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Barbarian Slave by Castel, Jayne (1)

BARBARIAN SLAVE

 

 

A Scottish Dark Ages Romance

 

The Warrior Brothers of Skye

Book Two

 

JAYNE CASTEL

 

 



Join me in 7th Century Anglo-Saxon England and receive a 30,000-word historical romance novella and two full-length novels. Immerse yourself in the Dark Ages!

 


Historical Romances by Jayne Castel

 

 

DARK AGES BRITAIN

The Kingdom of the East Angles series

Night Shadows (prequel novella)

Dark Under the Cover of Night (Book One)

Nightfall till Daybreak (Book Two)

The Deepening Night (Book Three)

The Kingdom of the East Angles: The Complete Series

 

The Kingdom of Mercia series

The Breaking Dawn (Book One)

Darkest before Dawn (Book Two)

Dawn of Wolves (Book Three)

 

The Kingdom of Northumbria series

The Whispering Wind (Book One)

Wind Song (Book Two)

 

DARK AGES SCOTLAND

 

The Warrior Brothers of Skye series

Blood Feud (Book One)

Barbarian Slave (Book Two)

 

 


He takes her as his war prize—but she enslaves his soul. Pict and Roman culture collide in this epic Historical Romance set in Dark Ages Scotland.

 

Lucrezia is the wife of a Roman soldier posted on the northernmost reach of the Empire. Locked in an unhappy marriage upon a desolate outpost, she feels her youth slipping away. However, her life changes forever in the winter of 367 AD. Barbarians from the north band together and attack Hadrian's Wall.

 

Tarl mac Muin is a Pict warrior with a thirst for battle and glory. He's part of the Barbarian Conspiracy that will change history. But when he takes Lucrezia as his slave, he sets off a chain of events that neither of them could have foreseen.

 

In an epic adventure that starts at the Roman fort of Vindolanda at Hadrian's Wall and takes Lucrezia north to the wild shores of the Isle of Skye—she discovers love and happiness when she least expects it. Only, a shadow from the past risks ruining everything.


All characters and situations in this publication are fictitious, and any resemblance to living persons is purely coincidental.

 

Barbarian Slave by Jayne Castel

 

Copyright © 2018 by Jayne Castel. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means—electronic, mechanical, recording, or otherwise—without the prior written permission of the author.

 

Published by Winter Mist Press.

 

Edited by Tim Burton

 

Cover photography courtesy of

Eagle image courtesy of

Maps of Scotland and Hadrian’s Wall courtesy of Wikipedia

Map of ‘The Winged Isle’ by Jayne Castel

‘We are the weavers’ pagan chant by Shekhinah Mountainwater

 

Visit Jayne’s website and blog:

 

Follow Jayne on Twitter: @JayneCastel

 

 

***

 

For Tim—my true romantic.

 

***

 


Contents

 


 

 

 

 


 


 

Glossary

 

Aos Sí or Fair Folk: fairies

bandruí: a female druid or seer

Broch: a tall, round, stone-built, hollow-walled Iron Age tower-house

Caesars: the Ancient Romans

Cruthini: the name the mainland Picts gave to themselves

The Land of the Cruthini: Pictland

 

Place names

 

An t-Eilean Sgitheanach: Gaelic name for the Isle of Skye

Beinn na Caillich: the Red Hill of Skye

Dun Ardtreck: a broch located on the Minginish Peninsula of Skye

Dun Ringill: an Iron Age hill fort on the Strathaird Peninsula of Skye

Kyleakin: a village on the south-east edge of Skye

Vindolanda: fort on Hadrian’s Wall

 

The four tribes of The Winged Isle*

 

The People of The Eagle (south-west)

The People of The Wolf (north-west)

The People of The Boar (south-east)

The People of The Stag (north-east)

 

Gods and Goddesses of The Winged Isle*

 

The Mother: Goddess of enlightenment and feminine energy—the bringer of change

The Warrior: God of battle, life and growth, of summer

The Maiden: Young goddess of nature and fertility

The Hag: Goddess of the dark—sleep, dreams, death, winter, and the earth

The Reaper: God of death

 

Festivities on the Isle of Skye*

 

Earth Fire: Salute to new life and the first signs of spring (February 1)

Bealtunn: Spring Equinox

Mid-Summer Fire: Summer Equinox

Harvest Fire: Festival to salute the harvest (Aug 1)

Gateway: Passage from summer to winter (October 31/November 1)

Mid-Winter Fire: Winter Equinox

 

* Author’s note: I have taken ‘artistic license’ when it comes to the names of the tribes, festivities and gods and goddesses upon the Isle of Skye. The historical evidence is very scant, making it a challenge for me to get an accurate picture of what the names of the tribes living upon Skye during the 4th century would have been. Likewise, I could not find any references to their gods and festivities. The Picts were an enigmatic people, and we only have their ruins and symbols to cast light on how they lived and whom they worshipped. To make my setting as authentic as possible, I have studied the rituals and religions of the Celtic peoples of Scotland, Ireland and Wales of a similar period and have created a culture I feel could have existed.

 

Cast of characters (in alphabetical order)

 

Ailene: daughter of Mael and Maphon

Alpia: female Eagle warrior

Cal, Namet, Lutrin and Ru: Galan’s four most trusted warriors

Cassius Severus: general at Vindolanda

Deri: young woman married to Cal, one of Galan’s warriors

Donnel mac Muin: youngest brother of The Eagle chieftain

Eithni: Tea’s younger sister

Galan mac Muin: Eagle chieftain

Loxa: Wurgest’s younger brother

Luana: Donnel’s wife (deceased)

Lucrezia: Roman woman

Macum: Eagle warrior

Mael: Luana’s sister (married to Maphan)

Marcus Donatus: Lucrezia’s husband

Ruith: the seer at Dun Ringill

Talor: Luana and Donnel’s infant son

Tarl mac Muin: younger brother of The Eagle chieftain

Tea: Galan’s wife

Urcal: Wurgest’s elder brother, the Boar chieftain

Wurgest mac Wrad: Boar warrior

 


 

 

 

The future is not written in stone. It shifts like sand on the shore, like reeds in the wind. Every act in the present has the power to change it.

—Ruith, bandruí of Dun Ringill

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

Winter, 367 AD—Pictland

 

Fifty furlongs north of Hadrian’s Wall

 

 

The wind had claws this evening. It whistled in from the north and gusted against the encampment of hide tents erected in the shallow vale. It raked down exposed flesh and dug its talons through the gaps in the makeshift shelters. The sun had slid behind the hills to the west, taking its watery warmth with it.

On the perimeters of the camp, Tarl mac Muin was part of the first watch. He stamped his feet in an effort to restore circulation and pulled his fur cloak tightly about him. His breath steamed before him in the gloaming, and his nose was numb.

The Hag take us all, it’s as cold as a cairn out here.

He was of hardy stock. All warriors of An t-Eilean Sgitheanach—The Winged Isle to the north-west of this territory—were. Yet this damp cold got into the marrow of a man’s bones.

“Are your balls frozen yet?” His brother, Donnel, appeared next to him.

Tarl was too cold to even smile at Donnel’s attempt at humor. He glanced over at his face, illuminated by the flickering light of the brazier before them. Peat threw out a lot of heat and burned long, but it seemed to barely reach them this evening. Donnel’s face, surrounded by fur, was white and pinched, although his eyes glittered darkly. Even the cold could not dim his eagerness for the coming battle.

Tarl shrugged. “Hard to tell. I’ve lost all feeling below the waist.” He glanced up at the sky, which had gone a deep shade of indigo.

This time tomorrow he would either be dead or victorious. It felt odd to think of it. Put into perspective like that the cold did not matter as much as it had a moment earlier.

“Ready for dawn?” Donnel asked. Tarl felt his brother’s gaze on his face, and knew he was studying him, looking for any sign of worry or misgiving.

He would find none.

“Aye.” Tarl glanced down from the sky, his gaze meeting Donnel’s. “I’ve waited too long for this day.”

Donnel’s mouth curved. “Impatient to die, brother?”

Tarl snorted. “No … eager to prove myself and return home in glory.”

Donnel gave him a long assessing look. “Galan’s not going to care either way, you know that? If you’re doing this to impress him, you’re wasting your time.”

Tarl frowned. Donnel’s comment cut a little too close to the bone. Galan, the eldest brother—now the leader of The Eagle tribe—was everything he was not. Galan had taken after their mother the most. She had been a serene woman of quiet strength. Tarl was like their father, Muin: fiery, restless, and impulsive. It was Galan’s right to rule, nonetheless Tarl chafed at being his younger brother. Their fort, Dun Ringill, felt too small, too restrictive.

Although Galan ruled, it was Tarl who had led the band of Eagle warriors south—Tarl who had agreed to join the campaign against the Caesars when Galan had hesitated.

“I know,” he replied, finding it hard to keep bitterness from his voice. “Galan is above such things. Yet I still need to show him I’m a warrior in my own right, not just his hotheaded younger brother he needs to keep on a leash.”

Donnel barked out a laugh. “It doesn’t matter how much Roman blood you spill tomorrow, you’re never going to change his view of you.”

Tarl huffed. “At least I plan to live through the coming battle.” He saw his brother’s face turn grim at this, but continued nonetheless. “These days, you don’t seem to care if you live or die.”

Donnel stared into the flames. “You’re right … I seek oblivion,” he replied, his voice dull and flat. “Luana was my life. Without her, I see only darkness.”

Tarl watched him. Donnel had lost his wife earlier that winter in childbirth. He had been a changed man ever since. “So you don’t want to go home?”

Donnel shook his head. “There’s nothing for me there.”

Tarl frowned. That was not true. Donnel still had him and Galan. Not only that, but Luana had given birth to a son, who as far as they were aware still lived.

“The people of The Eagle need you, brother,” he said after a lengthy pause. “We live in dangerous times—Dun Ringill must be protected.”

A deep voice sounded behind the brothers then, interrupting their conversation. “Ready to bring down the Caesars, lads? I’m looking forward to hearing the first one squeal as I rip my axe through his gut.”

Tarl and Donnel turned to spy a huge warrior with a thick mane of black hair and an unruly beard striding toward them. Despite the biting cold, Wurgest was scantily clad in a plaid loin cloth and leather vest. Upon his right bicep he bore the mark of The Boar.

Not for the first time Tarl was pleased that he and Wurgest were on the same side—he would not like to meet The Boar warrior in battle.

There were four tribes upon The Winged Isle—The Stag, The Wolf, The Eagle, and The Boar—and many of their warriors had joined the group amassing for the campaign to the south. Men and women from every corner of the north had come—Cruthini, Attacotti, and Scotti. Even Saxones from the south had joined them. All had united for a common purpose: to bring down the oppressors who guarded the great wall to the south. To defend The Land of the Cruthini.

Wurgest stepped in between Donnel and Tarl, warming his huge hands over the burning peat. His dark-blue eyes gleamed in the orange glow of the brazier. “We’ve delayed here long enough—it’s time to strike.”

Next to him Donnel snorted. “Aye, I’m sick of waiting.”

Tarl stamped his feet once more. The fur foot wrappings he wore provided little protection from the biting cold. He still had a while to go on his watch before he would be able to retire for the evening.

Like his companions he was weary of the long wait. It was almost two moons now since he had left The Winged Isle, and this campaign was starting to feel endless. The might of the united tribes surrounded him, spreading down the vale, their peat fires twinkling in the darkness. Together they were strong—much stronger than the sleeping garrison to the south.

His destiny awaited there. He felt as if his whole life had been building toward this day. He would soon be part of the battle that would stop the Caesars from spreading their influence any farther north—the attack that his people would sing songs around the fireside about for years to come.

“Aye,” Tarl replied. “Dawn can’t come soon enough.”


 

 

 

 

 

 

Vindolanda fort, Hadrian’s Wall

 

 

Stifling a yawn, Lucrezia took a sip of sloe wine and fixed her attention on the dancing flames in the hearth.

She hated it when her husband insisted she accompany him to social events. She preferred to remain at their villa just south of the walls of Vindolanda. Never one to enjoy idle-chatter or political debate, she barely suffered these evenings and counted the moments till they ended. The long suppers with her husband’s superiors tended to be boring at best, painful at worst.

Yet she could not refuse Marcus—she had never been able to.

This evening they sat in the triclinium, the sumptuous dining room of Cassius Severus. He was the general commanding this garrison—the largest along the wall. His villa was built mostly of local grey-brown stone, although he had brought in costly marble to line the floor. Huge urns dotted the room, and a bronze bust of a stern-faced man, Cassius’s late father, loomed in one corner.

“Is the wine pleasing, Lucrezia?” Cassius asked from across the table, his voice low and intimate. She glanced up from watching the fire to find the general observing her under hooded lids.

He wanted her. She had known that from their first meeting, and he stared at her now as if they were alone. As if her husband, Marcus, was not sitting a few feet away.

But Marcus was not looking in her direction. He was deep in conversation with Antonius, another high-ranking soldier, and had not looked her way for a while; so engrossed was he in his discussion with his friend.

His friend … or his lover?

Lucrezia wondered if Cassius’s knowledge of her husband’s sexual preferences had made him bolder with her. Marcus Donatus was a private man, and did not flaunt his lovers, yet the general’s attentions had become overbearing of late.

The heated look Cassius bestowed upon her now made Lucrezia shift uncomfortably in her seat. “The wine is very good,” she replied, her voice polite yet reserved, as it always was when she spoke with Cassius.

“Not as good as home though?” He quirked a dark eyebrow. “This barbaric place is too cold to grow grapes for real wine.”

Lucrezia smiled. She agreed with him there—what she would give for a sip of red wine made from the dark sweet sun-ripened fruit of her homeland. “That’s true,” she replied demurely, “but we must make do with what we have.”

Cassius gave her a slow, suggestive smile. He was a big man with close-cropped dark hair and eyes the color of peat. Unlike some of the other men at the table who wore togas, Cassius wore a knee-length tunic with a heavy bronze belt at the waist. The garment accentuated the width of his shoulders. Although he used a gentle beguiling tone with her, Lucrezia was under no illusions about this man’s character.

Cassius Severus—severe in name and in nature.

His cruelty was well-known from one end of Hadrian’s Wall to the other.

Lucrezia lifted the bronze cup to her lips and took another sip, enjoying the heat of the strong wine as it burned down her throat and warmed the pit of her belly. They might have been indoors, just a few feet from a roaring fire, but it was bitterly cold outside, and she would have to brave the chill to return home.

Cassius leaned across the table, meeting her eye once more. “You are looking lovely this eve, Lucrezia. That stola is very becoming.”

He grew bold—too bold. Lucrezia tensed, resisting the urge to cast a pleading look in her husband’s direction. She wondered if the other soldiers seated around the table had heard the comment. She was the only woman here and started to fervently wish she had insisted Marcus come to this supper on his own.

This evening she wore a simple ankle-length tunic with a wine-colored stola—a long dress that wrapped around her form and was fastened by a girdle under her bust.

Cassius stared at her breasts now, as if he had never seen the like before, and Lucrezia bristled. She wished she was flat-chested, but her breasts thrust proudly out before her making them impossible to ignore.

Lucrezia’s throat constricted; she had avoided Cassius Severus’s lecherous attentions till now, but the look in his eyes this evening told her that he was running out of patience. Cassius did not see why Marcus could not share his wife, if he did not wish to avail himself of her.

Lucrezia took another fortifying gulp of wine and pretended she had not seen the direction of the general’s stare. She had to find a way to distract him, to draw his thoughts to other matters.

“Tell me, Cassius,” she said coolly, “are the rumors about the savages true?”

Cassius leaned back in his chair, folding his huge arms across his chest. “I don’t know,” he rumbled, his tone infuriatingly patronizing. “What have you heard?”

“My servants tell me there is unrest to the north, that there have been rebellions in Habitancum and Vercovicum.” Lucrezia was not lying—her two Briton servants had mentioned trouble in the outlying forts north of the wall.

Cassius’s mouth pursed, as if the wine he had just sipped was vinegar. “You shouldn’t listen to the prattle of those girls. Tell me if those sluts continue to gossip, and I’ll have their tongues cut out.”

Lucrezia drew back in shock. She was fond of Gwyna and Ciara; she would do no such thing.

“So the wall is secure?” she asked finally.

Cassius leaned forward and picked up a ewer of wine, before refilling his cup. “Do not fear, Lucrezia,” he replied with an intimate smile. “You are safe here with me.”

 

 

“Please do not leave me at the mercy of that man again.”

Marcus glanced at his wife as they hurried across the windswept courtyard outside Cassius Severus’s villa. Around them the north wind howled, digging through their clothing with icy fingers. Racing clouds obscured a full moon, and the braziers lining the walls of the fort guttered and smoked.

Marcus frowned. “Who?”

Lucrezia clenched her jaw. Her husband really could be oblivious at times. “Cassius—who else?”

Her husband’s frown deepened. “What did he say to you?”

“Too much. I’m surprised you didn’t hear.”

She saw guilt flash across Marcus’s face. They both knew he had barely said two words to her all evening. His remorse did not lessen her irritation though. What good was a husband if he did not keep men like Cassius Severus in their place?

The couple passed through the gates leading out of the fort. High walls reared either side, and Lucrezia spied the outlines of sentries against the night sky. They were her husband’s men, and he raised an arm to hail them. The sentries waved back.

Linking an arm through Lucrezia’s, Marcus steered her right, up a narrow paved path leading to their villa.

“I’m sorry, Luci,” he said softly. “I’m a poor husband.”

Lucrezia cast Marcus a frustrated look. She did not want his apologies; she wanted him to look out for her. “Cassius scares me.”

Marcus gave a grim smile. “The general scares most people—he thrives on it.”

“You know he’s always flirted with me,” she replied, her voice low. “But he’s grown outrageous of late. It’s almost as if he doesn’t care who sees it.”

She felt Marcus’s muscular frame stiffen, but he said nothing more. One look at his stern profile though, and she knew her point had been made.

It was too cold to talk anyway.

The vicious wind whipped away her breath and numbed her fingers and toes. Each lost in their own thoughts, Marcus and Lucrezia closed the distance between the western gatehouse and the low-slung villa they had lived in for the past seven years. The villa sat apart from the other dwellings and was surrounded by a dry-stone wall. White-washed, with a red-tiled roof, it was a comfortable home that Lucrezia had done her best with. Like many of the villas here, it was set out in a square, with an open inner courtyard.

They entered the house through a wide atrium, an entrance hall with a white and grey mosaic floor. The air smelled faintly of peat-smoke from the hearth they had left burning.

Lucrezia shucked off her heavy fur cloak and hung it up. Wordlessly, she reached out and took Marcus’s from him. It was a familiar domestic ritual between husband and wife, one that made a pang of sadness constrict her chest.

How she had wanted this marriage to work.

In the faint light of the cressets upon the atrium walls, which Gwyna and Ciara had left burning before returning to their homes for the day, Lucrezia studied her husband’s handsome face.

She remembered the first time she had seen Marcus, at her family villa north of Rome. It was an arranged marriage, but she had welcomed it. Marcus was everything she had dreamed of in a husband. Breathtakingly good looking with jet-black hair cut short in military fashion, he had looked into her eyes that first time, and she had been lost. Her two younger sisters had been wild with envy at how lucky she had been; the favored daughter, the one their father had always spoiled had now found herself the most handsome man in the Roman Empire to wed.

Lucrezia had felt as if she was living a dream—but that dream had only lasted as long as their wedding night.

Feeling her gaze upon him, Marcus glanced up. “What is it?”

Lucrezia looked away. “Nothing.”

Marcus crossed to a nearby sideboard and reached for the ewer of elderberry wine. “A drink?”

Lucrezia shook her head. She had consumed too much strong wine over supper and now had a slight headache from it. “What time do you start tomorrow?” she asked, watching Marcus raise the cup to his lips and take a long draft. She had never known a man who could drink like her husband. He could drain three jugs of wine and still be up with the lark at dawn.

“Early.” His mouth twisted at the thought.

Lucrezia did not blame him. The winters this far north were always bitter, but this one was colder than either of them could remember. Yawning, Lucrezia stretched, easing the muscles in her back. She gave her husband a tired smile. “I’ll see you at noon tomorrow then.”

Marcus returned her smile, his dark eyes gleaming in the light of the cressets. “Sleep well.”

Lucrezia left him, retiring to her chamber in the west wing of their villa. It was a small sparsely-furnished space, dominated by a low pallet covered in thick furs and cushions. A deerskin rug covered the cold stone floor.

A fire burned in the hearth in the corner. Usually it heated her bed chamber nicely, but tonight the fire barely took the chill off the air.

Shivering, her teeth chattering, Lucrezia stripped off her stola and dove under the furs still wearing her under-tunic. She leaned across and extinguished the lantern on the low table beside her pallet, throwing her chamber into semi-darkness.

Lucrezia flicked her gaze toward the closed door, her ears straining for any sounds beyond. Marcus would retire shortly, as he always did after a nightly cup of wine. They had not shared a chamber, or a pallet, since the early days of their marriage.

Over the years the couple had developed a different sort of closeness—a friendship and trust that meant a lot to Lucrezia. Yet on a night like this, when the cold wind clawed against the walls, she wished Marcus shared her furs. She now had twenty-three winters—not yet worn down and faded by life—but the past years had stripped her of confidence. The only attention she received from men was the kind Cassius bestowed upon her; the kind that made her want to scrub her skin with lye and a hog-bristle brush.

Lucrezia let out a long sigh as loneliness pulled her down into its clutches. What she would give for the touch of a man who truly loved her.

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

North of Hadrian’s Wall

 

 

The warriors moved through the darkness like fey shadows.

Despite the chill dawn, many of them wore very little clothing—as was the way of these hard men and women of the north. Blue swirls of woad decorated their exposed skin.

Upon his arms Tarl bore the whorls and designs that told the story of his own people, The Eagle. He wore plaid leggings, fur foot-wrappings, and a thick leather vest to ward off the numbing cold. He carried his square leather-covered shield across his back, and gripped the hilt of his iron sword in his right hand. Donnel crept forward to his right while Wurgest strode at his left. The Boar warrior carried two huge single-headed iron axes, his tread heavy in the predawn hush as he crunched across frozen earth.

They were just a short distance from the nearest of the forts that lay north of the wall—Vercovicum the Caesars called it. They would have to fight their way through a number of small Roman settlements before reaching the stone defense. The wall itself was a vast structure that would need to be scaled for their attack to be successful. On the other side of the wall lay the great fort of Vindolanda—their destination this morning.

The sky to the east started to lighten—a pale glow as the dark curtain of night drew back. The wind had died half-way through the night, allowing a heavy frost to settle over the earth. Around him Tarl witnessed a glittering silver landscape of rounded bare hills that reminded him a little of home.

The Winged Isle—will I ever see it again?

He was not like Donnel. Tarl wished to live, to return victorious to his people. He did not want to die upon a Roman sword.

Even so, he was glad morning had come. Excitement and fear churned through him, clenching his stomach and turning his bowels to water. He was not afraid of battle. Tarl had already known many, having fought his first at sixteen winters. Still, he did not relish killing the way some men did. Next to him Wurgest was one such man.

As the sun rose Tarl saw that Wurgest's face was set in a frightening grimace, his eyes wild with blood-lust.

The three of them—Tarl, Donnel, and Wurgest—were part of the second wave of warriors who would rush forward to attack the wall, once the outlying forts were under siege. Tarl led the band of Eagle warriors who had traveled with him from The Winged Isle, while Wurgest led those of The Boar.

Tarl had been concerned about how they would manage to scale the great stone fortification, but Wurgest had assured him they would have assistance from the inside. Apparently there were Roman soldiers at Vindolanda who were willing betray their own for a price.

“Can the Roman traitors be trusted?” he asked Wurgest now, his voice low in the hush of the early dawn. “Can we take the word of any man who would turn on his own people?”

Wurgest glanced at him, grinning. “Many a man’s trust can be bought with gold,” he rumbled. “Not only that—but morale on the wall is at an all-time low.”

Tarl nodded; he had heard the tale. After years of ruthless generals and abuse of power, many of the garrison soldiers were tired of their life defending a land they cared little about.

The time was right to strike.

Tarl glanced across at where Donnel walked beside him. His brother met his eye and smiled. Donnel’s sword was drawn, his eyes almost black in the shadowy light. Their gazes held for a heartbeat, before Tarl raised his own sword and gently touched its iron blade against his forehead—a gesture all the warriors of The Eagle made before battle.

Donnel repeated the motion.

Tarl turned south once more, following the line of warriors up an incline. The air suddenly felt charged, as if a thunder storm was about to break. They were near now. Tarl could smell the excitement in the air.

The front of their ranks broke over the brow of the last hill before Vercovicum. Tarl ran fast, his legs flying over the frozen ground, propelled forward by the sheer might of the men and women who thundered up the hill around him.

A small fort lay in a shallow valley below, pale stone glinting as the first rays of winter sun kissed the walls. Smoke rose from the tiled roofs within, staining the winter sky.

With a collective whoop, the warriors out front descended upon it.

 

 

Lucrezia rose from her pallet early—it was too cold to stay abed for long—and roused the embers in the hearth. Shivering, she hurriedly dressed, pulling on a pair of fur-lined boots to warm her numb toes.

The villa was empty as she made her way through to the kitchen, although Gwyna and Ciara would arrive shortly. In the meantime it was up to Lucrezia to get the hearths burning.

Humming to herself, Lucrezia bustled about. This was her favorite time of day, when the rest of the world was still slumbering. She particularly liked spending time in the kitchen. Although the servant-girls helped her run the household, she preferred to do most of the cooking herself; it kept her busy. She had also enjoyed teaching her Briton servants some of the dishes of her homeland. The girls had particularly delighted over the wheaten pancakes she broke her fast with in the mornings, and had been impressed by her mid-winter specialty of roast fowl stuffed with chopped nuts and crab apples.

Lucrezia pulled out a bowl of bread-dough that had been rising since the evening before, kneaded it, and shaped it into loaves. It was warming nicely inside the kitchen now, as the fire started to throw out heat. She wondered where Gwyna and Ciara were—both girls should have arrived by now. It was unlike either of them to be late.

Once the bread was in the oven, Lucrezia took a pail, donned her fur cloak, and went outside to milk the two goats they kept in the garden behind the villa.

Outdoors the morning was gelid yet magnificent—a blaze of red painted the eastern sky, casting a pink hue over the frozen earth. Lucrezia crunched across the frosty grass to where the two nanny-goats waited. The animals were small, with curved horns and shaggy dun-colored coats. Seeing her approach, they both bleated a welcome.

Lucrezia smiled. “Morning, girls.”

She tied the goats up, fed them some grain, and pulled up a low stool before sitting down to milk. This was usually Ciara’s chore, but Lucrezia found herself enjoying the task nonetheless. She closed her eyes as she milked, resting her forehead against the goat’s warm belly.

A short while later she went back indoors, expecting to find both Briton girls at work, apologizing for their tardiness. Yet the villa was silent save for the crackling and popping of the great hearths.

Irritated now, Lucrezia went to the entranceway, heaved open the heavy oaken door, and peered outside. Her front garden twinkled with frost; the landscape had turned silver. Her gaze traveled down the path and to the road beyond. The grey bulk of the wall rose to the north, the first rays of sun touching its cold surface. Atop the fort, she saw the outlines of sentries taking the morning watch—Marcus would be among them.

Lucrezia waited in the doorway for a few moments, but there was no sign of either girl; just a still, silent morning and the faint caw of crows in the distance.

Where are they?

Lucrezia huffed and went back indoors. She returned to the kitchen, just in time to catch the loaves of bread before they burned. Then she took a broom, and began to sweep the flagstone floor. As she worked, her mind shifted ahead to the day’s tasks. There was gardening to be done—clearing and weeding once the frost had melted. She also wanted to make a start on pruning the roses.

So intent was she on her thoughts that Lucrezia paid little attention to her surroundings. It seemed she would do her chores alone this morning.

The boom of the front door to the villa crashing open caused Lucrezia to drop her broom in fright.

Furies take me, what was that?

Surely the girls were not in such a hurry that they needed to risk damaging her front door on their way in.

Lucrezia scowled, setting aside her broom. “Gwyna?” she called out. “Ciara—is that you?”

 

 

They spilled over the wall, howling. There was no half-measures with an attack like this—a man had to charge at death or The Reaper was only too quick to claim him.

Tarl reached the wall to find a number of ladders already going up against it. In different circumstances, he would have been awed by the sight of this great stone fort—which made his home fort of Dun Ringill appear like a grain store in comparison—and the vast grey wall that stretched out for what seemed like an eternity either side.

It was immense—many feet high and thick—and looked as if had been built by giants.

Atop the wall, the Roman garrison of Vindolanda awaited them: a sea of tall broad-shouldered figures wearing gleaming armor and helmets, and blood-red cloaks. They were a formidable sight, and for an instant Tarl wondered if his people would be able to breach the wall.

The centurions stabbed with their spears and swords at the first attackers to clamber up the ladders. Some of the attackers fell, but more took their place. There were too many of them for the garrison to withstand—and as Tarl climbed one of the ladders, he saw men go over the top.

Tarl scrambled up, shield raised above his head with his left arm, his sword at the ready. “To me,” he shouted over his shoulder at The Eagle warriors who scrambled up the ladder behind him. “We’re through!”

Crimson already stained his blade, from the fighting north of the wall, but he was hungry to let it bite into Roman flesh again. He got his chance as he crested the wall.

A tall dark-haired sentry—this one helmetless—came for him, roaring.

The Roman’s blade bit into the leather and oak of Tarl’s shield. His arm shuddered under the impact, but he was ready. He propelled himself forward off the edge of the ladder and smashed into the centurion, before driving his sword under the man’s guard, into his belly.

The shriek carried far across the wall, and the man crumpled. However, Tarl paid him no mind. He was already leaping forward ready to engage the next man who opposed him. They were keen fighters, these Caesars, although most of them fought with a savagery borne of desperation. They knew they were outnumbered, knew they had been betrayed from within.

Warning of the attack had come too late for, as Wurgest had claimed, some of the sentries guarding the outer forts had aided their attackers.

Blood splattered across Tarl’s face, and the clamor of battle merged into a continuous roar around him—like the wild sea crashing against the sheer coastlines of his homeland.

Tarl now fought alone. His men, including Donnel, had disappeared into the heaving mass upon the wall. It was every man for himself now—fighting for the north.

Tarl slashed his way through the Roman sentries. To his left, a tall rawboned woman with frizzy black hair screamed curses as she drove her axe into a centurion’s face—while to his right, two of his people threw themselves onto a sentry and brought him down with their teeth and fists.

A flood of Cruthini, Attacotti, and Scotti swept across the wall in a violent tide—and Tarl found himself carried along by it, down the steep steps on the southern side.

I’m inside.

To the east he could hear a commotion coming from the fort itself. His people were already through there, wreaking havoc, whereas Tarl had scaled the wall near a scattering of outlying houses and gardens.

Many of his companions had already reached the first of the dwellings—handsome stone structures surrounded by walls and hedges—and Tarl heard screams as the inhabitants within realized they were under attack.

Tarl broke into a run along the paved road that led away from the wall itself. He had never seen such prosperity. The folk of The Winged Isle, even those who ruled, did not live in homes such as these.

He imagined the wealth he would find within—the jewels and gold he would be able to bring back to Dun Ringill and lay at his brother’s feet.

Tarl made his way up the road, past the dwellings that had already been entered, to where a lone house stood on the southern outskirts, apart from all the others. A low dry-stone wall surrounded a home that had been painted white, its roof covered with red stone tiles.

Vaulting over the gate, Tarl ran up the path toward a grand entrance lined by two great stone pillars. However, as he approached, he realized that he was not the first to arrive here—for the heavy oaken door had been smashed open—and the sounds of a woman’s screams echoed out from within.

Slowing to a walk, Tarl stepped inside, his foot wrappings whispering on a beautiful mosaic floor. Awed, he paused inside the entrance a moment, marveling at the high ceiling, the statues, and the beautiful craftsmanship.

Surely one of their generals lives here.

