Her Outcast Scot PAPERBACK
Her Outcast Scot PAPERBACK
Pledged to protect dark secrets that could destroy his family's honor, Ross MacIntosh cannot afford to lose his heart. Sent by his king into Pictland, he knows his duty. To report back on any signs of treachery. He might not trust his king but as a warrior his fealty is absolute, and his path is clear. But when he’s attacked and left for dead, he awakes to discover his healer is the intriguing Pictish princess, Orabel, and his carefully planned future unravels.
After enduring an arranged marriage to a brutal Northumbrian warlord, Orabel wants nothing more to do with politics. Now, she will follow her true destiny and pledge her life to her beloved goddess. But when fate thrusts Scots warrior Ross MacIntosh into her life, her conviction falters. How can she feel anything but contempt for a man whose king is responsible for the death of her royal father?
Compelled to wed to prevent bloodshed blighting their land, trust is a fragile illusion. But with a vengeful goddess demanding restitution, Ross will need more than Orabel’s healing skills to mend the rift that threatens to tear her from his arms forever.
PAPERBACK - Book 5 in The Highland Warrior Chronicles
5.25 x 8 inches (203 x 133mm)
15th December 2023
Phoenix 18 Publishing
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HER OUTCAST SCOT
The Kingdom of Fib, Pictland. Late spring, 844
Orabel, Princess Annag of Fib, glanced at the young noblewomen who dutifully gathered behind the waist-high stone wall that surrounded the forbidden section of her cherished garden. The five girls, aged between eleven and fourteen, wore expressions of earnest concentration, and were doubtless intrigued by the deadly selection of plants that flourished there, but she wasn’t fooled.
The hours they spent with her were nothing more to them than another necessary facet of their education. They saw only how a plant might be used in everyday life or in an emergency, and Orabel knew imparting that knowledge was all that was required of her.
But it wasn’t enough. Tenderly, she glided her fingers in the air above the large palm shaped leaves of the powerful wolfsbane, that she had painstakingly grown from seeds bartered from a merchant, when she had been little more than a child.
A faint tingling sensation, so familiar to her, warmed her blood, as the potent magic within the herb interflowed with her senses. It was wrong of her to wish that at least one of her charges might share her awe when it came to the power that nestled within every blade of grass, for it wasn’t their fault.
No matter how diligent the young women were, none of them were blessed by the sacred breath of the great goddess, Bride. Orabel could ensure they became esteemed healers, proficient in using plants that were not generally grown in every stronghold’s medicinal garden, but she couldn’t teach them something that was a part of the very fabric of her being.
She tore her ruminating thoughts back to the present and glanced at her friend, who had clearly just received a message from a servant who stood nearby.
“The queen requests the princess’ presence in her sanctum.”
Orabel’s cocoon of peace shattered, and she left the protected garden through its sturdy gate, before inhaling a calming breath. Not that it worked. Her sister, whose husband had ascended to the throne of Fib upon their father’s murder a year ago, always had this effect on her.
She wasn’t going to think of their father’s brutal betrayal. It did no good and there was nothing she could do about it, yet the ache in her heart burned for vengeance.
But if, goddess willing, vengeance came, it would not be by her hand. She knew what Bride demanded from her, and it was not to meddle in the politics of mere men.
She had walked that path once. Against her will, perhaps, but nevertheless, the outcome would haunt her for all time.
A shiver skated along her arms as memories of her late husband clawed through the barriers in her mind. She and Edwin, Prince of Ayr, had wed to appease their kings and strengthen their forces against the barbarous Scots. But their marriage had been disastrous and the alliance between Fib and Northumbria scarcely worth the blood spilled onto the contract of their union.
She and Saoirse made their way along the path that wound through the herb garden, the young ladies following at a respectful distance. The sun was low in the sky and the aromatic scent of rosemary and lavender drifted on the breeze, easing her anxiety at her sister’s summons.
There was no cause for worry, even if most of the time Etain preferred to ignore her existence.
“Perhaps the queen wishes to ask your advice on delicate matters.” Saoirse gave her sideways glance. It was clear her friend thought the idea as unlikely as she did herself. Etain had her own healer Aisling, whom she kept close, and had yet to ask Orabel’s advice on anything, let alone something as momentous as her current, longed-for pregnancy.
“It’s possible,” she conceded. “But only if Aisling has passed through the veil.”
“Which I doubt has transpired. I’m certain that wise one will live until she has witnessed one hundred winters.”
