege.” He only hoped the words sounded as sincere as Constantine’s had.
“Rise.” MacAlpin waved his hand in an impatient gesture. Finn stood at Constantine’s left, two paces behind, as protocol demanded. They were not, after all, equals.
Finn caught one of the king’s advisers giving him an assessing look. As if he couldn’t quite fathom why he was there. That made two of them. He wished the king would get on with it. The war chamber was oppressive, and not simply because it possessed no windows.
The king leaned back in his great, carved chair and the silence grew heavy. Did he always do this within these walls? Finn had only ever received the king’s orders second hand. He knew which method he preferred.
Finally, MacAlpin spoke.
“News has reached us that the elusive Princess of Fortriu has been sighted in Fotla.”
Awareness rippled around the chamber, and Finn sucked in a sharp breath. Talargan had been right to believe she was still alive. But how long would she now remain so?
“Is she to be eliminated?” There was uncertainty in Constantine’s voice. Clearly, he had reservations in murdering a princess of Pictland, even if he had no compunction in murdering her countrymen.
Enough. He could not allow such treasonous thoughts to cross his mind when in the presence of his king.
“Would that be your decision, Constantine, were you king?”
“The princess has a strong claim to the throne of Fortriu.”
“Indeed.” MacAlpin turned to one of his advisers. “What of you, Donald. Would that be your advice?”
Malice glowed in Donald’s eyes. He was the king’s half-brother but had no matrilineal claim on the Pictish kingdom. “Aye. If you want to make her a martyr to her people.”
“I have no wish to harm the princess.” MacAlpin’s voice rang around the chamber. It was obvious he had made this decision before even convening this meeting. Did he always throw rhetorical questions to his advisers? “She is, after all, of my blood.”
Finn cast his gaze around the gathered men. Their faces were shuttered, concealing their true thoughts. Aedh appeared composed, but Constantine’s shoulders were rigid as though he were on trial.
Maybe he was.
Still didn’t explain why he had been summoned to witness this show.
“Her husband, however, is not,” Donald said.
Silence once again echoed around the chamber, as the chilling implication sank in. A knot of dread settled in Finn’s gut. Was this meeting to arrange the assassination of the princess’ husband?
Had he been chosen for this godless task?
“It’s imperative we secure the princess, for her own safety.” MacAlpin’s steady gaze drilled into Aedh, then Constantine, before coming to rest on Finn. “She is far too valuable to be at the mercy of a husband who seems intent to force her to traverse Pictland like a fugitive. It is our duty to find her and bring her back home.”
Was the king waiting for his response? He had never learned the diplomacy required for the royal court and had no desire to lose his head by telling the king what he truly thought of his plans. Because MacAlpin still hadn’t addressed the problem of the princess’ husband.
“Well, boy?” The king’s gaze never left him, and Finn didn’t quite manage to hide his affront at the insult. “What say you? Do you disapprove of bringing my royal cousin under my protection? You have my permission to speak freely.”
Why the fuck was he asking him? But since he had, he would respond, and voice the unspoken question. “The princess may not wish to leave her husband behind, sire.”
The king smiled. Clearly, his candor pleased him. “You are correct. She may not. However, he is elderly and it’s unlikely he’ll survive another harsh winter. When she is widowed, she’ll have little choice in the matter.”
And here it was. His muscles tensed, waiting for the order to murder the husband of the woman Talargan loved. An old man, a minor royal of Fib, who had once been a fearsome warrior, but who, according to the Pictish prince, hadn’t wielded a sword since his marriage.
There was no honor in obeying such an order. But if he did not, his own life would be forfeit and land confiscated. Who would then be left to provide for his mother and his sisters?
But he couldn’t remain silent.
“There’s no guarantee her husband will perish this winter. He’s survived until now.”
The king’s advisers drew in a collective breath at his nerve, and Donald smirked, but MacAlpin didn’t appear outraged by his not-so-subtle implication.
“Once again, you speak the truth. Perhaps I should have invited you into my inner circle before now.”
Constantine slung him a glare of loathing over his shoulder, but Finn ignored him. After a lifetime of disregard, the king had him in his sights.
Nothing good could come of being caught in MacAlpin’s web, no matter how his mother thought otherwise.