Another scream shattered his reverie. It was followed by a string of curses he did not understand.

“Filius canis!”

Coarse male laughter followed. “That’s right—make some noise, lass. I like my women loud.”

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wurgest. tarl would have recognized that growl anywhere.

How has he managed to get here ahead of me?

The Boar must have leaped from the wall the moment after he scaled it, such was his greed for the spoils of war.

Tarl crossed the wide entrance hall in the direction of the voices. The aroma of freshly baked bread greeted him, followed by a wave of heat from a glowing hearth. He stepped into a wide cooking area, dominated by a scrubbed wooden table.

On that table was a dark-haired woman—biting and clawing like a she-cat. Her skirts were hiked up around her hips, revealing shapely pale thighs. Wurgest struggled to keep her legs apart while he undid his loin cloth.

Tarl halted just inside the doorway and stared, taken aback by the scene before him. Wurgest had been rough with the woman already; he could see that. There was a raised livid mark on her cheek, but her dark eyes blazed with defiance.

Watching her, something shifted in Tarl.

The Maiden take me … she’s lovely.

He knew the realities of war, and had fought in a number of skirmishes, yet he had never taken a woman against her will. He knew rape was common, both during and after battle—especially when a man’s excitement ran high. However, he had never seen it at close quarters before. The terror on this woman’s face made him pause, his search for riches forgotten.

“Wurgest,” he called out, his voice echoing across the stone-lined room. “We don’t have time for this.”

The Boar warrior went still, twisting his head round to see who had interrupted him. When he saw it was Tarl he grinned. “You like watching do you? Well, just give me a moment, and we’ll give you a show.”

Tarl held his gaze, unsmiling. “Keep your slug in your breeches, I’ve no wish to see it—and neither does she.”

Wurgest threw back his head and roared with laughter. His mirth abruptly choked off when the woman twisted under him, her foot slamming into his groin.

“Slut,” he grunted, slapping her hard across the face. “For that I’m going to give you to my friend here after I’m done.”

Tarl took a threatening step forward. “Let her go. The attack’s not over yet. Find yourself a woman once the fighting’s done.”

The warrior’s heavy-featured face creased into a scowl, and he spat on the flagstone floor between them. “I’m no fool—you want this one for yourself. You think she’ll prefer you, with your pretty face, but I’ll show her how a real man humps. You can wait your turn.”

With that Wurgest turned back to the woman and continued unwrapping his loin-cloth—not an easy task when his captive bucked, writhed, and squirmed under him. Even terrified, she still fought hard.

A heartbeat later Tarl made a decision. He did not dwell on it, did not hesitate. He knew Wurgest would resent him for this, but the warrior had left him with little choice. If he did not intervene, the situation would spiral out of control.

Wurgest would rape this woman.

Tarl sheathed his sword and sprang forward, punching Wurgest hard in the side of the head.

It was a deliberate hit, and one that might have killed some men. Yet Wurgest would survive it. The warrior let out a grunt and crashed to the floor, felled like a mighty oak.

Upon the table the woman let out a shriek and scrabbled backward, pulling her skirts down as she went. Long dark hair had escaped her braids, and she stared up at him through wild strands. Her comely face was taut, her walnut-colored eyes filled with venom.

“Quid vis?” she demanded, her voice husky with fear.

Once again Tarl did not understand her. All the same, her bravery impressed him; despite the fright she had suffered there was no sign of tears. She had fought Wurgest, and he was sure she would fight him too.

Tarl held her gaze, momentarily ensnared. The womenfolk of The Winged Isle had beauties among them too, and many of them were fierce—as terrifying as men in battle. But none of them looked like this woman.

Her skin was darker than his; a pale shade of bronze rather than the milk-white skin of northern folk. Her hair was so dark it was almost blue, and the chiseled lines of her cheeks and aquiline nose were stunning.

Tarl continued to stare at her, transfixed. He had entered this house looking for riches, but he could not leave this beautiful woman at the mercy of Wurgest. She had to be protected.

“I won’t hurt you,” he told her, “but this will be easier for both of us, if you don’t fight me.”

Her gaze narrowed, and he watched her look around desperate for a weapon to attack him with.

“Leave me,” she growled. “Get out!”

Tarl smiled, pleased that she spoke his tongue. The words were halting, heavily accented, and in a dialect different to his, but he could make them out nonetheless.

Meeting her gaze once more, he shook his head. “Your best chance of remaining unhurt is to stay with me.” Tarl nodded at where Wurgest lay, out cold at his feet. “When he wakes up, neither of us wants to be here.”

He watched her frown, not understanding what he had just said. Although she spoke a little of his tongue, she was clearly not fluent.

“Come.” Tarl reached out and caught her by the arm, drawing her off the table. “Show me where you keep your gold, and we’ll be on our way.”

 

The moment the man grabbed her arm, fear exploded within Lucrezia.

The barbarian had stopped his companion from raping her, only to have her for himself.

With her free hand she punched him square in the eye.

The man reeled back, although he did not let go of her arm. Instead he yanked her hard against him. She heard him curse, and recognized the word. It was the same one Gwyna sometimes used when she stubbed her toe or burnt her fingers while tending to the fire.

The feel of his lean muscular body—lightly clad in plaid breeches and a sleeveless leather vest—sent a bolt of terror through her.

Unlike his companion, who reeked like a ram during rutting season, this warrior smelled of blood, smoke, and fresh sweat. He did not look as terrifying as the dark-haired giant either. This man was good-looking in a wild fashion, with shaggy light-brown hair and penetrating eyes the color of slate. Yet he was a barbarian, and they were alone together in her house.

He’ll defile me!

Lucrezia lunged for a knife on the work bench behind them, but he yanked her back against him.

She heard him mutter a string of words, of which she understood very little. Fear made it difficult to concentrate. Her only thought was getting free of him, and running. His grip was now an iron band around her bicep as he towed her out of the kitchen into the atrium.

“Gold,” he repeated, turning to her. “Where is it?”

Lucrezia shook her head. “We don’t have gold.”

The barbarian warrior held her gaze, his handsome face turning grim. He did not believe her. Indeed it was a lie. She and Marcus had a store of gold coins, but she would never show this man where it lay.

Marcus. Dread seeped over Lucrezia. He was on the wall this morning—where’s he now?

The warrior’s mouth thinned, and he strode across the atrium to the wide corridor beyond. He muttered something else that Lucrezia did not understand and pulled her into the tablinum, the study where Marcus kept all his records.

She heard the man breathe an oath, his gaze sweeping around the room. To Lucrezia, the space was a humble one—a square room dominated by a large hearth at one end, and a padded recliner and large desk opposite—but the barbarian stared at it as if he had never seen anything so grand.

He strode across to the desk, pulling her with him, and swept a hand over the piles of scrolls and neatly stacked leaves of vellum that Marcus kept here. He picked up one of the vellum sheets, his brow furrowing. It was a half-finished letter that Marcus had been working on, to his father.

“What’s this?” the barbarian demanded.

“Letters,” she spat out. The savage stared back at her, his grey eyes narrowing.

“Letters?” he repeated, confused.

“It's a way to send word. To communicate with those who live far from here.”

His gaze narrowed further, before his mouth thinned, and he nodded. “No worth.”

No, her captor clearly would not know what to do with a letter. Lucrezia remembered Gwyna and Ciara’s responses when they had seen vellum for the first time—likewise they had been similarly mystified.

The barbarian moved around the tablinum, upending chairs and sweeping objects off shelves as he went. Lucrezia followed his journey around the room, her jaw clenched.

This savage won’t find any gold in here.

When he had finished searching the study, her captor dragged Lucrezia back out into the passageway and through into the triclinum—the dining area. This room was sparsely furnished, with a long table and a hearth at one end; it was clear there were no riches to be found here.

Instead the man towed her out into the open courtyard beyond, and along the covered hallway to the sleeping quarters. They moved from room to room, but the barbarian found no gold. Out of patience now, and maybe worrying that his companion would soon regain consciousness, the northerner let out a string of curses under his breath.

Outside Lucrezia could hear screams and shouts, followed by the clang of iron and the thud of wood and leather. Fear shivered through her. This man might have prevented her from being raped, but when more of his friends arrived he would not be able to stop them from attacking her.

Lucrezia’s breathing hitched. I’m doomed.

Perhaps realizing this himself, the barbarian led Lucrezia outside, still keeping a firm grip on her upper arm. Smoke stained the pale dawn sky—some of the houses around them were on fire.

More screams and cries shattered the morning; Lucrezia stared around her, aghast. She knew all the women who lived in the villas behind the wall. The sound wailing from a home they passed made her stumble, her chest constricting. She twisted round to face her captor. Not finding the words in the local tongue, she lapsed into Latin.

“Stop them—you can’t let your men do this! You can’t let them defile these women!”

The barbarian stared back at her. He did not grasp her words, although she knew he understood her plea. Their gazes locked and held, and she saw something shadow in the depths of those grey eyes. Yet after a moment he merely shook his head and towed Lucrezia forward, dragging her west toward the fort itself.

The savages were everywhere. Warriors ran howling like furies, shaking bloodied axes and swords as they hacked down the last few colonists who tried to escape them. Lucrezia spied two other Roman women who had been captured. One named Fabia—who had only recently arrived at the wall with her husband—raked at the face of the savage who dragged her toward the fort. Her captor spat at her before knocking the girl to the ground. Behind her, the other woman, Claudia, struggled against the hirsute warrior who carried her slung over his shoulder. Her screams were blood-curdling.

Unable to watch the women’s plight, Lucrezia turned away. Only it did not matter what direction she faced—violence and terror now surrounded her. It was then that she spied women among the attackers. She watched a female warrior, wielding nothing more than a crude knife, disembowel a man twice her size. Then the woman let out a howl and cut off the centurion’s ear as a trophy.

Lucrezia’s bowels cramped in terror, cold sweat beading on her skin.

They’re beasts.

As they approached the fort, her captor halted a moment and removed his belt from around his waist, using it to bind her wrists behind her. He then said something quickly to her, his accent so thick that she did not catch a word.

“Speak slower,” she snarled at him, using the tongue her servants had taught her. “I can't understand.”

The man ignored her, instead pushing her ahead of him as they resumed their march to the fort. However, Lucrezia deliberately slowed her pace. She had no wish to reach their destination. She did not want to see the men she had lived among for seven years now dead inside.

She did not want to see Marcus’s body among them.

Sensing Lucrezia’s reluctance, the man behind her propelled her forward. They walked across the last stretch and under the great arch leading into the stone fort. The wood and iron doors had been battered down and blood stained the ground dark at the entrance.

The moment Lucrezia stepped within, the stench of a slaughter-house hit her. She choked back a gag and gazed around at the sea of bloodied and twisted bodies that covered the wide area inside.

Most of the dead were her own people; men wearing silver armor and red cloaks, but there were also a few slain savages among them. The guards here had fought bravely to the end, but it had not been enough.

How could this happen?

Dully, she realized that she knew the answer. Men like Cassius Severus had broken the morale of the soldiers posted on the fringes of the Empire, ruling with iron and terror. It had been only a matter of time before the people rose up. There was no way the northern barbarians could have scaled the wall and slaughtered everyone within it, if they had not had help from within.

Lucrezia’s throat constricted, and she glanced up to where men still fought on the eastern watch tower above her. She could see the last defenders of the fort struggling against a tide of screaming savages.

And there, silhouetted against the pale sky, she saw the tall proud outline of her husband.

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Marcus had not seen her; she was glad of that. She did not want to distract him. He fought with the ferocity of a doomed man but would bring as many of the enemy down as he could before the end.

Not caring about her captor’s reaction, Lucrezia stopped, her gaze never leaving Marcus.

The barbarian nudged her in the small of the back. He then barked a string of words she did not understand, although his meaning was clear: she was to keep moving.

Lucrezia remained rooted to the ground. “My husband,” she gasped.

That got his attention. He stepped up beside her, his gaze following hers to the skirmish unfolding on the ramparts. They watched as Marcus slammed his blade home into a man’s belly, before yanking the blade free and slicing it into his next assailant’s neck.

“He fights well,” the stranger commented. He had deliberately slowed his speech so she could understand him.

Lucrezia ignored him. Marcus’s skill with a blade was not enough.

A tide of half-naked figures surged toward Marcus—men and women with long tangled dark hair and painted blue faces, clutching crude iron blades.

She had one last glimpse of her husband as he lunged forward to meet them. Then he went down under the onslaught and disappeared from sight.

Lucrezia choked and turned away.

“We can’t stay out here.” Beside her, the barbarian grabbed her by the arm. “This way.” Without another word, he pulled her with him and strode toward a vast stone building that dominated the center of the fort.

 

Tarl was beginning to wish he had chosen a different house to loot.

He now regretted that he had followed this woman’s screams and clubbed Wurgest over the head to save her. As lovely as she was, his captive was proving troublesome.

His left eye ached dully from where she had struck him. Not remotely grateful for being saved from Wurgest, she fought him every moment of the way, and had refused to give up the location of her gold store. She seemed to think him a simpleton, insisting that she had no riches when she lived amongst the kind of luxury he could only dream of.

It angered him to leave that dwelling without any gold or jewels. He wanted to return to Dun Ringill with spoils to gift his chief. Had time permitted he would have torn down her dwelling, stone by stone, till he found her treasure. Yet there had been no time for that. Wurgest might awake at any moment, and Tarl did not want to be anywhere close when he did.

It had been time to leave.

Still, it was not safe inside the fort either. He saw the hungry looks the warriors around him gave the woman—some men he recognized, although most he did not. It would not be long before one of them approached him and demanded his share. Like Wurgest, their blood-lust was high. Even good men were dangerous in such a state.

What he needed now was to find the other Eagle warriors; men and women who would stand by him and watch his back.

Tarl glanced over at the woman beside him as he entered the stone fort.

His breath caught. Even disheveled, her hair a mess, her right cheek swollen from where Wurgest had struck her, she drew a man’s eye. There would be many warriors here who would like to carry her off, to take her north and make her their bed slave.

Tarl clenched his jaw as a wave of protectiveness crashed over him. She was troublesome, but already he felt a sense of responsibility for her. He pulled her close to him and placed a possessive arm around her shoulders.

“Get away from me!”

She tried to shrug him off, but Tarl kept his arm locked around her shoulders. “This is for the best,” he grinned down at her. “There are too many wolves about for my liking.”

She glared up at him, her finely shaped dark eyebrows knitting together, her brown-eyes glittering with hate. Not for the first time, Tarl marveled at her strength. She had not wept after Wurgest’s attack, and she did not cry now, even though she had just witnessed her husband being slain.

Tarl was not much given to sentimentality, but he wished she had not seen that.

A sea of northerners milled inside the fort. Now that those guarding it were dead, they were picking over the riches within. Tarl and his captive passed two men bickering over a gold-plated ornament, while behind them another warrior tore down an intricately patterned tapestry from the wall and slung it around his shoulders, taking it as a new cloak.

Once more, Tarl marveled at the wealth and beauty of this place.

Unlike the fort he had grown up in, far north of here, the walls inside were smooth and fashioned of a gleaming pale stone he had never seen before. Grey and white mosaic tiles covered the floor, which was now perilously slippery from the blood that splattered across it.

“Look at the teats on that,” one of the men who had been fighting over the ornament spotted Tarl’s prisoner. “I’ll bet she’s nice to plow. I’ll have her after you.”

Tarl cast the warrior—a small, stringy man with lank dark hair—a censorious look. “I’ll not share her.”

The warrior’s expression darkened. “That’s selfish. There aren’t enough women to go around here—you can’t keep her for yourself.”

Tarl ignored him, although he tightened his grip on the woman and lengthened his stride. Ahead, a circular stairwell led up to the next level, and Tarl was about to climb the steps when a familiar voice called out to him.

“Tarl!”

He turned to see Donnel limping toward him. His brother was grinning, although he dripped with blood and was favoring his right side.

Tarl frowned, stepping forward to greet him. “You’re hurt?”

Donnel shrugged. “A graze or two, nothing to worry about.”

Tarl raised an eyebrow. Any fool could see that was not the case, but he was not about to argue with Donnel over it. He saw his brother’s gaze shift sideways then, moving to the silent sullen figure beside him. “What’s this then, a spoil of war?”

Tarl grunted. “Aye. Come … let’s get out of here before someone tries to take her from me.”

Donnel laughed, his gaze shifting to where the warrior Tarl had just exchanged words with was staring at them, his golden trinket forgotten. “You may end up with a fight on your hands, if you try to keep her for yourself. The men will think you’re greedy.”

“Let them.” Tarl steered the woman back the way he had come, falling into step next to his brother. Protectiveness rose within him once more, and he clenched his jaw. “She’s mine.”

 

 

Smoke rose high into a pale blue sky, and now that the battle had ended an unnatural stillness settled over the land.

Lucrezia followed her captor, moving woodenly as shock set in. She was still having difficulty accepting the barbarians had actually attacked and taken the fort.

The great gates of Vindolanda were open, ripped off their hinges by the sheer number of savages that had battered against them. As they approached, Lucrezia spied a group of local Britons enter the fort. Dressed in wool and fur, their gazes wide, the men and women who lived in the scattering of villages around Vindolanda murmured amongst themselves while they took in the carnage.

And among them Lucrezia saw two familiar faces: Ciara and Gwyna. The girls, both small and dark haired, watched her approach. There was no warmth on their faces this morning though, no concern in their eyes.

A chill traced down Lucrezia’s spine. Although they had served her for years, she had come to see Ciara and Gwyna as her friends.

But now they glare as if I’m the enemy.

Ciara, always the bolder of the two girls, snarled an obscenity in her own tongue—a curse that Lucrezia had no difficulty understanding. She then rushed forward, her neck snaking out, and spat at Lucrezia.

“Haughty Roman bitch—not so proud of yourself, are you now?”

Lucrezia reeled back, cowed by the girl’s venom. How many afternoons had she and Ciara spent together shelling peas or weeding the garden while they gossiped about life in the fort? Never—not for a moment—had she sensed the hate she saw on the young woman’s face now.

They must have known this attack was coming.

“Get back, girl,” Lucrezia’s captor rumbled. He wore a vaguely amused expression, yet his voice held a soft warning.

Casting him a sour look, Ciara did as bid. Behind her, Gwyna favored Lucrezia with a cruel smile.

“He’s one of the Cruthini,” she said, using Lucrezia’s own tongue now. “Warriors from the far north. They’re said to be beasts in the furs ….”

Lucrezia went cold and shaky at this. Nausea welled up in her throat and for an instant she thought she was going to be sick. However, a commotion behind her came as a welcome distraction.

She turned to see a ragged group of centurions being herded into the wide space beyond the gate. Her breathing quickened when she spied a big, broad-shouldered man among them: Cassius Severus.

An iron helm covered the top half of his face, but Lucrezia would recognize the man anywhere. Bloodied and grazed, his breastplate smeared with gore, his once resplendent crimson cloak tattered—the general was limping badly, his breathing coming in short, wheezing pants. Like the other prisoners, his hands were bound before him.

Across the yard, his gaze met Lucrezia’s.

She did not like Cassius Severus, and like many at the fort feared him, yet at that moment there existed a bond between them—one borne of shared captivity. The general’s gaze slid over Lucrezia, shifting to where her captor’s hand clamped over her upper arm.

Cassius’s mouth twisted.

A heartbeat later, he gave a roar, elbowed the savage leading him in the chest, and lunged across the distance separating him and Lucrezia’s captor.

The barbarian’s reaction was swift. He let go of Lucrezia’s arm, drew the sword from where he had sheathed it across his back, and drove it straight through Cassius Severus’s guts.

The two men stared at each other, their faces just inches apart. The barbarian’s expression was cold, hard—while fury and loathing twisted the general’s features.

He spat a curse at the barbarian, but the man did not flinch. Instead he twisted the blade, watching as Cassius fell to his knees before him. Then he kicked the general to the ground and extracted the blade from his guts.

Lucrezia stood a few feet behind them, trembling like a barley stalk in the wind. She knew violence was part of her world; only she had never seen it up close before. Until now, her social rank and status as Marcus Donatus’s wife had shielded her from scenes like this one.

Cassius writhed upon the ground and clutched his belly, his roars of agony echoing into the stillness. The barbarian stooped over the general, and yanked the iron helm from his head. He then held the helmet aloft, inspecting it in the watery noon sun.

The savage tucked his prize under his arm and sauntered back to where Lucrezia waited, frozen to the spot as if her feet had grown roots.

Her captor raised an eyebrow. “Who was he to you?” he asked, enunciating each word clearly for her benefit. “A lover?”

Lucrezia choked back hysteria, shook her head, and turned away. If she uttered a word right now, she would begin screaming—and never stop.

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lucrezia huddled inside the hide tent, teeth chattering. It was not cold in here, for the peat in the hearth before her threw out ample heat—yet her shivering was due to shock and grief, not a chill.

In the space of one morning, she had lost everything.

She was no longer Lucrezia, wife of Marcus Donatus and noblewoman, but a slave.

The rest of the day after Cassius Severus’s death had passed in a terrible blur. She barely remembered any of it, for the memory of seeing Marcus fall upon the wall was still burned upon her mind.

At least her barbarian captor had not yet tried to rape her—for that she should have been grateful. There had also been a number of incidents during the day when he had kept men away from her.

It seemed she was his prize, and like a cocky rooster protecting his favored hen he did not want any others touching her. It helped that he appeared to be a respected leader. When he had led Lucrezia into the camp, ten of his warriors had escorted them.

Lucrezia did not feel grateful.

I wish I were dead. Only misery awaits me now that I’m a barbarian slave.

Clenching her jaw in an attempt to stop her teeth chattering, Lucrezia pulled her knees up under her chin and stared into the glowing fire. She did not want to think about the future. Her bowels turned to ice whenever she contemplated the short terror-filled existence before her. Her only solace was that she would not live much longer.

The savages won’t suffer me among them. She thought of Gwyna’s malicious words and shuddered. Dwelling on her fate was not wise—she would only go mad if she let her imagination run riot.

Beyond the hide walls of the tent, she heard the gruff sounds of men’s voices, followed by coarse laughter. Her shivering intensified, this time in terror. If her feet and wrists had not been bound, she would have leaped up and fled like a rabbit into the night.

Better to be ripped to pieces by wolves than live with these people.

Lucrezia was just contemplating this, when the flap covering the tent’s entrance drew back and her captor entered.

She saw that his left eye was swollen and purpled, and felt a grim pleasure. She had never hit a man before, yet had enjoyed lashing out at him. She only wished she had managed to hurt the brute who had tried to rape her.

Her captor had washed the blood and paint off his face and body, which lessened his wild appearance. However, he still wore the blood-stained plaid breeches and leather vest of earlier. His shaggy brown hair was wet, and combed back from his face. In spite of her misery, Lucrezia found herself observing him keenly, noting that he was indeed an attractive male.

In one hand, he carried a loaf of dark bread.

The barbarian met her gaze and smiled, crossing the tent to her. Then he hunkered down and handed her the food. “Here.”

Lucrezia reluctantly took the bread from him. She should have been hungry, for she had not eaten since the night before—yet her belly was a hard knot of misery. She could not bear the thought of eating. Still, she knew the sensation would pass and when it did, she would be ravenous.

Once she took the bread from him, she hoped her captor would leave her be—but instead he stayed where he was, watching her with a frank, speculative gaze. “You are brave,” he said finally. “You will do well with my people.”

Lucrezia stared back at him, her face screwing up. He had spoken slowly and clearly; she had understood every word. He was wrong. She was not brave at all; her body pulsed in terror, her nerves had stretched to breaking point.

Watching him, she remembered the cold ruthless efficiency with which he had cut Cassius Severus down. This barbarian might have assumed the role of her guardian for the moment, but she did not trust him. He was as murderous as the rest of them.

The man continued to observe her, his grey eyes softening. “You are the most beautiful woman I have ever seen,” he said after a few moments.

Lucrezia watched him coldly, the compliment making her belly twist. “Let me go,” she replied stiffly. “I must return to my people.”

The barbarian smiled. It was a boyish expression that caused a deep dimple in one cheek. “You’re staying here … with me.”

She shook her head, denying his words. “I’ll run.” She choked out the words, barely able to breathe. “You’ll not keep me chained up.”

In response her captor leaned forward, his smile fading. “You don’t need me to tell you it’s not safe out there,” he said softly. “Escape, and you won’t get far.”

She glared back at him with loathing. He spoke the truth. Yet it would not have stopped her; if she could get free of these bonds she would run. She would come to harm here, no matter what she did.

 

Tarl ducked out of the tent and strode across to the nearest fire pit, where his brother was having his wounds tended.

There were a number of injured warriors scattered around the camp. Some would die of their wounds overnight, while others would linger awhile. Some, like Donnel, would hopefully heal. The groans and cries of the injured blended in with the rise and fall of excited voices. Already the warriors were spinning tales about this day. The savory aroma of roasting venison drifted through the camp as men roasted haunches over glowing embers. There would be a great feast later.

As Tarl crossed the few yards to the fire, his warriors called out to him. Their faces were gaunt and tired after the battle, but he saw the pride in their eyes.

“We showed those Caesars, eh?” Macum, a heavyset warrior greeted Tarl with a hearty slap on the back. “The Eagles have done you and Galan proud.”

Tarl grinned at Macum’s praise. He had dreamed of this day—when he would lead The Eagles to victory. The battle had claimed the lives of just two of his men, far fewer than some of the other tribes. Wurgest had lost six of his warriors during the skirmish upon the wall.

“We’ll sing songs about this day around the fire for years,” Tarl replied. “The day The Eagles of Dun Ringill helped stop the southern invaders.”

Together the two men reached the fire, where a warrior was doing his best to tend to Donnel’s wounds. They had not brought any healers with them on this campaign, but fortunately some of the warriors had skills in that area and could help with minor cuts and lacerations.

Tarl felt a pang of misgiving. He suspected his brother’s wounds were far more serious than Donnel had let on earlier. He bore a gash to his right flank, no doubt caused by a Roman sword blade. He also had a deep puncture wound on his right thigh—and it was this injury that concerned Tarl. These ones tended to fester.

Donnel did not see him approach, for his attention was taken up by the crowd of warriors who clustered around him. To Tarl’s amusement, they were making a great fuss of him.

“I saw you fight,” a man exclaimed, lifting a wooden cup of mead high into the air in tribute. “I’ve never seen the like—never seen a man kill with such fury.”

“Battle Eagle,” another warrior cried out from behind them. “That’s what we’ll call you from now on!”

Tarl smiled. Battle Eagle. The name had a ring to it.

Donnel caught sight of Tarl then. “Brother,” he called out. “I didn't expect to see you this evening—not with that comely slave of yours.”

Tarl shrugged, taking a cup of mead one of his men passed him. “She can wait. There will be time enough for that. Tonight, I’d rather drink to our victory with you all.”

His words brought a chorus of cheers from around the fire side. Tarl lifted his cup and took a deep draft. It was then, as he lowered his cup, that he spotted a familiar—and wholly unwelcome—figure in the crowd. A huge man with wild black hair, who stood head and shoulders above many of the warriors around him.

Wurgest.

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wurgest was at least twenty yards away—and a crowd of men separated them—yet Tarl went rigid at the sight of him.

The Boar warrior was stalking through the encampment, weaving his way from fire to fire, his gaze scanning the crowd. He was looking for someone—and Tarl did not need to guess who it was.

Tarl inhaled deeply as Wurgest’s seeking gaze found him, pinning Tarl to the spot.

Wurgest’s heavy featured face creased into a deep scowl, and his massive shoulders hunched. Then he put his head down like a charging ram, and drove through the crowd of warriors separating him from his target.

Tarl watched him approach, as did Donnel.

“Tarl?” His brother’s tone was wary. “What’s this?”

Tarl cleared his throat. “I should have told you earlier,” he murmured back, never taking his gaze from the charging Boar warrior. “But that woman … I took her from Wurgest. After I scaled the wall, I went into one of the houses on the other side and found him about to rape her.”

Donnel muttered a low curse. “You didn’t …”

“Aye … I did.”

Tarl deliberately avoided looking his brother’s way. “It was a rash act, I admit—but it’s done, and I don’t regret saving her.”

There were no more words between the brothers, for Wurgest was upon them. He stopped before the glowing fire pit and stared across at Tarl, a murderous look on his face. “You have something of mine.”

Tarl forced a lazy smile. “I took her for myself, Wurgest. You no longer have a claim.”

Tension rippled around the fire. The warriors around it glanced at each other, confusion on their faces.

“The woman is mine,” Wurgest growled. “I found her first … before you stole her.”

Tarl’s smile widened, and he showed his teeth. “The rules are different in a raid, Wurgest. You know that. It’s every man for himself.”

The Boar warrior let out a low feral growl. “We follow different rules, Eagle.” He bit out the words as if they were choking him. “I will have that woman, even if I have to fight you for her.”

The two men stared at each other. It had fallen silent around the fire now; there was no sound except for the hiss of burning peat and the rumble of voices in the surrounding encampment. A sense of inevitability settled over Tarl. He had known it would come to this the moment he punched Wurgest in the side of the head.

He was not surprised that the warrior did not back down—it was a matter of honor. Wurgest could not, and would not, let the matter drop.

“Very well,” he said finally. “Then we’ll fight.”

A savage smile twisted Wurgest’s face. “Good, let’s get this over with now. The sooner I smash your face to a pulp the better.”

 

The evening took on a different atmosphere. Earlier, men and women had been content to gather around the fire, swapping tales of the battle, downing mead and nursing their wounds. Now there was a fight to be had, and excitement filled the camp as warriors drew back and made a clearing for the two opponents.

It was a strange occasion, for although these men came from different tribes, they were both from An t-Eilean Sgitheanach—The Winged Isle—far to the north-west of the wall. It was an isolated isle, with a scattered population, and for many here it seemed odd that two men who hailed from the same place would come to blows after such a glorious victory.

Yet it was not the first time friends had turned to enemies over a woman.

“Are you sure you want to do this?” Donnel watched Wurgest prepare for the fight on the other side of the clearing. The warrior was naked, save for a loin-cloth, and had removed his weapons and foot coverings. He stood now, cracking his knuckles and watching Tarl. “Look at him—he’s twice your size.”

“Thanks for the reminder,” Tarl replied. Like Wurgest, he had divested himself of his weapons. He had also stripped off his leather vest, and now wore only his plaid leggings, with his feet bare. The gelid night air nipped at his bare skin although Tarl paid it no mind. If anything, he welcomed the chill. It kept his senses sharp, braced him for what was to come.

“He’ll kill you,” Donnel continued, undeterred by his brother’s dry response.

“Enough,” Tarl snapped. “You’re not helping.”

“I’m just stating a fact … hoping you’ll see sense.”

“Try having some faith in me—you know I’m good with my fists.”

Donnel raised a dark eyebrow. “Aye, and I also know you two are about to pummel each other over a woman you only just met today. Let her go—she’s not worth it.”

Tarl shook his head, stubbornness settling over him. Donnel spoke true, but he did not realize the connection that Tarl now felt for his new slave. He could not bear the thought of handing her back to Wurgest. It was not just what The Boar warrior would do to her—for she would likely not survive long afterward—but the fact that every time the woman’s luminous brown eyes settled upon him, Tarl felt something tug deep in his chest. He had to keep her safe.

“Ready, Eagle?” Wurgest bellowed from across the clearing. The warrior spat on the ground in a challenge. “Or are you pissing your breeches?”

Tarl smiled back, adrenalin surging through him. Wurgest’s insults did him a favor, for they drove out any fear. He stepped forward, loosening his shoulders as he did so. This was not going to be easy, but there was something about Wurgest’s leering face that made him want to smash his fist into it—repeatedly.

“Save your insults, Boar,” he replied. “You’ll need them later when I beat you.”

Wurgest gave a grating laugh and advanced toward him, flexing his meaty fists. “I’m going to enjoy this.”

 

Lucrezia tried nibbling at the bread but found it stuck in her craw. Her captor had placed a cup of wine next to her, which was difficult to drink with her hands bound. She managed eventually, even if the drink made her eyes water—she had tasted vinegar that was less acidic.