“I believe you’re right. But that reminds me. We should call upon Lady Daracha in a day or two. I wish to ensure all is well with her.”
Saoirse inclined her head. “I shall ensure a messenger is sent to inform Lady Daracha of our arrival.”
Although by Orabel’s calculations the child wasn’t due for another five weeks, during the last few years Daracha had endured the loss of seven babes. She and Daracha had been close childhood friends, and the messengers informing her of the sad news, while she’d been trapped in Northumbria, had deeply grieved her.
Daracha’s current pregnancy was the first one Orabel had been in Fib to oversee. She was dedicated to ensuring that, this time, the young woman’s dearest wish of a happy delivery would come true.
They entered the palace and Orabel stifled a sigh as Saoirse fussed over her, straightening her gown, and smoothing her hair.
“There.” Saoirse stood back and frowned as she scrutinized her handiwork. “Now you’re presentable.”
Orabel flashed her a mocking smile as they made their way across the great hall. She lowered her voice so the young noblewomen couldn’t hear her reply to her dearest friend. “The day our queen finds me presentable will be one of great astonishment, and I may not survive the honor.”
A warrior who stood guard outside the queen’s private chambers bowed his head before opening the door. The young noblewomen remained in the chamber and she and Saoirse continued into the inner sanctum and closed the door behind them.
Etain sat behind the great desk, flanked by four of her ladies, and a pang shot through Orabel as a memory of her father in this very same chamber flashed through her mind. She quashed the recollection before it consumed her and dropped a respectful curtsey. “My lady Etain.”
Etain ran a critical eye over her but thankfully it seemed Saoirse’s ministrations met her sister’s approval. “Orabel.” She glanced at Saoirse. “My lady.”
The dowager queen, her mamma, came forward and took her hand.
“Come,” her mamma said, and led them to the chairs before the desk and they sat, her mamma’s ladies and Saoirse standing behind them. “We are eager to hear your news, Etain.” There was the slightest tinge of frost in her mamma’s tone. Clearly, she had as little clue as Orabel as to why they had been summoned.
Etain brushed her fingers over her belly, a protective gesture and Orabel reined in her impatience at her sister’s need to always ensure her elevated status was recognized. Etain’s son was now seven years old, but she had not yet been blessed with a second child. Instead, the goddess had taken three babes to her realm long before they had been strong enough to draw their first breath.
The grief clung to her sister like a dark shroud. Perhaps, if her babes had lived, she would not have turned her back on Bride, nor encouraged their people to embrace the new religion that crept with insidious intent across the land.
An uneasy whisper slithered through the shadows of her mind. Perhaps those terrible losses were Bride’s price, for Etain’s loss of faith.
But she didn’t want to think that. And even if it were true, surely the goddess would not claim this babe, too, when it had survived so much longer than the previous three?
Guilt ate through her. She had been happy for Etain’s news, of course, but she should have done more. She would beseech Bride this very night to protect her sister for the next four moons. Indeed, it was—
“Prince Raedwulf of Northumbria wishes to offer an alliance with the royal house of Fib,” Etain said.
Her contrite thoughts collided inside her mind, splintered, and turned to ash as her heart thudded painfully against her chest. Surely Etain was not suggesting… she could not possibly mean…
“An alliance?” Their mamma’s voice was cool. “What does this minor prince of Northumbria possess that could possibly entice our royal house into such an alliance against his king, Aethelred?”
Etain’s smile didn’t reach her eyes. “How dramatic you are, Mamma. The alliance would not be against the king of Northumbria. We must protect our borders any way we can, and Raedwulf extended a hand of friendship.”
She could not contain herself. “Raedwulf cannot be trusted, Etain. If he’s approached Fib for an alliance without the knowledge of his king, then his motives are most suspect.”
Etain gave a tight smile. “I know you did not think highly of him during your marriage to his cousin, but he has been most flattering about you, sister.”
Her stomach churned with distaste. And something more.
She gripped her fingers together on her lap and strived for calm. How could she have been so unaware of these plans brewing under her very nose? “How long have you been in correspondence with the prince?”
“We haven’t been in correspondence at all.” A touch of irritation heated Etain’s voice, and Orabel released a relieved breath. She hadn’t been unforgivably oblivious to political machinations unfolding within the royal court. “His messenger arrived only this day and waits for our response.”
All was not yet lost, then. Before she could respond, her mamma intervened.