“Consider this, Finn. In all the years they’ve been wed, he has sired no heir for Fortriu. It’s possible, of course, the princess is barren. Which would be a blessing but not something we can rely upon.”
Heat flooded through his veins. It was wrong to speak of the princess in such a manner, but it appeared no one else in the chamber thought anything of it. He glowered at the king, unable to help himself, but the only indication MacAlpin acknowledged his discomfort was a fleeting smile.
“Let us also consider, for our purposes, that the princess is widowed.” Finally, MacAlpin released him from his fierce gaze and arrowed his attention on his royal born sons. “Barren or not, it would be remiss of us not to secure her a royal marriage worthy of her status. One that unites Scot and Pict.”
So that was the king’s plan. To forge an alliance between a noble born Scot and the Princess of Fortriu. Not that he was surprised. It strengthened his conviction that the only reason he had been included in this conclave was as the intended widow maker.
One question remained. Would he be allowed to live after obeying the king’s command, or would he be publicly executed as a show of justice?
He was damned whatever happened after the act. To kill in battle was one thing. In cold blood, it was something else. And whatever the rumors might whisper, he had never killed in cold blood.
“A royal match?” Constantine glanced at his brother before looking back at the king. “Do you mean for Aedh or me to take a second wife?”
MacAlpin laughed but there was little humor in the sound. “No. Your alliances will not be threatened by such a barbaric arrangement. I’m acknowledging my son Finn, formerly known as Braeson, into the royal House of Alpin.”
The words thundered in his head, an ominous echo, as his gaze caught MacAlpin’s. The king had a satisfied smile on his face, as though he waited for Finn’s gratitude at the great honor he had bestowed.
His chest tightened, restricting his lungs, and pressing into his heart. As a child, he had often wished his father would admit to his existence. But later, when he understood how much his mother had lost, the desire to be accepted had corroded and twisted into a dark resentment of the man who had ruined her life.
MacAlpin only recognized him now because it suited his purposes. Not because it was the honorable thing to do.
Realization blasted through him, colder than the ice that spread across the lochs in the depths of winter. MacAlpin didn’t want him to assassinate the Pictish royal. He intended him to wed the Princess of Fortriu.
Through a red haze, he became aware of the subtle shift in the advisers’ stances, and their assessing glances as they recategorized his status in their minds. He didn’t give a shit for their good opinion. His future had just been torn from him, warped beyond recognition, and thrust back in his face with careless disregard.
“Finn?” Constantine swung around, animosity glittering in his eyes. He returned the glare, measure for measure, daring the older man to raise his fist. God damn it, he wanted Constantine to start a fight, so he could smash his fist into his face. But it wouldn’t be his half-brother he saw in his mind. It was the king.
I need to get out of here.
He clenched his hands, but Constantine held back, as a deadly silence wrapped around the chamber. Aedh turned to look at him but as always it was impossible to read his expression. MacAlpin rose and strode around his desk until he stood before the three of them.
“Finn has proved his loyalty to me these last six years. He has earned this right.” MacAlpin grasped his shoulder and Finn clenched his jaw. Don’t react. “Henceforth, you will be known and addressed as Lord Finn, Prince of the House of Alpin.”
The hell he would. The denial slammed through him. Forever contained. He had no choice in the matter, but in his heart, he would remain his mother’s son. Not the son of the man who had abandoned her.
“Welcome, brother.” There was a thread of amusement in Aedh’s voice. “Am I correct in assuming congratulations are in order?”
“You are,” MacAlpin confirmed. “This marriage between the House of Alpin and the Princess of Fortriu will irretrievably bind Scot and Pict together. Whether the union produces issue or not is immaterial. The lineage will be secured.”
His closely held dreams of one day having his own family withered and died. This marriage was nothing but another alliance to strengthen MacAlpin’s grip on Pictland. The fate thrust upon both MacKenzie and MacNeil, was now also his.
Arranged marriages were usual for royalty and the nobility, and while love was rarely a factor, at least the bride wasn’t spoils of war. The contract benefited all concerned and bairns were a natural progression of that union.
He had royal blood, but he’d never had the name. Never imagined the question of his bride would concern anyone but himself and her family.