Sitting hunched by the fire, misery enshrouding her, she tried not to think of the life she had just lost—but she could not shut the images out.

Marcus. The evenings they spent together chatting over a meal or a cup of wine. Their comfortable, homely villa with the garden she had spent years cultivating.

Safety, comfort, and freedom—she had lost them all.

Lucrezia stared into the fire. Her eyes burned yet she did not cry. She wanted to—tears would have brought her relief of a sort. The grief, rage, and fear had burrowed deep within her, hollowing her out.

She was so immersed in her own thoughts that Lucrezia paid little mind to the noises beyond the tent. However, after a while, she became aware that the mood inside the encampment had changed.

Earlier, she had heard the rumble of men’s voices, mixed with the higher pitch of female ones. There had been laughter and amiable conversation—but now she could hear shouting.

Lucrezia stiffened, her ears straining.

Was the encampment under attack? Had reinforcements come to aid the Vindolanda garrison?

Hope surged through her. Perhaps all is not lost.

Long, tense moments passed, and slowly Lucrezia’s burgeoning hope flickered and died like a tender flame doused by a draft. It did not sound like the camp was under attack—screams and cries of fear did not follow the initial commotion. After a while, it dawned on her that some kind of spectacle must be going on outside. The noise was that of excitement, not warfare.

Despair crashed over her, and Lucrezia bowed her head.

Tears welled up then. For a moment she had dared to hope, and that had been her mistake. Hope had departed the moment she saw Marcus fall. She should have known then that there would be no rescue.

A sob rippled through her, and burying her face against her knees, Lucrezia wept at last.

 

Tarl stumbled, his vision blurring. Blood filled his mouth and his legs wobbled under him, but he managed to keep his feet. A yard away he watched Wurgest stagger back, swaying like a sapling caught in a storm, before the warrior crashed to the ground.

A roar went up, rising high above the encampment, causing the very air to tremble.

Eventually the crowd settled. The onlookers appeared to be collectively holding their breath—waiting for Wurgest to rise—but he did not. Tarl had knocked him out cold. After a prolonged fight, one in which Wurgest had nearly bested him, Tarl had punched him in the side of the head—the very same hit as last time.

Tarl’s own knees buckled, and he would have collapsed too if his brother had not stepped forward, catching him by the shoulder and hauling him upright.

“Well done.” Donnel slapped him on the back. “I wish Galan could be here to see this.”

Tarl huffed out an exhausted breath and spat out a gob of blood at his feet. It felt as if Wurgest had loosened a few teeth. It also hurt to breathe. He was not sure their elder brother would approve of this. Peace with his neighbors was important to Galan mac Muin—and although Tarl had bested Wurgest in a fair fight, he knew The Boar warrior would never forget this slight. He would nurse it like a bruise for a long while after this night.

“Well fought!” Macum shoved a cup of mead into Tarl’s hands with a grin. “Now let’s get back to celebrating.”

A chorus of approval went up around them. The Eagle warriors had gathered close now that the fight had ended, their faces flushed with excitement, their eyes gleaming with pride. Even Donnel was smiling.

The brothers’ gazes met, and Donnel’s mouth quirked, stretching into a rueful grin. “Impressive … although you’ll be black and blue tomorrow.”

Tarl laughed before wincing. Wurgest had indeed given him a good beating. Then he raised his cup to his brother. “Aye—but it was worth it.”

 

Lucrezia had fallen on her side and was dozing fitfully, when she heard someone enter the tent. Fatigue and exhaustion forgotten, she bolted upright, her gaze shifting to the entrance.

The fire pit had burned low, but it threw out enough light for her to recognize her captor. She went still as her gaze raked over him—taking in his swollen bottom lip and blood-streaked face. He walked with a limp and seemed to have difficulty breathing.

The noise outside had gone on for a long while, although Lucrezia had been too consumed by despair to pay it much mind. She realized now that there had been a fight, and that this man had been involved in it.

“Do I look that bad?” he asked, lowering himself with a groan to the ground on the opposite side of the fire pit.

“You look half-dead,” she replied, stumbling over the words. “Who did this?”

He stretched out onto his back, his face contorted with pain. “Who do you think?”

It was an odd question, and Lucrezia stared back at him for a moment, frowning in confusion. Then understanding dawned. The man who had attacked her—he must have tracked this one down and confronted him.

Lucrezia tried to suppress a shudder and failed. Watching her, her captor gave a half-smile. “Don’t worry, he won’t be bothering you again … not for a while at least.”


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Barbarian army—if you could call the unruly war band of savages that—remained a few furlongs north of the wall for another two days.

Lucrezia stayed in her tent the whole time, yet she did not relax for an instant. The rough laughter outside, the raised voices, and the occasional sounds of fighting between the northerners scared her. The savages were a rowdy lot, and drunken singing went on until late both nights. Throughout the day she sat tense, her senses alert, waiting for the moment one of the barbarians would burst into the tent and attack her. None did.

In the few words they shared, her captor had informed her that they were finishing pillaging the fort and outlying settlements and tending to their wounded. In those two days she did not see anyone besides him, although she heard plenty beyond the thin hide walls of her tent.

And all the while, Lucrezia waited for the moment her captor would force himself upon her.

He’s injured, she told herself. As soon as he’s well enough he will rape me.

She steeled herself for the moment she knew was inevitable, fear cramping her belly and stretching her nerves to breaking point. Lucrezia felt as if she dwelt within some dark dream. For the first time she realized how fragile her existence had been, for in the space of just one morning it had been torn from her.

She wondered what had become of the villa. The attackers would have trampled her lovely garden and looted the interior of her home by now.

They may not have discovered our gold, she consoled herself. Marcus had hidden the iron box of gold pieces under the flagstones in the inner courtyard. If I could escape and unearth our trove, I could flee south to safety and start again.

The thought made her pulse race. The wall only lay a handful of furlongs to the south of here. It was her only chance, and yet she sat here with her wrists bound in the midst of the enemy camp. Her villa might as well have sat across an uncharted sea, for it would be impossible to reach.

 

On the second evening of their stay north of the wall, the barbarian brought Lucrezia a meal of roast mutton, boiled onions and turnip, accompanied by coarse bread. He had to untie her hands in order for her to eat, and then he watched her from the other side of the fire as she devoured her supper.

She knew he was daring her to try and escape.

Lucrezia did not make such an attempt, even if she had thought of little else ever since her capture. This was the first proper meal she had eaten since the attack, and her appetite had now recovered.  She had to force herself not to shove the food into her mouth; if she ate too quickly she would make herself ill.

The barbarian watched her steadily, his bruised face thoughtful. After a short while he spoke.

“My name’s Tarl … what’s yours?”

She glanced up and swallowed a mouthful of mutton. She could feel grease running down her chin, but she was so hungry she did not care. “Lucrezia.”

His gaze narrowed. “Lutetsia.”

She shook her head. “Lou…. cret … zeeah.”

He smiled, an attractive expression despite his battered face. “Lucrezia.”

She nodded and looked away, tearing off a hunk of bread and taking a bite.

“It’s a strange, but nice name,” he commented.

Lucrezia shrugged. She cared not whether this Tarl liked her name. Wiping her mouth, she fixed him with a hard stare.

His smile faded. “I am sorry about your husband,” he said finally. “It’s hard to watch someone you love die, even if his death was an honorable one. I know, for I saw my own father die in battle.”

She stared back at him, his words making her want to lash out. She did not want his sympathy, or his opinions.

“Where will you take me?” she asked, the language her servants had taught her clumsy upon her tongue. She had to concentrate when he spoke, or she missed words.

“North,” he replied. “To my isle.”

She frowned. “Your isle?”

“It lies to the north-west of here—an island shaped like a lobster claw. We call it ‘The Winged Isle’. It is a misty island of mountains, moors, and cliffs, he replied, his expression turning wistful. “My people, The tribe of The Eagle, reside there.”

Lucrezia’s gaze went to the tattoo of an eagle he bore on his right bicep. She had seen similar tattoos—of different beasts—on the upper arms of the other warriors. The man who had tried to rape her had the mark of a boar. She tensed, her supper curdling in her belly. It sounded like a bleak feral place—so far from the civilized world that the Empire likely did not even know it existed.

“What will happen to me?” she asked finally, her voice husky. It was the question she had been dreading to ask, but she had to know the answer nonetheless.

Tarl held her gaze, his expression turning serious. “I will take you home with me,” he replied. “You are my slave.”

 Lucrezia swallowed. There were many types of slaves: those who tilled the fields, those who cleaned up after their masters … and those who warmed their beds. This man did not stare at her with feral hunger in his eyes, as some of the warriors had after the attack, but she still did not trust him in the least.

“I am a woman of noble birth,” she said finally, struggling to keep the panic out of her voice. “If you send word south of my capture, you could ask gold for me.”

He watched her, and even appeared to consider her words for a few moments, before shaking his head. “Too risky. You’ll be more use to me than gold.”

Fear fluttered up within her like a trapped bird. She could not bear the thought of becoming this man’s whore, of being forced to submit to him.

“I’ll fight you,” she growled, before shifting to her own tongue, Latin. “If you touch me, I’ll claw your eyes out.”

He drew back slightly. “You could show some gratitude,” he drawled, “after all I’ve done for you.”

Lucrezia’s body grew taut as outrage flowered within her, obliterating her hunger. “Why would I be grateful to you?” she ground out, “when you hold me here against my will?”

He shrugged. “Things could be far worse for you.”

She glared at him, fury pumping through her now. “I don’t see how.”

“Wurgest could own you—or he could be passing you around his men for sport.”

The words made her flinch, but they did not lessen her rage. “You have taken my freedom—if you want my gratitude, let me go.”

He gave a soft laugh. “I don’t think so—slaves are too valuable. A fierce woman like you will do well back at Dun Ringill.”

Lucrezia drew herself up in fury. “I’m a noble woman,” she spat. “I’m not some peasant you can put to work like an ox.”

The barbarian—Tarl—laughed at that. He actually threw back his head and roared. “Even our chieftain’s wife must earn her keep,” he said when he had managed to contain his mirth. “And a slave must work harder than most.”

Tears of rage stung Lucrezia’s eyes. “I’ll not suffer it,” she hissed at him, enraged beyond measure now. “I’ll take my own life rather than be your dog.”

Tarl held her gaze, the lingering amusement in his eyes fading. To her fury though, he merely shrugged. “Then I’ll have to keep a close eye on you, Lucrezia.”

 

 

It was a frosty dawn as the barbarians packed up and prepared to move north. Lucrezia stood amongst them, silent and sullen, a curtain of dark hair hanging in her face. She ignored everyone, including the men who whistled and called out to her. She would have stabbed them all to death, had she the means.

Now that the terror and shock of capture had passed, a simmering rage had settled deep within her. She wanted to take revenge upon them—every last man and woman who had shattered her world—yet she knew it to be impossible, and that made her all the angrier.

Her breath steamed in the cold damp air, and her cheeks stung from the chill. At least the hard frost promised a clear bright day ahead. It was also a relief to be out of that stifling tent, and be able to stand upright and move her legs.

Lucrezia looked down at her clothing; she still wore the stola she had been captured in. The long green garment hung over the woolen tunic she wore underneath, and thankfully kept the worst of the cold at bay. Her skin itched, and she longed to bathe, yet her captor had not brought her hot water and lye, even when she had asked for it. On her feet, she wore goatskin boots, and Tarl had given her a plaid cloak to wear around her shoulders.

Tarl.

She had never thought it possible to both hate and feel gratitude toward a person. Twice now he had defended her, and even taken a beating on her behalf.

To prevent his prize from being taken from him, she thought bitterly. In the two days she had spent with him, Lucrezia had deduced the sort of man Tarl was: arrogant, pigheaded, and prideful. She watched him now, strutting about the camp, laughing and joking with his warriors. He wore the mottled bruises and grazes on his face and body like badges of honor; and indeed they were, for he had bested a man twice his size in hand-to-hand combat.

Inhaling deeply, Lucrezia twisted her gaze away from Tarl and raised her bound wrists, brushing her hair out of her eyes. She looked south, her chest constricting. They were only a few furlongs north of the wall, and she knew that if she climbed that rise to the south she would see it before her.

The edge of the Empire—the limit of the civilized world.

The lands beyond were largely uncharted. There had been a few campaigns north over the years, and Lucrezia knew that centuries earlier Emperor Antoninus Pius had ordered the construction of another wallto the north of here. The Antonine Wall had held for only six years before the legions had been forced back to Hadrian’s Wall.

Tarl was taking her back to his home, an island off the north-western coast. The Winged Isle. She had never even heard of such a place.

Lucrezia sucked in another deep breath, struggling once more with the wave of panic that assailed her every time she thought of what lay before her.

The sea of men and women around Lucrezia cowed her too. Half-naked savages, their skin patterned with tattoos and blue painted designs. They terrified her—even the women. Like her own people many of them were dark-haired, but the similarities stopped there. They were wild, their lithe bodies barely covered in scraps of fur, leather, and plaid. They did not seem to notice the cold.

Her gaze traveled over the crowds of warriors, searching for her own people. In the distance she spied Claudia. The woman, around five years older than her with curly dark-brown hair, stood next to her captor—a man so hairy it was difficult to discern his features or his age. Claudia’s face was milk-white, her dark eyes glassy. She did not see Lucrezia, for her gaze had turned inward.

Lucrezia searched the crowd further, looking for Fabia, but could not see her. She wondered if the young woman had survived the past few days.

What will become of us?

“Ready, Lucrezia?”

She turned to find her barbarian captor waiting at her side. He was tall, and she had to raise her chin to meet his eye. He had taken to repeating her name often, ever since she had corrected his pronunciation. He appeared to revel in it, often rolling the ‘r’ deliberately. It galled her every time he said her name, and she wished she had refused to tell him of it.

Lucrezia thinned her lips and glared at him. Of course she was not ready—she never would be.

Panic assailed her then, and she looked south. This was it—her last chance to get back to the wall, to return to her villa and collect her gold. Yet the barbarian army formed a dark barrier between her and the gently rounded hills beyond. She could run now, even with her hands bound. Desperation would give her feet wings.

Despair washed over her as reality forced its way in, cutting through the panic that made her limbs tremble.

I would never make it.

 

They set off north as the winter sun rose into the eastern sky. Most of the warriors were on foot, having left their horses in settlements farther north, and as such it would be a journey of at least a moon’s turn before they reached home—possibly longer if the weather turned bitter as it had on the trip south.

Tarl did not mind the long journey, for it would give him a chance to tame the spitting she-cat who walked behind him. He had kept her wrists bound, for he realized she would bolt given the slightest chance, and tethered her to his belt with a long cord.

Lucrezia was in a foul mood this morning, although he did not blame her for it. He too would have resented being hauled away from his home to live amongst strangers. It changed nothing though—she was with him now, and she would soon come to accept that.

It did not take him long to realize that Lucrezia was unused to rough treatment. She wore a long garment, girded under the bust, made of heavy cloth that wrapped around her curvaceous form and hampered her stride. She lagged behind up the hills, and picked her way down the slopes.

After a while he grew irritated by her slowness and gave a gentle tug on the rope binding them.

“Come on, stop dawdling.”

Her walnut-colored eyes snapped up at him. Not for the first time, the force of this woman’s gaze meeting his caused Tarl’s breathing to quicken. Lucrezia had a presence, an energy that he found hard to ignore.

“I’m not dawdling,” she snarled, deliberately slowing her pace further. “I’m just not used to being dragged like a goat.”

Tarl smiled at her, enjoying the exchange. “So be it, but if you continue to drag your heels, I’ll have no choice but to sling you over my shoulder and carry you.”

This drew guffaws from some of the men around them.

The threat made Lucrezia blanch, her full lips thinning. Without another word, she quickened her step.

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“how’s that leg?”

Tarl glanced across at Donnel as they scaled a hill, and frowned. His brother was not the sort to complain about his injuries, but he could not hide the limp. Nor could he hide the look of discomfort on his face.

Donnel shrugged. “An annoyance … little more.”

Tarl’s frown deepened. He had seen the gash to Donnel’s right side, as well as the puncture wound to his right thigh—the latter especially was not an injury to take lightly.

“Make sure you get it cleaned and seen to when we stop for the day,” he replied, keeping his tone light. The old Donnel would not have minded his fussing, but these days his brother was easily irritated and equally quick to anger.

As expected Donnel snorted rudely and waved him away. “I’m fine.”

Tarl let the matter drop.

They crested the hill, a brisk westerly wind buffeting their faces, and paused for a moment. Lucrezia stopped a couple of feet behind them, her hair blowing around her as she surveyed her surroundings.

Tarl inhaled deeply, a grin spreading across his face. The air was cold—it stung his cheeks and made his eyes water—but from here it seemed as if they could see all the way home. This was the tallest hill around, and to the north he looked out across windswept rumpled hills that stretched to the horizon.

They had been traveling for five days, and had already left many of the other warriors behind. The two Eagle brothers were near the head of the band traveling north-west, and behind them the remainder of the party—most of whom were also traveling to The Winged Isle—were toiling up the steep hill. Somewhere in that group behind them, Wurgest also traveled.

Tarl’s grin faded. He avoided The Boar warrior whenever possible, but as they drew nearer home and the numbers of warriors traveling with them dwindled, it was becoming harder to keep away from him. Sooner or later, there would be another altercation—Tarl knew it. He might have beaten Wurgest in a fair fight, but the warrior was not one to suffer defeat with dignity.

Tarl turned to Lucrezia, tugging her forward so that she stood next to him on the brow of the hill. “What do you think? Is it not beautiful country?”

She surveyed the crumpled hills before them, her gaze narrowing. “It’s …” she paused here, searching for the word. “… bleak. Where are the trees?”

“They’re in the valleys and lowlands,” Tarl replied. “It’s too windy up here for trees.”

She screwed her face up at that. “Is your island like this too?”

“Aye, for the most part.”

Her shoulders slumped and the look of desolation on her face was such that Tarl felt an uncharacteristic stab of pity.

They continued across the rise of the hill, following Donnel who had limped on ahead.

“Where is your home?” Tarl asked. He was curious about this exotic-looking woman who hailed from a faraway land.

“It’s near Rome—the heart of the Empire,” she replied, her voice dull as if recalling it depressed her.

“And what is it like? I take it there are many trees?”

She nodded. “It is very different to here. The summer is very hot, and the winters are mild. We have … frosts … but it rarely snows.”

Tarl listened, intrigued. Her accent was thick, and she had to pause often as she searched for words, but he liked hearing about the world she had come from. He also loved hearing the sultry lilt of her voice. “What else is different?”

She huffed a great sigh. “Everything. The air smells of dry grass … hot earth and herbs. We have many more varieties of fruit and vegetables than in Britannia.”

Tarl frowned. “Britannia?”

She gave him a look that he did not like much—one full of scorn as if she looked upon the stupidest man ever born—before answering. “It’s the name of this land.”

Tarl frowned back at her. Although this woman captivated him, he disliked her haughtiness, the disdain she heaped upon him with just one look. Clearly, she thought herself superior to him in every way. Most of the time he let it pass, but on this occasion he felt his anger rise.

“That’s the name your people gave to this land—it’s not our name for it.”

She sniffed, dismissing his comment. “My people are the rulers of most of this great island—it’s their name that matters.”

Tarl’s gaze narrowed further. “They don’t rule here, and they never will. We now cross the lands of the Cruthini. They will never answer to your emperor. Nor will my people.”

She stared back at him, angry now herself. He was glad he had riled her, for he did not like this woman thinking she was cleverer than him. Tarl mac Muin was no fool.

 

Smoke rose up from the fire; the scent of peat drifting through the cold still air. It had been a windy day, but as often happened here in the north the weather settled at dusk.

Lucrezia perched on a rock next to the fire and warmed her chilled fingers over it. Around her, the men and women traveling with them made camp for the night.

They were a hardy lot; she would give them that.

Lucrezia reached the end of each day so weary that she could hardly move, yet these people bustled around her with industry. A few feet away, a woman plucked one of three water-fowl she had hunted in a nearby mere—a narrow stagnant-looking pool at the bottom of one of the endless wooded valleys they had crossed during the afternoon.

In spite of the chill, the woman was dressed scantily. She wore a long plaid skirt on her bottom half, but was virtually naked on top—her small breasts bound with a simple leather band. The fur mantle casually slung around her shoulders was the only thing protecting her from the cold.

Lucrezia glanced down at her own bust, wrapped under layers of fabric. She would not have liked to squeeze herself into such attire.

She wondered then about Claudia and Fabia. She had seen neither of the women since setting out on this journey. She thought about what might have befallen them, before pulling herself up short—it was best not to dwell on such things. Instead she turned her attention back to her surroundings.

Behind the woman who was plucking the fowl, a man was hauling chunks of peat over to another fire pit that would be soon lit. A collection of low hide tents rose around her, forming a tight circle around the fires.

Lucrezia’s stomach growled. After a day’s march, she was ravenous. She looked around for something to eat, but instead found Tarl standing behind her, digging through his leather pack.

“Do you have any healing skills?” he asked her.

Lucrezia regarded him coolly. The truth was she did not. She was an able cook and gardener, and could sew, but she had never been good with illness or injury, and felt queasy at the sight of blood. “Not really,” she admitted.

Tarl looked up, frowning. “My brother requires his wounds seen to—get yourself what you need and tend him.”

Lucrezia scowled back. Was this man an idiot? She had just told him she was not a healer. “I’m not—” she began.

“He’s over there.” Tarl jerked his head to the right, completely ignoring her protest. “Go on.”

Casting him a filthy look, Lucrezia rose from her stone seat. She stifled a groan as she did so, when her aching legs protested. A few feet away, Tarl’s brother Donnel sat upon a low boulder.

One look at him, and despite her lack of healing skills, Lucrezia knew he was seriously unwell. There was a pallor to his skin; even the bracing wind had not reddened his cheeks.

Reluctantly she approached him. Lucrezia had not exchanged a word with any of the barbarians, save Tarl—and was wary of this one named Donnel. He was a man of dark chiseled beauty, but there was no warmth on his face as he watched her approach. Lucrezia suppressed a shudder. In spite of her dislike for Tarl, she decided she preferred him to his sibling.

This man had dead eyes.

“Tarl says I am to clean your wounds,” she said haltingly. Although her mastery of their tongue had improved over the past few days, she had only spoken to Tarl and suddenly felt self-conscious; as if she was tripping over the words. However, the warrior seemed to understand her.

He gave an uninterested grunt. “Go on then.”

Lucrezia stepped closer. “Where are your wounds?”

Unspeaking, Donnel unlaced his leather vest and stripped it off, revealing an angry red slash-wound beneath.

“Your brother’s taken to sharing his wench has he, Battle Eagle?” one of the men nearby called out. This caused barks of laughter to echo across the hillside.

Clenching her jaw, Lucrezia turned back to Donnel. “Why do the men call you that?” she asked him, in an effort to distract herself from the unpleasant task ahead. “That is not your given name.”

Donnel gave a cold smile. “It took their fancy after the attack on the wall. I killed more than my fair share of Romans.”

Lucrezia’s belly twisted at this news, and she wished she had kept her mouth shut. This man she was supposed to help had butchered her own people.

She could not even look at him.

Instead she focused on the wound to his flank. It was deep but appeared to be healing well. There was no festering.

Lucrezia drew back, anxious to be away from this ‘Battle Eagle’ who was now watching her under lowered lids. He knew his proclamation had upset her, and he was observing her response.

“That injury does not need tending,” she said coolly. “Is that all?”

“I have a wound to my right thigh.”

“Show it to me then.”

She stepped back, to give him space to untie his breeches. The act caused a few of the other warriors around them to whistle and hoot.

Lucrezia tensed, averting her gaze. This situation was fast becoming unbearable. However, when she glanced back she found that Donnel had sat back down and covered his manhood.

Her gaze shifted to the injury on his right thigh, and all thought of discomfort flew from her mind. The puncture wound had soured; she could see that much. It was livid, swollen, and smelt vile.

Choking back a gag, Lucrezia forced herself to step forward once more. “Do you have a fever?” she asked.

Donnel shrugged, appearing bored by her question.

Lucrezia reached out and placed the back of her hand upon his brow. “You do,” she said crisply, before kneeling down so she could take a closer look at the festering wound. This close the stink was overwhelming. Lucrezia clapped a hand over her mouth and retched.

More laughter sounded behind them.

“I hope that wasn’t a reaction to spying your pole,” one of them called out.

Clenching her jaw, Lucrezia swiveled around, her gaze meeting Tarl’s. “Do you have a blade I can use?”

Tarl nodded, drawing a sharp knife from his waist.

“Put the blade in the fire,” she instructed, “to clean it.” She had seen healers do this before lancing a wound, although she was now feeling so sick at the thought that her hands were starting to tremble and she was sweating.

Tarl did as bid, before passing her the knife.

“Careful,” the female warrior who was still plucking the fowl called out. “Give her a knife and she’ll gut you with it.”

Both Tarl and Lucrezia ignored her. Their gazes met and held. “Is it bad?” he asked softly, worry in his eyes.

She nodded. “I told you … I’m no healer … but I know what a poisoned wound looks like.”

Donnel was watching her under a furrowed brow as she turned back to him. “Do you know what you’re doing?” he asked, his boredom disappearing now that Lucrezia held a blade.

“Not really,” she admitted, enjoying seeing alarm flare in his eyes. “Your brother told me to tend your wounds, and so I am.”

Donnel cast a dark look in Tarl’s direction. “I give you my thanks, brother.”

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“What do you plan to do?”

Tarl’s question vexed Lucrezia. This had been his idea, not hers.

“I will scrape away the dead skin and pus.” Her gorge rose as she said the words. “Then I will wash the wound with wine.”

Tarl nodded. “Good.”

“Good?” she snarled at him. Then, incensed, she swapped into her native tongue, Latin. “Since you’re so sure of this course of action, perhaps you’d like to lance the wound yourself?”

His blank look enraged her further.

“Careful,” Macum chortled from behind them. “She’ll go you with that knife, Tarl—mark my words.”

“Get on with it then,” Tarl said, gesturing to Donnel. “Unpleasant tasks are best done quickly.”

“My thanks once more, brother,” Donnel growled from behind him. “I just hope that she doesn’t slice my leg off in her haste.”

“Confuto, both of you,” Lucrezia snapped, ordering them to keep quiet in Latin. Steeling herself, she turned back to the loathsome wound. Tarl was right—she just needed to get this over with. She inched closer, ignoring the acid taste of bile in the back of her throat. Then she glanced over her shoulder at Tarl once more. “You’d better hold him still.”

It was a horrible exercise. The wound was worse up close, and as she scraped at it, pus spurted out at her. It was fortunate too that Tarl held his brother still, because Donnel gave a strangled cry and jerked back as Lucrezia cut away at the wound.

She did her best to scrape away the putrid flesh, before reaching for a skin of wine. She poured it over the gaping wound, and Donnel yelped like a scalded cat. He kicked out on reflex, knocking Lucrezia back onto her behind.

She glanced up and met his tear-filled but murderous gaze. “You enjoyed that?” he accused. He was even paler than earlier, his skin coated with sweat.

“Stop whining.” Tarl slapped him on the back. “The lass has done well. Now let her bind your leg, and we’ll be done.”

Tarl’s gaze met Lucrezia’s, and he grinned. “See, we’ll make a healer out of you yet.”

Lucrezia’s answering glare gave him her response.

 

Despite her hunger, Lucrezia had little appetite that evening. The stench of that wound seemed to linger in her nostrils, and the memory of it assailed her with every bite of water-fowl that she choked down.

They sat around one of the four glowing fire pits in the center of the encampment. There were still a few of them traveling together, and as such it was cramped by the fire. Lucrezia sat, squeezed in between Tarl and Donnel.

To her left, Tarl took a gulp of wine from a skin and offered it to Lucrezia. She shook her head and so he handed it to Donnel. Conversation ebbed and flowed around the hearth. Exhausted after the most grueling day yet, Lucrezia found herself nodding off. The warmth of the burning peat felt soporific, and she longed to stretch out inside the tent and sleep.

After a while exhaustion dragged her down into its embrace. She tilted forward, and would have fallen headfirst into the fire, if Tarl had not reached out and pulled her back.

The others around the fire hooted with laughter.

“She’s not hardy like our women,” one of the female warriors called out. “She won’t last a season on The Winged Isle.”

Blinking owl-like, Lucrezia looked around as the veil of sleep rolled back. Her body tensed as she realized they were all laughing at her.

“She’s tougher than she looks,” Tarl replied. “I saw her fight Wurgest. She has a brave heart.”

This drew some sniggers around the fire. Face burning with anger, Lucrezia glared down at her folded hands.

She hated these people. How dare they laugh and mock her, as if they were superior to her.

“Come,” Tarl whispered in her ear, his breath feathering across her skin. “Pay them no mind.”

With that, he rose to his feet, scooped her up into his arms, and carried her away from the fire—toward his tent.

Lucrezia was so shocked by his act that she did not fight him. One moment she had been kneeling at the fireside, the next she was pressed up against Tarl’s broad chest, his arms hooked under her knees and braced around her back.

Laughter and catcalls followed them, and Lucrezia’s mortification rose further.

They think he’s taking me away to claim me.

She began to struggle, but Tarl held her fast in an iron grip.

Yet by the time he ducked inside the tent, she was struggling like a fox caught in a trap, her fists beating against his chest.

To her fury, she realized that Tarl was laughing as he set her down.

Lucrezia rounded on him. “Bastardis!” she snarled in Latin. “How dare you! They’ll all think—”

“What do I care what they think?” Tarl answered, still grinning. “It’ll be true soon enough anyway.”

Lucrezia slapped him hard across the face. “No it won’t.”

In answer, he pulled her against him and kissed her.

The act was so sudden that she had no time to push him away, or to realize what was happening. Lucrezia had never experienced a kiss like it.

Her marriage with Marcus had been largely chaste. He had kissed her on their wedding night—during their first, and only, attempt at coupling—but had never after that.

She had no idea a kiss could be like this. So hot, wild, and brutal.

Tarl kissed her hungrily; his lips parting hers a heartbeat after their joining, his tongue delving within her mouth.

She should have been disgusted and repulsed at his act—for he was a barbarian, and even worse, her captor—but instead the taste and feel of him ignited something wild inside her.

For a few moments she melted against him, her mouth opening under his. The feel of his lean hard body pressed against her softness, the male taste of him, affected her like the strongest wine.

A deep longing rose within her; a need she had never before known that was so strong in its intensity that it overwhelmed her.

Sensing her reaction, Tarl pulled her hard against him. One hand slid through her hair to cup the back of her head, while the other ran down to the small of her back, spanning wide.

The feel of his manhood—hard as a rod of iron against her belly—shattered the enchantment he had spun over her.

Lucrezia yanked herself away, panting as she struggled to regain her breath. She stumbled back from him, and to her surprise Tarl let her go.

They stood a couple of feet apart staring at each other.

Lucrezia brought her fingers up to her lips, which felt swollen after the ferocity of his kiss. They ached for more, as did her traitorous body. The look he was giving her—one of melting lust—did not help either.

“I did not give you leave to kiss me,” she rasped.

Tarl gave her a slow infuriating smile. “You didn’t appear to mind it.”

“Canis,” she spat the word at him. “Dog—come near me again and I’ll claw your eyes out.”

His smile faded, and he cocked his head, studying her. “There’s no use denying it, Lucrezia,” he said gently. “You can hiss and spit all you like, but the fact remains you are mine.” His gaze lingered on her, raking her from head to toe and making her feel as if she stood before him naked. “Sooner or later you’ll have to accept that.”

“Get out!” she snarled, looking around for something to hurl at him. She was near to tears now; near losing her temper completely.

Tarl gave her one last lingering look before doing just that.

 

“That didn’t take long?” Donnel favored Tarl with an arch look when he rejoined him at the fireside. “I know you don’t like to waste time with wenches, but I’ve never known you complete the deed as fast as that.”

“Shut up,” Tarl growled, reaching for a skin of wine. He yanked off the stopper and took a deep draft. However, when he lowered it, he saw Donnel was grinning at him—evidently amused. “What?”