“What manner of alliance is he proposing?”
Etain gave an impatient sigh. “What other alliance could he offer but marriage to Orabel, of course.”
“Which we cannot accept.” The words burst from her, untactful, but she couldn’t help herself as the horrifying vision of a lifetime shackled to the Northumbrian warlord seared her senses.
Marriage to Edwin had been hard but at least he hadn’t been an attentive husband in the bedchamber once the novelty of a new bride had worn off.
Raedwulf was a different matter entirely. Fifteen years younger than his cousin, he had never tried to hide his interest in possessing her and her refusal to entertain a clandestine affair had merely inflamed his determination. A determination that had only magnified during the final year of her marriage after his sweet, utterly submissive wife had died in childbirth.
But it had never occurred to her that he would continue his obsession once she left Northumbria. “Etain, you can’t entertain this notion. I beg you.”
Etain flattened her hands on the desk and drew in a deep breath. “You are a princess of Fib, Orabel. It’s your duty to do everything within your power to protect our interests.”
The accusation stung. “I put Fib and our people before all else when I wed Edwin. But you know my true calling is to dedicate my life to the great goddess.”
“Oh, please.” Etain did not quite roll her eyes, since she considered such behavior beneath her, but her intent was plain. “Do not call upon the memories of ancient myths to excuse your reluctance to undertake the obligations of your bloodline. In truth, it is remarkable Raedwulf should want you for wife, since your first marriage produced no heir.”
Orabel sucked in a shocked breath at her sister’s words. It was one thing to quietly encourage the worship of a new god. But to slander the ancient ones was not only foolish.
It was dangerous.
“Etain.” The dowager queen didn’t raise her voice, but the power she had once wielded in the land throbbed in her voice. “One should refrain from casting such shadows. The lack most likely rests with Prince Edwin.”
Her mother briefly clasped her hand, and heat burned Orabel’s cheeks. She had taken issue with Etain’s slight against the goddess, and completely missed the jibe arrowed at her fertility—or, rather, lack of.
It was best to remain silent. For although it was a woman’s own business as to whether she wished to fall pregnant or not, it was certainly assumed a new bride embarking upon a political alliance would do her best to produce an offspring to seal the deal in blood.
Not do everything within her power to prevent it. It was not as though Edwin lacked heirs. His three children from two previous marriages were almost full grown before she had wed their father. Even so, she was thankful only Saoirse was aware of her subterfuge that had prevented any pregnancy, and her friend would never break her confidence.
“It’s true the fault may have lain with Edwin,” Etain conceded. “But we know that is not the way the men of Northumbria think. And besides, he had already proved his virility before accepting Orabel’s hand.”
“A man’s virility may be impaired by many things. Prince Edwin was not, after all, a young man when Orabel wed him.”
Good goddess, the last thing she wished to talk about was the state of her marriage or the performance of her late husband. Especially with her mother.
Especially when she knew the truth of the matter.
“This discussion is irrelevant. I refuse to wed Raedwulf. He treated his first wife most cruelly.”
She had tried to befriend the timid young girl, but Raedwulf had kept her virtually imprisoned in his stronghold, determined to breed many sons with her despite the frailty of her constitution.
With an effort, she unclenched her fists. Raedwulf’s unfettered lust had killed his wife as surely as if he had plunged a dagger through her womb. Nothing would convince her otherwise.
And nothing would convince her to wed such a creature.
“That is a poor recommendation for any man.” Her mother sniffed her disapproval. “However, with your royal lineage and connections such a fate would never be yours.”
Her mouth dried as the possible implication of her mamma’s words settled like a stone in her chest. Surely her mother, unlike her sister, was not contemplating sacrificing her to yet another barbarous Northumbrian? Especially when eight years ago she had been tacitly against the alliance with Edwin. “Indeed, you are correct,” she said, hoping her voice didn’t betray her rising panic. “I shall never marry again.”
I should never have married at all.
Silence fell across the chamber. Was it her imagination that the air seemed heavy with menace?
Perhaps. But she did not imagine the glance Etain shared with their mother, not the unspoken message that passed between them.
“You may not have a choice, Orabel.” For the first time, reluctance threaded through her sister’s voice. “Would you rather an alliance with the Northumbrians, whose ways we at least have some understanding of, or a coerced union with a favorite of MacAlpin?”
The breath lodged in her throat as Etain’s words thundered through her mind. Was her sister threatening her?