Despair rolled through him at the prospect of a lifetime tethered to a Pictish princess who had yet to be widowed. A woman who would undoubtedly despise everything connected to the Scots. How could she not?
The Princess of Fortriu would never willingly agree to wed a man related to Kenneth MacAlpin, and a bastard at that.
Too much blood had been spilled.
Bitterness blazed deep inside his heart, a futile grief. There would be no issue from their union. How fortunate the king didn’t require such a duty from him.
“You will be well compensated, Finn, never fear.” The king smiled at him. It was a chilling thing to behold. “The princess will inherit all of her husband’s considerable wealth, including his stronghold in the Kingdom of Fib. Naturally, all she possesses will pass to you upon your marriage.”
He had no interest in acquiring her property, but it was just as well the princess had her own household. She would never fit in with the life he’d once planned at Duncarn.
“And then there is the small matter of your own inheritance.”
“I have no inheritance.” Did he sound surly? The sharp glances from the king’s advisers suggested he did. MacAlpin, conversely, appeared not to care for his belligerence.
Because for the first time, the king needed him. Even so, it was foolhardy to antagonize him. Yet he couldn’t help himself.
“Your noble mother’s relatives will, I’m sure, be eager to align themselves with such a fortuitous alliance. You won’t enter this marriage a pauper, Finn.”
His mother’s relatives could go to hell. He’d accept nothing from them. Not after the way they had turned their backs when their daughter had needed them the most. “I have my own estate.”
“And I have long admired your resourcefulness.”
Finn refused to bow beneath MacAlpin’s piercing gaze. He wasn’t the only warrior who had smuggled spoils of war for his own purposes over the last six years. But unlike the others, who used their boons on drink and women, everything he’d taken had gone towards securing his future home. A sanctuary where his mother and sisters could live without fear.
It appeared his actions hadn’t been as circumspect as he’d hoped. If the king expected an apology, he would feel death’s cold embrace before Finn did such a thing.
“What is the princess’ name?”
MacAlpin raised his eyebrows as though such a mundane question was beneath considering. “Annella, I believe.”
Not that her name mattered. He would scarcely use it. She would forever be the Princess of Fortriu in his mind.
“There is still the problem of locating the princess, sire,” Aedh said and finally MacAlpin tore his attention from Finn.
“We will send a contingent to the Kingdom of Fotla and ensure they are aware that their assistance in this matter will be to their great benefit.”
Once again, he couldn’t hold his tongue. “I doubt any threat will induce them to betray the whereabouts of the Princess of Fortriu.”
“You have a great deal to learn of diplomacy, Finn.” The king slapped his shoulder, the way Finn had seen him do many times in the past with his two other sons. “We have no intention of threatening the royal house of Fotla. We have a far more agreeable strategy to offer them.”
The Kingdom of Fotla
The dwelling where Nechtan had brought them belonged to the second cousin of an old friend of his. Blood oaths had been exchanged before her birth, for reasons Mairi was ignorant of, but the Fotla nobleman had welcomed them into his home more than a month ago, accepting without question the fabrication they had told him.
But Nechtan had passed through the veil, and she could no longer prevail upon his friend’s hospitality. The debt the nobleman had owed her royal born husband had more than been repaid.
She stood by the narrow window in the bedchamber she had been allocated and pulled her thick woolen shawl more securely around her shoulders. Night had fallen, and the deep unease that had settled into her bones three days ago, coiled tighter.
It was not connected to Nechtan, yet linked inextricably to him, nevertheless.
But more than that, her unease was linked to Pictland herself.
She glanced at the beautiful medicine casket she had inherited from her mother on her eighth birthday, that sat upon a table by her side. It was one of her most cherished possessions and had accompanied her on her journey since leaving Fortriu.
But it contained something equally precious. The sacred broach of the Supreme Kingdom and as long as it remained securely hidden within the secret compartment, there was hope for Pictland’s freedom.
The sacred broach could not be allowed to fall into the clutches of MacAlpin.
She swung around, the imperative to leave the confines of the dwelling thundering through her mind. Her two ladies, who had uncomplainingly accompanied her since her exile from Fortriu, hurried in her wake as she left the chamber.
“Madam, what ails you?” One of them whispered, as they descended the curved staircase.
