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THIEF by Linda Windsor

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Thief
Brides of Alba Book Two
by: Linda Windsor

David C. Cook Publishing Company
ISBN: 143476477X
June 1, 2011



Chapter One

Kingdom of Lothian
Late sixth century AD
Leaf Fall


Where was he?

 

Caden came to himself in the midst of battle, once again. But this time he was surrounded by beings not of This World. The fight was fierce, yet bloodless. Never had he seen the like: spheres of light and darkness clashing like thunder, lightning swallowed by blackness, then blackness split again by light. He watched, mesmerized … until he realized the fight was over him. But Caden wanted nothing to do with either. Give him an end where he’d quickly dissolve into the very dust from which he’d been created, and let him be done with life and its emotions.

 

Determined to be finished by one warrior or the other, it mattered not whom, Caden threw himself into the fray, but to no avail. He was no more noticed than a bone between two fighting dogs.

 

At first.

 

His will to deny life gave the forces of darkness the edge. Those of light stilled, taking on the form of solemn, golden warriors as the opposing orbs began to drag him away, shrieking in victory. And the torture began. Shifting into demonic shapes, they picked at his flesh and ate it before his very eyes. Yet more flesh grew in its place to be ripped from his body again by their gnarled claws. Anguish, raw anguish, again and again.

 

Curse them all—he’d suffered enough in life. Must he now suffer a lingering death?

 

As the hideous creatures inhaled, the breath left Caden’s body, leaving his throat and tongue parched and burning. It was only then that Caden realized his error. He would not die. This was to be his eternity. The one he’d chosen himself. Panic unlike any he’d ever known clawed at him. He wrenched his gaze from his captors toward the beings of light.

 

“Call Him. Say His name, and this will end,” one said. Which, Caden had no clue, for their mouths did not move.

 

“In the name of Jesus,” said another, “thy spirit be healed, Caden of Glenarden, freed by Him who has fought the battle for you and won.”

 

If this was so, why was he still being torn to shreds by claws of darkness?

 

Wait.

 

He knew that voice. A priest from the past, pulling him literally from damnation’s black grip.

 

He knew those words. Echoed by his brother’s wife as she, too, fought with prayer for Caden.

 

He knew what he had to do … if it wasn’t too late.

 

Caden inhaled deeply, air scorching clear to his lungs, and pled with all that was left of him. “Jesus!”

 

Simultaneously the beings of darkness and light were gone, along with the great in-between. His head grew light, his consciousness drifting with the abandon of a falling leaf until it caught up with his body. The crackling of a rush-stuffed mattress registered as body and spirit melded with a jerk. He heard himself gasp.

 

“Praise God, you have chosen life.” Again that voice.

 

Caden opened his eyes to see the old priest from Glenarden smiling with a delight that made his time-weathered face look youthful.

 

“What’re you doin’ here?” Caden slurred, his tongue thick and dry as his pillow. He looked about to see where here was. This Side. A low-beamed ceiling. Clean, fresh linens that smelled of sun’s drying.

 

“Be thankful, brother,” someone said from the other side of Caden’s bed. “Father Martin came straightaway with a bag of Brenna’s healing balms and teas as soon as Glenarden learned you’d been gravely wounded. And I followed quickly as I could.”

 

Brenna. The comely healer his elder brother, Ronan, had married. Aye, Caden was definitely in This World. And shame’s beast waited for him, assailing him once more for having betrayed his own kin under the spell of greed, ambition, and a lust he mistook for love. The golden beauty of his late wife shape-shifted in his mind to the snarling, panic-stricken witch she’d become before leaping to her death.

 

With an involuntary shudder, Caden sought his younger brother Alyn’s blue gaze. Nothing but adoration shone from it. Adoration and something Caden didn’t deserve or want. Forgiveness.

 

“You’re s’pposed to be at Llantwit tending your studies.”

 

“Try a sip of this, son,” the priest said, offering water.

 

His thirst overriding his curiosity, Caden tried to rise up on his elbow when the lance he’d forgotten about plunged into his back again. When the white pain dulled just short of unbearable, he allowed Alyn to help him upright for the drink. No wine tasted sweeter or soothed his raw throat and tongue more. He drank every drop. It didn’t relieve his pain but cleared his thought and voice.

 

“Thank you, brother.”

 

“’Tis Father now,” Alyn reminded him. “The bishop finally got him out of our glen.”

And here to plague me, Caden mused.

 

“Or save you.”