“You would consider an alliance with the Scots?” She could scarcely push the words out and surged to her feet as agitation gnawed deep into her breast. “After the way they betrayed and murdered our father scarcely more than a year ago?”
Etain kept her gaze focused on the desk. “I’m only considering the political winds that have shaped Pictland this last year. Surely even you are aware of the upstart’s strategy.”
It was a rebuke, but it was unfair. Of course she knew how MacAlpin was ensnaring the princesses of Pictland since he had brutally annexed the High Kingdom of Fortriu for his own.
After he had callously murdered any royal born Pict who had a legitimate claim to the throne and might have contested his presumptuous assertion.
Including her beloved father.
Except, foolishly, until this moment, she hadn’t considered she might also fall beneath the Dal Riadan king’s rapacious eye.
She had the mortifying urge to collapse back onto the chair, but that would only prove to Etain that her veiled accusation of Orabel’s grasp on the political upheavals blighting Pictland were correct. She stiffened her spine and hoped to goddess her alarm didn’t show on her face. And not for the first time, voiced something that had been close to her heart since she was a girl of ten.
“Our ancestors had holy enclaves where the chosen ones of the ancients could follow their calling, without being subject to the whims of kings.” Curses, that was the wrong thing to say now, even though her feelings on the matter were scarcely news to anyone in her family. For although Etain’s husband was the King of Fib, in every way that mattered it was her sister who ruled the land of their birth. She hastened to correct her error. “I merely feel a spiritual sanctuary, outside of the political sphere, can only be of benefit to all.”
“It was a different time, daughter.” Her mother sounded wistful. “The great goddess turned her eye from her faithful for so long, many of the old ways were abandoned. It is, after all, only this generation that has seen her once again bless a favored few.”
“Be that as it may.” Impatience threaded Etain’s voice. “It’s clear the new religion from Rome gains momentum. Do you truly believe, Orabel, that the Scots would honor what they would see only as a pagan sanctuary? Because I do not.”
In truth, she agreed with her sister. The Scots were uncivilized savages, on a par with the Viking devils. But equally, and personally, she knew the Northumbrians, and their ambition to regain the lands they had lost to the Picts one hundred and sixty years ago burned deep within their souls.
There was little to chose between any of their enemies but it was the Scots who had extended the hand of friendship, and then unforgivably assassinated her father.
She exhaled a shaky breath. She could not wed Raedwulf. But what if MacAlpin set his sights on her? Would marriage to the southern warlord be a preferable fate to a duplicitous Scots warrior?
No. Her destiny was to dedicate her life to Bride, using the goddess’ blessed touch to heal her people when they were in need. The visions of her future had remained unchanged since she was a child.
Her marriage to Edwin had been a wretched aberration and the mighty goddess had not allowed her to forget it. Not even the desired peace between their lands had come to fruition. Which only reinforced her conviction that her path lay in a different direction to that of her two sisters, both of whom had wed advantageously for Fib, and her unfortunate cousins who had been ensnared within MacAlpin’s web.
“It grieves me that you cannot follow your calling, Orabel.” Her mamma sighed and briefly closed her eyes. “I always hoped one day you could dedicate your life to the goddess. But alas, your sister speaks the truth. I fear MacAlpin will do all in his power to encroach into Fib through an alliance with you, and I cannot imagine a worse fate.”
Etain shot their mother a frosty glare before returning her attention to Orabel. “You understand our dilemma. We cannot afford to offend the Northumbrian and reject his request to pay his respects in person. We shall invite him, and you must look to your conscience for guidance in this matter.”
Perhaps the barb was unintentional, but Orabel doubted it. Etain knew she lived her life according to her goddess’ wishes, which had little, if anything, to do with her conscience. But this time she held her tongue, for she couldn’t trust she would not say something that resulted in Etain issuing a royal command to obey.
The way her father had, eight years ago, when she’d recoiled at the prospect of tying the knot with Edwin.
But inside, injustice burned. Etain might no longer believe in the old ways, but Orabel knew the truth. The power of the ancients flowed through her blood, Bride herself honored her with sacred insights, and despite how Pictland was plagued on all sides by her enemies, she knew, ultimately, her people would prevail.
She was not an eighteen-year-old maid anymore. If Etain issued an ultimatum, she would rather be banished from the palace than obey an order to be given to another barbarous warlord. A foolish pang burned through her chest at the thought of, once again, abandoning her beloved garden but if that was the path her goddess chose for her, all would be well.