“Bride calls.” But not in any way she had before. There was simply the overriding need to go outside.
She stumbled on the final step. Bride, her beloved goddess who she had worshipped all her life, had never before shown her the moon.
Uncertain, she paused, and Bhaic strode across the great hall to her, concern etched on his features. She was scarcely aware when he reached her side as foreboding rippled along her spine. The season of Bride was waning, and in her stead the shadow of Cailleach loomed, as she waited to cover the land in her frosty, white mantle.
Mairi turned and made her way to the great doors that led to the courtyard. The guards opened the doors and she stepped into the bitter night air. One of her ladies had brought their cloaks, and she draped one around her shoulders as she gazed at the silver swathed face of the luminous full moon.
Their host joined them, along with a dozen of her faithful warriors who had sworn fealty to her upon the death of the High King. But none of them spoke. It seemed even the very wind itself stilled and an unnatural silence enwrapped them all. Mairi hitched in a shallow breath as the mighty goddess Cailleach cast her fearsome shadow across the starry firmament, relentlessly swallowing the light from the moon.
Darkness shivered across the land. But it was not the dark of a cloud strewn night. The moon glowed copper.
Her ladies huddled closer, one on either side, as though they tried to protect her from unspeakable portents. But as she gazed at the eerie glow, a chilling understanding rippled through her. There was no hiding from her destiny. There never had been, no matter how hard Nechtan had tried to shield her.
For six months she had avoided the Scot barbarians who had deceived her people. But that respite was over. The Goddess of Winter had given her a warning none could ignore.
The savage betrayers who knew no honor had picked up her trail.
The threat of bloodshed tainted the air like a curse, but she wouldn’t be caught unaware by her enemies, or stalked like a hunted deer.
When she faced MacAlpin it would be on her terms. Not his.
It was time to leave this sanctuary.
The following morning as her ladies packed their belongings in readiness, she and Bhaic sat on low stools by the fire in the antechamber and discussed their options.
It was not going well.
They’d exhausted Nechtan’s contacts in the kingdoms of Fib, Ce and Fotla. The only possibility that remained was returning to his estate in Fib but how long would she be safe there? The Scots most likely already had a contingent of warriors there, waiting for her reckless arrival.
There was a knock on the door to the antechamber, and one of her ladies, Struana, answered it. A few moments later, she came to her side.
“Madam, you have a visitor who requests an audience with you.”
A visitor? How could that be? No one knew she was here. A terrible thought gripped her. Perhaps the Scots had arrived already. The warning had come too late.
She took a deep breath. She would show no agitation in front of her ladies. But to greet the stranger was out of the question.
“Tell them I am indisposed and cannot receive visitors.”
Struana hesitated. “The message was most strange. I had the servant repeat it twice, so there’s no mistake. ‘May the juniper flourish in the barren glens.’ What can this mean? Our glens are far from barren.”
Goddess. For an eternal moment, shock rendered her speechless. This was no message from an unknown stranger. Five years ago, when her marriage to Nechtan was imminent, there had been only one in whom she could confide her terror. To confess the fearful, bloodied dreams that came direct from her blessed foremothers, and had haunted her since she had turned thirteen.
Her beloved cousin, the younger princess of Fotla, who hadn’t expressed disapproval of her closely guarded secret but instead reminded her of ancient wisdom.
Mae, the juniper flourishes in the glens.
If she wished to be considered barren, the choice was hers. She had never needed to use Bride’s sacred berries, but no one knew that. Just as no one but her cousin knew of that whispered conversation.
She dearly longed to see her cousin, Briana, again. But it was too dangerous. Yet Briana was here. The message was too personal for her cousin to have entrusted it to a messenger.
She caught Bhaic’s sharp gaze, and realized she was twisting her fingers together. A sure sign of disquiet. With difficulty, she forced her hands to still and turned to Struana. “I will see the visitor. Have them brought here to me.”
After Struana left to relay the message, Bhaic leaned closer to her so his words would not be overheard. “Is this wise, Madam? I fear this could be a trick.”
Bhaic had always treated her kindly and she appreciated his counsel. Truly, she did. But she was far from ignorant. Did he really think she’d put all their lives at risk on a careless whim?
