by Jen Black
Alba Series, Vol. 1
Finlay was the recognised heir to the throne of eleventh century Alba when the king began a plot to install his grandson Duncan. Finlay finds his girl is married off to his cousin, his best friend joins the opposing side, and Duncan plans war. Life becomes especially difficult when Thorfinn of Orkney and his sister take hand in the game.
ISBN 1-59431-325-3 Historical/Medieval/Romance
Cover Art by Jen Black
Also available in RTF and HTML formats
Kilda dragged the heavy door shut, turned and tripped over the baggage roll at her feet. The slap of her soles on the stones echoed around the dark, shadowy yard. She groped for the baggage roll and glanced fearfully around just as a dark shape surged towards her out of the predawn greyness. She lurched back against the solid oak door with a hiss of pure fright.
“Good, you’re here.”
It was only a whisper and she could hardly see him; but she recognized Finlay’s voice. Weak with relief, she sagged against the door. He scooped up the baggage roll and propelled her through the dark yard into the misty grey meadows where two horses grazed peacefully. He tied the roll behind the saddle, and elbowed the grey’s nose aside when it nibbled his sleeve. It was lighter here than in the enclosed yard, and Kilda stood and stared at the dim planes and shadows of his face.
Kilda started. She had forgotten her husband. “In bed; he’s still asleep.” She hugged herself and pushed her cold hands into her armpits. “He was drunk last night.”
Finlay had alarmed his cousin Gille yesterday evening, and wasn’t surprised that he had taken more ale than was wise. He fastened the last buckle. “It’s time we left,” he said, smiled briefly and offered his cupped hands for her foot. Already dawn was a glimmer of light on the eastern horizon and he could see the deep bank of white mist in the hollow of the river valley. When she didn’t move, he glanced up. “Come, mount the horse.”
After so many weeks of unhappiness, he seemed unmoved by her nearness. Kilda moved forward and Finlay straightened abruptly as she spilled into his arms. “White Christ!” he said. “Let’s get away, before someone sees us. We can stop later.”
Kilda pressed against him, laughing a little as her lips met the warm flesh of his throat and reached up to lock her fingers at the back of his neck. “I love you so much!”
He glanced down. “You’ve never said that before.”
“I didn’t know before. Now I do. You do love me still, don’t you?”
“I always have.” He glanced around, but Kilda hauled his head down again.
“Then it doesn’t matter? Your feelings haven’t changed?” Her finger traced the taut inward curve of his cheek down to his mouth. “I was forced to marry Gille, but it’s you I love.” Her hand slid down, inside the open throat of his undershirt where his skin was hot.
His hands tightened at her waist, and his head dipped. She stood on tiptoe to meet his lips just as the horse snorted and whipped the reins out of Finlay’s hand.
The chime and hiss of metal surrounded them and dark shapes loomed through the pearly greyness. Finlay recognized the tall figure with the pale hair, and pushed the girl behind him. “It’s Moddan,” Kilda said, and dug her nails into Finlay’s arm.
“You do not have permission to leave, Finlay mac Ruaidhri.” Moddan’s voice brimmed with satisfaction.
Finlay looked down his nose at the shadowy figures grouped around him. “I need no permission from you.”
“But you need permission of the King, and you do not have it. I have orders to take you back.”
“A friend wouldn’t stop me.”
“Friends? When were you and I ever friends?”
“We shared the same war band, the same practice yard, the same family. It counts for nothing?”
Moddan’s pale head wagged from side to side. “I’m following the King’s orders, Finlay.” A snort of amusement travelled the few paces between them. “And had you been a friend of several years standing—and you most certainly are not—I would still follow the King’s orders.”
“How very loyal of you.”
Kilda heard the sneer in Finlay’s voice, imagined Moddan’s answering scowl and darted between them with arms outstretched in an attempt to keep the peace. “Please don’t stop us. Say you never saw us! The King will be so angry, and he’ll punish Dav—”
“Don’t beg. He’ll enjoy that.” Finlay’s fingers dug into Kilda’s shoulder, and his warm breath brushed her cheek as he glared at Moddan over her head. “You’ve always been a jealous little swine dogging my footsteps.”
Moddan’s sword left its scabbard with a whine of steel that made Kilda’s teeth ache.
“Watch your mouth!” Moddan’s sword flashed in the faint light. “The King said nothing about treating you kindly. Move back towards the gate.”
Finlay shook his head. Moddan’s sword blade rose, gleaming, and levelled against Finlay’s heart.