“She sent you away, I take it?”

Tarl nodded curtly. “She slapped me, I kissed her … and then she flew into a rage.”

“I don’t know what you expected,” Donnel drawled, taking the skin from his brother. “You’ve just torn her away from her home, her life. She’s probably still grieving for her husband. You said she saw him fall.”

Tarl went still. With the passing of the days he had forgotten that Lucrezia had been wedded. “She hardly seems the weeping widow,” he replied thoughtfully, remembering their kiss. He had never experienced the like before—the woman had burst into flames in his arms. He had not meant to kiss her, merely to carry her off to bed before the heckling around the fireside got worse. However, when she had slapped him, he had not been able to help himself.

She was bewitching when enraged: her high cheekbones accentuated, her brown eyes almost black, those full-lips beckoning.

“Some of us don’t wear our grief for others to see,” Donnel replied, his tone curt.

Surprised, Tarl glanced askance at him. Since coming south to join them on their campaign to the wall, Donnel had barely mentioned his loss. He and his wife, Luana, had been incredibly happy together, and her death had altered Donnel utterly. Yet he never spoke of it.

Now was the first time.

Aware that any words of sympathy would not be welcomed, Tarl lapsed into silence for a few moments and mulled over his brother’s words. Tarl knew he could be bull-headed sometimes. He often forgot other people’s needs, instead focusing on his own.

He had not imagined Lucrezia’s reaction to the kiss. Yet he knew that lust and willing were often separate things. He had not exactly given her a choice in the manner.

“Perhaps I should go and apologize,” he said eventually.

Donnel grunted, making it clear he had no wish to discuss the matter further. His few candid words appeared to have soured his mood.

With a huff of defeat, Tarl rose from the fireside and retreated to the tent. He was not sure how he would apologize—both his brothers were better with words than he was. He had never been good at speaking to women; Lucrezia was not the first he had angered. He was too blunt, too insensitive.

Still, he had to try. Donnel was right; the woman had recently lost her husband. She was here against her will, and although Tarl had now rightfully claimed her as his slave—something that was widely accepted amongst his people after battle—Lucrezia came from a different world. He imagined the Romans kept slaves, but a high born woman like his captive would struggle to accept her new existence.

I will try to speak softly to her, he counselled himself. I will assure her that I will never force myself upon her.

It was true—he had never felt the urge to rape a woman, and he was not about to start now.

Tarl’s musing ceased the moment he drew open the flap to the tent.

He had expected to see Lucrezia lying on the far side of the tent with her back to the fire pit. Although he had never seen her weep, he had imagined he would find her crying.

Yet the tent was empty.

Frozen in the entrance, Tarl’s gaze swept over the interior, resting upon the gap at the far end where someone had yanked two of the wooden pegs free.

Fool.

Too late, Tarl remembered that he had not bound her wrists as he usually did before leaving her alone in the tent. The kiss had distracted him, and Lucrezia had taken advantage of it the moment he had returned to the fireside.

His slave had escaped.

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

LUCREZIA RAN BLINDLY through the darkness.

Beyond the camp it was pitch-black; so dark she could not even see her hand in front of her face. Yet she ran on, stumbling and slipping on the dew-laden grass. Under normal circumstances such a flight would have scared her—she could be running headlong for a cliff or toward a deep mere—but at that moment she did not care.

She would rather be dead than suffer one more moment of captivity.

Even now, she could not believe her good fortune.

She had watched Tarl leave the tent, her hands balled into tight fists, and had remained there for a few moments, certain he would return and try to kiss her again. Yet he had not.

An instant later, the realization that he had departed without fastening her wrists dawned on her.

Escaping the tent had been less complicated than she had anticipated. The pegs had pulled out of the peaty ground with ease, and then a heartbeat later she was free—fleeing into the night as if pursued by demons.

She knew Tarl would realize his mistake soon enough, and would come after her. She had to ensure she was far from the camp when that happened.

Where will I go?

She pushed the question aside, wincing as her ankle rolled. She righted herself and hobbled on, clutching her cloak close. It did not matter where she went. She would run until her heart stopped, if that was what she must do. She did not hold out hope that she would be able to find her way back to the wall—for it lay too many days behind them now—yet she could lose herself in the wilderness all the same.

Even so, the darkness was frightening. It wrapped around her like chill death itself—an endless void. A moon’s cycle had just ended and there was no silvery face to light her way. Even the stars cast no light over the landscape, as the sky was cloudy.

She had twisted her ankle badly, and the pain slowed her down. Then she tripped over a rock and sprawled across the ground. The earth was chill beneath her hands, and she could feel a frost forming.

Clenching her jaw, Lucrezia clambered to her feet and hurried on, her breath hissing through her teeth as the pain in her ankle worsened.

Curse them all, but curse myself the most—I am useless.

She was not like those bold warrior women of the north who accompanied their men into battle. She was a gentlewoman, bred for a life managing a villa and servants, hosting dinners, and bearing children.

She was bungling this escape, and she knew it.

Tears stung her eyes. It did not matter that they blurred her vision, for she could not see a thing anyway. All she knew was that she was running in the general direction they had been traveling from—south-east. The landscape was an endless series of craggy hills covered in gorse and heather.

Somewhere in the distance, she heard the lonely, feral cry of a wolf. Fear prickled over her skin. In her haste to flee she had forgotten that there were other dangers in the night besides men.

After a while her lungs started to feel as if they were on fire, and her feet felt bloody and bruised from colliding with rocks and bramble during her flight. She had grown fitter over the past few days of travel, but she was not hardy like her captors.

She imagined Tarl chasing her, his long legs rapidly closing the distance between them. Unlike her, he would have a torch—and he would be much faster.

The thought gave Lucrezia’s feet wings. She cast aside her fear and exhaustion, and sprinted down an incline, her feet flying over the stony ground.

And then she tripped.

One moment she had been running down a hillside shrouded in the darkness, and the next she was flying through the air.

A heartbeat later, she knew no more.

 

Lucrezia awoke with a throbbing pain in her forehead.

Groaning, she slowly opened her eyes. For a moment she could not think where she was, or even who she was. She merely stared up at the stained hide roof of a tent, where long shadows stretched. Her limbs were chilled, although it was warm inside the tent.

My head hurts.

She swallowed, her mouth and throat dry, and turned her head right, away from the wall, in an effort to get her bearings.

A man sat at her side: tall, with wavy brown hair that flopped over one eye and a rugged yet handsome face. He wore a sleeveless leather vest and plaid leggings. Upon his right bicep he bore the tattoo of an eagle.

Lucrezia went rigid, as her memory rushed back. Her blissful state of confusion shattered.

Tarl’s iron-grey gaze met hers, and he frowned. “That was foolish.”

Lucrezia stared at him. Her mouth felt as if it was filled with wool, and the throbbing in her forehead made it difficult to concentrate. Instead of responding she merely glared at Tarl.

Her captor’s gaze narrowed further. “You could have been killed.”

Lucrezia’s mouth twisted. If only I had.

She had tripped and fallen, that much was evident. Not only that, but she had hit her head. Tentatively, she raised a trembling hand to her brow, and found a bandage covering it.

“You hit your head on a rock,” Tarl said. “I don’t know how long you were lying there before we found you—but if we had left you out all night you would have died from the cold.

Again … if only I had.

Tears blurred her vision then, and she squeezed her eyes shut. She had not wept in front of her captor till now, for she had not wanted him to see her grief, her despair. Yet what did it matter now? All hope had gone.

She had only had one chance of escape, and she had ruined it with her clumsiness. She was now doomed to spend the rest of her days with this odious barbarian.

Hot tears ran down her face, and her body trembled from the effort it took to contain her sobs. She wrapped her arms about herself to keep a leash on her despair, but it was like trying to hold back a spring tide—impossible.

All she could see was misery. The world had lost all its color, its light. Ignoring the thumping pain in her forehead, she rolled over onto her side and faced the wall, turning her back on Tarl.

She hoped he would go away. She just wanted to be alone with her sorrow.

 

Tarl watched the weeping woman. Lucrezia was unlike any female he had ever met, and she did not cry like others either. Most women cried easily, but he could see that her tears cost her. She was proud; he had known that from the first.

He watched her trembling shoulders and sought to control his own emotions.

Anger at her defiance.

Worry at the cut she had sustained to her forehead.

Relief that he had found her alive.

Infuriating woman. He and a group of Eagle warriors, his brother among them, had taken torches and went south in search of her, moments after he had discovered her gone.

It was Donnel who had found her, lying crumpled in the bottom of a gully. He had carried her back to camp and left her in Tarl’s tent, before sending out men to find his brother.

She would bear that scar on her forehead for the rest of her life.

Tarl remained at her side for some time in silence. He thought it best to let her cry for a while first before he attempted speaking with her. Like letting the blood flow from a soured wound to let the poison out, he hoped her tears would wash some of the bitterness out of her.

Eventually, after considering his thoughts a long while, he spoke. “You cannot keep fighting this, Lucrezia,” he began slowly. “The day we attacked the wall, the life you had was gone. Even if I had not found you, or had not taken you for my own, things would never have been the same for you.” He broke off here, watching her trembling shoulders go still. She was listening to him. “I know you don’t think so now, but your fate could have been much worse.”

He had heard tales around the fireside of what had happened to the other women their male warriors had found in Vindolanda. Some had been raped and killed, others ravished and taken as slaves. Some had taken their own lives before the invaders could reach them. Lucrezia at least had been spared that.

“I’m not as bad as you think,” he said after a lengthy pause. “I’ve my faults … plenty of them … but I would never hurt you. Life with me, upon my isle, isn’t what you would have chosen, but you will be safe with me.”

Tarl broke off here. He knew he was not an eloquent man. The words seemed bald, harsh, and not at all what he really wanted to say. After a few long moments, he tried again.

“I’m sorry for what happened earlier,” he said softly. “I shouldn’t have kissed you.” He saw that she was still listening to him. Her crying had stopped. “I know you had a husband—that you must grieve for him.”

He watched her turn to him. Her face was ashen, her features pinched, and her dark eyes glittered with tears. “Marcus was a good man,” she replied, her voice hoarse after weeping for so long. “He didn’t deserve to be cut down like that.”

Tarl held her gaze. He felt an unexpected stab of jealousy at the mention of her husband. Marcus—now that faceless centurion had a name. “Death in battle is a warrior’s death,” he replied. “The best end a man can hope for.”

Her full-lips compressed. Not for the first time, Tarl was reminded that they came from vastly different worlds; with different gods, values, and rituals. Lucrezia saw the world from another perspective. The realization both confused and fascinated him. He could never tire of a woman like this; there would always be something to learn about Lucrezia.

Tarl shifted closer to her. “I vow to treat you gently, if you can also make me a promise,” he said.

She stared at him, a shadow passing over her beautiful face. Even pale, and tear and blood-stained, she was lovely. “What promise?” she murmured eventually.

“To never again try to escape. It’s too dangerous. Next time, Wurgest could find you.”

His warning caused her to stiffen. He knew that Wurgest still terrified her; he had seen the way she went pale and shaky every time the warrior had walked by in the past days. He did not want to frighten her, yet he had to make her understand.

“Please, Lucrezia.” He loved the sound of her name, the way it rolled off his tongue. She had looked on the verge of denying him, but something in his voice caused her expression to soften.

After a few long moments she gave a small nod. “Very well.”

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

a bitter wind gusted across the hills with the rising of the sun. Lucrezia shivered, drawing her plaid cloak close. She had thought the climate harsh at Vindolanda, but it got worse the farther north she travelled.

The morning was bleak, the world divided into two colors: the pale grey of the sky and the dark green of the pine forest covering the undulating landscape. Lucrezia twisted around, doing a slow circuit as she surveyed her surroundings. Those hills seemed to go on forever in a vast jade sea.

Despair rose within her once more, mixed with dread. What sort of place was The Winged Isle? Could it be worse than this?

Completing her survey, Lucrezia was about to turn to Tarl, who was finishing rolling up the hide tent, when she felt a hard stare upon her.

Wurgest stood a few feet behind her, and he watched her like a wolf eyeing up a fat lamb.

Fear twisted her gut at the sight of him, but she stood her ground and returned his stare. After a few moments a smile twisted Wurgest’s face.

“I hear your slave has been giving you trouble,” he called out to Tarl. Of course, the whole camp would know about the events of last night, even if the bandage wrapped around Lucrezia’s forehead did not give it away. “Such a bold stare too … I think she’d prefer traveling with a Boar rather than an Eagle.”

Tarl glanced up from his work, his brow furrowing. “I fought you for her, Wurgest. There’s no point in being sore over it.”

Lucrezia clenched her jaw, and looked down at the wind-seared trampled grass beneath her feet. She hated hearing them discuss her as if she was a prize sow. She had softened a little toward Tarl last night, after he had spoken with her, but her hatred for him—and all of these people—resurfaced once more.

“Aye, you fought me for her,” Wurgest growled, loping closer so that he towered over where Tarl kneeled rolling up the tent. “But that doesn’t make it right—I found her first. She is mine.”

Tarl gave a heavy sigh and rose to his feet, eyeballing The Boar warrior. Lucrezia glanced up, her gaze settling upon them. She had never seen two men more dissimilar. Tarl was tall, but Wurgest was a giant, towering nearly a foot over him. Tarl was lean and muscular, whereas Wurgest was massively broad with huge biceps and thighs. Watching them, Lucrezia wondered how on earth Tarl had managed to best the warrior in hand-to-hand combat.

Her attention shifted to Tarl once more, and she noted the hardness of his face, the dangerous look in his grey eyes. It impressed her he did not appear the slightest bit cowed by Wurgest.

“I thought we had settled this?” Tarl replied, his voice cool and soft.

Wurgest shrugged. “You stole my prize … I find I can’t let that go.”

Tarl continued to watch him steadily. “You have no choice.”

Wurgest’s dark brows knotted together. “Feuds have been started over less, Eagle,” he growled. “My people are a mighty tribe … some would say the most numerous and powerful on the isle. I know your people have been weakened after fighting with The Wolf. Is your brother ready to begin another blood feud?”

A chill silence settled upon the top of that windy knoll. A few feet away, it was Donnel who broke it. “Are you threatening us?”

Wurgest turned, meeting Donnel’s eye. “Unless you can talk sense into your brother, Battle Eagle, then yes … it’s a real threat.”

“You aren’t taking her,” Tarl bit the words out.

Wurgest ignored him, his gaze fixed upon Donnel. It was a deliberate slight, one designed to enrage Tarl. Lucrezia knew that Tarl was the elder of the two brothers; it was his word that held the most weight, yet Wurgest spoke to Donnel as if Tarl had no standing, no honor.

Donnel’s face was impassive as he stared back at Wurgest. “Are your ears filled with wool, Boar? Everyone else here heard Tarl. Do you need it repeated?”

Wurgest’s face twisted. “I thought you were different to your brother … that you knew that the threat of blood feud should not be taken likely.”

“I do,” Donnel replied. “But my tribe has never bowed to threats, and we won’t start now.”

“Take what’s left of your warriors and leave us,” Tarl interjected. His voice was flat and hard. Lucrezia could see he was now having trouble keeping a leash on his temper. “From now on, our people travel separately.”

Wurgest slowly turned to him, the look on his face vicious enough to cause Lucrezia’s heart to start hammering.

They’re going to start fighting.

However, the warrior did not attack Tarl, but instead spat at his feet. “Boars have a long memory,” he growled, “and we will mark this day. My brother is chief of my tribe, and he will hear of this slight. Prepare yourself, Tarl mac Muin, because I’m coming for you.”

 

“That’s fine news to bring home to Galan,” Donnel quipped. “He’ll be overjoyed to hear we’ve made enemies with our neighbors.”

Tarl cast him an irritated look. He did not need his brother stating the obvious. “That bastard left me no choice. Honor was at stake.”

Donnel nodded, his mouth thinning. “Aye, and I feel as if we played right into his hands. He knew you wouldn’t give your slave up, but it’s about more than that now—he wants vengeance.”

They walked, side-by-side down a wide vale. A small company traveled with them now: just over forty Eagle and Wolf warriors. Former enemies, the two tribes had only recently set aside years of feuding. It had brought a rare moment of peace to their home, Dun Ringill. Their elder brother Galan had worked hard for that peace; Donnel was right, he would not welcome this news.

A somber mood settled over the company this morning. Donnel, although not as ashen as yesterday, still walked with a pronounced limp. Pale and shaken, still not recovered from her knock to the head, Lucrezia followed a few paces behind the brothers. As always, a length of rope connected her to Tarl. She had given him her word she would not try to escape again, but Tarl was not inclined to believe her.

His trust would have to be earned.

 

Lucrezia had a thumping headache by the time they stopped to rest at noon. The cut to her brow pulsed in time with her heartbeat. She sank down upon a boulder next to a trickling creek and closed her eyes; the world felt as if it was starting to spin.

“Are you unwell?”

She opened her eyes to find Tarl looming over her.

“Just a bit dizzy,” she muttered. “My head hurts.”

“Here.” He passed her a skin of wine. “Drink a bit—it’ll help.”

Lucrezia did not want to drink any of their foul wine, especially from a skin that was passed around the group, but after everything of late she did not have the energy to fight him.

Wordlessly, she took the skin, unstoppered it, and drank.

It was a rough wine, made from sour plum, and it bit into the back of her throat. Yet a few moments later, the pain in her head eased slightly.

She passed the skin back to Tarl. “Thank you.”

His mouth curved into a smile. It was the first time she had seen that expression in the past day; the incident with Wurgest had tainted his mood and dimmed his usually cocky good-humor. “My pleasure.”

She watched him untie the rope that connected them, and walk off, leaving her alone on the boulder. She was not really alone though, The Wolf and Eagle warriors that accompanied them had sat down around her and were sharing out dried meat, pieces of hard goat’s cheese, and stale oat cakes. There was no chance of Lucrezia running off while his attention was elsewhere.

One of the women, the warrior she had watched pluck and gut those water fowl, passed Lucrezia a strip of dried meat.

“Here—you need to eat something if you’re going to keep walking.”

Lucrezia nodded, taking the food. She eyed the woman before her; still in awe of her confidence and strength. She had never seen a female like her and found her intimidating. Roman women did not carry weapons and fight alongside their menfolk. The female warriors in this band seemed to share equal status to the men—a far cry from her old situation.

Tall and muscular, with her dark hair braided into intricate plaits, the woman before her bore an Eagle tattoo on her right bicep, marking her as part of Tarl’s tribe.

“Are all the women on The Winged Isle like you?” Lucrezia blurted the question out before she’d had time to edit her thoughts.

The woman started slightly, her sea-blue eyes narrowing, before she gave a wry smile. “No … not all.”

“So they’re not all fighters.”

The woman shook her head. “We’re all different. Most women learn to defend themselves. Some choose to train as warriors, while others focus on a more domestic life.” The warrior gave Lucrezia a long, assessing look. “There aren’t many like you though … decorative but with little use besides bearing children.”

Those words stung like a slap to the face. Lucrezia stared back at the woman for a few moments before drawing herself up, indignant. “I’m not decorative, as you put it. I’m a fine cook and gardener. Surely those abilities are worth something too.”

The warrior shrugged. “Aye, they’ll come in handy when we return to Dun Ringill—although you’ll be expected to develop more skills than that.”

Lucrezia tensed. She did not like the knowing smile that crept across the woman’s face as she said those words, or the look she cast in the direction that Tarl had gone. “I hope you have some talent in the furs too, for his sake.”

Bristling, Lucrezia took a bite of the meat; it was tough and dry but chewing it prevented her from spitting out angry words. She swallowed a mouthful to find the woman watching her, still smiling.

“I’m Alpia, by the way.”

Lucrezia nodded, not trusting herself to speak. She was still fuming over the woman’s inference that she would become Tarl’s bed slave.

Ignoring Lucrezia’s glowering, Alpia climbed up next to her on the boulder. After a grey morning, the sun had finally shown its face. There was little warmth in it, but nonetheless Lucrezia enjoyed the feel of it on her skin; the sun reminded her of home, of another life.

“We have gardens at Dun Ringill,” the warrior said after a lengthy pause, “and a good cook is always welcome at any hearth. I think you’ll find plenty to keep you busy.”

Lucrezia glanced over at her. “Is it a hard life … for women of your tribe?”

Alpia shrugged, taking a bite of cheese and chewing vigorously. “No harder than for the men. Only we risk dying in childbirth. I suppose since most men are warriors it evens things up a little.”

“But you’re a warrior too. Won’t you have children of your own one day?”

Alpia smiled. “Aye—but not yet. Peace is uncertain upon my isle. I will fight alongside the men for a while still.”

Silence stretched between the two women for a few moments before Lucrezia broke it. “Will there really be hostility between The Eagle and Boar tribes?” Despite her resentment toward her captives, she could not help but feel partially responsible for the souring of relations between former allies.

“It seems likely,” Alpia replied, frowning at the thought. “For one small woman, you cause a lot of trouble.”

Small. Lucrezia had never thought of herself that way—she was taller and curvier than her sisters and most of the women she had grown up around. However, compared to Alpia, who was tall enough to look most men in the eye, she supposed she did appear feeble.

“None of this was my choice,” she said, biting out the words as bitterness swamped her. “Tarl tore me away from my home, my people. He’s the one who has caused the trouble, not me.”

Alpia smiled. “You’ve got fire in your belly, I’ll give you that … and you tried to escape too, which was stupid but brave. Maybe you’re not as useless as you look.”

Lucrezia’s unladylike snort was her only reply.

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lucrezia’s first glimpse of The Winged Isle took her breath away.

She was not sure what she had been expecting, yet it was not this majesty. The morning sun sparkled over the waters of Loch Alsh—a vast lake that Tarl had told her led out to sea. To the west a rumpled headland of gold and green stood out against a wild sky. Beyond the headland rose the outlines of great carven peaks; each farther away than the last. The nearest were clad in jade woodland, whereas the most distant looked wreathed in smoke. It was like gazing upon eternity.

The landscape of the island was different to the mainland. On The Winged Isle great mountains thrust out of the sea and strained to touch the sky. It looked untamed, as if folk had never dwelt here.

“What do you think?”

Tarl’s voice, close to her ear, made Lucrezia tear her gaze away from the view. They sat in a small boat—just big enough to carry their party of seven—and crossed the narrow stretch of water between the headland and the isle. Lucrezia sat squeezed in between Tarl and Donnel. She glanced right, her gaze meeting Tarl’s.

“It’s not what I imagined,” she admitted. “The mountains … they’re very big.”

“It’s home.” The excitement in Tarl’s voice was impossible to miss. He leaned forward, his keen gaze drinking in the view. “I never fully appreciated the isle’s beauty until I left its shores.”

“Don’t listen to him,” Donnel slurred from next to her. “He’s got a short memory. Prepare yourself for months of fog in the spring, frozen winters, and clouds of biting midges in summer—and rain, lots of it.”

“Miserable bastard,” Tarl replied, although there was concern in his voice. Next to Lucrezia, Donnel lolled against the side of the boat. His eyes were glazed, his skin pale and bathed with sweat. Lucrezia could feel the heat of a raging fever emanating off him in waves.

Donnel was deathly ill; despite that Lucrezia had attempted to clean his wound many times more over the past ten days, it had soured. He could now barely walk.

Lucrezia frowned as she observed Donnel’s sweat-slicked face. She was not an expert on such matters, but the fever looked close to taking him.

“How far is it to your fort?” she asked Tarl.

“Once we reach Kyleakin, it’s a day and a half … if we have horses and ride hard,” he replied, his voice grim.

Lucrezia did not answer, although she wondered whether Donnel could last that long. Her own concern for Donnel’s wellbeing surprised her. Why should she care that he was sick? The man had slaughtered many centurions at the wall. She should be wishing him dead.

But she did not.

The past days had altered her feelings toward her captors. She was still an outsider, still a slave, but as her fluency in their language improved, and she was able to pick up the nuances in the banter around her, the fear that had constantly gnawed at her belly since her capture started to subside. She noted the cleverness of many of the warriors around her, their wit as they sat around the fire at night and swapped stories, or sang.

Like many Romans stationed at Britannia’s most remote corner of the Empire, she had believed her people to be superior to those they sought to rule. That was how the mighty Empire had been built; on the belief that the world needed Roman rule.

That the barbarians needed to be civilized.

For the first time, she saw what it was like for those on the receiving end. To these people, the Empire was a devouring beast, seeking to destroy their way of life—to dominate them.

As she followed her captors west now, Lucrezia found herself dwelling upon this increasingly, realizing what a sheltered existence she had led.

Despite herself, she had started to trust Tarl and his brother, and had developed an unlikely friendship with Alpia. The female warrior sat in front of her now, one of the four oarsmen that steered the small boat toward the shore. Behind them, a handful of other boats crossed the loch—filled with Eagle and Wolf warriors.

Fortunately, they had not seen Wurgest and his men during the remainder of the journey. Alpia had explained that The Boar warriors would most likely cross the loch farther south, for their fort—An Teanga—lay on the southern edge of The Winged Isle.

The boat slid onto the shingle shore, its bow crunching on the fine gravel. The two men at the front of the craft leaped off and pulled the boat out of the water. Alpia and the other oarsman followed close behind.

Lucrezia helped Tarl maneuver Donnel off the boat—a difficult task for he had trouble standing. When they got him to his feet, Donnel staggered and swayed like a drunk.

Upon the shore the party trudged up to where a cluster of low stacked-stone houses rose above them. The village of Kyleakin was tiny. It was the only settlement they had seen in days, yet it looked little more than a scattering of dwellings compared to the sprawl of Vindolanda.

Dwarfed by the might of the towering mountain ranges behind it, the village crouched upon the brow of a hill looking back over the glittering loch. In the distance Lucrezia could see the figures of men emerge from the settlement. Some of them carried weapons—a wise precaution, for they did not yet know who approached.

Lucrezia walked up the slope to the stone perimeter, following the group. Tarl no longer tied her to him these days; of late he had taken to trusting her. And she had done nothing to betray that trust.

Her one disastrous attempt at escape had been enough to warn her against trying it again. Where would she go anyway? The farther they traveled north, away from the edge of the Empire, the more detached she felt from her old life.

 

Tarl urged the shaggy grey pony forward and rode west. The stallion belonged to Donnel—a gift from their father years earlier—and Donnel had left it at Kyleakin before crossing to the mainland nearly three moons ago. The pony was a strong beast. Even so, it would tire quickly with having to carry two full-grown men.

Tarl sat on the pony’s bare back with Donnel perched in front of him. His brother was barely conscious, and Tarl had wrapped one arm around his chest to keep him upright, while he held onto the reins with the other.

He’s burning up.

Even with a chill north wind whistling over the hills, his brother glowed like an ember against him.

Anxiety curled up within Tarl. He had to get Donnel back to Dun Ringill—he had to find a healer who could save him.

The thunder of hoof-beats behind him reassured Tarl that the others were following. He had put Lucrezia on a horse with Alpia, and entrusted the warrior to look after his slave during the ride west. Lucrezia had been less troublesome of late at least. He was not sure if she had accepted her fate; only that she did not fight him constantly as she had on those first days of the journey.

They rode inland, over swiftly rising hills. A velvet-green moorland covered many parts of this lonely isle. Tarl breathed in the familiar scent of rich damp earth.

He leaned forward so that Donnel could hear him. “Smell that, brother? You’re home.”

Donnel merely uttered a soft groan, his head lolling against his chest as he struggled to remain upright. Tarl’s left arm burned from keeping him steady, and his back was starting to ache from the strain, but he did not dare stop to rest. The pony cantered up and down hills, and splashed over clear burns, its heavy feathered feet spitting up turf behind it.

Tarl tightened his grip on his brother, as he remembered the bleak look on Donnel’s face when he had joined them on their campaign to the south. Even if he was well enough to take in his surroundings, Tarl knew he would find little joy at being upon The Winged Isle once more.

There were too many memories here for him.

 

That evening they camped at the top of a tall hill as the sky turned mauve and the blustery wind died to a whisper.

The Eagle and Wolf warriors set about erecting a ring of tents and lighting a fire in the center. Tarl and Macum carried Donnel into one of the tents—for he could no longer walk at all—and did their best to make him comfortable.

Looking down at his brother’s pale sweat-streaked face, Tarl glanced over at Macum to see the warrior’s heavy brow furrow.

“He’s going to die,” Tarl murmured. “Isn’t he?”

Macum’s gaze flicked to him, before his mouth thinned. “He’s got to last just one more morning’s ride, and then he’s home.” The warrior glanced back down at Donnel. “Just hold on, lad.”

Tarl left Macum with Donnel, to see if his brother would take any water, and exited the tent into the gloaming. He found Lucrezia plucking a fowl by the fire, her face illuminated by the last rays of the setting sun.

He watched her, his chest constricting. His worry over Donnel had put him on edge, and he wished to speak to her of it. Yet he did not know where to begin.

Feeling his gaze upon her, Lucrezia glanced up, and frowned. The scar upon her brow was still there: a livid purple streak. However, it would fade to silver with time.

“How is he?” she asked.

Tarl walked over to the fire. “Worse.”

He saw the concern in those walnut eyes, and his chest constricted once more. After everything that had happened since the wall, he had not expected her to care what became of him or his brother.

Yet when she spoke again her voice was cool, and he thought he had imagined her reaction. “How much longer till we reach your fort?”

Tarl stretched. His body ached after a long day keeping Donnel from toppling off the back of his horse. “A morning’s ride, and then we’ll be there,” he replied. “Look to the west—see that hill?”

She did, her gaze shifting to where the silhouette of a mountain rose against the darkening sky.

“That’s Bienn na Caillich—the Red Hill. My people live on the other side.”

She nodded, her face unreadable. Then after a few moments, she went back to plucking the fowl. “What will become of me there?” she asked.

Tarl heard the tension in her voice, even if she was trying to appear aloof. Massaging a stiff muscle in his right shoulder, he moved around the edge of the crackling fire toward her. “No harm will come to you, if that’s what you’re afraid of?”

She glanced up. “How do your people treat slaves?”

He cocked his head, their gazes meeting. “Like yours do, I imagine.”

Her full mouth twisted. “My people are notoriously cruel to them, especially those who farm the land. Most masters revile their slaves. We have a saying: Every slave is an enemy.”

Tarl watched her, surprised. “Slaves are considered property among my people,” he replied. “Like furs, jewels, gold—and other spoils of war. A man with many slaves is rich indeed, but we don’t mistreat them.”

“And can a slave win their freedom?” she asked, holding his gaze.

Tarl’s mouth quirked. He could see what she was up to now. “Not usually.”

She straightened, her posture queenly as she continued to watch him. “Even among my people a slave can prove their worth and eventually earn their freedom. Why not here too?”

Tarl laughed. They were standing so close now he could see the flecks of gold in her brown eyes. “And what would you do with your freedom?” he asked. “How would you survive without my protection?”

He saw anger quicken in her eyes, and the air between them grew frosty. Lucrezia stepped back from him, frowning. “I’d manage.”

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

they rode into Dun Ringill at noon, as storm clouds gathered overhead. The Eagle warriors had left their Wolf companions behind a few furlongs back, to continue their journey north to Dun Ardtreck.

Thunder boomed in the distance; forks of lightning illuminating the craggy edge of the mountains to the north. The first splashes of rain caught Lucrezia in the face. She blinked droplets out of her eyes before returning her attention to their destination.

Dun Ringill was more impressive than she had imagined. After the shabby settlement of Kyleakin and the scattering of tiny villages they had passed on their journey west, she was not expecting much. But Dun Ringill made her catch her breath.

A large squat stone tower perched on the edge of a dark loch. It was an exposed spot, with little vegetation besides wind-seared grass to protect the fort from the prevailing winds.

Seated behind Alpia, holding onto the woman’s waist, Lucrezia took in the high outer wall they passed through on their way up to the fort. The men here hailed them, joy on their faces. Then, as they passed through into the village itself, folk flooded from low-slung dwellings made of wood and stone, with turf and sod roofs. Lucrezia watched them approach and heard the chatter of excited voices as thunder rumbled once more. It was closer now; the storm was not far off.