“It’s not a trick. But no one must speak of this.”
The door opened and three ladies, with shawls concealing their heads and faces, and a bodyguard entered the antechamber. Mairi stood, her stomach churning with a combination of excitement and nerves. It had been so long since she’d seen any of her kin, but she hoped to the goddess Briana had been careful. Spies, after all, were everywhere in Pictland now.
Briana came forward, leaving her small contingent in the center of the chamber. “My lady.”
Mairi inclined her head and led her into the bedchamber before closing the door, so they were alone. She exhaled a ragged breath and hugged her cousin, blinking back foolish tears. But it had been more than two years since they’d last seen each other.
“Briana. It’s so good to see you. I’ve missed you.”
Briana pulled back and grasped her hands. “Dearest Mae,” she said, using the childhood name that no one else had ever used. “If I had known you were in Fotla, I would have sought you out sooner.”
“Then it’s as well you didn’t. I would not put you in danger for anything.”
Briana sighed. “We’re all in danger, my love. If the royal houses of Pictland cannot help their own kin, then who can we rely upon?”
The chamber was basic and had no chairs, and so Mairi indicated they should sit on the bed. A bittersweet pain engulfed her heart when Briana tucked her legs beneath her, as though they were carefree ten-year-old maids again.
She mirrored her cousin, because why not? No one was here to frown at her lack of decorum.
The question that had hovered since receiving Briana’s message could be silenced no longer. “How did you know where I was?”
Worry clouded her cousin’s eyes. “Bride showed me last night, when Cailleach captured the Blood Moon. The goddess whispered the name of your husband’s friend, a noble of deep regard. I knew then that you needed my help.”
“I can’t accept your help, Briana. The Scots hunt me. I need to get as far away from Fotla as possible.”
“Bride told you this?”
“The Goddess of Winter showed me it was time to leave.”
Briana was silent. Mairi wrapped her shawl tighter around her shoulders and took her cousin’s hand. Finally, Briana caught her gaze.
“We know the goddesses are in constant conflict, but they cannot exist one without the other.”
It was true. The winter months could be cruel, but without the stern hand of Cailleach, Bride could never be reborn in spring. What seemed to be an endless battle was, in fact, the very essence of survival.
She frowned, considering. “Cailleach warns me to leave. And Bride shows you I need a safe refuge. But I don’t see how this can be. When the Scots arrive, they will surely go direct to Fotla-eviot. I cannot hide in the palace.”
“Not as the Princess of Fortriu,” Briana agreed. “But you can surely hide in plain sight if you accompany me as one of my treasured ladies. There’s been so much turmoil over the last few years. Many of my ladies that you knew have left the palace. No one will know who you truly are.”
She was sorely tempted. How wonderful it would be, to stay a while with Briana. Someone she had known all her life, and with whom she wouldn’t need to pretend to be someone she wasn’t.
It meant she still needed to conceal her true identity to outsiders, but it seemed there was no way around that. Not yet.
Bride, or perhaps Cailleach, would let her know when the time for confrontation was right.
“What of the queen?”
Briana drew in a deep breath. “Mamma will never succumb to the Scot barbarians. She will protect you with her life’s blood. When I shared my vision with her, it made her only more determined to thwart whatever plans MacAlpin might devise to strengthen his grip on Fortriu.”
“Have you received any word from your father?”
“Not directly. Only that he remains a hostage of the Scots, to ensure our compliance.” Bitterness edged the words. MacAlpin held so many royal and noble born Picts. Including the prince Mairi had once, long ago, woven pretty dreams around.
“MacAlpin won’t harm him, Briana.” MacAlpin wouldn’t harm any of his distinguished hostages. They were too important for his schemes.
“I know.” Briana shook her head. “Goddess, I’m sorry. I understand your esteemed husband has recently passed through the veil?”
“Two nights ago.” Mairi bowed her head in his memory. He hadn’t been the husband she had dreamed of. But perhaps, all things considered, he had been the husband she needed.
After a few moments of respectful silence, Briana squeezed her fingers. “We must make haste. Mamma expects you to return with me this day.”