 

Caden started at the inner voice. Lady Brenna’s herbs, perhaps. Resentment mustered, shoving the voice aside. “She sent her herbs and her priest. I’d venture neither she nor Ronan would bother to see me live or die.”

 

Alyn brandished a half-cocked grin. “You are wrong, brother. Brenna’s time is at hand for their second child, and Ronan would not leave her, much less allow her to make the journey here.”

 

“We were scarce able to stop her,” the priest said.

 

Second child. Another nephew or niece Caden would never see. A part of him mourned that. “How old is the first one now?”

 

“Conall is four and has Ronan’s looks and bold disposition. Though he has his mother’s eyes and won’t be parted from his wolfskin blanket.”

 

Alyn didn’t have to highlight the irony. The wolf that had died by Caden’s hand, protecting Brenna, still protected her offspring. Or its fine white pelt did.

 

“You should see the wee laddie tugging at it for all he’s worth with the half-wolf pup Daniel gave to Brenna. He’s O’Byrne stubborn.”

 

Caden almost smiled at Alyn’s portrayal of the future laird of Glenarden holding onto his blanket as his father, Ronan, had held onto the fugitive Brenna and the prophecy of the division of the O’Byrne clan for the sake of peace. And that was just what young Conall would inherit as laird of the once-warring clans.

 

No thanks to Caden. He reined in his memories, desperate to stop them. He was alive. Wallowing in the past only brought misery worse than that in his back. Yet there was a part of him that longed for his home.

 

“Is the pup white like the wolf?” he asked.

 

“As snow. Brenna said ’twas a gift from God. Daniel thinks her Faol was a bit of a gallivant about the hills.”

 

“I thought young Gowys was attending university with you, not in the high hills with his kin.”

 

“He is, but Wales is not far enough away to keep us from visiting home … or to come here.”

 

Here. Caden came back to the present, grounding himself with a glance about the strange room. “Exactly where is here,” he asked, “and how long have I been here?”

 

“You are in Trebold Tavern,” Father Martin replied. “Arthur insisted you receive the best of care, so he sent for Brenna.”

 

Trebold. Aye, the estate by the crossing of the burn where they last camped before meeting the renegade Sassenach who dared to cross the Tweed.

 

“Seems someone saved the Pendragon’s life,” Alyn put in.

 

Caden remembered. For Arthur’s sake and that of Albion, he was grateful to have helped the High King. But as for himself …

 

“I should have died,” he said flatly. Had the struggle on the Other Side been a dream?

 

“For the last fortnight, we thought you would,” Alyn replied grimly.

 

A fortnight. Time aplenty for his younger brother to receive the news at Llantwit and come to his side … and for his elder brother to make it plain that Caden was dead to him. Not that Caden blamed Ronan.

 

Father Martin interrupted Caden’s thoughts. “It seems God has other plans for you. And when you are on your feet again, so does the High King.”

 

“Aye, after we get you home where you can—”

 

Caden’s brow hiked. “Did Arthur forget he exiled me from my home?”

 

Never again was Caden to set foot in Glenarden or Gododdin. That was why he’d fought with the Lothians, now under the command of Modred.

 

“Our God is one of second chances,” the priest continued with annoying reassurance. “Who is His servant Arthur to be different?”

 

Caden grunted. “Better you’d let me die.”

 

Yet his heart was no longer behind his words, thank God. In truth, he was grateful to be alive, if his dream had been reality and death was not the end but the beginning of another life.

 

Thank God? Was that a prayer? Before Caden could ponder the startling thought, a door opened, drawing his attention to the female entering the room with a tray of food.

Her face, a handsome one despite the crinkle of lines bracketing her eyes and smile, lit up upon seeing Caden. “He’s awake, praise God!”

 

With a regal bearing uncommon to a serving wench, she approached to place a wooden trencher laden with joints of roast fowl, cheese, and bread on the bedside table. Caden’s stomach rumbled in anticipation, though his mind wasn’t as certain. As he labored to decide what appealed to him, she broke off some of the soft inner part of the bread and dropped it into a cup of broth.

 

“The broth is his, sirs, but the rest is yours. Unless you’d rather eat in the tavern below.” She sat on the edge of the bed next to Caden. “I’m Myrna of Trebold Law. Welcome back to This World, Caden of Glenarden.”

 

Caden’s appetite withered as Alyn made for the meat like a starved pup, stopping only long enough to cross himself through a hasty prayer of thanksgiving. So she knew of his shame. The old priest, also giving thanks over the food, must have told her.