She trusted Bride. And as soon as her sister ended this torturous confrontation, she would offer sacrifice at the hallowed standing stones, and beg for guidance. Even during the most terrible times in Ayr, when she had feared her goddess might forsake her, Bride had always bestowed her benevolence in the bright light of day.
The safety of Fib was paramount. But it would come from the blessing of the ancient ones, not a bloodied union crafted by man.
The Kingdom of Dal Riada
Ross MacIntosh strode from the great hall of his family’s stronghold, Dunmor, into the courtyard, where a contingent of warriors from the king, MacAlpin, were dismounting. He nodded in acknowledgement as his childhood friend, Rourke MacConall, marched his way, his usual scowl firmly in place.
“How goes it?” Rourke briefly gripped Ross’ shoulder, before handing the reins of his horse to a stable lad.
“Well enough.” Understatement of the year. It had been three weeks since his older brother’s accident. Three weeks since his life had irrevocably turned inside out.
Rourke grunted, as if he could read Ross’ mind. “Aye. I know you were never close to your brother, but it must still be a shock.” His gaze roved over the stronghold and Ross clenched his jaw. “Dunmor is yours now, whether you like it or not.”
Dunmor would never be his but that was something he couldn’t share even with Rourke. Just another secret he kept locked inside, along with all the other sordid secrets he’d hidden all his life.
From the corner of his eye, he saw MacAllister, the king’s right-hand man, strolling his way. God damn it. He knew this wasn’t a social visit but the presence of MacAllister could mean only one thing. MacAlpin had another scheme in play.
“Condolences on the untimely loss of your brother,” MacAllister said. “I trust your lady mother is bearing up.”
“As well as can be expected under the circumstances.” It was all the information MacAllister would get from him concerning his mother. Ross sometimes feared his lady mother didn’t understand what had happened to Gordon, for she had yet to mourn his loss.
But then, she understood so little these days.
Brutally, he shoved the thought to the back of his mind. It did no good to dwell on things that couldn’t be changed. And even though it was good advice, offered to him from more than one source over the years, it didn’t help ease the pain.
Or the guilt.
But now his brother was gone, there was one thing he could do. Ensure his mother’s remaining years were filled with every comfort he could provide.
“Yet our king sees no reason why that should prevent you from embarking on yet another diplomatic quest.” Rourke’s tone was dry with undercurrents of contempt, and MacAllister shot his son a dark glare before returning his attention to Ross.
“Word has reached us that the Kingdom of Fib may be looking across their southern border at an alliance with the Northumbrians. Naturally, we need to confirm this is nothing more than a distasteful rumor.”
Ross frowned. “An alliance with Northumbria would leave Fib in a precarious situation with Dal Riada. And why would they risk alienating the rest of Pictland?”
“Indeed,” MacAllister said. “Yet for all its small size, Fib’s strategic position has long given their kings a strong political hand. We cannot allow a treaty between Fib and the southern barbarians to occur.”
“What are our orders, should we discover such a treaty in place?” Rourke exchanged a glance with Ross. The same thought had crossed his mind.
“To eliminate the threat, by any means possible.” MacAllister returned his attention to Ross. “We leave at first light. The king personally requests you lead the contingent to Fib-eviot to pay respects to the royal house, and officially deliver an invitation to attend the coronation in Fortriu and assure them of Dal Riada’s continued support.”
That wouldn’t go well, considering the bloodied outcome of the last official invitation MacAlpin had extended to the kings of Pictland. He’d be lucky if the Fib king didn’t have him thrown from the great hall for such impertinence.
But it wasn’t as if he was being given a choice. Besides, there was something else of interest in MacAllister’s comment. “You are not accompanying us?”
MacAllister smiled but, as usual, it didn’t reach his eyes. “I shall accompany you as far as the stronghold of Lord Finn and the Princess of Fortriu. There are matters to discuss regarding the king’s coronation. You will continue onwards with the men. Be certain to assure the Fib king of Dal Riada’s continued support.”
Ross gave a brusque nod but held his tongue. It had been some time since he’d led his men. MacAllister outranked him, and the older man had been an unwelcome fixture commanding Ross’ contingent during the last year.
“I shall ensure a chamber is made ready for you.”
“There’s no need to disrupt your household, MacIntosh. We should not wish to distress the ladies. The men and I will make camp.”