Finn prowled the perimeter of Fotla-eviot’s great hall, as servants pushed back the tables in readiness for the evening’s entertainment. MacAlpin had been right. The peace offering they had given the royal house of Fotla when they’d arrived yesterday afternoon, had ensured a measure of congeniality that no manner of threats would have extracted.
They had even been invited to the feast this evening. Even MacAllister had been impressed by that. As if conjured by a foul curse, the man appeared by his side.
“Do you have your eye on any particular lady, my lord?”
The honorific grated along his nerves. MacAllister had never abused him in the past, the way so many others had. He was too clever for that. Perhaps he had always believed that one day the king might recognize him. But the new veneer of respect MacAllister bestowed upon him didn’t erase the years of disdain, or his complicity in the shaming of his mother.
He’d accept this newfound esteem but by God it wouldn’t change his opinion of any of them. He knew who he trusted, and they were the warriors who had stood by his side when he was nothing but a common bastard with no claim to his royal lineage.
“I don’t.” Not that he’d tell MacAllister even if he did.
MacAllister cast his gaze across the hall. “The queen and princess have many delectable ladies. Pictish noblewomen are generally eager to taste the delights of Scots warriors.”
He’d heard plenty of tales of how Pictish noblewomen enjoyed tumbling Scots. Not that he had any personal observation of that. This was his first time in a Pictish court.
“I’m sure they’ll find plenty of amusement this night, then.” Did he sound scathing? Most likely. But this sudden interest in who he might bed irritated him. It was none of MacAllister—or MacAlpin’s—concern.
“My lord.” MacAllister smiled, but his eyes were cold. “You’re not wed yet and are not expected to remain celibate until such time as the elusive princess is discovered. Our plans for her safety are known only to the king’s intimates. Many noble born Pictish ladies will spill secrets in the dark of night to their lover, that would never pass their lips in the light of day.”
“I’m aware,” he ground out, but God alone knew how he managed to reply to MacAllister at all, when the overriding urge to punch him to the ground assailed him. Growing up, his ability to fight hard and fast had saved his skin many a time and earned him grudging respect among those who would have relished leaving him in a bloodied mess on the ground.
He might not have the diplomatic skills required when dealing with kings. But he understood MacAllister’s implication all too well.
MacAllister could fuck himself if he thought Finn would degrade himself in such a manner. If secrets were to be spilled, they wouldn’t be within a Pictish noblewoman’s bedchamber. With difficulty, he managed to keep his mouth shut.
“Excellent.” MacAllister appeared unaware of Finn’s ire. “Our presence here must be seen as positive. We are allies with the Picts, after all.”
“I’ve no intention of antagonizing our allies.”
MacAllister gave a half-bow before taking his leave. Seething, Finn left the great hall, where his compatriots appeared eager to make the acquaintance of the Pictish noblewomen, and made his way outside.
Let the other warriors do MacAlpin’s spying. He had already pledged the king the rest of his life.
The sharp northerly wind bit into him, but he inhaled the chilled air with relief. The mingled smells of man and beast within the hall, not to mention roasted meats and untold delicacies, had been stifling.
The knowledge they were there to uncover information about the missing princess hadn’t helped, either.
He thrust her from his mind. There was no need to torture himself with the inevitable, until the inevitable arrived.
Aside from the warriors on guard, who each stood beside a blazing torch, it was deserted outside. Clearly it was too early in the evening for clandestine meetings. Or maybe it was just too damn cold for such trysts.
He strode along the eastern wall, ignoring the fierce glares of the guards he passed by. He understood their distrust. At least they were honest and didn’t hide behind insincere smiles and false promises of fealty.
MacAlpin played a dangerous game. The royal house of Fotla may have welcomed them but he would trust none of them not to thrust a sword in his back at the slightest opportunity.
He rounded the corner and all but collided into a noblewoman who was walking backwards, her head tilted to the heavens. As he hastily backed up a step, she swung around, the hood of her cloak concealing her face in shadows.
“Apologies.” His grasp of the Pictish language wasn’t extensive, but he could get by. “I trust I did not alarm you?”
“Not at all.” She responded in Gaelic and her accent was enchanting. His blood stirred and interest flared, and he took another hasty step back before she could judge him on it. “It takes more than a misstep to alarm me.”