Up ahead, she saw Tarl leading the procession toward the fort. Donnel sat in front of him, slumped against his brother. He had been delirious that morning, as they had set out west once more. The wound upon his right thigh now bore purple streaks around it; a worrying sign indeed. Donnel needed the help of a skilled healer or he would die.

“Macum mac Colinn!” A tall woman with wild dark hair rushed forward, eyes gleaming. The warrior, Macum, swung down from his pony and strode to the woman, sweeping her up in his arms. Her cheeks were wet as he swung her round. Then he kissed her, and the gathering crowd around them roared its approval.

Watching them, Lucrezia’s throat constricted. To see a couple so pleased to see each other should have warmed her heart—but instead it just reminded her how alone she was. How lonely she had always been. She had dreamed of Marcus kissing her like that, but he had never looked at her with longing in his eyes.

The company of Eagle warriors did not tarry long at the outer wall, although the returning men and women did hand over iron boxes of loot, furs, and weapons to their kin as soon as they were inside Dun Ringill’s perimeter.

A tide of excited people swarmed around the new arrivals now, carrying them up the wide dirt track toward the high wall surrounding the stacked-stone tower that presided over it all.

Lucrezia realized then that some of the locals were staring at her. It was not just that she was a newcomer here, but that she was foreign. “That woman has golden skin, ma,” a little boy’s shrill voice carried across the crowd. “Why isn’t she pale like us?”

The company moved on, passing clusters of those low dwellings—built into the ground to protect the inhabitants from the bitter winters this far north. Smoke drifted up from slits in the sod roofs, and Lucrezia inhaled the aroma of baking bread and roasting meat. Her belly rumbled, reminding her that she had broken her fast with little more than a cup of watery broth that morning.

They rode through an archway into a wide yard, and the rain began in earnest, sweeping across the party in sheets. Icy needles peppered Lucrezia’s skin. She pulled up her hood in an effort to protect herself from it.

Thunder boomed directly overhead, and Alpia’s sturdy pony leaped forward, nearly unseating both its riders.

“Steady, boy.” Alpia leaned forward and stroked her mount’s furry neck. They were odd-looking ponies these: far smaller and heavier-set than the horses of Lucrezia’s homeland, with large feathery feet and thick manes and tails. They appeared tough beasts though, ideally suited to this harsh climate.

The company reached the stables. Lucrezia dismounted and took shelter from the driving rain. Lightning lit up the sky in bright flashes, causing the ponies to squeal and stamp their hooves.

They did not linger in the stables. Macum helped Tarl get Donnel down from the pony’s back and carry him out into the rain, toward the looming silhouette of the tower. Lucrezia and Alpia followed, ducking their heads against the heavy squall that plastered their cloaks to their bodies.

Stone steps, slippery with rain, led up to the entrance to the tower. Lucrezia peered up at it. This close, the structure blocked out the sky.

The travelers entered the fortress. Lucrezia pushed back her hood and, blinking water out of her eyes, glanced around her. She had expected an austere interior, with little adornment, but was surprised to find the tower a warm and welcoming space. It consisted of a circular hall with a raised platform running around the edge.

A great square stone hearth, in which chunks of peat glowed, dominated the center of the space. Alcoves, where the chief and his kin presumably slept, lined the walls. Heavy furs and tapestries covered the alcoves’ entrances. Large oaken beams, blackened by smoke and age hung high overhead, and there were two slits in the roof to let out the smoke.

A man and a woman approached them. The man was broad-shouldered and muscular, dressed head to toe in leather. He had long black hair and handsome, if slightly hawkish features. His eyes, the color of a stormy sea, gave him away.

This must be Galan, Tarl’s elder brother.

Next to Galan was a tall regal beauty, her dark hair braided down her back. Dressed in a flowing plaid skirt and a tight fitting leather vest, the chieftain’s wife stood proudly, her shoulders thrown back.

Captivated, Lucrezia stared at the chieftain’s wife. Tea, wife of Galan, appeared to be as fierce as Alpia.

“Greetings, brother.” Tarl called out. “Thought you’d seen the back of us, didn’t you? Yet here we are, returned from the south.”

“I knew you wouldn’t be that easy to get rid of.” Galan was smiling widely as he stepped forward and pulled Tarl into a bear-hug.

The other returning warriors crowded around them then, and Lucrezia witnessed much back-slapping. There was joy upon their faces, their excited voices echoing high into the rafters.

“What happened at the wall?” Galan asked.

Tarl grinned back. “We took it.”

Next to the chief, his wife’s gaze widened. “It fell?”

Tarl nodded. “Our numbers were great, but we had some help from within. We stormed the wall at dawn and it was ours by noon. All but two of our warriors have returned home.” He paused then, his gaze shifting to the limp body that hung between him and Macum. “Donnel fought like a man possessed. He earned a reputation for himself that day—the warriors now call him ‘Battle Eagle’.”

Pride lit in Galan’s eyes, but the joy on his face faded when he stepped closer to study Donnel. “He needs a healer.”

Tarl met his brother’s eye. “I know our last one died last winter … I hope you’ve replaced her?”

“We have,” Tea spoke up. “Eithni will see to him.”

No sooner had the chieftain’s wife spoken, when a small female with silky brown hair pushed her way forward to the front of the hall.

Tarl stiffened, frowning. “Who’s this?”

“My sister,” Tea replied. “You probably don’t remember … but she was at our handfasting.”

Looking on, Lucrezia noted there was little warmth in Tea’s voice when she spoke to Tarl. Likewise, his attitude toward her bordered on dismissive. Lucrezia wondered if they had parted on bad terms. Whatever it was though, Galan paid it no mind. Instead his attention remained upon Donnel.

“Can you help him, Eithni?” the chief asked.

The young woman laid a hand upon Donnel’s neck. The warrior was drifting in and out of consciousness; his sweat-streaked skin had gone grey and his limbs had started to twitch as the fever took hold. The healer bent close to him to check his pulse. Her hazel-green eyes were large upon a delicate heart-shaped face. “I’m not certain … yet,” she replied, her voice low and soft. Eithni’s gaze then flicked up, meeting Tarl’s. “Can you carry him to his alcove? I’ll need to examine him.”

Tarl nodded, before glancing back across at Galan. “Is his alcove still free?”

“Aye,” Galan replied. “Come.”

 

Tarl stood on the edge of the alcove, the one that Donnel had once shared with his wife Luana, and watched the healer work.

Although pretty, she was a pale timid-looking creature—nothing like her elder sister. Yet Eithni’s hands moved with deft self-assurance. She stripped the soiled bandages off Donnel’s wounded thigh, her nose wrinkling as the sweet stench of rotting flesh drifted through the alcove.

Tea was wrong. Tarl did remember her. The girl had accompanied the rest of the people of The Wolf to the Lochans of the Fair Folk last autumn, where Tea and Galan had wed.

Eithni glanced up, her gaze seeking Tarl’s. “How long has it been like this?”

“It started to sour a few days after we left the wall,” he replied, “but we managed to hold off the festering for a while. It started to worsen around five days ago.”

Her expression grew somber, and she glanced back down at Donnel’s face. “He has a son here,” she said. “Talor.”

Tarl nodded. “Aye, although I’ve not yet seen the lad.”

“He’s the image of his da,” she replied, her delicate features tightening. “If I don’t save Donnel, the boy will have lost both parents within his first few moons of life.”

Tarl tensed at her words. She was right, although truthfully he was more concerned about how he and Galan would react to losing Donnel. Little Talor was too young to remember his father, whereas the brothers had always been close.

“What do you need, Eithni?” A woman’s voice interrupted them. Tarl turned to see Tea standing in the entrance to the alcove.

The last time he had seen this woman, before departing for the wall, she and his brother had still been at war with each other. Tea, who was the sister of The Wolf chieftain, had unwillingly wed Galan, after the two tribes had made a pact to end years of blood feuding.

Watching her, Tarl wondered if relations between her and Galan had improved. She did not seem as bad tempered as the last time he had seen her, although her welcome toward him had been chill.

The healer favored Tea with a grateful smile. “Can you ask Ruith to bring me as much woundwort as she can find. I also need the strongest wine you have. I must clean this wound.”

Tea nodded, ignoring Tarl completely, before she turned and hurried away, the hanging swishing closed behind her.

 

 

With Donnel laid up, fighting a deadly fever, the mood was subdued in the fort that afternoon. A wild storm lashed the walls of the fort, while inside the crack and pop of the fire accompanied the rumble of conversation.

Tarl sat upon a wooden bench, a cup of mead on the table before him, and watched his brother under hooded lids. Galan could be difficult to read sometimes, and now was one such time. His face was impassive. Tea sat to Galan’s left, her expression wary as she waited for her husband to speak.

When Galan did, his voice was low. “The woman over there,” he indicated to where Lucrezia sat on the opposite side of the hall. “The one with the golden skin and dark eyes. Who is she?”

Tarl inhaled and picked up his cup. He took a deep draft, wondering why he did not relish the thought of telling Galan and Tea about his war prize. Taking slaves after battle was common practice—but he was reluctant to speak of Lucrezia nonetheless.

“She’s my slave,” he said after a few moments. “A Roman woman.” He glanced over his shoulder at where Lucrezia sat nursing a wooden cup with her gaze upon him. She knew he was speaking of her—had no doubt been waiting for this moment.

She still wore that long pleated dress, belted under the breasts, he had captured her in. It was now travel-stained and filthy. Her face was smudged with grime, her long raven hair tangled and in need of a wash; yet to him she had never looked lovelier.

She sat proudly, her eyes fearless, her face composed.

“Lucrezia,” he called to her. “Come.”

He saw her stiffen, her firm chin rise, and heard Tea stifle a laugh behind him. “A slave, eh? This one doesn’t like to be spoken to like a dog.”

Tarl clenched his jaw. Tea’s sharp tongue had not softened during his absence it seemed. Ignoring her, he kept his gaze upon Lucrezia before forcing out the next word. “Please.”

Reluctantly, she rose to her feet before crossing the wide space toward the raised wooden platform at the far end. Tarl found himself staring at her. Even dirty and tired, she walked like a queen.

Lucrezia approached them and stopped at the edge of the platform, her attention shifting to the chieftain and his wife.

After a moment’s silence Galan spoke. “Does she speak our tongue?”

Tarl nodded. “Aye … well enough.”

Galan fixed Lucrezia in a penetrating stare, one that made most warriors squirm. “Tell us then … how did you come to be my brother’s war prize?”

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“I already answered that,” Tarl interjected, irritated. He did not see why his brother was asking Lucrezia, and not him.

Galan did not look his way. “I’ve already heard your story,” he replied, “but now I want to hear hers.”

Tarl watched Lucrezia swallow and wet her lips, as if nervous. When she spoke her voice was husky and heavily accented. “They attacked Vindolanda just after daybreak,” she began, hesitant. “My husband had gone to the wall early, and I was busy with my morning chores, awaiting the arrival of my servants, when a man broke into my house and attacked me.”

Feeling Tea’s swift hard look of accusation upon him, Tarl raised his hands. “It wasn’t me,” he protested. “It was Wurgest … The Boar warrior who came here to gather men for the campaign south.”

“I remember him,” Galan replied, his gaze never leaving Lucrezia. “Go on.”

“The man, Wurgest …” Lucrezia said his name as if it were something foul, color flowering across her high cheekbones. “… tried to rape me.” She paused here, and to Tarl’s surprise her gaze flicked to him. “Tarl stopped him.”

Galan nodded, the grim look on his face softening a little. Tarl observed him, irritation rising. Why did he feel as if this was a test? His brother was ready to think the worst of him it seemed, and could not rely on him to tell the truth.

“And then?” Galan asked. “What happened?”

Lucrezia inhaled deeply, wrapping her arms about her torso as if to ward off the memory. “The wall fell. They slaughtered the garrison, and Tarl took me as his slave. We then traveled north. There’s nothing else to tell.”

Tarl lifted an eyebrow and turned back to Galan. “Satisfied?”

Galan gave a non-committal grunt and leaned back in the carved high-backed chair reserved for the chieftain. “So you’ve brought this woman home as your bed slave?”

Tarl heard the disapproval in Galan’s voice and clenched his jaw. That was so like Galan to look down his nose at him. However, before he could answer, Lucrezia beat him to it.

“I am not his bed slave.” She growled the words. “I will not lie with him.”

The words fell like heavy stones into a deep still loch. Embarrassment washed over Tarl, swiftly followed by anger.

After a moment of stunned surprise, Tea burst out laughing, her blue eyes twinkling. Next to her, Galan was actually smirking.

Tarl clenched his jaw so hard it ached. For the first time since meeting Lucrezia he was tempted to throw her over his shoulder, carry her off to his alcove and show her what happened to slaves who humiliated their masters. Yet she did not appear cowed as she glared back at him. Her expression was haughty, her jaw tense.

“It looks like you have yourself a problem, Tarl,” Galan said after a few moments, his mouth still twitching. “This female does not wish to warm your furs.” Beside the chief, Tea was now grinning, not bothering to hide her delight at his embarrassment. “Looks like you are a better man than I took you for,” she said, meeting his gaze. “You brought this beauty all the way home with you, never laid a finger on her … and this is how she repays you.”

Tarl merely glared at Tea. At that moment he did not trust himself to speak. They were both enjoying themselves at his expense.

“I wish for my freedom,” Lucrezia spoke up once more, her voice low and firm. There was no amusement in her tone; like Tarl she did not find this situation worthy of levity, although he knew it was for a different reason. Her attention was fixed upon Galan now. “Will you give it to me?”

Anger curled up from the pit of Tarl’s belly. He was tired of being made a fool of. “Enough, woman,” he snapped. “You forget your place.”

She ignored him, although he could see the desperation in her eyes. Was he really that repellent to her? He had felt a connection with Lucrezia since the first day of meeting her, and had come to believe she would soften toward him in time. He had kept up a front with the others—even his brother—letting them believe she was just a war prize, but truthfully she had always been much more to him than that.

Her reaction now made him wonder if he had made a huge mistake bringing her north. Perhaps he should have let her go as she had begged. She would not have lasted long, alone in the wilderness with roaming bands of men still north of the wall, but at least he would not have to look at the recrimination in her eyes. He had thought they had gotten closer over the journey, but she had merely swallowed her resentment and bided her time till they reached Dun Ringill.

Tarl turned his attention back to Galan. The amusement had now drained from his brother’s face, as he realized what Lucrezia was asking.

“She’s mine, brother.” Tarl growled. “Don’t interfere.”

“But she doesn’t want to lie with you,” Tea cut in. “What will you do? Force yourself upon her?”

Tarl clenched his jaw once more. He would not dignify that with an answer. “I don’t answer to you,” he replied, biting out the words before he met Galan’s eye once more. “I see not much has changed since I left here—your wife still has a serpent’s tongue.”

Galan snorted. “My wife has a point. I will not bid this woman to remain with you, if she does not wish it.”

Tarl drew himself up. “That’s not your decision to make.”

Galan’s face tightened and Tarl caught the smoldering look of warning in his eyes. “As long as I am chief of this tribe, it is.” His attention shifted to where Lucrezia stood, silently watching the argument between brothers. “Freedom is yours.”

 

Lucrezia stared at Galan mac Muin, stunned.

For a few heartbeats she merely stood there, hardly able to believe what she had just heard. The chieftain of The Eagle had just set her free.

Heart fluttering, she tore her gaze from Galan and met Tarl’s eye. She had never seen him look so angry, and for an instant she thought he might strike her. She shrank back slightly, and felt a nerve flicker in her cheek.

“Even after all we’ve been through,” he growled at her, “you’re still afraid of me?”

Lucrezia stiffened. “Perhaps … but at least I’m no longer your property.”

His lip curled, and he swung his gaze back to Galan. “Has that Wolf bitch unmanned you in my absence?” His insult rang out across the now silent feasting hall. “Time was, you’d not let a woman tell you what to do.”

Lucrezia watched Galan’s features tighten, saw his eyes narrow, and knew Tarl had succeeded in angering him.

“Call Tea that again, and I’ll knock you down,” Galan growled.

Tarl snarled. “Aye—she’s got you by the balls. It’s a wonder you take a piss without asking her permission.”

Galan smiled at that—however, it was a not a friendly expression but a warning that Tarl was treading a fine line. One more insult and he would get a fist in the teeth. “My word is final,” he replied, his voice low and threatening. “Argue it at your peril.”

The brothers’ gazes locked, and Lucrezia witnessed a battle of wills between two proud males who did not want to be the first to back down. However, Tarl was at a clear disadvantage. He was the younger brother, and Galan was his chief. Tarl would not win friends by challenging him over this.

Lucrezia’s heart was hammering against her ribs when Tarl tore his gaze from Galan’s and fixed his attention on her. She almost wilted under the fury in his stare. “The Reaper take you, Lucrezia,” he growled. “I wish I’d never set eyes on you.”

With that, he stepped down from the platform and strode out of the tower.

Lucrezia watched Tarl’s broad back disappear out into the storm. Then she glanced back at where the chief and his wife silently watched her.

Galan’s expression was still thunderous, while Tea looked pensive, her gaze hooded. “I don’t believe it,” Tea murmured. “Tarl mac Muin has actually let a woman get under his skin.”

Next to her Galan gave a dour laugh. “Aye, never thought I’d see the day.”

Tea leaned back in her chair and picked up her cup of mead, raising it to her lips. She took a measured sip before she met Lucrezia’s gaze once more. “This can only mean one thing … the man must be soft on you.”

Heat flared across Lucrezia’s chest, spreading up her neck. “No, he isn’t,” she replied stiffly. The man had just cursed her. “The only person Tarl cares about is himself.”

Galan huffed a sigh and glanced across at his wife. “What shall we do with this one, wife? Would you like to take her under your wing?”

Tea nodded, flicking her braid off her shoulder. “Willingly. She can live with Eithni for the time-being. I’m sure my sister won’t mind. We can find plenty to keep Lottcreta busy.”

Lucrezia cleared her throat. “My name is Lucrezia.”

Tea smiled. “I’m sure I’ll get the hang of your name eventually … in the meantime, there are more important matters to attend to.” Her gaze swept over Lucrezia from head to toe. “I’ll have a tub filled and some lye fetched so you can bathe. We’ll also need to find something to replace those rags you’re wearing.”

Lucrezia glanced down at her filthy stola. Her skin itched, and she was sure she stank. The thought of being able to wash away the journey’s grime and dress in clean clothes nearly brought her to tears.

Blinking, she glanced down at the rush-strewn floor beneath her feet. “Thank you.”

 

The tub was barely big enough for her to climb into—and the iron lip bit into her naked back—but it was still the best bath Lucrezia had ever had. She had never needed one so badly. It had been difficult to keep clean on the journey north; apart from a few hasty washes in a cold stream she had not bathed at all. And she had not been able to change her clothes.

Her grimy ragged stola sat in a heap a few feet away from the tub, and Tea had left her clean clothes to dress in once she had bathed.

Sighing, Lucrezia reached for the clay pot of lye that Tea had given her. She scooped a little out and applied it to a soft cloth, before starting to wash. It was wonderful to have a moment’s privacy—for she bathed alone in one of the tiny alcoves lining the space.

It was a warm windowless chamber, lit by two oil-filled cressets. Beyond the heavy fur hanging, which screened her from the rest of the hall, she heard the rumble of voices and the clang of iron pots as women prepared supper. All the while, the wind howled around the stone fort like a swarm of harpies.

Lucrezia washed her hair and then applied a fragrant oil that smelled of rosemary to it. The scent reminded her of home—of the orange and basil-infused oil she had once used on her hair and skin. She had taken those scents for granted at the time, although her chest constricted now when she realized she would never smell them again.

She would never again taste olive oil, or savor the tang of citrus. Nor would she ever inhale the scent of night flowering jasmine, or look up into a cloudless deep blue southern sky.

This cold, bleak, windy rock is now my home.

Tears pricked Lucrezia’s eyelids as the finality of it hit her. She should feel elated, since she was now a free woman once more—but she merely felt small and lost.

The situation had taken an unexpected turn upon arriving here. She could not believe Galan had set her free, although Tarl’s reaction had bothered her. She had seen the humiliation on his face, the fury in his eyes, when he loomed over her.

The whole scene had shamed him.

She should not feel empathy for him, but she did. He might be insensitive and overbearing, but he had saved her from Wurgest and had looked after her ever since. She did not hate him anymore. She just did not want to remain his slave. He should have realized that.

The water was growing cold, reminding Lucrezia that she had been soaking in the tub awhile. Reluctantly she rose to her feet, grabbed a large linen cloth that Tea had left for her, and dried herself off. She stepped out of the bath, her feet sinking into soft fur, and a sigh escaped her.

Heavens, it feels good to be clean.

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

galan found tarl standing atop the wall. The early evening was foul; sheets of icy rain swept across Dun Ringill. Sharp needles of rain peppered Galan’s face as he reached the top of the steps. The wind was so cold up here it made his eyes water.

Tarl was a dark cloaked silhouette against the gloom. He stood, back straight, spear in hand as he stared west across the rough surface of Loch Slapin. The sun was setting; a faint glow through the storm clouds on the horizon.

Galan strode down the high inner wall that encircled the fort, and stepped up next to Tarl. He pulled up the hood of his fur mantle and cast his brother a speculative look. “You just got back … you don’t have to take watch.”

Tarl glanced over at him. His face was stony, his voice cold, when he answered. “I prefer it out here.”

Galan snorted and dipped his head as another rain squall lashed across the wall. “Aye—who needs a roaring fire?”

An uncomfortable silence fell between the brothers then, and stretched out until Galan eventually broke it. “I know you don’t wish to hear this,” he began, “but it had to done. We had to set that woman free.”

Tarl’s jaw clenched, his gaze flicking to Galan. “We didn’t—you did.”

“All the same, it had to be this way.”

Galan saw his brother’s features tighten, and the familiar stubbornness light in his eyes. “A warrior can take a slave as a spoil of war,” Tarl replied. “I did nothing wrong.”

“Aye, but usually such men rape the woman first and drag her home by the hair. Instead you saved her from Wurgest and protected her.”

Tarl glowered at him. “And that’s a problem?”

Galan gave a sigh of frustration, pulling his fur mantle closer as a vicious gust of wind buffeted the wall. “No … only that since you clearly care for the girl, it’s best you set her free and allow her to make choices for herself.” He fixed Tarl in a level stare. “Otherwise you risk making her hate you.”

Tarl looked back at him. His face was still hard, but Galan saw the resentment in his eyes cool. “When did you become such an expert on women?” he asked sullenly.

Galan laughed, shattering the tension between them. “Since I wed one.”

Tarl snorted. “Last time I saw you and Tea, she couldn’t stand you. What’s changed?”

Galan favored his brother with an enigmatic smile. “Many things, brother.” He sobered then, remembering the events over the long winter. There had been much pain mixed in with joy. “It’s a long tale, and one best shared over a cup of mead. Come—let’s get inside before the next squall hits. No one will threaten our walls tonight.”

He watched Tarl hesitate, and knew he was struggling with his pride, his conscience. “I was rude earlier,” Tarl muttered after a few moments. “I’m sorry if I gave offense to you … or Tea.”

Galan shrugged. He had come close to blackening Tarl’s eye, but now that the red haze of rage had subsided he was glad he had kept his temper. “None taken.” He slung his arm around Tarl’s shoulders. “Come on … join us for supper. The women have prepared venison stew and apple cakes to celebrate your return.”

 

Tarl followed his brother down from the wall, casting a look over his shoulder at the darkening, windswept hillside to the east. Galan was right; there was little risk of attack in such weather. Even so, he was wary.

Wurgest’s threats had followed him home. He had seen the look on The Boar warrior’s face the last time they had locked gazes—the fury, the hatred. Wurgest would not let things lie, he knew that much. Sooner or later, Tarl would have to warn Galan about him—yet he did not feel up to it tonight.

The two men crossed the yard, climbed the rain-slick stone steps and re-entered the tower together. A fug of warm smoky air and the aroma of simmering venison stew greeted them.

Men, women, and children sat at long tables arranged in a square around the fire pit—their gazes tracking Galan and his brother. Among them he spotted Ruith, the bandruí—seer—of Dun Ringill. Small and fey, her greying dark hair plaited into intricate braids, Ruith was a welcome sight indeed. Meeting his eye, the woman’s angular face split into a wide smile. “Tarl!”

“Welcome home!” One of the men farther along the table called out. It was Cal, a rangy warrior with a craggy face. He was sitting next to his wife—Deri—a plump young woman with thick brown hair and laughing green eyes. The warriors seated around them—Namet, Lutrin, and Ru—all lifted their cups and grinned at Tarl.

Tarl smiled back at them—he had grown up training alongside these men. They were Galan’s most trusted warriors. It pleased him more than he had expected to see their faces again.

Cal got to his feet and crushed Tarl in a bear hug, before shoving a cup of mead in his hand. “Come, take a seat. We want to hear all about this great victory to the south.”

“Later,” Galan rumbled, pushing Tarl toward the raised platform where Tea was dishing up earthen bowls of stew. “Once his belly’s full and we’ve caught up, you can talk Tarl’s ear off all night.”

Upon the platform Tarl took a seat at the table to his brother’s right. Tea moved around the table, pouring cups of bramble wine from a bronze ewer. Tarl avoided her gaze as she passed by. He was still chafing at his humiliation earlier, and the part Tea had played in it.

A moment later Eithni joined them and took a seat to Tarl’s right—a seat that would usually be reserved for the youngest of the three brothers.

“How is Donnel?” Tarl asked, dreading the answer. He had stayed in the alcove while the healer had lanced his brother’s leg, and had seen just how bad the infection was.

Eithni glanced up, her steady gaze meeting his. “He’s strong,” she said quietly, “and he’s fighting it, but it’s too early to tell if he will rally.” She paused here, perhaps seeing the grief in Tarl’s eyes. “I have applied woundwort to it, and have given him something to help fight the fever—the rest is up to him. I shall know more in the morning.”

Tarl nodded. “Thank you … I wish we could have gotten him to you sooner.”

Eithni gave him a brittle smile and looked away. Tarl noted the wariness in her and wondered at it. He sensed an underlying current of fear, even if she took great pains to hide it. In spite of the confidence and skill he had witnessed earlier, this young woman was fragile—wounded.

So different to Tea.

Tarl glanced right and noticed that Galan’s wife was watching him. Despite the insults he had cast her way earlier, he saw no resentment in her gaze. Even so, he felt uncomfortable pinned under her stare.

“I’ve seen to your friend,” Tea said, passing a basket of hot bread down the table. “She has bathed … and I’ve given her clean clothes. She’s eating alone tonight, to give her a chance to recover from the journey. Eithni has her own hut in the village so she can live with her for the moment.”

Tarl nodded curtly. He had no wish to speak of Lucrezia. Just the thought of her soured his mood. Instead he turned his attention to the stew; its aroma was making his empty belly growl, his mouth water. He took a mouthful and stifled a groan of pleasure. He had forgotten what food could taste like.

For a while he focused entirely on his supper, ignoring those around him. He was halfway through his third bowl when he became aware of someone’s gaze boring into him. Tarl glanced up, to find Galan watching him.

“Still got the appetite of a wolf, I see,” his brother noted.

“Aye—after months of weevil-infested bread and half-rotten meat this tastes like a gift from the gods.” Tarl wiped his mouth on the back of his hand and leaned back, easing his full stomach. His gaze flicked to Tea then. “Did you make this?”

She raised a dark eyebrow. “I helped. I’m not much of a cook … if you want to thank someone for the meal, it’s Deri.”

Tarl’s gaze flicked between his sister-by-marriage and his brother. Now that his hunger had been sated, he could focus on other things; namely how Galan’s marriage was faring.

“Galan tells me much has changed since I left.”

She nodded, her attention flicking to her husband. “How much have you told him?”

“Nothing,” Galan replied, reaching out and draping a possessive arm around Tea’s shoulders. “Shall you tell the tale, or shall I?”

Their gazes held, and Tarl saw the raw energy between them, the attraction that lay heavily upon the air like musk. He did not need any explanation to see the pair of them were in love. Galan did not give much away; he was a man who kept his feelings to himself for the most part. Yet Tarl saw his brother’s eyes shine now as he gazed upon Tea.

“You can,” Tea replied, leaning against him.

“Over the bitter months, Tea and I gradually grew closer,” Galan began. “Especially after Mid-Winter Fire.”

Tea’s cheeks reddened slightly at this, and Tarl swallowed a smile. It was clear what had happened at the celebration of the long night.

Galan’s face hardened then, as he continued his story. “However, shortly after, news reached me that Wolf warriors had started raiding our villages again, murdering and pillaging as they went.”

Tarl tensed. “Loc broke the peace?”

Galan shook his head. “I thought so at first, but later I discovered that one of his warriors—a man named Forcus—murdered The Wolf chieftain and took his place. It was him who ordered the attacks.” His brother broke off there, regret upon his face as he glanced down at Tea.

“Before I learned the truth, I turned on Tea … and while I was out dealing with the raiders, she fled back to Dun Ardtreck. I followed, arriving to see her kill Forcus for his treachery.” A beat of hesitation followed before Galan finished his tale. “Eventually Tea forgave me for believing the worst of Loc, and of her, and peace was restored.”

Tea placed a hand over Galan’s, squeezing gently. Her eyes glittered as she gazed up at him. “There was fault on both sides,” she murmured, the hoarse edge to her voice giving her away. “I was too proud … too blinded by prejudice.”

Watching them, Tarl felt his throat tighten. The reaction took him by surprise, for emotional scenes between others usually left him cold.

I’m going soft, he thought, reaching for his cup of mead. What do I care, if they’re in love?

Shoving his reaction aside, he glanced at Eithni. She was sitting demurely beside him, her slender fingers wrapped around a cup of wine she had barely taken a sip from.

“So you came to live at Dun Ringill,” he observed. “Don’t you miss Dun Ardtreck and your kin there?”

Eithni shook her head, her face pensive. “I’m closer to Tea than anyone—and with Loc gone I’m happier here. Our cousin, Wid, rules the broch now.”

“Eithni is more than welcome to remain here,” Galan rumbled. “Dun Ringill has never had such a gifted healer.”

Tarl saw the young woman’s cheeks pinken slightly at the compliment, and he smiled. Few women were immune to Galan’s charm. Ruith had told Tarl once that Galan possessed a raw masculinity that no woman could resist—only Tea had managed, and only for a time.

Tarl’s smile faded. He did not have that effect on women.

He had plowed his share, and never had trouble finding a female to warm his furs, but none blushed in his presence, or had ever gazed up at him with adoration the way Tea did with Galan now.

Lucrezia could not stand to look at him. He had saved her, protected her, and brought her to his home, and yet she wanted nothing to do with him.

Tarl tightened his grip on his cup, staring down at it. He had thought going away to war would change things, would ease that crippling sense of inadequacy he had always felt in Galan’s presence. He had gone south, fought bravely, and even come back with a war prize, and yet nothing had changed.

In truth, he was still the troublesome second son, doomed to lurk forever in his brother’s shadow. It did not matter how many battles he fought or enemies he killed.

I will never be Galan’s equal.

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“I’ve made up a bed for you in the right-hand corner.”

Lucrezia stood inside the doorway of the tiny hut as Eithni bustled around inside, lighting cressets and stirring the lumps of peat in the hearth. Despite the storm that still raged outside, it was surprisingly warm in here. She’d had to step down to enter the hut, and the thatched roof was barely a foot above her head, but rather than feeling claustrophobic the dwelling had a homely welcoming air.

Even in the gloom Lucrezia could see that Eithni kept a clean and tidy home. Bunches of dried herbs hung from the rafters and fresh straw covered the dirt floor. Lucrezia’s gaze shifted between the two piles of furs in the far corners of the hut.

“Are you sure you’re happy with this arrangement?” Lucrezia asked after an awkward pause. “I’m sorry to be a burden on you.”