“No! Don’t hurt him!” Kilda flung herself at Moddan’s sword arm, and pushed the blade to one side. Finlay’s hard shoulder rammed into Moddan’s exposed flank and knocked him off balance. Kilda sat down in a tumble of skirts and stared open mouthed as Finlay stamped his boot across Moddan’s throat and twisted the sword from his lax hand before she could draw breath to scream.
A rumble of aggression and a ripple of movement halted when Finlay lifted the sword and leaned forward, for Moddan’s choked gasps sounded clearly in the sudden silence. “Move back.”
The men eyed the threatening blade, and withdrew. Finlay glanced at Kilda, and jerked his black head in the direction of the horses.
The heavy brooding silence of the hills settled around them, and tendrils of mist stole past on the chill, slow moving air. Moddan stirred, snarled and glared at the taut figure above him. “I’ll owe you for this, Finlay.”
Finlay’s eyes flickered down and then swiftly back to the ring of men. “Don’t take it to heart. I don’t bear you any grudges,” he said lightly. “If the King hadn’t sent you, he’d have sent someone else. What made him suspect I was planning to leave?”
“Intelligence. You’ll never be a match for the King.”
“It doesn’t bear thinking about.” A hank of black hair swung over his brow as he looked briefly down at his captive. His smile widened and became an insult. “You’re his watchdog; he might throw you a bone one day, but I doubt it.”
Moddan reared up off the grass but stopped on an indrawn hiss of air when the cold blade bit at his throat. “Where will you go?”
“Let me guess!” Amusement laced Finlay’s voice. “You want to send the war band after me!”
“You’ll run like a whipped dog to England, and you’ll drag your cousin’s new wife with you. King Canute might not like that. His pious Bishops won’t, I can tell you that.”
“But better than staying here where friends stab each other in the back at the bidding of a King long past his prime.” Finlay contemplated the man at his feet. “You don’t care where I go, surely. Come with me, and start afresh, if you wish.” Kilda rode up behind him. “Or, if you prefer, think of me as one less in the derbfine. Doesn’t that raise your hopes?” Finlay swung round, grabbed the reins of the second horse and vaulted into the saddle.
Moddan snorted and rolled to his feet as the chestnut moved smartly forward. “I’d have the same problem with the Prince that you do.”
Finlay’s laughter echoed back over the meadow. Kilda screeched and kicked out at the dark, bearded figure lunging towards her. She missed, overbalanced and almost fell off as her horse shot forward.
Finlay wheeled his own animal. With Moddan’s sword in his fist, he drove straight at the girl and her attacker. The man leapt aside to avoid a collision, but used his knife and Kilda’s horse dropped its hindquarters, lifted its head and squealed.
Moddan stepped in close and yanked Kilda clear of the saddle. The horse plunged off, snorting. Moddan knotted his fist into the girl’s hair and dragged her, moaning, to her knees. He held her cheek hard against his thigh and smirked. “You may ride off, cousin; but the lady stays.”
Finlay sat motionless astride his powerful chestnut. The soft dawn light found his frowning brow and jaw, and the shadows around his eyes. “The derbfine will be one less with your going,” Moddan said softly. His fingers tightened and forced Kilda’s head back. At her cry of pain he glanced down, noted and lingered on the soft swell of flesh between the gaping edges of her thick tunic.
Finlay’s chestnut sprang forward under the spur and the guards ducked and scattered to avoid the heavy blade he hurled in their direction. The big horse knocked Moddan aside and Finlay’s boot caught him a glancing blow in passing.
Finlay pulled up the excited horse and leaned far out of the saddle, and extended his hand to the startled girl. “Put your foot on mine and mount!” He strained to hold the animal still as Kilda scampered forward, and jumped. It was clumsily done, but she was light boned and Finlay’s strong hand hoisted her onto the chestnut’s warm, slippery haunches. She clamped her arms around his waist, jammed her cheek against his back and shut her eyes.
Moddan staggered a pace or two, recovered and lunged for the chestnut’s head. The horse squealed, pivoted on its powerful haunches and then surged forward, dragging Moddan in its wake. Finlay continued to urge it on but other men leapt forward, and their added weight forced the animal to a shuddering halt.
Rough hands pulled Kilda to the ground. Moddan stepped back, chest heaving. He licked briefly at the dark thread of blood at the side of his mouth and flicked the silver hair out of his eyes. “Get off that horse.”
Finlay raised his sword and glared at Moddan; then in a swirl of anger and frustration he hurled the heavy blade into the turf at Moddan’s feet. It landed point down, and vibrated gently in the soft silver light spilling over the shoulder of the hill. Finlay dismounted and walked into the fort without a backward glance.