With that, he marched back to the men, and Rourke gave a disgruntled snort. “Is there an unwed princess of Fib our esteemed king wishes to ensnare? You’d best beware, Ross. I’d wager MacAlpin’s set his sights on you to capture her, if so.”
“I don’t possess royal blood.” His voice was grim. For surely, if he did, the events of the past year would have revealed such a sordid truth. “I’m certain no princess of Pictland would be coerced to wed the likes of me.”
“Don’t be so sure.” Rourke eyed his father, who was issuing orders to the men. “Connor MacKenzie hasn’t a drop of royal blood in his veins, and there was no obstacle to him wedding the Princess of Ce.”
“Aye.” It was true their friend had married the princess. But Rourke had been at sea during the time when Connor had fallen for the widowed Lady Aila and hadn’t witnessed the madness that had gripped the other man. A madness that might have cost him his head, had MacAlpin not decided to bless the union between his warrior and his most prized of hostages. “But I am not Connor.”
Rourke was silent for a moment. Then he cast Ross a dark glance. “You’d be safe from such machinations were you already wed.”
Ross exhaled a long breath. It had been many years since this subject had been broached, even obliquely, and he didn’t pretend to misunderstand what Rourke was really saying. Hell, how could he, when ten years ago it had been Rourke who had hauled him back from the brink of destruction?
“Gordon has been dead for only three weeks. I couldn’t in good conscience approach Lady Una with such a proposition when she is in deep mourning.”
Rourke grunted, apparently unmoved by Una’s state of mourning. “Lady Una has no son for protection. She’d consider your proposition, now you’re the master of Dunmor. A betrothal between you might keep MacAlpin’s claws from your back.”
The words were blunt, even for Rourke, but how could he find fault with them when he spoke only the truth? Una might well accept his hand, now. And he was too weary of his king’s tactics to defend his honor when, deep inside, he agreed with Rourke’s sentiments. Even if he doubted he was the one in MacAlpin’s sights.
He offered Rourke a humorless smile. “Lady Una has my protection as the widow of my brother, and her daughters are my responsibility. I won’t use her as a shield against our king’s ambition.”
Ten years ago, a betrothal with Una was all he had wanted. But he was no longer a raw seventeen-year-old who imagined himself in love.
It wasn’t my imagination.
No. He hadn’t imagined it. But he’d certainly fabricated illusions surrounding the beautiful girl who had stolen his heart the year he’d turned sixteen.
But no one knew the real truth of why Una had chosen his brother over him. Even after she had ground his heart into the mud, he’d retained a sliver of self-preservation. Some deeply buried fragment of pride.
He hadn’t confided the real reason behind Una’s betrayal to anyone. Not even Rourke.
She had rejected him because he’d told her the truth. That he was a bastard, the product of a brutal rape, who had no claim to Gordan’s father’s name. The past was a place he never wished to visit again. And Una was his past. The reason he would never open his heart again.
Some things could never be healed.
The journey was uneventful. The weather was fine, and at night they camped under the stars, as they trekked from Dal Riada into the Kingdom of Fotla and across the border to the smallest Kingdom in Pictland, Fib.
The stronghold, only half a day’s ride over the border, was a mighty structure, strategically located on a hill that gave uninterrupted views across the nearby village and surrounding land. An impressive legacy indeed, left to Braeson’s wife by her first husband.
Finn Braeson—although, since MacAlpin had acknowledged him last year his correct address was Lord Finn, Prince of the House of Alpin— and his bride, the Princess of Fortriu, greeted them warmly and insisted the entire contingent stay the night for a great feast. Rourke accompanied Ross as they led their horses to the stables.
“Braeson looks well content with his lot.” Skepticism laced every word Rourke growled under his breath. “Although who can blame him? The princess is a vision, to be sure.”
“A trait all the princesses of Pictland appear to possess.”
Rourke gave a mock bow. “I have met but two and must agree. Still, it was a match made to further MacAlpin’s agenda, nothing more. Although I’m glad if it pleases Braeson. He deserves this recognition from his sire.”
Ross glanced over his shoulder to ensure no one could overhear. Speaking against their king was, after all, tantamount to treason. “I confess the princess’ welcome surprised me, after the way her heritage was snatched from her when MacAlpin annexed the Kingdom of Fortriu. Yet she also appears content in this marriage.”
“Aye.” Rourke flashed a rare grin as he paused in grooming his horse. “And no one can say Braeson is a vision to look at, can they?”