Eithni straightened up from where she had been stoking the hearth and pushed a lock of hair from her eyes. The smile she gave Lucrezia lit up the cold night. “It’s no trouble at all. Truthfully, I’m glad of the company. I like having my own home, but some evenings I wish for someone to talk to.” The girl waved her over to the hearth. “Close the door and hang up your mantle—that wind is cold enough to freeze your giblets.”

Smiling despite herself Lucrezia did as bid and moved over to the hearth, her long plaid skirt swishing as she walked. She was still getting used to this new attire, especially the leather vest laced tight across her breasts. The garment showed far too much cleavage for her liking. She would need to ask Tea if she had something less revealing for her to wear.

“You must be exhausted,” Eithni said, watching her with curiosity. “You’ve traveled so far.”

Lucrezia nodded, moving over to the pile of furs Eithni had indicated earlier. There was a long linen tunic folded on top for her to sleep in. Looking at it, Lucrezia felt tears sting her eyelids. These days the slightest human kindness made her want to weep. She blinked the tears back and began to unlace her vest. Behind her she heard Eithni moving around, doing a few chores before retiring for the night.

The linen shift felt soft and cool against her skin and Lucrezia was shivering as she climbed into the furs. She snuggled in deep, sighing as their warmth enveloped her. Eithni was right; she was exhausted.

A hot bath and a bowl of venison stew and fresh bread had relaxed her considerably. For the first time since the attack, she was not on edge. For the first time, she felt pampered.

“Are you warm enough?” Eithni asked.

“Yes.”

“Let me know, if you need anything.”

Lucrezia wanted to reply, to thank her, but it felt as if a heavy fog had just settled over her, pushing her down into the furs. A moment later she fell into a heavy dreamless sleep.

 

Lucrezia awoke to the aroma of something sweet and nutty baking.

Her belly growled, and she opened her eyes. A few feet away, Eithni was bent over an iron griddle, where she was frying oatcakes. Sensing movement from the nest of furs in the corner, Eithni glanced up and smiled.

“You’re awake. Just in time to break your fast.”

Lucrezia sat up and rubbed her eyes. “Those cakes smell delicious.”

Eithni’s smile widened. “Wait till you try them with honey and butter.”

Not needing any further invitation, Lucrezia climbed out of the furs, shucked off her tunic and hastily pulled on her clothes. The air inside the hut was warm, and she could no longer hear the howling of the wind beyond. It seemed the storm had spent itself overnight.

Seated upon low stools next to the hearth, the two women ate oatcakes dripping with butter and honey, washed down with cups of goat’s milk. It was possibly the most delicious meal Lucrezia had ever eaten.

Licking honey off her fingers, she eyed Eithni, who was brushing crumbs off her skirt. The girl was a fey-looking creature. Much smaller and finely-boned than her elder sister, with floss-like brown hair, timid hazel-green eyes, and a delicately featured face—Eithni looked an unlikely healer. Yet Lucrezia had caught some of the conversation in the fort the afternoon before; this young woman was said to have great talent.

“I must go to Donnel,” Eithni said, rising to her feet. Her pretty face clouded as she spoke. “I hope he has survived the night.”

Lucrezia stood up, frowning. “Can you heal him?”

Eithni’s lips thinned. “We shall see.” The young woman went to a long table behind her and picked up a basket filled with clay bottles, pots, and leather pouches. Eithni hooked it over one arm, before turning to Lucrezia. “Can you come with me to tend him, Luc … cezia?” She said her name slowly, struggling with the ‘r’. “I could do with some help.”

Lucrezia nodded. She had gotten over her squeamishness on the journey here. Still, it was not a task she relished.

The women left Eithni’s hut and stepped outside into a crisp clear morning. Surprised, Lucrezia looked around her. The weather the day before had made it difficult to take in her surroundings.

This morning, bathed in sunshine, Dun Ringill looked even more impressive than the day before. The sky was huge, a pale blue swathe, and the air smelled of the sea. To the west she could see the sparkling waters of a great salt-water lake, while rolling bare hills stretched east. To the north, she could see the faint outline of great jagged mountains.

Eithni’s dwelling sat on the outskirts of the village, not far from the gate leading east. Another hut, this one with a wild-looking garden and a clutch of pecking fowl, sat a few feet away.

Seeing the direction of Lucrezia’s gaze, Eithni smiled. “That’s Ruith’s home. She’s the bandruí for our people.”

“Bandruí?” Lucrezia did not recognize the word.

“A seer. Do your people have them?”

Lucrezia nodded, her gaze returning to the hovel. She noted smoke rising from the roof, indicating that its inhabitant was awake. “We do … although it’s becoming part of the old ways.”

“Really?” Eithni led the way through the village, toward the wall rimming the squat stone fort. “Are your people’s ways very different to ours?”

Lucrezia huffed out a breath, swallowing a bitter laugh. “Yes.”

Eithni glanced over at her, eyes widening. “You must tell me more of where you’re from.”

Lucrezia resisted the urge to grimace. It was painful to think of her home, even if she had left it years earlier. “Maybe later,” she murmured. “When we have more time.”

She saw the look of eager curiosity upon Eithni’s face. Her interest was well and truly piqued now; yet Lucrezia looked away, focusing upon the massive round tower that loomed before them.

 

“His fever is lower … I think he is winning the fight.”

Eithni removed her hand from Donnel’s brow and straightened up, her attention shifting to the small group gathered in the alcove. Galan, Tea, and Tarl stood just inside the entrance, their faces taut, their gazes clouded as they watched Eithni check on Donnel.

Seated behind Eithni, an earthen bowl of hot water in her hands, Lucrezia kept her own gaze downcast. She had avoided looking at Tarl since he entered the alcove.

“And his wound?” Galan asked. The chief stepped forward and hunkered down at the foot of the furs, his eyes dark with worry as he watched his brother. “Does it continue to fester?”

Eithni moved to the bandage covering Donnel’s right thigh, and wordlessly unwrapped it. Peering over her shoulder, Lucrezia saw at a glance that the wound looked better than it had the last time she had seen it.

The healer gave a nod. “It’s healing.”

The whoosh of a sharply exhaled breath made Lucrezia glance up—and she looked straight into Tarl’s eyes. They glistened with relief, and she glimpsed a rare moment of vulnerability on his face. He looked close to tears. However, seeing Lucrezia’s gaze upon him, Tarl’s face shuttered.

A shield slammed down between them.

Lucrezia looked away, focusing once more on the bowl of steaming water she held. Once again, she felt a pang when she remembered the humiliation she had caused him the day before—how the two brothers had nearly come to blows because of her. It had been necessary for her to stand up for herself—she had been terrified she would get no other chance to have her say—and yet she did not want to cause a family rift.

I will speak with him later, she promised herself. I will make him understand.

“When will he wake up?” Tea’s voice intruded upon her thoughts. “He sleeps as if dead.”

“It’s a healing sleep,” Eithni replied, a smile in her voice. “It’s doing him good. His body needs all its energy to fight this. I’d say he’ll awake tomorrow. In the meantime, I’ll dress his wound again.”

 

 

Lucrezia emerged from the alcove, an empty bowl in hand, and walked over to the fire pit, where a young woman with brown hair was tending a stew. She remembered the woman’s name: Deri. Eithni had introduced them earlier.

Deri favored her with a warm smile as she approached, her gaze going to the bowl. “Do you need more hot water?”

Lucrezia nodded, suddenly shy. The folk of Dun Ringill had little reason to be warm to her, and truthfully she had expected a cool welcome from them. Yet all who had spoken to her thus far had been friendly.

Perhaps the goings-on far to the south were too distant to impact upon their daily lives. The Roman Empire and the threat it posed would not seem real to most of them. She could understand why; this isle felt cut off from the rest of the world.

She spied Tarl then. Like her, he had bathed since his arrival and wore fresh clothing. His brown hair curled damply at the base of his neck, and he wore a pair of plaid breeches with a form-fitting leather vest. Watching him, Lucrezia was forced to admit he was fair to look upon. Tarl was probably one of the most aggravating males she had ever met, but easily one of the most attractive. He held himself with an unconscious male arrogance that she found exciting, even if she fought the reaction.

Tarl had been standing upon the platform at the far end of the hall, speaking with the chieftain. However, now he turned and made his way toward the doorway leading out of the fort. He stared straight ahead, giving no sign that he had seen her.

Lucrezia knew he was deliberately ignoring her.

Part of her wanted to let him be; life would certainly be easier here if Tarl left her alone. But another side of her needed to face him—needed to clear the air.

She glanced back at Deri, before setting the bowl down near the hearth. “I’ll be back in a moment.”

Lucrezia hurried across the hall, catching up with Tarl as he reached the top of the steps leading down to the yard below.

“Tarl—wait!”

She saw his shoulders stiffen at the sound of her voice. Yet he halted, and turned to face her. The look on his face was not welcoming. “What?”

Lucrezia approached him, and halted when they stood around two feet apart. Suddenly she regretted her impulse to follow him. She had not thought this through properly, and now had no idea what to say. “I just wanted to …” she began, stumbling over the words, “… to see how you were.” Lucrezia inwardly cringed as she finished the sentence—she sounded simple-minded.

He scowled. “What? Concerned for my well-being now, are you?”

Lucrezia flushed. “No … it’s just that I didn’t …” she paused, searching for the words. “I didn’t mean to embarrass you yesterday.”

Tarl folded his arms across his broad chest and looked down his nose at her. “That didn’t appear to concern you then.” His gaze shifted from her face, tracking a lazy progress down the length of her body. Tarl’s expression changed, and his mouth curved. “Your new attire suits you.”

Lucrezia swallowed, fighting a growing irritation. Why did he always have to make things so difficult? Suddenly her palm itched to slap him. Straightening her spine, she folded her arms across her breasts. She was aware that the leather vest pushed them up and exposed too much skin. She really had to speak to Tea about finding clothing that covered her up properly.

“Surely you can see why I had to speak up?” she asked stiffly, ignoring his comment about her dress. “You’d have done the same.”

His scowl returned. “You don’t know what I’d do.”

“I know enough to realize you would never suffer being a slave,” she countered. “And neither will I.”

His mouth thinned. “So you’re free—what now? Are you going to follow Eithni around and spend your days lancing boils and removing splinters?”

His derision enraged her. He was so rude that she now bitterly regretted coming after him. This man did not deserve her empathy. He deserved a knee in the cods.

“I don’t know yet,” she replied. “Who knows—perhaps I’ll train to be a warrior, like Alpia or Tea.”

Tarl threw back his head and laughed, the sound echoing out across the walls. His eyes were twinkling when their gazes met once more. “I suggest you choose a gentler pursuit, Lucrezia. Being a warrior isn’t a game. You’d likely cut off your own foot by accident.”

Lucrezia glared at him, so enraged that she was momentarily robbed of the power of speech. “We’ll see about that,” she eventually replied through gritted teeth.

Then she turned on her heel and stalked back inside the fort.

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

lucrezia approached the warriors’ fighting enclosure warily. Clutching a basket of eggs she had just collected, she had been on her way back to the fort when she spotted Tea and Alpia sparring together.

The enclosure sat behind the tower, next to the armory—a long windowless building where the warriors kept their swords, knifes, axes, and shields. Lucrezia had deliberately taken this route back after collecting the eggs, knowing that her path would take her past where the female warriors were currently training.

However, now that she neared them, she doubted her decision. She had been brought up a lady; bred to keep house and bear children. Yet that life, that future, was gone. Even if they had stayed together, she and Marcus would never have had a family.

It was time to leave the past behind and set about starting again. Here upon The Winged Isle, she could reinvent herself.

Then she thought about Tarl’s reaction the day before when she had told him of her idea. Instead of putting her off, his derision had merely galvanized her resolve.

Lucrezia clenched her jaw. I’ll show him.

Tea and Alpia had not seen her yet. Although it was a chill morning, with a thin milky mist drifting in off the loch, both women were dressed lightly. Alpia wore little more than a leather breast-band, and a skirt that reached mid-thigh; while Tea wore a short sleeveless plaid tunic, belted at the waist, with splits in the sides to give her freedom of movement. They were both barefoot, and wore leather arm guards.

Clack. Clack. Clack. Thud.

The wooden swords they sparred with moved in a blur. The warriors circled each other, legs bent slightly—swords in their right hands, square shields in their left.

Lucrezia watched them, entranced.

They dressed like the gladiators she had seen fight in the Colosseum, on the rare times her family had journeyed into Rome. Their villa was situated in the rolling countryside north of the capital, and Lucrezia’s mother hated the city. Even so, she remembered watching gladiators—men and women alike—fight in the pit against each other, as well as wild animals such as tigers, wolves, and bears. That had been a brutal blood-thirsty spectacle, but watching these two women spar was entirely different.

This was exciting.

Alpia and Tea were both tall and strong. Although she was much smaller than them, Lucrezia knew she was not a physically weak woman. She was not like Eithni, who was slender and delicate as a reed.

Alpia thrust her wooden sword down, in an attempt to get under Tea’s guard. However, her opponent slammed her shield earthward at the same moment—ripping Alpia’s blade from her grip. The weapon spun away and clattered against the edge of the wood perimeter where Lucrezia watched.

Alpia cursed, nursing bruised knuckles. “You’re good,” she said.

Breathing heavily, Tea grinned back. “I’ve been practicing with Galan over the winter.”

Alpia snorted. “That man’s nearly impossible to beat.”

The women noted Lucrezia then.

“Good morning,” Alpia greeted her.

Lucrezia gave a hesitant smile back. “Morning.”

“Enjoyed the spectacle?” Tea asked, still grinning. Her skin flushed, her dark-blue eyes sparkling, the chieftain’s wife was stunning. Lucrezia had felt a little in awe of her upon her arrival here, but now she felt out of her depth.

Would Tea and Alpia laugh at her as Tarl had?

“I did,” Lucrezia replied, meeting Tea’s eye, “and I was wondering if you could teach me … I want to train to be a warrior.”

A stunned silence followed. To her relief, neither woman looked amused by her request. Yet Alpia did look genuinely puzzled. “Really? You want to learn how to fight?”

Lucrezia nodded, swallowing as nervousness assailed her once more. “I want to learn how to defend myself. That day when Wurgest broke into my house, I was defenseless against him … weak. I never want to feel like that again.”

“Even the strongest woman is physically weaker than most men,” Tea replied, her smile fading. “It’s not strength that matters—it’s skill.”

“I would like to learn that skill,” Lucrezia replied, undaunted.

Tea glanced over at Alpia, who raised a dark eyebrow. “She might be small, but she’s no coward. She even tried to escape on the way north.”

Tea smiled before focusing her attention on Lucrezia once more. “Tarl bit off more than he could chew with you … serves him right.”

A smile curved Lucrezia’s mouth. She liked Tea; she had from the moment they first met. She was a woman who knew her own worth, who submitted to no man. It amazed Lucrezia that Galan did not seem to mind having such a feisty wife; but if anything, he appeared to delight in Tea’s outspoken and headstrong ways.

After a moment Tea nodded. “Alright then, I can start training you.” Her smile then turned rueful. “Although Alpia will have to take over once my belly starts to grow.”

Both Lucrezia and Alpia went still.

“You’re with child?” Alpia asked, her eyes widening.

“Aye.” Tea reached down and patted her flat abdomen. “I’ve missed two moon-flows, so I was beginning to suspect something had changed—Eithni confirmed it this morning. The babe is due in the autumn, just before Gateway.”

Joy blossomed on Alpia’s face. She dropped her shield and stepped forward, hugging Tea. Her eyes were gleaming when she drew back. “There have been too few births in this fort of late … and too many warriors who never came back from battle. This is wonderful news.”

“Does Galan know yet?” Lucrezia asked. Although she was happy for Tea, she suddenly felt as if she was intruding. She was a newcomer here and did not belong. Still, she surprised herself by wanting to be part of things, to be included.

“I told him this morning.” A soft look settled upon Tea’s face as she spoke of her husband. “He is delighted.”

 

 

Donnel awoke while Lucrezia was helping Eithni change his dressings.

His long dark eyelashes fluttered against his pale cheeks, and he gave a soft groan.

“Eithni,” Lucrezia murmured, having spotted him stir. “He’s coming to.”

The healer wiped her hands on a cloth and swiveled, her gaze settling upon Donnel’s face. A moment later his eyes flickered open.

Donnel and the healer stared at each other for a heartbeat.

“Who are you?” he croaked.

“My name is Eithni,” the young woman replied, still holding his gaze. “I’m Tea’s younger sister, and a healer.”

Donnel’s gaze narrowed before recognition flared. “Aye … I remember now,” he rasped. “You were at the handfasting.”

Eithni nodded, before she glanced over at Lucrezia. “Some water, please.”

Lucrezia filled a cup from the ewer on the low table beside the furs, while Eithni propped Donnel up. Then Lucrezia lifted the cup to his lips so he could drink.

After taking two gulps, Donnel let out a long sigh. “That’s better … I don’t remember much since we landed at Kyleakin. How long has it been since we got back?”

“Two days,” Lucrezia replied. “You were delirious for most of the journey here. Tarl carried you on horseback. You don’t remember?”

Donnel shook his head. “Everything is foggy.”

“You’ve been very ill,” Eithni murmured.

Donnel’s mouth thinned, and his gaze shifted to his right thigh. “Will I lose my leg?”

Eithni shook her head. “I caught it in time. Worry not … you will live to see your son grow.”

His gaze flicked up, meeting Eithni’s once more. Watching him, Lucrezia saw a shadow pass over his grey eyes. His handsome features hardened, and it was as if an iron gate slammed down between patient and healer.

Donnel leaned back against the furs, his eyes closing. “Where are my brothers? I want to see them.”

 

“Welcome home.” Galan stood over Donnel, a smile softening his hawkish features. “You had us all worried.”

“Not me,” Tarl piped up from behind him. He stepped around his elder brother’s breadth, so that he could meet Donnel’s eye. “I knew the Battle Eagle would rally.”

Donnel rolled his eyes. “I wish you would stop calling me that.”

Tarl snorted. “Why not? It’s a name well earned.”

“I heard of the battle at the wall,” Galan added. “You fought well … you did this tribe proud.”

Donnel’s face tightened at this, although he did not reply.

The three brothers were alone in the alcove. Eithni and Lucrezia had left them. Tarl saw the bleakness in Donnel’s eyes and felt misgiving stir within him. Even after his brush with death, his brother had not cast aside his bitterness and rancor. He was not pleased to have been saved. Tarl had not missed the look of recrimination Donnel had given Eithni as she had packed up her herbs and bandages and left the alcove.

Donnel’s lack of gratitude was embarrassing, although the healer seemed oblivious to it. She appeared not to expect anyone’s thanks.

Alone with his brothers, Donnel did not bother to hide his ill-humor. “Can I be moved to another alcove?” he asked. “I’d rather not stay in here.”

Galan watched him, his brow furrowing. “Aye—I’m sure Tarl won’t mind swapping.”

“Of course not,” Tarl answered. “This alcove’s twice the size of mine.”

As the only unwed brother, Tarl had the smallest lodgings. Still, he understood why Donnel did not wish to remain in here; the memories of the life he had shared with Luana must be painful.

Donnel took a sip of water from the cup he cradled, his gaze sweeping over Tarl before it came to rest upon Galan. “So you’ve met Tarl’s slave then?”

Tarl stiffened. Trust Donnel to bring this up. “Lucrezia’s not my slave anymore,” he muttered. “Galan freed her.”

Donnel’s gaze widened. “Why would you do that?”

“I did him a favor, although he hasn’t come to realize it yet,” Galan replied, an enigmatic smile tugging at his mouth. “This woman from the south doesn’t take kindly to being anyone’s property. Tea told me earlier that she’s agreed to train Lucrezia as a warrior.”

Tarl snorted. “I can’t believe she’s agreed to it—Lucrezia’s no fighter.”

Galan shrugged. “We shall see.”

Tarl turned his attention back to Donnel, to see his brother watching him closely. “And what of Wurgest … have you decided what to do about him?”

Silence fell in the alcove. Tarl shifted uncomfortably, cursing Donnel. He wished the bastard was still unconscious. He had done nothing but cause trouble since waking up.

“What of Wurgest?” Galan asked quietly—too quietly.

Donnel’s attention flicked to Tarl, his mouth thinning. “You haven’t told him, have you?”

“Not yet,” Tarl grumbled, glowering at Donnel. “I was waiting for the right moment.”

Galan turned to him, his eyes hard. “The right moment? All I know is that you saved Lucrezia from him. What did you leave out?”

Tarl fought the urge to squirm. Suddenly the alcove seemed too small, airless. He had hoped this discussion could wait. “I had to knock Wurgest out in order to save Lucrezia,” he began, folding his arms across his chest defensively. “And when I saw him again, he felt he had a score to settle. We fought hand-to-hand for her, and I won. I thought he’d let it lie after that … but it seems I’ve offended his honor. Lucrezia no longer matters to him. It’s my blood he wants.”

Galan stared at him, the silence between them deafening in the small space. When the eldest brother did answer, his voice was a low growl. “So you’re telling me that barely three moons after I make peace with The Wolf, you’ve made The Boar our enemy?”

Tarl tensed. “You make it sound like it was my fault. I couldn’t let him rape her … how was I to know he’d take it personally?”

Galan muttered a curse and raked a hand through his long dark hair. “You act without thinking, Tarl … you always have.”

“So you’d have let him rape her?”

“No—but I wouldn’t have gone out of my way to enrage him.”

Tarl stepped forward, dropping his hands to his sides and clenching them. “What makes you think I did?”

Galan glared at him. “Because the urge comes as naturally to you as breathing. For the love of the gods, Tarl. You didn’t just put your own neck on the line. You’ve put this whole tribe at risk.”

The chieftain of The Eagles turned on his heel and strode out of the alcove, the heavy fur hanging swishing shut behind him. Tarl watched him go, bitterness tasting like gall in his mouth.

Long moments of silence passed before he glanced Donnel’s way. His brother sat, propped up with furs, watching him, his face an impassive mask.

“Thank you, brother,” Tarl said, sarcasm dripping from every word. “I wanted to wait before telling him.”

“There was never going to be a right moment,” Donnel replied, not remotely contrite. “It’s better to get it over with.”

Tarl ground his jaw. “You could have interrupted … could have put him straight.”

Donnel raised a dark eyebrow. “You can fight your own battles.”

Tarl barked out an angry laugh. “Really? You saw the look on Galan’s face—he was only too ready to put the blame on me.”

Donnel shrugged. “He’s only looking out for the tribe. Any threat to our safety falls on his shoulders.”

Tarl shook his head, turning away from Donnel. There was no point in discussing this with him. Donnel had never understood the tension between his elder brothers, had never understood why Galan’s good opinion had always meant so much to Tarl.

It did not matter what he did, he would always be the reckless one, the selfish one.

For the first time Tarl wished he had never come home.

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

lucrezia dropped the sword with a yelp, as if it had just stung her, and jumped back.

A few yards away, Tea gave her an arch look. “You can’t squeal every time I attack you. The blades are wooden, not iron. The worst you’ll get is a few bruises.”

Lucrezia nodded, her face flaming. She understood that, and yet every time the chieftain’s wife advanced upon her, she lost her nerve. Although she was loath to admit it, she wondered if Tarl had not been right after all. Perhaps she had been foolish to pursue this.

“Pick up your sword and raise your shield,” Tea commanded, circling her. “Let’s go again.”

Doing as bid, Lucrezia flexed her fingers on the hilt of the practice sword and gamely lifted her rectangular shield with her left arm. Although it was made of pine, the shield was starting to make her arm ache; she was weaker than she realized. The warriors made this look much easier than it really was.

“Bend your knees,” Tea continued, “and stop hiding behind your shield. It’s not just there to protect you—use it to fight with. Our shields aren’t large, so it’s not going to offer you a lot of protection. Move with it.”

Lucrezia swallowed. “I’ll try.”

The pair of them sparred alone in the fighting enclosure. It was a drizzly chill morning, just after dawn, and when Lucrezia had crawled from her furs she had asked herself what she was doing. He decision to start her warrior training had not seemed such a bright one as she stumbled out into the dark morning.

“I’m going to take a swing at you,” Tea told her, continuing to circle her like a wolf. “And I want to you to block my blade. Use your shield, not your sword, and extend your shield arm with force.”

“Very well,” Lucrezia replied, with more confidence than she actually felt.

A heartbeat later, Tea attacked. Lucrezia hastily raised her shield, although the blow of impact sent her stumbling back. The edge of the shield smacked her across the bridge of her nose, making her eyes water.

“Not strong enough,” Tea barked. “Every movement you make has to have force behind it. Focus!”

“I thought I was,” Lucrezia muttered.

Tea shook her head. “Think on someone who has angered you.” She favored Lucrezia with a wicked smile. “Next time I attack, imagine it’s their face you’re slamming your shield into.”

Lucrezia snorted. They both knew who Tea had in mind. She thought on her conversation with Tarl days earlier. He had been so rude, so dismissive. They had avoided each other since, and she intended to go on ignoring him. Anger surged within her as she remembered the mockery on his face when she had shared her plans with him. Then she recalled how he had never intended to free her, and her ire rose further.

“I’m ready,” she said between gritted teeth, circling Tea and bending her knees as instructed. “Come at me again.”

Tea did, grinning savagely. This time the woman held nothing back. She swung her wooden sword in a wide arc at Lucrezia’s head. It was a violent blow, and would have knocked Lucrezia out, if it had found its mark.

But Lucrezia was ready for her. Channeling all the frustration of the past few days—the powerlessness she had felt on the journey here—she slammed her shield up with the full force of her anger behind it.

The blade and sword collided with a resounding thud, but Lucrezia did not stumble back. Instead she drove forward, forcing Tea to dance back a few paces.

When she lowered her shield, she saw Tea was still smiling. “That’s better,” she said with a nod. “You’ve got promise.”

 

Dripping with sweat, her body aching, Lucrezia left the practice yard and wandered through the village beyond the fort. Although it was a cool morning, she longed to douse herself with a bucket of cold water, for her body glowed like an ember. Her sparring with Tea had invigorated her. After a shaky start, she had surprised them both by her rapid improvement.

She would go into the tower in a short while, and help prepare the noon meal. But first she needed to wash and cool down. There was a well in the center of the village—a lichen-encrusted ring of stones where a group of women were washing clothes. It was not the place to strip off and bathe, so instead Lucrezia left the village through the southern gate and made her way down a steep row of steps cut into the rocky hillside.

Her bare feet sank into the fine pebbles upon the shingle shore below, and she crunched her way to the water’s edge. The fort, partially shrouded by a fine mist of drizzle this morning, reared above her. There did not appear to be anyone watching, but to give herself some privacy she walked farther along the shoreline before stripping off her sweaty clothing.

Lucrezia had dressed for practice in a long plaid skirt with splits in the sides, and a leather vest. Underneath she wore a thin linen tunic that reached mid-thigh, which she kept on as she waded into the water.

The chill made her gasp. There were lakes near her family’s villa north of Rome—the long extinct craters of volcanoes—where she had swum often both as a child and before her marriage. However, the water had never been this cold, even in the depths of winter.

Gritting her teeth against it, Lucrezia waded in farther. Then she took a deep breath and plunged into the clear water. It slid over her heated limbs like icy silk, washing away the sweat of the morning’s training. It was so cold that it made her eyeballs ache and drove the air from her lungs, but she swam on until she was nearly a furlong distant from the shore.

There, she floated on her back and looked up at the grey sky, enjoying the feel of the misty air upon her face. The initial shock of cold had subsided a little, although she could feel her body going numb. She would not be able to stay in for much longer.

She remained in the water for as long as she could stand it and then swam back to the shore. Lucrezia waded out onto the shingle bank. Her skin tingled now; she had never felt more alive. Even on a grey morning like this, she enjoyed the majestic beauty of this spot, and looking across the great expanse of water before her. Loch Slapin was a salt-water lake that eventually opened out into a vast sea that stretched west. Eithni had told her that this island had many such lakes, hence The Winged Isle’s unusual shape.

Lucrezia was still in her wet shift—wringing out her sodden hair while she looked west—when she heard the crunch of footfalls behind her.

She whipped round, heart pounding. She had felt so at peace, so safe out here, but in an instant she realized it was merely an illusion. The reality was that she was alone and vulnerable. Had one of the men followed her from the fort?

Relief caught in her throat when Tarl appeared—a tall broad shouldered figure in the drifting mist.

Seeing Lucrezia standing there at the water’s edge, he pulled up short. Surprise flickered across his face.

“Gods … you haven’t been swimming, have you? The water’s freezing this time of year.”

His gaze then shifted from her face, traveling down her body. The wet tunic clung to her. Lucrezia glanced down to see that the sodden material was transparent. She may as well have been standing naked before him.

She looked up to see Tarl’s eyes had turned smoky, his expression tightening. There was no missing the naked desire that flashed across his face.

Flustered, Lucrezia decided to go on the attack. “Did you follow me?” she accused, forcing herself not to cover her body up, not to cringe away from him. There was little point in cowering now. It would not erase what he had seen.

Tarl frowned. “Someone saw you leaving—I wanted to make sure you weren’t trying to run off again.”

Lucrezia’s own gaze narrowed. “I told you I wouldn’t. You doubt my word?”

“You have your freedom now. I thought you might decide to leave.”

She huffed a breath. “I don’t know where you think I’d go.” She gestured to the loch behind her. “Did you think I was going to try and swim across to the mainland?”

His mouth curved. “Well, if you did you’d be swimming in the wrong direction.”

“I know that,” she snapped, before reaching for her plaid skirt. “I’m not an idiot.”

He watched her, the humor fading from his face. “Are we to be enemies then, Lucrezia?”

The way he said her name caused a thrill to feather across her skin. He angered her, offended her, and yet whenever he was near she felt a strange excitement curl in the pit of her belly. Tarl was looking at her with an intensity this morning, a hunger, she had never seen before on his face. It made warmth steal over her chilled limbs, and caused her breathing to quicken.

Tearing her gaze from his, she stepped into her skirt, belted it and reached for her vest. Her under-tunic was still sodden, but she would be damned if she was going to stand here wet and shivering while he stared at her.

“You made that choice,” she replied coolly. “I wanted us to be friends at least, but you threw it back at me.” She glared at him then. “I don’t know why I even felt concern for a man who would have kept me as his whore.”

Tarl moved then, crossing the few yards between them. His closeness was disturbing, but Lucrezia held his gaze. “You would never have been that,” he said, his face more serious than she had ever seen it.

She shook her head, denying his words. “You wanted me as your bed slave. You would never have let me go.” She stepped back from him, cool air rushing between them. He was standing too close, and despite her anger, his nearness rattled her. “I was just your possession—and now you’re sore because your war prize wants nothing to do with you.”

His expression hardened. “Is that how you feel? So you hate me?”

She thinned her lips, fighting an odd blend of confusion, longing, and hurt that bubbled just beneath her outrage. She did not want to be cruel, but it was hard not to lash out at him.

Every time she looked at Tarl, she recalled how her life had been torn apart. Her training with Tea this morning had been hard, but it showed her that another future was possible—one where she could slowly heal.

“I wish to leave the past behind,” she said, turning from him. “Please stay away from me, Tarl.”

 

Tarl watched Lucrezia walk away, back toward the fort. Her long skirt swished around her legs, her back and shoulders were stiff.

He would never have come after her, if he had thought it would upset her so much. He had offended her far more deeply than he had realized.

No one had told him she had left the fort. He had come looking for her, and had seen her leave through the south gate. His excuse for why he had come after her had been a lie too—he had not thought she would try and escape. Instead he had wanted to speak to her. It had been in his mind to apologize, yet when she went on the attack his shield had gone up. Now she had made it clear; he was to leave her alone.

Muttering a curse, Tarl dragged a hand through his hair.

The sight of her, standing upon the water’s edge, would remain with him for the rest of his days. He would never forget the way the wet linen clung to her curves, showing off those magnificent dark-tipped breasts, and the dark nest of hair between her thighs.

She had looked like a female selkie, come ashore in search of a lover.

Tarl inhaled deeply; if only she had been one of those mythical creatures. The story went that if a man stole a female selkie’s skin, she would be in his power, and would be forced to become his wife—never to return to the sea.