“I’m relieved to hear it.” He reverted to his own language since she spoke it so beautifully. “I didn’t think anyone else was out here. It’s a fresh night.”
“Indeed. I was merely observing the cycle of the moon.”
He was so enamored with her voice, it took a moment for her words to penetrate. She might mean nothing more than her words conveyed, but he wasn’t convinced. He’d forgotten some Picts still worshipped pagan gods, and if rumors were true, the moon held significant power to them.
Not that it was any of his concern what she believed in. But he shot the moon a cautious glance, nevertheless. It looked perfectly normal to him. There was no lingering aftereffect of the blood-red glow that had blighted the first night of their journey to Fotla.
From the corner of his eye he saw a warrior edge closer, as though he doubted Finn’s motives. Only then did the strangeness hit him.
He didn’t know for sure whether Pictish noblewomen wandered around unaccompanied, but even if they did, surely the fact their palace was now hosting two dozen Scots was reason enough to take more care.
“Forgive me.” He gave the lady a half-bow. “My name is Finn Braeson, at your service.” The House of Alpin might be his future, but in his heart he was Braeson, and tonight the future was a distant duty.
She hesitated, as though uncertain whether to continue to acknowledge him or not. Finally, she inclined her head, and the shadows swallowed her face completely. “Welcome to Fotla, Finn Braeson.”
It was intriguing that she did not reveal her own name. Had she escaped her husband for a few moments respite, and didn’t want anyone to know?
Unaccountably, the possibility she was married didn’t sit well with him. To honor his mother’s many lessons on how a nobleman behaved when in the presence of a lady, he should offer to escort this noblewoman back to the great hall. Not keep her out in the cold night air, simply because he wanted to inhale the very sight of her.
What strange madness tainted the Pictish air? He couldn’t even see her face. Yet she entranced him. Like a mythical fae princess.
He would share a few more stolen moments with this mysterious Pict before returning her to her people.
“We’re honored by the warm welcome, my lady.”
“Surely you expected nothing less.” There was a thread of disdain in her voice. “It was a clever strategy, to return the king and his eldest son.”
Aye. MacAlpin had been right. The Queen of Fotla had been most accommodating when she learned who the Scots had brought with them from Dal Riada. Whether that would lead to confidential information as to the whereabouts of the Princess of Fortriu was another matter.
He pushed the unsavory notion aside.
“Politics is nothing without strategy.”
“What, I wonder, does the King of Dal Riada expect in return?’
He didn’t miss her snub towards MacAlpin’s claim to Fortriu but couldn’t blame her for it. Her forthright remarks were refreshing. And astonishing. Did all Pictish ladies speak of politics so freely? “Our people must be allies, my lady. It’s the only way to repel the Norsemen.”
She sighed, the sound an ethereal whisper in the frost-tinged air. “You are right. I fear the Vikings will never stop until they’ve conquered all of Pictland.”
“Not if I have anything to do with it.”
Her head tilted, and for one glorious moment the moon illuminated the delicate features of her face. It was not enough to see the color of her eyes, but his heart slammed against his chest and breath choked in his throat.
She was exquisite. Nothing like the monstrous, pagan, barbarians he’d been taught all Picts were from the tales of older warriors who’d fought them in the past. But then, he knew that already. He had stood shoulder to shoulder with Pictish warriors when they’d battled the Northumbrians, a mere six months ago.
Yet this noblewoman was still a revelation. How had he not seen her at the feast? Yet he knew the answer. He’d been so intent on brooding upon his future, he had scarcely looked at anyone at all.
“Are you such a mighty warrior, Finn Braeson, that you’ll singlehandedly keep the savage Vikings from our shores?” There was a hint of laughter in her voice, and he responded with a smile. Damn, but he wanted to see her face without these cursed shadows. Here, with the ancient Pictish palace looming by his side, he could almost believe it was the heathen gods themselves that kept the moonlight from revealing her to him.
“I’ll keep them from harming you, my lady.” The gallant words were out before he even realized. He wasn’t known for paying pretty compliments. Somehow, they came easily tonight. Yet they weren’t simply empty words.
He’d fight to his last breath to keep the Norsemen from invading the fragile peace of this captivating noblewoman.
“Such a sweet talker.”