“True enough.” Ross returned the grin, but said nothing more as fellow warriors entered the stable. He knew all the men, some better than others, but these were topics he would never discuss in front of them.
He may have considered Finn Braeson a friend when they were growing up. But Braeson’s bloodline had been acknowledged and no one, if they knew what was good for them, said anything negative about MacAlpin’s kin, even in jest.
Spies were, after all, everywhere.
Later that night, after the feast had ended and the musicians were tuning their instruments, he caught up with Finn as they filled their goblets at one of the tables that had been pushed back to the wall.
“Congratulations, my lord.” How strange it sounded to call Finn that. “Your bride is exquisite.”
“Aye, she is.” Pride thrummed through every word, and the glance he sent the princess’ way, where she was speaking to MacAllister and Rourke on the other side of the great hall, was filled with warmth. It was oddly disconcerting, and Ross swallowed a mouthful of wine in an effort to clear his head. Then Finn rounded on him. “And if you call me my lord again, I’ll have no option but to break your fucking head.”
He choked on the wine, and Finn smirked, clearly pleased by his reaction. “Noted,” Ross said. “I’m happy for you, regardless.”
“I accept and thank you for your congratulations.” Finn briefly grasped his arm in a gesture of friendship, and Ross understood. He could well imagine how many warriors now courted Finn’s favor, warriors who, as boys, had made the fatherless Braeson’s life a misery. Finn indicated they should walk, and in silence they made their way through the great hall and outside, where several of his compatriots and ladies of the princess’ court were taking the evening air.
When there was no chance of them being overheard, Finn turned to him once again. “Tell me. Do you know the real reason why you travel to Fib-eviot?”
Ross’ senses went on full alert. “A reason besides ensuring the royal house of Fib knows of the coronation and offering them MacAlpin’s respects?”
He knew there was more to it than that. He was to uncover any plans the King of Fib might have to align with the Northumbrians. But he wasn’t at liberty to repeat that, not even with MacAlpin’s recently acknowledged son.
Finn’s smile contained no mirth. “You and I both know the depth of MacAlpin’s respect. I am tolerated in Fib because of Lady Mae’s royal bloodline, but I work hard to gain the respect of her people on my own account. The rumors that sent you here are likely true, Ross. The royal house of Fib holds no love for Dal Riada.”
Ross grunted. Finn told him nothing he did not already know. “Yet we are ordered into Fib-eviot to report back to our king. If it’s true the King of Fib is seeking a treaty with Northumbria, they’re risking the alliance between Dal Riada and Pictland.”
“The queen,” Finn said. “Don’t make the mistake it’s the king who holds power in Fib. Even before he was held hostage in Dunadd it was the queen who ruled, and nothing has changed with his return.”
Ross frowned. He knew, of course, the political dynamics of Pictland were different to Dal Riada. The queens of the seven kingdoms were not merely chattels of their kings. But certainly, to his knowledge, the final word lay with the king.
Except, it seemed, in Fib.
“That’s useful,” he acknowledged. It would save unintended insult to the queen by expecting to be received by her king.
“Lady Mae believes there is an ulterior motive to this visit.” Finn’s voice was dry. “What do you know of that business?”
God Almighty. First Rourke, and now Finn. “I’m not privy to such machinations. And I have no undisclosed royal blood that MacAlpin can use to his advantage.”
Finn’s lips twitched as though he found something amusing in the comment. “I was thinking of Stuart MacGregor. His great-grandmother was half-sister to MacAlpin’s grandfather, even if it’s not publicly acknowledged.” He paused for a heartbeat. “Yet.”
MacGregor? Ross considered that. He had nothing against the man but somehow couldn’t see him as a royal consort.
“This speculation is all very well. But is there an unwed princess of Fib?”
“There is a widowed princess.” Finn’s amusement vanished. “What other alliance with Northumbria would the Queen of Fib be contemplating, if not one through marriage? I fear MacGregor’s carefree days will soon be over if MacAlpin gets his way.”
Which of course, he would. Although Ross had no clue how his king expected such a thing to come to pass without intervention. And since MacAllister, who during the last year had spearheaded the king’s plans throughout Pictland, was remaining at Finn’s stronghold, the whole scheme appeared faulty.
But that wasn’t his concern. His mission was to observe and report back. And by God, that was all he planned on doing. He had no intention of second guessing MacAlpin when it came to eliminating the threat of a treaty between Fib and Northumbria. Unless the southern barbarians attacked his contingent, Ross wanted nothing to do with his king’s hidden agenda.