Then perhaps not—he had already seen how Lucrezia reacted to being his possession. She was right—he had not wanted to let her go. He would never have forced himself upon her, but he would have kept her with him in his alcove every night in the hope she would one day give in to the attraction that smoldered between them.

That dream was over, he realized, disappointment a heavy stone in his gut. He would just need to accept it.

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

the clash of wooden swords echoed high above the fort.

Tarl wandered toward the warriors’ fighting enclosure, his gaze alighting upon the two figures who fought within: one tall and statuesque, the other small and curvaceous.

He approached the wooden perimeter fence and leaned up against it, watching the two women feint, parry, and attack. A surprised smile curved his mouth as he watched Lucrezia fight. Tea and Alpia had taught her well; she moved with lithe self-assurance, using her smaller size and agility to her advantage.

She ducked now, her long braid flying behind her, as Alpia’s blade whistled above her head. A moment later she danced sideways, nimble as a cat.

Tarl’s gaze devoured her. It was almost impossible to concentrate on her fighting technique when she was dressed like that. Two scraps of plaid covered her supple lush body: one over her breasts and the other over her loins, leaving her shapely legs bare. She wore light leather sandals on her feet, and sturdy leather bracers over her tanned forearms.

Tarl stared at Lucrezia, tracking her across the enclosure. They were in the months of The Maiden—the goddess of spring, new life, and fertility—and this woman looked like the goddess herself come to life.

It was then that he saw Lucrezia spy him out of the corner of her eye. In an instant her calm self-assurance faltered. She stumbled, and Alpia was on her—knocking her flat on her back.

Standing over her fallen opponent, Alpia cast a wry look in Tarl’s direction before her attention returned to Lucrezia. She held out her hand and pulled the smaller woman to her feet, a grin splitting her face. “I know he’s a fine-looking man, but you let the sight of him distract you in battle and you’ll end up with a blade in your belly.”

Tarl saw Lucrezia’s face flush. She clambered to her feet and brushed herself, casting Tarl a dark look. “He was staring—it put me off,” she muttered.

Tarl laughed, his gaze still upon her. “Alpia’s right. A warrior doesn’t let herself be distracted.”

Lucrezia glowered at him, her jaw clenching. “Did you want something, Tarl—or did you just wander over here to get on my nerves?”

He held her gaze. “As tempting as that is … I’m actually here on behalf of Galan. He’s organizing a hunting party for this afternoon and wanted to know if you two were interested?”

“Aye,” Alpia said, still grinning. “I’ll join you.”

Tarl nodded, his attention never leaving Lucrezia’s face. “And you, Lucrezia. Fancy a ride out, and a bit of hawking?”

He could see she was tempted. It had been a wet cold spring so far and today was bright and sunny. Perfect for getting out of the fort and going for a ride.

“Of course,” he continued. “There’s leather to be cured, and fowl to be plucked … if you’d prefer to stay behind?”

Her gaze narrowed before she favored him with a curt nod. “I’ll come.”

“Good.” Tarl turned away, to hide his grin, and sauntered off. “See you both later.”

 

Lucrezia glared at Tarl’s retreating back. Her face still burned with embarrassment. She could not believe she had let him distract her like that. She should have known better.

Over the past three moons, her skill with a blade had improved quickly. Her first attempts with the sword had been embarrassing—and she was glad Tarl had not witnessed her fumbling—but she had quickly gotten the hang of it.

She and Alpia had practiced every day, no matter the weather. Initially Tea had trained with her, but after her pregnancy had started to show she let Alpia take over the training. Both women had been surprised at Lucrezia’s determination, her lack of complaints. Neither of them had realized how much it meant to her. Lucrezia was not just learning how to wield a sword and defend herself—she was building a new life here in Dun Ringill. She was shedding the past like a winter coat.

Life at the fort had fallen into a routine swiftly since her arrival here. She had remained living with Eithni and still helped the healer with patients, if she needed assistance. For the rest of the time, she helped prepare meals in the fort, worked in the gardens beyond the walls—and trained.

Her days were busy, but that did not mean she managed to avoid Tarl completely. Dun Ringill was a small place, and as such she saw far too much of him. After their exchange on the shore beneath the fort that day, she did her best to ignore him. However, it was difficult since wherever she turned, Tarl mac Muin seemed to appear. He had done as she asked, had not approached her again, but in such a close-knit settlement it was impossible not to bump into him.

“Why don’t you do everyone a favor and take the man to your furs.” Alpia’s voice jerked Lucrezia out of her brooding.

She whipped round, glaring at her friend. “What did you say?”

Alpia laughed, not remotely fazed by her fierceness. “You heard me. Neither of you are fooling anyone. We’re all wondering when he’s going to throw you over his shoulder and carry you off to his alcove.”

Lucrezia drew herself up, outraged. “Well, you will all be waiting a long time. I’d never lie with that man.”

Alpia smirked. “Why not? He’s brave, strong, and fiercely loyal … and he knows how to please a woman in the furs.”

Lucrezia went still. “What do you mean? Have you lain with him?”

Her friend shrugged. “Aye—years ago now. He gave me a pleasurable night.”

A blade of irrational jealousy lanced through Lucrezia. She could not believe that Alpia and Tarl had coupled. No doubt he had taken most of the unattached women in the fort to his furs at one time or another.

Lucrezia folded her arms over her breasts. “Why aren’t you together now then?”

Alpia gave her a wicked smile. “We weren’t suited. Both too pig-headed to stay together for more than one night. We’d end up knifing each other.”

Lucrezia huffed a laugh despite the green-eyed monster that still seethed in her breast. What do I care whom Tarl sleeps with? “You made the right decision. The man is impossible.”

Alpia grinned and twirled the wooden blade in her right hand. “He’s got a good heart … even if he hides it well.” She stepped back from Lucrezia then and adopted a fighting stance—legs apart, knees slightly bent. “Come on, let’s go another round. Let’s see if I can knock you onto your back again.”

Lucrezia brought her blade and shield up, baring her teeth at her opponent. “Or you can eat dirt, like you did yesterday.”

 

The wind whipped across the velvet-green hills. A mackerel sky yawned above, casting long shadows over the sculpted landscape. The group of riders raced down the wide valley, their ponies’ manes flying. A large falcon and two hawks wheeled overhead, hunting for rooks.

Lucrezia rode near the rear of the main party, just behind Donnel, while the others rode up ahead. Galan’s most trusted warriors had joined them, as well as Tea, Tarl, and Alpia.

It was a glorious day to be out riding; Tarl had been right about that. With the wind in her hair, breathing in the crisp air laced with the woody scent of heather, Lucrezia felt a sense of well-being steal over her.

Her pony was not an easy ride. The dun mare had tried to unseat her initially—with the odd buck, or by dropping a shoulder—but once it realized its rider was not to be easily dislodged, it gave up.

Lucrezia was at peace. She had never felt like this, not while she had lived with her parents, nor during her marriage to Marcus. A veil of sadness had hung over her at Vindolanda, as the years melded one into another and she grew to accept that her husband would never desire her. She always had felt frustrated, as if she wore invisible bonds that held her tethered to the earth.

Who would have thought that coming here would set me free?

She no longer awoke wishing for sleep to pull her under again. She now rose from the furs looking forward to the day. She was no longer Lucrezia the daughter, or Lucrezia the wife. Here, she was just Lucrezia.

Tears stung her eyes as she rode. What an irony. She should really thank Tarl, if she was not afraid of being mocked by him again.

Galan, who was leading the party, drew up his black stallion to a halt. There, he waited as a great white and grey falcon dropped toward them, a dead rook in its talons.

Lucrezia drew up at the back of the party, watching as Tarl’s grey hawk swooped in. It landed on his outstretched wrist, its claws digging into the leather glove he wore. Observing him, Lucrezia found herself thinking about her conversation with Alpia earlier that day. She was still reeling at the news that the pair of them had been lovers; it bothered her more than she cared to admit.

Since meeting Tarl, she had not seen him show any interest in women … except her.

Foolish girl, she chided herself, even as she admired his proud profile, the way his light brown hair fluttered in the breeze. You can’t stand the man.

Tarl’s gaze swiveled to her then—as he felt her watching him. Their eyes locked for a moment. To her chagrin, he grinned at her and winked.

Lucrezia tore her gaze away, furious with herself for being caught watching him. What’s wrong with me these days? It was true, the more comfortable she became with life here, the harder it was to harbor resentment against Tarl. She was constantly aware of him and knew when he entered the fort, even without looking up from her chores.

She often caught herself watching him when she thought no one noticed.

Stop it, she warned herself. Such thoughts will get you into trouble.

She needed to remember that he had wanted to keep her as a slave, that he had not seen her as a person—just a spoil of war to brag about when he returned home.

 

It was a leisurely ride back to the fort, as the shadows lengthened and the wind died to a whisper. Galan and Tea rode up ahead, chatting and laughing together. The rest of the party followed in a long column, with Lucrezia near the back.

After riding beside Donnel for a spell, Tarl eventually let him draw ahead. Donnel was in a surly mood this afternoon and did not even seem to notice when his brother lagged behind.

Tarl drew his stallion to a halt and waited for Lucrezia to catch up. She rode a dun mare, a cantankerous beast that had once been Tea’s pony. The mare snatched at the bit now, its furry ears plastered back.

Tarl smiled at Lucrezia as she reached him. “Ill-tempered beast.”

“Aye.” She dug her heels into the pony’s flanks and switched it across the shoulders with the end of the reins. The mare abruptly stopped playing up, although its ears still lay flat against its skull. “But we’ve come to a truce.”

Tarl urged his stallion forward, and the pair of them rode side by side, bringing up the rear of the column. He held the reins with his right hand, bearing his hawk aloft with his left. The bird hunched, its beady eyes sweeping the valley on the look-out for prey. Not that it would be able to fly away, as he had leashed it to his wrist.

They traveled in silence for a while—and it soon became clear that Lucrezia was not going to begin a conversation.

Tarl glanced across at her, taking in her elegant profile, and the confidence and ease with which she rode. He had missed her company over the past three months. On the journey north, he had gotten used to having her near, and yet these days Lucrezia seemed a stranger to him. He had done as she had asked—kept his distance from her—but with the warming of the weather, and the lengthening of the days, he found himself seeking out her company.

It was time to thaw the ice between them.

“I was impressed watching you this morning,” he said eventually. “You fight well.”

She swung her gaze round to meet his, her expression guarded. “Do you mock me?”

He shook his head. The woman had not lost her prickliness toward him it seemed. “I speak the truth. You’re light on your feet … and quick too. You fight with precision.”

He watched her expression soften. “Thank you,” she said after a few moments.

“Did you enjoy your afternoon?” he asked then, changing the subject.

She nodded. “Very much—this is beautiful land.”

He smiled, pleased by her comment. “You like The Winged Isle then?”

She inclined her head. “I didn’t think I would … but yes, there is a stark beauty to this place that does something to you.”

Tarl’s smile widened. Her words made him foolishly happy—an emotion he had not felt of late. Ever since his argument with Galan after arriving home, things had been tense between the two brothers. Donnel was also poor company, having become uncommunicative and taciturn upon healing from his fever.

Over the last few moons, Galan and Tarl had ridden out together with the other warriors to patrol the southern borders of their land—borders they shared with the People of The Boar. The brothers had also worked together on repairing the defenses of some of the outlying villages. But there seemed to be a coolness between them these days, a distance that had not existed before.

Tarl could almost taste Galan’s disappointment in him.

Most days Tarl awoke to the nagging sense that something was wrong. Life had gone back to how it had been before he departed for war. And yet he could not settle.

If anything he felt more restless than he had before he went off to fight the Caesars. He did not resent Galan—for his brother was a hard man to dislike. Yet every day he spent with the chief reminded him of his own failings.

Their father, Muin—whom Tarl was so like in many ways—had once told him that it was well Galan was the eldest son, for Tarl would make a poor leader.

You have my pride, he had rumbled, but you’re too full of yourself. You’d start a war just to prove yourself right.

The insult had bitten deep, and its sting had never left him.

“I love this isle,” Tarl said after a long moment of silence, “although I sometimes feel trapped here.” He glanced right to see Lucrezia was now watching him, her expression shuttered.

“Why?” she asked. “Dun Ringill seems a fine place to live, and Galan is no tyrant. I’ve never met a better leader.”

Tarl’s mouth twisted. He should not feel jealous that she held such a high opinion of his brother, and yet he did. “Aye, I know,” he replied.

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Do you really believe in fairies?”

The young woman laughed. Her name was Mael. Small, with long dark hair and bright blue eyes, Mael walked alongside Lucrezia as they skirted the southern edge of Loch Slapin.

In spite of her small stature, the young woman carried two babies with her: a girl of around six moons in a sling across her front, and an infant boy on her back. The girl, Ailene, was Mael’s own, whereas the lad, Talor, was Donnel’s. After the death of Donnel’s wife, Luana, Mael and her husband now brought the babe up as their own.

“They are the Aos Sí, but we call them the Fair Folk,” Mael replied, brushing a lock of raven hair out of her eyes. “Don’t they exist where you’re from?”

Lucrezia shook her head. Her gaze dropped to the heavy basket she carried—full of honey oatcakes she had helped Deri bake that morning. “It seems a pity to give all these cakes to them … just to keep the fairies happy.”

Mael sighed. “The Fair Folk are fickle fey creatures. They can cause a lot of trouble if not appeased. We always bake cakes for them at Bealtunn.”

Lucrezia looked around her. Wild flowers carpeted the lush green hillsides and the wind was warm on their faces this morning. They were well into spring now. In her own tongue this month was known as Maius. Tonight the folk of Dun Ringill would celebrate Bealtunn—the spring equinox.

The small group of women had set out this morning, led by the seer, Ruith, and Tea, to leave cakes in a special place a short walk south of the fort. Tea and the bandruí chatted together as they walked. Behind them Eithni, Deri, and three of the warriors’ wives were giggling about something, the sound carrying over the still waters of the lake.

The female camaraderie here was another thing Lucrezia enjoyed about living at Dun Ringill. She enjoyed training with Alpia in the mornings, yet she also loved sharing banter with Ruith as they gardened together, chatting with Eithni in the mornings, or laughing over some silly joke with Deri as they prepared supper. Back in Vindolanda, the two Briton servant girls had been her solace in a life that would otherwise have been very lonely.

The memory of the hatred on Ciara and Gwyna’s face on the day of the attack made Lucrezia tense. Their friendship had never existed.

The group of women reached their destination, a large mound that rose up just beyond the shingle shore. Ruith and Tea halted, and waited for the others to catch up.

Reaching them, Lucrezia stopped, gazing up at the hill. “So the Fair Folk live here?”

“Aos Sí means ‘People of the Mounds’,” Mael replied. “They guard their homes fiercely, and on special nights of the year they come out to dance.”

“You have to be careful here,” Ruith spoke up, having overheard their exchange. “The Fair Folk are quick to bless, but quick to anger. Many have ventured too close to one of these mounds near dusk, only to be taken … and never seen again.”

“There’s a tale from Dun Ardtreck, about two lovers who lingered too near a sacred place,” Eithni added. “So lost in passion were they that they did not notice the hill that rose up behind them.”

“Aye—and as night fell the Aos Sí came for them.” Tea concluded the story, one hand upon her belly, which had now started to swell noticeably.

Had their voices not been so serious, Lucrezia might have teased them. She had not grown up in this world and could not bring herself to believe such tales, and yet she had to admit that this place had an odd atmosphere. She almost felt as if they were being watched.

“Set your baskets down at the foot of the hill,” Ruith instructed, “and I will bless them.”

Lucrezia did as bid, following the other women up and setting down the basket of fragrant cakes. Then she returned to the waiting group while the bandruí stepped forward. Although she was an older woman, Ruith held herself straight and strong. Her greying dark hair hung in tiny braids down her back, and her high cheekbones had become more evident with age.

The bandruí squatted at the foot of the hill, her hands moving over the baskets. Then she began to speak. At first her voice was low, and Lucrezia did not catch her words—until she reached the last part of her chant.

 

We are the weavers, we are the woven ones

We are the dreamers, we are the dream

Spiraling into the center

The center of our soul

 

Listening to these words, Lucrezia felt a strange sensation filter through her: an excitement mixed with trepidation. These people’s beliefs were new to her, and yet they made sense. To them birth, death, and life were all interconnected. They lived in harmony with their environment. They believed themselves part of the earth and sky, even the afterlife.

Perhaps her thoughts showed on her face, for she felt Mael’s gaze upon her. Their eyes met and the woman smiled, her blue eyes kind. “It’s beautiful, isn’t it?”

Lucrezia smiled. “Aye—it is.”

 

 

The Bealtunn bonfire lit up the night.

Folk emerged from their homes and descended upon it. Lucrezia followed them, her gaze upon the hungry golden flames that roared skyward. It was a still night, and yet she had thrown a plaid shawl around her shoulders to ward off the nip in the air.

Laughter and excited voices rang across the village. After the long cold of the bitter months, the people of Dun Ringill embraced this evening with abandon. The hawthorn bushes around the perimeter were white with blossom, and now decorated with streamers of cloth.

Lucrezia had never thought of hawthorn as more than a hedgerow plant, but Eithni had explained to her earlier that for her people it represented love, fertility, and protection.

Children danced around one of the bushes, their squeals adding to the cacophony of sound.

Lucrezia reached the edge of the crowd milling around the bonfire; she was content to remain on the fringes and watch this eve. These people had welcomed her, but she was still a stranger here in many ways. She still had much to learn about their traditions.

Her gaze swept across the crowd of revelers, watching as some of the men held iron brands into the flame—before they ran around the fire whirling the glowing brands above their heads. Lucrezia saw that many of the women wore crowns of spring flowers upon their head: bluebells and primroses, wreathed with honey-suckle.

Eithni, dressed in a long pale tunic, honeysuckle in her hair, was moving through the crowd filling the revelers’ cups with wine. Nearby Tea looked particularly radiant. She wore a crown of ivy and a long blue tunic made of plaid, her hair piled up on her head. Tea gripped Galan’s hand as she nimbly stepped over the edge of the flames.

“It’s to ensure an easy birth.”

A man’s voice to her left drew Lucrezia’s gaze away from where Galan was now twirling Tea around. They were both laughing, the joy on their faces illuminating the night.

Lucrezia turned to find Tarl standing next to her. “What is?” she asked, scowling. Tarl looked distracting this eve, dressed in dark leather, blue woad designs painted upon his arms. His nearness made her nervous. She wished he would leave her be.

“When a woman with child steps through the flames,” he replied with a smile. “Later, unwed women will jump over the fire, in the hope they’ll find a good husband.” His gaze remained upon her, his smile widening. “You could try it.”

Lucrezia snorted. It was an unladylike sound, one her mother would have once chastised her for, but she did not care. “I’ll not wed again,” she replied.

His storm-grey eyes widened. “Why not?”

Lucrezia inhaled sharply, regretting her candor. “I … I didn’t enjoy being a wife,” she hedged.

Tarl’s gaze narrowed. “Was your husband cruel to you?”

She shook her head. “Marcus was a good man … it’s just that …” She broke off here, wishing they had never begun this conversation. How had she gotten herself onto this topic? “He … he preferred men.” She eventually bit the words out.

Tarl gave her a long slow look. “You didn’t lie together?”

She shook her head, her cheeks suddenly burning. This was the most embarrassing talk she had ever had; she could not believe she was having it with Tarl. But since she had come this far, he might as well know the rest. “Only once … on our wedding night. It … it didn’t go well.”

Their gazes met and held. She did not know what his people thought about men desiring men, or women desiring women. It was accepted amongst her own people, even if Marcus’s position in society meant that he was expected to sire children.

“The man was a fool,” Tarl said softly, the words caressing her as if he had just reached out and stroked her cheek. “He must have been blind.”

Lucrezia huffed a bitter laugh. “No … he just didn’t want me. We lived together companionably enough … became friends even. But it never went any further than—”

“A honeyed-oatcake?” Deri appeared before them. She wore a crown of primroses in her thick brown hair and carried a basket of cakes.

Lucrezia shook her head; she had suddenly lost her appetite.

Tarl smiled at the young woman. “Maybe later.”

Sensing she had just interrupted something, Deri gave them a bright smile and moved on.

A charged silence settled between them. Lucrezia looked away, watching the revelry once more. However, this time she was distracted; she was too aware of the virile man standing next to her, of his gaze searing her.

Lucrezia swallowed. “The brands those men are waving about,” she began, desperate to steer the conversation into safer waters. “What’s it for?”

“They’re imitating the circling of the sun in the sky,” he replied. “This night beckons the sun back after the long darkness.”

Lucrezia nodded, resolutely keeping her gaze upon the crowd. “Where’s Donnel this eve?” she then asked lightly. “I haven’t seen him.”

Tarl let out a long sigh. “He’s in ill-humor these days. I don’t think he’ll be joining us.”

She glanced at him then. “He grieves for his wife still?”

Tarl nodded, his gaze snaring hers once more. “They were very happy together. Evenings like this will bring back memories for Donnel.”

Lucrezia watched him. Ever since their conversation while out hawking a few days earlier, she had found herself thinking about Tarl frequently; something which equally irritated and unsettled her. The words they had shared during the ride home had revealed his restlessness, his insecurity when it came to his elder brother. Donnel was not the only one of the three brothers who was unhappy.

“The other day, you said you felt trapped here,” she said after a moment. “But you never told me why.”

Tarl’s mouth quirked. “It doesn’t matter. Like you said … I have no reason to feel that way. Dun Ringill is a good place to live. Galan is a fair chief.”

Lucrezia gave him a hard look. Had she really been that dismissive? “Eithni told me you and Galan argued about Wurgest upon your return here,” she said quietly. “Do you believe he resents you for stirring up trouble?”

Tarl shook his head, his gaze traveling to where Galan now kissed Tea, much to the delight of the revelers. “Galan isn’t a man to hold grudges,” he ground out, his face going taut.

The pain in his voice was palpable, and for the first time Lucrezia felt the shield around her heart lower. She could see he looked up to his brother.

“The three of you aren’t that different,” she said softly. “You’re all branches off the same mighty oak. Galan will trust you again in time.”

Tarl shook his head, his jaw tightening. “Not if The People of the Boar attack us. Wurgest’s elder brother is the chieftain of his tribe—and I’d guess he won’t need much convincing.”

Lucrezia watched him, unease settling in the pit of her belly. Truthfully, she had not given Wurgest much thought these past months. She had believed he would not bother them again. “But we’ve been back awhile … why haven’t they attacked?”

Tarl’s expression grew grim. “He’ll be biding his time.”

“Perhaps he’s decided to let it lie?”

Tarl shook his head. “The people of this isle never forget grievances. Wurgest has not forgotten—and sooner or later he’ll want his reckoning.”


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

the people of Dun Ringill had just sat down to their noon meal when the strangers arrived.

Seated to Galan’s right, Tarl was carving himself off some roast fowl to go with the pile of mashed turnip and butter on his platter. Catching movement out of the corner of his eye, he looked up to see Cal stride into the tower. One look at the grim expression on the warrior’s face and Tarl knew something was amiss.

Cal’s gaze met Galan’s. “A group of warriors are here, chief,” he announced. “Boars.”

Tarl stiffened, his appetite for the food before him dissolving. He watched Cal, but did not glance over at Galan—he did not want to see the look on his face. To Tarl’s right, Donnel shifted on the bench. He leaned forward, his gaze hard. “How many?”

“Ten,” Cal replied. “It’s an emissary, not a war party.”

Donnel glanced over at Tarl and their gazes met. No words were needed as an unspoken message passed between them.

The time has come.

“Who are these men?” Galan asked, his voice low. “Is Wurgest among them?”

“I don’t recognize any of them, except for one,” Cal replied. “His name is Loxa—he is Wurgest’s younger brother.”

Tarl inhaled deeply and forced himself to glance over at Galan. His brother was not looking in his direction. Galan’s brow was furrowed, his expression hawkish. “What do they want?”

“To speak with you.”

Galan pushed aside the platter of food he had just started and leaned back in his carven chair. “Bring them in then.”

Tea gave her husband a wary glance. “What are they up to?”

“I don’t know,” Galan growled, drumming his fingers on the oaken table top, “but I look forward to finding out.”

He had still not glanced in Tarl’s direction; Galan was deliberately ignoring him. Clenching his jaw, Tarl looked across at where Lucrezia sat at one of the lower tables. She was watching him closely, for she knew what this visit meant. Their gazes met, and he saw the worry in those luminous brown eyes.

An invisible vise clamped around Tarl’s ribcage. He dragged in a breath and tore his gaze away. This was one time he was not pleased to be proved right.

More than anyone here, Lucrezia understood how he felt. Five days had passed since Bealtunn. He had approached her hoping to melt the wall of ice between them, perhaps to flirt a little. Instead he had learned she had been unhappily married, and he then had revealed the bitter pitiful state of his soul.

Afterward he had felt embarrassed about it, and had avoided Lucrezia ever since—not that he’d had to try hard, for she too seemed to be going out of her way to keep her distance from him. It was an odd dance they had begun: two steps forward and eight back. Tarl was irresistibly drawn to her, and yet when those walnut-colored eyes met his she saw too much.

The sound of booted feet approaching up the stone steps into the fort drew Tarl’s attention to the entrance. A moment later a big clean-shaven man with wild black hair strode into Galan’s domain. He clove a path across the floor, leather creaking as he walked. And as he approached the platform at the far end, Tarl noted the man had midnight blue eyes—the same color as Wurgest’s. On his right bicep, he wore the mark of The Boar. A group of men followed the warrior into the hall.

“Welcome to Dun Ringill,” Galan greeted him, his face an impassive mask. “Whom do I have the pleasure of addressing?”

“I am Loxa mac Wrad,” the newcomer replied, his voice deep and booming. He stood arrogantly in the center of Galan’s hall, as if he owned it, before his gaze swept across the chieftain’s table, taking in the faces of those seated there.

Half-way along, the young warrior’s attention rested upon Eithni. Tarl witnessed the man grow still for a heart-beat, his blue eyes widening. The girl stared back, her jaw tensing under his scrutiny.

A moment later Loxa’s attention moved on, sweeping back to Galan. “And you must be Galan mac Muin.”

“Aye,” Galan replied, with that same neutral manner. “What brings you to Dun Ringill?”

Loxa’s gaze shifted to Galan’s right, and flicked between Tarl and Donnel. “Which of you is Tarl?”

Tarl nodded curtly.

Loxa smiled, showing his teeth. “Then you’ll know why I’m here.”

Tarl gritted his teeth. “I have no idea—speak plainly.”

Loxa watched him with that same wolfish look Wurgest had, before his smile twisted. “Wurgest has a high standing among our people. Our brother, Urcal, rules our tribe—when you offended Wurgest, you offended us all.”

“I didn’t offend him,” Tarl growled. “He took offense. There’s a difference.”

“You stole his war prize. You dishonored him.”

“We know what happened at the wall,” Galan interrupted, his voice curt. “Get to the point.”

Loxa tore his gaze from Tarl and focused upon The Eagle chief, his eyes narrowing. “Your brother has potentially soured relations between our peoples. However, you have the chance to put things right.”

Galan’s lip curled. “Aye—and how’s that?”

“Urcal is within his rights to attack this territory for such a slight,” Loxa continued, his own tone hardening, “but he does not want to ruin the good relationship he built with your father. To avoid a feud, he has come up with a solution—one that involves only Wurgest and Tarl.”

The feasting hall went still. Tarl watched Loxa and curled his fingers into fists under the table. This poison-tongued serpent needed a blade in his belly.

“And what is that?” Galan asked quietly. Tarl could feel the simmering rage burning off his brother. Galan was slow to anger, but terrible when crossed. Yet Loxa did not seem to notice, or care, that the chieftain of The Eagle was moments away from losing his temper.

“A duel to the death—just the two of them.” The sound of indrawn breaths and curses hissed between clenched teeth reverberated around the stone tower. But before anyone could speak up, Loxa pressed on. “Urcal has set a date—two nights from now. At noon on the third day, the two warriors will meet in the center of The Valley of the Tors, half a day’s journey south of here. They will come alone … and they will fight until one of them is dead. Only then will this slight be settled.”

Tarl could feel Lucrezia’s gaze boring into him, willing him to look her way. Yet, this time, he did not. He knew she would be horrified by this challenge, and he could not bear to see the look in her eyes. Instead he opened his mouth to respond to Loxa, but was forestalled by Galan.

“We need time to discuss this.” The words fell, heavy and cold in the hush. “Leave us for a few moments.”

Loxa nodded. He then threw Tarl a savage smile and turned, stalking from the hall with his men at his heels.

As soon as The Boar warriors had departed, Donnel turned to Galan. “You cannot be thinking to agree to this?” he demanded. “I say we send Loxa back to his chief with his tongue cut out.”

Galan’s mouth twisted. “Aye—I’m tempted. I didn’t send him out so that I could consider whether to accept the challenge. I did it because, just one word more and there would have been Boar blood staining the rushes.” Galan leaned back in his chair, his mouth thinning. “There will be no agreement.”

Tarl cleared his throat. “Am I to have no say in this?” He felt all eyes swivel to him. He saw the surprise on Donnel’s face, the grim look on Galan’s, and knew this was not going to be an easy argument to win. “If I don’t accept Wurgest’s challenge, then we’ll make an enemy of Urcal.”

Galan clenched his jaw, his dark brows knitting together, and he scowled. “This is your life, Tarl. I won’t throw it away.”

Tarl snorted. “You won’t be. It’s a fight, man to man. I’ve bested Wurgest before, and I’ll do it again.” He glanced left at where Donnel sat watching him as if he had just lost his mind. “Tell him.”

Donnel huffed out an exasperated laugh. “Aye—you beat him with your fists. But I’ve seen Wurgest with blades. He fights with two axes, which he wields like The Warrior himself.”

“And I’m skilled with a blade as well. I don’t need to show off with two of them.”

“Damn you and your pride, Tarl!” Galan exploded. “I’ll not have you put your life at stake for a madman with a grudge.”

Tarl held his gaze, unflinching. “But you’d put the safety of this tribe at risk?” A deathly silence fell then, but Tarl pressed on. He did not care if he angered Galan over this. There were things that needed to be said. “I started this, and I need to finish it. Ever since we got back, you’ve hardly been able to look me in the eye.”

Galan stared at him, and Tarl saw guilt flicker in his iron-grey eyes.

Frustrated, Tarl continued. “You were right. I was stupid, impulsive, and thoughtless. I need to put this right. Please let me.”

A long hush drew out between them. The others who sat at the long table—Donnel, Eithni, Tea, and Galan’s men and their wives—all held their tongues. They knew, as did Tarl, that this was a crucial moment between the two brothers. A deciding moment for their relationship from this point forward.

Galan eventually let out a long sigh and raked a hand through his hair. His face twisted, and his eyes were pained. Watching him, Tarl knew he had won.

“I could command you not to fight him,” Galan said eventually. “I could forbid it—but this is not my decision.”

“It is,” Donnel cut in, his voice harsh. “You’re the chief. You’re—”

Galan put up his hand to him. However, his gaze remained upon Tarl. “You spoke the truth, Tarl. I was disappointed in you … but that doesn’t mean I want you to sacrifice yourself. I’d never want that. Are you sure you realize what you’re doing?”

Tarl nodded. “I’ll fight him, and I’ll win. It’s the best way … it’s the only way.”

“Clod-head,” Donnel growled from beside him. “It’s the stupidest idea I’ve ever heard—he’ll cut you up for fish-bait.”

Tarl glanced at him, a bitter smile curving his lips. “Maybe, but at least we can end this.”

 

Across the hall Lucrezia watched the conversation unfold between Tarl and his brothers. Aghast, she heard Tarl cast aside his brothers’ concerns and advice, and force Galan into letting him decide for himself. Her stomach twisted itself in knots as she saw the chief send one of his men out to retrieve Loxa and his warriors.

The strutting dark haired Boar re-entered the fort, his gaze swiveling to Eithni—as it had on his arrival—before he fixed his attention upon Galan. A wild smile split his face when the chieftain of The Eagles announced that Tarl would accept his challenge and meet his brother in battle, just two days hence.