 

“Come now, I’ve let it cool,” she cajoled, lifting a spoonful to his thinned lips. “You must regain your strength. A fortnight abed for a healthy man will leave him an invalid, but you have fought fever and death’s grasp like none I’ve seen.”

 

Caden accepted the nourishment. To his surprise, it awakened the need for more. “It’s good. Thank you.” He winked. A habit when in the company of an attractive woman, though this one was near twice his age.

 

“You are most welcome, sir, but don’t mistake my interest as anything but that of a Christian heart and a mother’s hope. For all the years I’ve seen, I could be your mother.”

 

A maidservant’s sass with the eloquence and demeanor of a gentlewoman. “Then time has been kind to you, milady. Beauty demands nothing less than a man’s full attention, and yours shines both without and within.” If eyes were windows to the soul, Myrna’s green ones revealed wisdom, generosity, empathy, and something else … something his sister-in-law Brenna demonstrated in abundance.

 

Faith.

 

“Ever the silver-tongued devil, aren’t you, brother?” Alyn mumbled, his mouth full of bread.

 

Heat rushed to Caden’s face. “Never mind the twit, milady. ’Twas a heartfelt compliment with no ulterior motive … save more of that broth.”

 

“Has God gifted all three of your O’Byrne brothers with charm, Father?” Myrna asked Martin.

 

The priest looked up from a joint of fowl. “They have their moments.” He stiffened in dismay, putting down the bone. “Forgive me, Milady Myrna. The sight of such good food has robbed me of my manners.” Not willing to take full blame, he shot a reprimanding glance at Alyn, who hopped to attention.

 

“Yes, right,” he said, wiping his hands on his tunic. “This isn’t just Myrna; she is the mistress of Trebold and this tavern.”

 

Caden recalled an old nobleman, much older than this lady, who offered the hospitality of his keep, such as it was, to the Pendragon. “Lord Malachy is a lucky man.”

 

This time color leapt to Myrna’s face. “Nay, sir, Malachy is my brother-in-law. When my husband, Fintan, died, Malachy left the church to help me with Trebold as best he could. But he’s more a priest than laird, I fear. Between us, we’ve managed the land to keep our people fed and pay what we can to King Modred in food rent. Our lot is meager, but enough.”

 

Myrna brushed a lock of fading copper hair off her face as though she might again tuck away the pain grazing it. She helped Caden to more bread and broth before continuing. “Many of our people have fled to Wales or Cumbria with the Saxons savaging our borders. So many fields lay fallow, yet God provided us another boon. Our location at the ford is the perfect place for a hostel.”

 

“And you don’t fear the Sassenach?” Caden asked.

 

Myrna shrugged. “God will continue to provide. Whoever rules the land will take their tolls and need food and lodging, though I’d prefer to serve a Briton king,” she stipulated.

 

If you live to pay the tolls and run your hostel,” Caden pointed out. Knowing what Saxons did to helpless women, he couldn’t imagine Myrna wanting to live when they were done with her.

 

“If not, then I shall see my Maker and have no worries at all.” She twirled the spoon in the broth, at peace with that possibility, judging by the wistful tilt of her lips.

She wouldn’t think death so grand if she’d been as close as Caden had been to the Other Side.

 

“And now God’s answered this lonely widow’s heart-held prayer by sending you.”

 

Somewhere in the back of Caden’s throat, the wet bread lodged. The coughing it triggered drove lance after lance through his wound with each strangle of breath. His head grew light, a lack of consciousness momentarily pulling him up out of his misery. When he came to himself again, he was surrounded by Alyn, Father Martin, and Lady Myrna, who looked on the verge of tears.

 

“I apologize, milord, if I’ve upset you,” she fretted. “’Twas too soon to heap another burden on you.”

 

“She doesn’t want you for a husband, twit.” Concern overrode Alyn’s stab at levity.

 

“What then?” Caden managed. Had they left the cursed lance in his back? With every movement his wound felt as though it were still there, being twisted by a vicious hand.

 

“God sent you to me to find my lost daughter.” Myrna fluffed the pillow behind his head. “But for now, you need to rest and regain your strength for your mission. Will you take more broth?”

 

Caden shook his head. He wanted to know more about this mission. Unfortunately, he was too weary to form the questions in his mind, much less voice them. He closed his eyes like a babe, and the world around him drifted away.