He could hear the smile in her voice. Was such a thing even possible? God, his brain was addled tonight, and he couldn’t blame the Pictish mead. He’d barely finished his first tankard at the feast.
This enigmatic lady had bewitched him.
“I speak only the truth.” Dare he offer her his arm? They hadn’t been formally introduced but such impropriety didn’t appear to concern her. He didn’t even know her name, yet he didn’t wish this night to end.
MacAllister’s words came back to haunt him. Was this noblewoman looking for an illicit assignation with a Scots warrior tonight?
His blood heated and cock thickened at the prospect of drawing her into his arms. Of sliding the hood of her cloak to her shoulders so he could finally reveal her hidden beauty. But she made no move to encourage such familiarity and he could hardly ask her such a thing.
He’d never been in such a situation before. The few Scots lasses he’d bedded had been openly eager for a tumble and there had been no misunderstandings between them. But one wrong move with this lady would shatter the tenuous connection between them.
“The truth? Can a Scot speak such a thing?”
Entranced by how little she cared for maintaining the brittle illusion that their people had reason to trust each other, he bowed his head in acknowledgement. “Trust must be earned. It’s not a thing to be given lightly.”
She shook her head, as though in wonder. “You’re a strange one, Finn Braeson. Unlike any barbarous Scot I have imagined. I don’t know what to make of you.”
He laughed, couldn’t help himself. No one had ever said such a thing to him before. Usually, people knew exactly what to make of him and he had the scars to prove it. “And you, mysterious lady of Pictland, are unlike any noblewoman I’ve encountered before.”
Once again, she tilted her head and for a fleeting moment, the moonlight illuminated her smile. And then just as swiftly, it seemed dark clouds scudded across the heavens as her smile faded and the shadows descended.
She stepped away from him and a chill breeze tempered his heated blood. What had he said to make her retreat?
“I should return to the palace.” There was a formal note in her voice that had not been present until now. “I’ve been absent too long.”
“Allow me to accompany you.” He knew she was safe enough, with the Pictish warriors guarding the palace, but it was wrong that she should walk alone in the night. Scots’ noblewomen would never do so. But his offer had little to do with established Scots’ etiquette and everything to do with spending every last moment he could with her.
She didn’t respond. He fell into step beside her. Had he inadvertently offended her? He racked his brains but could find no answer.
Except the obvious. That he was a Scot, and she had momentarily forgotten that fact.
The entrance to the palace loomed ahead. The doors were open, and light spilled from the many torches within the hall. Already a few Scots emerged, their arms linked with Pictish noblewomen. He glanced at the woman by his side, but she appeared oblivious to the fact her countrywomen found nothing remiss in conversing with their erstwhile enemy.
And then she came to abrupt halt. “Thank you for your company, Finn Braeson. Forgive me, but it’s best if we don’t enter the palace together.”
Disappointment burned through him, although he was not surprised by her words. She hadn’t left the palace for an illicit assignation, after all. He bowed his head but couldn’t even take her hand for a chaste kiss. They were hidden within the folds of her cloak. “As you wish, my lady.”
She gave a ragged sigh. “My wishes have little to do with it.”
A solitary Pictish nobleman stood in the shadows cast by the open doors. He didn’t move, but Finn gave him a sharp glance, nevertheless. It was impossible to know for sure, yet he knew without doubt the older man’s gaze was fixed on his now silent companion.
Without another word, she turned and walked over to the other man, who bowed his head in fleeting respect before leading her back into the palace.
Something dark and savage twisted deep inside Finn’s gut, and he sucked in a sharp breath. The cold air did nothing to cool the unfamiliar sensation.
The lady was wed, there was no doubt. And her husband wasn’t posted to a far-off corner of Pictland, either. He was here, in Fotla, and he kept her in his sights.
There would be no more stolen moments in the moonlight with his enchanting Pictish companion. Finn was certain in his gut that her husband would, from now on, keep her close.
Finn would do well to forget about her. He should take MacAllister’s advice and find a willing Pictish lady with whom he could share the nights, until their duty here was done.
But the prospect didn’t fire his blood. And it didn’t stop him from knowing the only Pictish lady he wanted in his bed was the one who had just vanished within the ancient stone palace.