It had been a long, bloodied twenty hours, but finally, as dusk fell, Lady Daracha was safely delivered of her son. The babe was two weeks early by Orabel’s reckoning but, thank the goddess, was healthy and strong.
“Thank you.” Daracha’s voice was hoarse as she gazed upon the face of her son. “So many times I feared this moment would never happen. If you hadn’t been in Fib these last months, I would have lost this one, too.”
Orabel traced a gentle finger over the babe’s soft hair. “Do not thank me,” she whispered. “I’m merely the conduit for our beloved goddess. She guides me in all ways.”
“I’m thankful for Bride’s benevolence.” Daracha tore her besotted gaze from her son and looked at Orabel. “But you have my deepest gratitude, regardless.”
Daracha’s husband strode into the chamber, his face ashen, and Orabel stepped back. “Daracha.” He went to the bed and cradled his wife’s face. “You are well, my jewel?”
Orabel paused in the task of repacking her precious herbs and potions into her medicine casket. During her years in Northumbria, it had been considered scandalous for a princess of royal blood to attend the birthing chamber of a woman who was not an immediate family member. Indeed, it was the same in Pictland, but she had ignored such protocols as a young girl, and she most certainly hadn’t abided by those rules when married to Edwin.
She had delivered many babes. But how few and far between were the husbands who gazed so lovingly at their wives in the moments after delivering a longed-for child. Especially, in the case of Northumbrian men, a son. Invariably, it was the infant they examined first, to ensure all was well, before they turned their attention to the woman who had risked everything to bring forth new life.
Warmth glowed in her chest as she secured the casket and glanced at her friend. All Daracha had ever wanted, ever since they were girls together, was to be a mother. She had achieved her wish. And found a good husband, too.
Orabel would take it as a sign that, however grim the odds seemed, she would one day soon achieve her own.
That night, Bride came to Orabel once again.
Chills rippled through her, even though she was asleep, and yet she wasn’t asleep. She was in the realm of the ancients and there was no escape unless Bride allowed it.
The sun-filled glen darkened as storm clouds rolled across the sky. Panic clawed her throat as the yew trees swayed, the dark silhouette of their spiky leaves reminding her of the wickedly sharp talons of carrion birds.
She had not been plagued with such terror since returning to Fib-eviot after Edwin’s death twelve months ago. But how often had she suffered these nighttime warnings throughout her marriage. Manifestations of the great goddess’ displeasure that Orabel had not obeyed her command.
It didn’t matter that her own father, the king, had commanded her to wed. It went against Bride’s design. And Orabel had paid the price, night after night, for seven long years.
She tried to fall to her knees, beg for mercy, but was frozen in place as the sound of distant battle cries rent the shadow strewn realm. The air thickened, compressing her lungs, and the river that ran through the glen glittered with noxious, crimson blood.
The blood of my people.
The lives of all those who would die if she failed to fulfil her destiny.
But I have returned. The plea echoed around her mind, desperate that her goddess might hear her. Yet there was no answering whisper of comfort, of understanding, or acceptance that finally Orabel was on the right path.
Instead, a wintry gale whipped through the glen, elusive glints of blue and green sparkling through the stormy chaos, and tentacles of ice wrapped around her heart. And in the midst of the howling wind, an implacable warning lacerated her soul.
Do not stray from the path again. You must heal…
With a strangled gasp, she was thrust from the realm of the immortals, and was back in the bed she shared with Saoirse, in the stronghold of Daracha’s husband. But no sense of relief assailed her. Her heart pounded, an erratic counterpoint to how her breath floundered in her breast, as though she were drowning.
Bride had never spoken to her in such an icily direct way before. Not when she was a maid, when the goddess’ wishes had been conveyed through an ethereal melding of sensation, nor when she had left her girlhood behind, and the great goddess had shown her the hidden magic embedded deep in every root and stem of her wondrous domain.
Not even in any of the dread visions while she’d lived in Ayr.
The command was terrifying. Implacable. Her duty was to heal her people with the sacred knowledge Bride had entrusted to her, but she had always known this. Yet the goddess was telling her more was required.
The holy sanctuary?
Orabel had always harbored the dream of creating such a refuge, but how could she turn it into a reality without the support of the royal house of Fib?
It wasn’t cold, but she shivered, nevertheless. Because the answer was plain, whether she wanted to face it or not.
Her destiny was to forge that sanctuary herself.