Without another word Loxa nodded, swung around, and strode from the hall, leaving a brittle silence in his wake.

This is madness.

Lucrezia looked down at the platter of food she had barely touched, panic swelling in her breast. She fixed her gaze upon Tarl, willing him to look her way. Yet, stubbornly, he did not. Now that The Boars had departed, conversation resumed in the feasting hall; however, it was not the good-natured banter and laughter of earlier, but angry murmuring, punctuated by curses.

Tarl looked to be arguing with Donnel and Galan again. Lucrezia could no longer hear what they were saying. Frustration bubbled up, and she clenched her jaw. What was Tarl up to? And why had Galan agreed to it?

Men, and their stupid—pig-headed—pride. Had she ever met a man who was not ruled by it? Marcus had remained at Vindolanda because of his pride—despite that he had ached for his homeland—and her own father had made political enemies over his stubborn refusal to temper his opinion when challenged.

She glanced over at where Ruith sat next to her. The seer had been silent ever since Loxa and his men had left, and her expression was thoughtful. Although the men and women around her muttered amongst themselves, the bandruí seemed apart from it all, almost as if she had watched the whole scene from another perspective.

Over the past few months, she had seen the influence Ruith wielded here. Folk trusted her divinations, and she bore an ancient kind of wisdom. The practices Ruith used were not completely foreign to Lucrezia. Her own people used augury, although it had fallen out of favor of late. She remembered her grandmother telling her that you could tell whether the gods looked favorably upon you from the sighting and flight of birds.

“What does this mean, Ruith?” Lucrezia asked. “Surely Tarl will die if he goes to meet Wurgest alone?”

The bandruí glanced at her. Ruith’s eyes were sharp, although she favored Lucrezia with an enigmatic smile. “I will have to cast the bones to seek an answer,” she replied, “although I wouldn’t look so worried. Tarl is his father’s son—a born warrior. Wurgest will have a hard time beating him.”

Lucrezia gritted her teeth, irritated by the seer’s flippancy. “That might be so, but he’s still taking a huge risk.”

Ruith gave her a long look. “I see you care what happens to him.”

Lucrezia swallowed. “No … I only—”

“Come to my hut tomorrow morning.” Ruith’s smile turned knowing. “We shall cast the bones together and see what the future holds for our brave but headstrong Tarl.”

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

lucrezia almost did not go to Ruith’s home the following morning.

Eithni had left their dwelling early to visit Mael, whose little daughter had a fever. As such, Lucrezia broke her fast alone while listening to the wind gusting against the stone and mud walls. Usually she enjoyed her morning oatcakes with butter, but today they just stuck in her throat.

We can cast the bones together.

Lucrezia was not sure she wanted to suffer through Ruith’s knowing smiles and off-hand comments about how Lucrezia felt about Tarl. Truthfully, she was not sure herself these days.

She felt on-edge, confused.

When Tarl had told Galan he would face Wurgest alone, it had seemed as if a giant hand had just reached inside her chest and ripped her heart out. Even now she felt sick at the thought of any harm coming to him.

Fool-hardy idiot. Lucrezia got to her feet and brushed oatcake crumbs off her skirt.

Outdoors it was a grey breezy morning. The wind which whistled across the exposed headland was not cold, although it had drops of rain in it. Lucrezia’s hair blew across her face as she walked the few yards between Eithni and Ruith’s abodes. She liked how women could live alone here, safe within the walls of the fort. As the resident healer and seer, they both held special status and privileges, and so enjoyed a freedom that Lucrezia had never known.

Lucrezia glanced up at the darkening sky. She would have to meet Alpia for sword practice soon; she would not be able to linger at Ruith’s home.

Just as well … I should never have agreed to come.

She walked up the path, in-between unruly growths of rosemary, sage, and thyme, and knocked on the seer’s front door.

“Come in,” Ruith’s voice reached her.

Lucrezia pushed the door open and stepped inside. The hovel was much the same as the one she shared with Eithni, although this one was smokier and messier. Ruith was not as tidy as Eithni; there were piles of drying herbs everywhere, and Lucrezia had to step over an iron pot filled with something foul-smelling in order to enter.

Ruith was squatting next to the fire pit, eating an oatcake. She smiled at Lucrezia. “Good morning, would you like a cake?”

Lucrezia shook her head. “I’ve just eaten.”

The bandruí rose to her feet, her smile widening. “Let’s get started then.”

She reached into her voluminous skirt and produced a handful of worn pieces of bone with symbols inscribed upon them. The seer held them out for Lucrezia to inspect. “These are my telling bones.”

Lucrezia peered down. Upon closer inspection she could see the designs were quite intricate. Some were of animals and birds—she recognized a stag, a wolf, an eagle, a boar, and a serpent—while others were a collection of odd symmetrical patterns and rods. “And the marks upon them?”

“The people of this isle use these symbols to tell our stories. I use these carven bones to divine the future.”

Lucrezia glanced up, her gaze meeting Ruith’s. “And do they always tell the truth?”

The bandruí gave her an amused look. “It depends.”

Ruith moved to the center of the floor and cleared a pile of rags out of the way so that there was a patch of dirt free. Then she squatted once more and glanced over at Lucrezia. “Ask a question, and we shall see if the bones have an answer.”

Lucrezia inhaled deeply. She had been afraid of this; she should have known Ruith would try to corner her.

“I don’t know,” she muttered. “Ask them if Tarl’s decision is wise.”

Ruith shook her head and clicked her tongue. “No—you must be more specific than that.”

Lucrezia inhaled deeply; she felt trapped. After a few moments she wet her lips and met the seer’s eye. “Will Tarl fall?”

Ruith’s face was expressionless as she turned her attention away and cast the bones across the dirt floor. Then she leaned forward, her brow furrowing as she struggled to read the bones in the dim light.

Lucrezia watched, her chest tightening. I shouldn’t have come here.

The bandruí took a while to study the bones, and with each passing moment Lucrezia grew tenser. The silence could not mean anything good.

“What do you see?” she asked, when the waiting became too much. “Does it bode ill for him?”

Ruith glanced up, and the look on her face caused a chill to feather down Lucrezia’s neck.

“Aye,” she replied softly, before glancing back at the bones, as if hoping to see something different. “The Eagle and The Boar have fallen side by side, with the Speared Serpent above them. If my divination is correct, Tarl will be deceived … and then both he and Wurgest will fall.”

 

Lucrezia strode through the fort, circuiting the squat stone tower and making her way toward the warriors’ fighting enclosure. She was a little early for her practice with Alpia, but after what Ruith had told her, she could not remain with the bandruí. Nor could she return to the dwelling she shared with Eithni.

Dressed for practice, with two lengths of plaid wrapped around her loins and breasts, Lucrezia walked barefoot this morning. The damp wind gusted in from Loch Slapin, but she did not notice it. Instead her thoughts had turned inward.

A sickly hollow feeling had taken up residence in her belly.

Tarl will fall.

She did not want to believe it, but like the other folk at Dun Ringill she had come to trust Ruith. The seer’s final words before Lucrezia departed still rang in her ears.

The future is not written in stone. It shifts like sand on the shore, like reeds in the wind. Every act in the present has the power to change it. Now that you have a glimpse of what will come to pass … you have a choice to make.

Lucrezia did not understand what Ruith meant. Her words seemed more like a riddle than advice, and her head hurt as she went over that conversation again and again. She could not help but feel that Ruith had just placed a terrible responsibility upon her shoulders.

Maybe I can stop this.

She arrived at the enclosure to see three pairs of warriors sparring. Tarl was among them. He fought a big man named Lutrin, and held his own easily against him. Lucrezia stopped at the edge of the enclosure, her attention riveted upon Tarl.

The sight of him made her belly pitch, as if she had just jumped down from a high wall. Her gaze traveled over the muscular planes of his bare chest, and up to where his brown hair curled at the base of his neck. His handsome face was stern with concentration this morning, his eyes narrowed. He did not see her; his entire focus was on his opponent.

Lucrezia drew in a ragged breath. What did this man actually mean to her?

First my savior, then my captor … who is he now?

She had done her best to put him out of her head over the past few days, but with each passing moment it became more difficult. If anything, she grew more aware of him; breathless whenever their gazes locked, flustered whenever he spoke to her. She still remembered that kiss on the journey here—how, despite her outrage, it had been the most exciting thing she had ever experienced.

He was arrogant and bull-headed, and yet there was a nobility, a courage, to this man that she had never seen in another. He had risked his life for her, a complete stranger, and in spite of his cocky manner had never attempted to force himself on her. And now he was ready to lay down his life to ensure the peace between two tribes lasted.

Lucrezia’s eyelids stung, but she blinked back the tears. The man was too proud, stubborn to a fault. She had to talk to him, had to make him see sense.

She continued to watch the two warriors spar. Now that she trained, she had a new appreciation for Tarl’s ability. Lutrin was big, nearly the same size as Wurgest, but Tarl used his own lighter build to his advantage. He moved lithely around the bigger man, not expending any more energy than necessary. Tea had explained to Lucrezia that it was also a female warrior’s advantage. She had told her that even the strongest woman could not match a small man in strength; instead she had to use her speed, agility, and wits against him.

Eventually Tarl bested Lutrin, with a move that sent the warrior sprawling onto his side. Tarl leaped forward, kicked the wooden practice sword from Lutrin’s hand and stood over him grinning. “Yield?”

Lutrin huffed, his face gleaming with sweat. “Aye—if you’re going to fight dirty again.”

Tarl laughed. “Sometimes it’s the only way to win.” He straightened up and drew his forearm across his brow. An instant later he saw Lucrezia. Their gazes met and held, and for once she did not look away.

Instead she stared back boldly, her breath catching at the intensity in his eyes and the devouring way he looked at her. Excitement feathered within her. Try as she might she could not deny her attraction to this man. He might be the most aggravating individual she had ever met, but at that moment she ached for him.

She watched Tarl’s lips part, saw the naked hunger in his eyes. Suddenly the cool spring morning felt airless and overly warm.

Lucrezia swallowed and made a valiant attempt to regain her equilibrium. If she was going to speak to him, she needed to be cool-headed. She could not let the unsettling emotions and desires that swamped her whenever Tarl was near take over.

Not when his life was at stake.

“Ready for practice?” Alpia appeared at Lucrezia’s side, shattering the tension. Although Alpia’s tone was light, Lucrezia saw the strain on her friend’s face, the worry in her eyes as her gaze settled upon Tarl. Lucrezia was not the only one concerned about Tarl’s impending fight with Wurgest.

Lucrezia turned to her and forced a smile. “Aye …”

In reality, she was not in the mood for it this morning. Her attention could not shift from Tarl; she had to get him alone so she could speak to him, make him cast this foolishness aside.

She glanced back at the enclosure to see Tarl depart. He shouted a good-natured insult over his shoulder at Lutrin and walked toward the armory; the low-slung windowless building on the far side of the enclosure.

Lucrezia opened the gate to the fighting enclosure and gave Alpia another quick smile. “I shall get a shield and sword. Back soon.”

Without another word, she hurried after Tarl.

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

tarl had his back to her when she entered the armory.

It was dim in this windowless building, the only light coming from a single cresset that burned on the left wall. Tarl was hanging up his practice sword upon a rack. He was the only one there, although the muted sounds from the warriors a few yards away as they resumed practice drifted in through the open door.

Lucrezia halted in the doorway. She had come after him on impulse, but now that they were alone, she was suddenly unsure of herself. Things were never easy between her and Tarl. Just a few shared words could easily escalate into an argument. Will he even listen to me?

Chastising herself for being a coward, Lucrezia inhaled deeply and cleared her throat. “Tarl …”

He turned, surprise flickering across his face. “Morning, Lucrezia.”

She took a hesitant step forward. Talking to him about this was going to be difficult enough as it was; she could not hesitate or she would lose her courage.

“Ruith cast the bones,” she blurted the words out. “Your fight tomorrow bodes ill. You should not go.”

As soon as she had spoken, Lucrezia cursed herself. She was the daughter of a senator and had seen many present an argument eloquently; and yet she stumbled over the words as if she was just learning how to speak.

His gaze widened. “Is that so? What did Ruith say exactly?”

“That you will be deceived. That both you and Wurgest will fall.”

Tarl’s mouth thinned. “Then the fight doesn’t bode ill at all.”

“But you will die.”

His mouth twisted. “Aye—but if it keeps the peace then it will be for the best.”

Lucrezia moved toward him. “How can you say that? Why would you cast your life away as if it means nothing?”

He frowned. “You’re questioning my decision?”

“Yes … it’s rash and foolish.”

He barked out a laugh. “Nothing changes then. I’m merely acting true to character.” He stepped forward so that they stood barely more than two feet apart. “Why break the habit of a lifetime?”

“To save your own neck,” she shot back. “No one wants you to go tomorrow. Galan and Donnel think you’re mad to face Wurgest alone.”

Tarl’s jaw tightened. “In the same situation, both of them would do as I am. My honor is at stake. If I don’t face Wurgest, I will carry the stain of cowardice with me for the rest of my days.”

“That’s ridiculous.” Despite her promise to herself to keep her temper, Lucrezia could feel her ire rising. She did not understand this man’s pig-headedness. “The gods take your honor. You’re playing into Wurgest’s hands. Did you hear what I just said? Ruith believes there is trickery involved. This is Wurgest’s ploy to get you alone. He wants revenge—he’s not interested in a fair fight between warriors.”

Tarl folded his arms across his chest, his gaze narrowing. “Is that why you’re here, Lucrezia. To inform me about Wurgest’s treachery? Or is there another reason.”

His arrogance infuriated her. Lucrezia clenched her fists at her sides and inhaled deeply, summoning the dregs of her patience. “What other reason would there be?” she growled.

He stepped closer still, so close Lucrezia could feel the heat of his body, could see the light sheen of sweat over his bare torso. The scent of him caused her breathing to quicken, and her mouth went dry. Blinking, she forced herself to concentrate.

“I don’t know … perhaps you are concerned for my wellbeing?”

Lucrezia scowled. “I’m concerned you’re acting without thinking. I haven’t forgotten that you saved me from Wurgest. That’s what started this whole mess—I feel responsible.”

His expression softened. “You’re not.”

“I am if you go to fight Wurgest.”

Tarl let out an exasperated sigh. “You’re like a dog with a bone, woman. Flaying me with your tongue will do no good. My mind is made up. I’m going tomorrow.”

“Clod-headed, conceited mule!” Lucrezia’s temper spilled over. Without thinking, she struck out, pushing hard against his chest. However, it was like shoving a stone wall; he did not budge. “Go then. Fall on your sword and stain the ground crimson. See if I care!”

She spun round to leave, but he caught her by the arm, hauling her round and into his arms.

His mouth claimed hers, cutting off her cry of protest. And like that day in the tent all those months ago, the instant his lips pressed against hers Lucrezia was lost.

Yet this kiss was different. The first one had been a surprise, a stolen moment; this one had many moons of things unsaid, heated looks, and building tension behind it.

Tarl’s tongue parted her lips and slid into her mouth. The sensation was so exciting that Lucrezia melted against him; a cry escaping her. Tarl’s answering growl made wild need rear within her.

Her hands went up, pressing against the hard wall of his naked chest. She could feel one of his hands splay possessively across the back of her head, while the other slid down her back and pressed her hard against him.

Lucrezia groaned and gave herself up to the feel of his tongue dancing with hers, the rasp of his stubbled cheek against her sensitive skin. Her arms went around his neck. Her breasts arched forward, pressing against him.

Tarl spun her round, two steps bringing them hard against the wooden framed wall. A sharp edge bit into Lucrezia’s back, but she paid it no mind. Hot need consumed her; she devoured Tarl as if she was starving and he her last morsel. She twisted her body against him, frustrated by the straps of plaid and leather separating their bare skin. Then she bit his bottom lip, her fingernails digging into his bare shoulders.

In response Tarl went wild, both hands cupping the back of her head as he savaged her mouth. She could feel the hard length of his shaft pressing against her belly. She did not care that the other warriors were barely more than ten feet away, that the door to the armory was open. All she wanted was to rip open Tarl’s tight leather breeches and spread her legs for him.

She was just moments from succumbing completely, from losing the last shreds of inhibition. Too long had she denied this. She stood on the edge of a yawning precipice, one she yearned to throw herself over.

The sound of a cough intruded.

Tarl tensed, tore his mouth from hers and angled his head toward the open door. Breathing hard, Lucrezia followed his gaze.

Alpia and Lutrin stood there. The male warrior carried an armload of weapons, while Alpia had come looking for Lucrezia after she did not reappear from the armory. Both of them wore stunned expressions, although Alpia swiftly recovered. She favored Lucrezia with a conspirator’s wink.

“I can see you’re in the mood for practicing with a different type of sword this morning,” she said with a grin. “We should leave you to it.”

Lutrin guffawed at this, and Lucrezia felt reality intrude as if a cold blast of air had just hit her in the face.

What am I doing?

She had come here to make Tarl see sense, not to seduce him. This would not change anything. He would still head off at dawn to his doom, only she would be bereft.

Lucrezia gulped in a lungful of air and twisted out of Tarl’s embrace. She could not look his way, for her body still cried out for him, her mouth still burned from his kisses. It would take so little for her to throw herself back into his arms. She should never have followed him in here. She had just thrust her hand into the fire and scorched herself.

“Lucrezia …” Tarl began, his voice husky.

“No … I.” She stepped back, still unable to meet his eye. How could she want this man so much, yet be so angry with him at the same time? “I should go.”

With that, she fled to the door, pushed past Alpia and Lutrin, and ran.

 

Tarl leaned against the wall and heaved in a deep breath. Then he scowled at Lutrin and Alpia. “You two have great timing.”

Lutrin grimaced. “How were we to know you were about to plow the girl. You should have shut the door, if you wanted privacy.”

Tarl scowled back. “It wasn’t planned. She came in here to talk to me, we argued and then … things got out of hand.”

That was an understatement. He was sure the bulge in his breeches was plain to see, although fortunately Alpia and Lutrin pretended not to notice. He felt weak with lust, an overwhelming sensation. Not only that, his senses were reeling, his thoughts scattered.

Lucrezia had completely disarmed him.

It was not just lust; he wanted that woman, body and soul.

The realization of it hit him like a hammer between the eyes. How had he been so blind? A bond had forged between them the day they had first met. She had hated him then, but that had not mattered. She had gotten under his skin from the first, and he had been bitterly disappointed when she did not eventually warm to him. He had let her go, of course, and had tried to move on, to accept she would never be his … but the moment he had pulled her into his arms he realized he had been lying to himself.

She was all he wanted, all he would ever want.

“You can go after her, you know?” He looked up to find Alpia watching him. “Since you’re leaving at dawn, the pair of you are running out of time.”

Tarl suppressed a wince. She was right—by this time tomorrow, he would be riding toward The Valley of the Tors to fight Wurgest. Until a short while earlier he had felt confident about his chances against The Boar. He had beaten Wurgest before; he could do so again.

But Ruith thought there was some kind of treachery afoot.

Tarl was relieved to have some forewarning; he would be careful to pay close attention as he rode into that valley. Yet at the same time, he had been unsettled by the look on Lucrezia’s face as she had delivered the seer’s warning. She had looked upon him as if he were doomed.

Understandably, she did not want to give herself to a man who she believed would die the next day.

Tarl raked a hand through his hair and shrugged off Alpia’s suggestion. “Later maybe,” he muttered. “When she’s calmer.”

“Tarl …” Lutrin spoke up. “You can’t go off on your own tomorrow. Let some of us come with you.”

Tarl shook his head—he had already argued with Galan and Donnel on the same subject at dawn this morning. He did not want to spend today repeating himself. “I need to do this alone.”

Lutrin shook his head. “No, you don’t. We can hide out of sight, just north of the valley. Wurgest never needs to know.”

“It’s wise,” Alpia agreed. “Just in case The Boar doesn’t play fair.”

Tarl sighed. “The answer is still no.” He appreciated their concern, but he would not be moved. “Loxa made the conditions of the fight clear.”

Alpia shook her head, exasperated. “Well then, that’s even more reason to go after Lucrezia and take her to your furs. You might as well enjoy your last day before Wurgest’s blade parts your head from your shoulders.”

Lutrin laughed at that, although like Alpia, his gaze was pensive. They were all worrying over Tarl.

Tarl snorted in frustration and pushed past his friends. He left the armory and walked out into the bright spring sunlight. This fort was sometimes far too small for his liking. Nothing went on that everyone did not know about. Now that Alpia and Lutrin had seen him and Lucrezia together, the news would soon be common knowledge. Even the half-blind crone who lived down by the shore would know about it by this eve.

Tarl circuited the fort and walked toward the gate that led into the inner yard. There he paused, his gaze traveling down to the village. Lucrezia had likely gone home, back to the hut she shared with Eithni. He could find her easily enough, and finish what they had started.

He ached to do just that, to bolt the door from the inside and spend the rest of the day and night with her. Eithni could find somewhere else to sleep for once. Yet the memory of her stricken face when she had spoken to him prevented Tarl from following her.

Why would you cast your life away as if it means nothing?

He had never had anyone ask him that before. A warrior’s death was an honorable one; he did not see it as a reckless choice. Still, it was not fair to lie with her now, not when he might die tomorrow.

I will speak to Lucrezia later, he promised himself as he turned and walked through the gateway. I won’t leave with her angry at me.


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

the savory aroma of mutton stew greeted Lucrezia as she entered the round tower.

Her belly churned. Usually she was hungry for supper, but not this evening. She had no appetite for food; her stomach felt squeezed into a fist and her nerves had stretched taut. She had considered not joining the others for supper in the fort, and instead eating some bread and cheese by the fire in her hut. However, she did not want to appear a coward, and so she had come.

Shoulders back, she strode into the dimly lit space and realized she was early. Only half the folk were here. Deri and two other women were finishing making the stew, while children played on the rushes nearby. Galan and Tea were there, seated together upon the raised platform at the end of the feasting hall. They chatted as they enjoyed a cup of wine together. There were no sign of the other warriors yet, Tarl included.

A mixture of relief and disappointment flowed through Lucrezia. Perhaps Tarl would not join them this evening. She glanced over at his alcove—after his return, he had taken the second largest one next to Galan and Tea’s as Donnel no longer wanted it. Was he inside? Would she see him before his departure at dawn tomorrow?

Something deep inside her chest twisted. This was a giant mess—and it was all of her own doing. She had gone to him, argued with him, knowing that the attraction between them was like dry tinder ready to catch alight.

“Lucrezia!”

Mael called to her. The woman was sitting with some of the smallest children, watching her daughter Ailene make her first attempts at crawling. Eithni was there too, sitting with Talor upon her lap.

Lucrezia walked over to them and knelt down, forcing a bright smile. “Good evening.”

“Where have you been all day?” Eithni asked, handing over Talor to Lucrezia. The infant lad gurgled and grinned, his chubby hands reaching for Lucrezia’s hair. She looked down at him, at his shock of dark hair. He had startling blue eyes and beautiful bone structure. She imagined the eye-color belonged to the boy’s mother, although he had Donnel’s face.

“I went wildberry picking for Deri,” Lucrezia replied. “She wants to make a pie for the noon meal tomorrow.”

Eithni nodded, although her gaze remained upon Lucrezia’s face. “Something is wrong,” she observed quietly. “You’re very pale this eve.”

Lucrezia kept the smile plastered on her face, although inside she felt as if she was crumbling. “I’m just tired,” she replied with a shake of her head. “I walked farther than I intended.”

She was aware then that Deri was observing her, a sympathetic look on her face. With a sinking feeling Lucrezia realized that the woman knew about her and Tarl. She glanced around the hall, at where men and women were now entering and taking their seats upon low benches at the tables. Who else knows?

She saw Tarl and Donnel enter then. They were talking together in low voices.

“Here he is.” Eithni rose to her feet and plucked Talor from Lucrezia’s arms. “Here is your da.”

“Eithni.” Mael put out her hand to stop the young woman. “I don’t think Donnel wants to be bothered with Talor right now.”

Eithni gave her a bemused look. “Nonsense—he’ll want to see his son.”

Lucrezia watched her carry the baby across the hall, intercepting the two brothers as they made their way to their usual seats. Donnel and Tarl halted, and Lucrezia saw Tarl look her way.

They stared at each other for a long drawn out moment. Lucrezia’s throat constricted. Heavens preserve her, the man had a gaze that could melt stone.

“Evening, Donnel.” Eithni approached with a smile. “Would you like to hold your son?”

Donnel’s tall body went rigid. He stared at Eithni, all warmth draining from his face. “Not really.”

Her face fell. “But you haven’t seen him in so long. Look how he has grown.” She held Talor up to him, and the infant kicked his feet, arms stretching toward his father.

A shadow passed over Donnel’s face, and his gaze shuttered. The flicker of a muscle in his jaw was the only sign of the turmoil within. “I don’t wish to see him right now, healer. Take him away.”

Eithni stared at him, her delicate skin flushing pink at his rudeness. “My name is Eithni,” she said, the slight tremor in her voice giving her nervousness away. “Why do you never call me by it?”

Donnel gave her a sour look. “Take him away, Eithni.”

“And your son’s name is Talor,” she continued doggedly. “It is a fine name. You should use it occasionally.”

“Eithni,” Tarl interrupted gently, stepping in as Donnel’s face turned thunderous. “The lad has grown indeed, but best you take him back to Mael now.”

Eithni’s gaze flicked between the two men before her rosebud lips thinned. She then nodded at Tarl, ignoring Donnel completely now, and turned and marched back to where Mael and Lucrezia waited.

Lucrezia saw that Eithni’s face had turned pinker still when she returned to their side, and her eyes glittered. She was a sensitive girl, almost too much so. She had stood up to Donnel, and yet Lucrezia had sensed the barely contained fear in her.

“Thank you, Eithni,” Mael murmured with a gentle smile as she took Talor from her. “Don’t worry about Donnel—he’ll warm to the boy in time.”

“It’s been months now,” Eithni replied between gritted teeth. “It’s as if Talor doesn’t exist.”

“He reminds him of Luana,” Mael replied, sadness darkening her eyes. “Sometimes I think he blames Talor for her death.”

“Birthing sickness isn’t the fault of the child,” Eithni answered. “Surely Donnel realizes that.”

“Aye—but he’s looking for somewhere to place the blame.” Mael gave a melancholy smile and reached down to stroke Talor’s soft black hair. “Bitterness has wormed its way into his heart.” Mael climbed to her feet. “Come … let us take our seats for supper now.”

Eithni nodded, although her slender frame was still stiff with outrage and offended dignity. Without another word, the healer turned and made her way up to the raised platform. Usually Eithni’s place was at Donnel’s right, but Lucrezia did not fail to notice that she sat as far as possible away from him this evening, at the far end of the table, squeezing in next to Deri.

Lucrezia was making her way to her usual place when Tarl crossed the hall to intercept her. Dressed in black leather, he looked dangerous this evening—perilously handsome. The smile he gave Lucrezia when he stopped before her made her heart flutter against her ribs.

“Will you sit up on the chieftain’s seat with me this eve, Lucrezia?” he asked.

Her breathing hitched in her chest, and her gaze flicked to the long table where Tea poured wine from a ewer, going from person to person. It was where the chief, his kin, and most trusted warriors sat. She had no place there.

“I …” she began, searching desperately for an excuse. “I don’t think …”

“Don’t worry,” he replied. “No one will mind. Come on.”

Unable to refuse him without causing a scene, Lucrezia followed Tarl up to the chieftain’s table. Tea flashed her a welcoming smile, and poured a cup of wine for her while everyone else started to help themselves to earthen bowls of stew. They tore off hunks of bread from large loaves.

Lucrezia took her seat at the table upon the low bench, squeezing in between Tarl and Donnel. Tarl’s younger brother ignored her. His expression was grim, his gaze hard. His aura warned her off trying to converse with him. She edged away—and felt herself press up against Tarl.

Heart thumping now, she took a measured sip of wine from her cup in the hope it would quell the butterflies in her stomach. To sit this close to him after what had passed between them earlier in the day was torture.

“Bread?” Tarl held out the loaf to her, his expression solicitous. He did not seem to be as affected as she was by sitting so close.

Lucrezia nodded, not trusting herself to speak, and took the loaf, ripping a piece off. The interior of the fort might be smoky and warm, but it felt insufferably hot this evening, and airless as well. Lucrezia took another sip of wine, regretting she had agreed to sit up here with him.

The rumble of voices echoed through the hall, accompanied by the thump of earthen bowls and wooden cups. However, there was a tension present in the air tonight, an edge to the conversation. They had just started their meal when Galan addressed Tarl.

“Are you ready for dawn?”

Tarl nodded.

Next to Galan, Tea’s mouth compressed. “So you’re intent on doing this … on going alone.”

Lucrezia felt Tarl’s body stiffen against hers. “Aye—it’s the only way.”

Next to Lucrezia Donnel muttered a curse under his breath. “I don’t understand … you owe Wurgest nothing.”

“I agree with Donnel,” Galan rumbled. “I believe Loxa was making empty threats to goad you into battle.”

“And it worked,” Donnel added, casting Tarl a dark look. “You’re playing straight into his hands.”

Lucrezia glanced up at Tarl’s face and saw that all his brothers had succeeded in doing was angering him. She had gotten to know Tarl well enough these days to realize how much Galan and Donnel’s good opinion meant to him. As such, he bristled under their criticism of his actions.

“Leave it,” he growled. “I know what I’m doing.” His attention shifted back to Tea then, and he flashed her a smile. “Just make sure to organize a great victory feast for my return.”

The chieftain’s wife smiled in response, although the expression was strained. “I’ll have the lads put the boar and venison carcasses on to roast tomorrow morning.”

The exchange had lowered the tension at the chieftain’s table, and folk now returned to their suppers, conversation resuming. Yet there was still an edge, an undercurrent of unspoken worry. Galan’s gaze remained upon Tarl a long while before he resumed eating.

Lucrezia was half-way through her bowl of stew when Tarl leaned close to her. “I wanted to speak with you, before tomorrow.”

Lucrezia glanced at him, meeting his eye properly for the first time since she had taken a seat. The intense look she saw there caused the butterflies, which had momentarily settled, to take flight again. “What of?”

“I wanted to apologize.”

Her gaze widened. This was new. Seeing her expression, Tarl gave a wry smile. “Aye—I know it doesn’t happen often, but there are times when I’ll admit that I’ve wronged someone.”

Lucrezia swallowed a piece of bread. “You haven’t wronged me.”

He shook his head, negating her words. “I have, and I’m sorry for it. You wanted me to set you free after that day we took the wall, and I should have. I forced a life on you that was not of your choosing.”

It was Lucrezia’s turn to give an ironic smile. “Perhaps, but I have come to love it here. I consider Dun Ringill my home.”

He raised an eyebrow. “You do?”

She smiled. “I’m free here. As long as I contribute to the tribe, I can spend my days as I wish.” Her smile widened. “And I can fight.”

He grinned at her. “You certainly can.”

She nodded, suddenly shy. “I like feeling strong … knowing I can defend myself.”

He watched her a moment, his grin fading. “You’re a magnificent woman, Lucrezia … and before I go I wanted you to know that.”

Her breathing stilled. “You talk as if you won’t come back.”

He flashed her that cocky smile she knew so well. “I plan to return from The Valley of the Tors, but just in case I don’t …” The smile faded and his eyes turned serious. “I don’t want to leave things unsaid.” To her surprise, he reached out then and stroked her cheek with the back of his hand. “You were right, I’m a fool. A cleverer man wouldn’t have let these last months pass without apologizing for being such an ass. If I return, I promise to be the sort of man you deserve. Would you soften toward me then? Could you let me into your heart?”

Lucrezia stared at him. Her vision swam, and she bit the inside of her cheek to force back the tears which threatened. She could not lose control now, not surrounded by Tarl’s kin. She would never be able to show her face in this hall again. She had never met a man as disarming as this one. One moment he behaved as if he needed no one, and the next he bared his soul. If she had not seen the naked sincerity in his eyes, she would have thought he was mocking her.

“I could,” she whispered. “Just make sure you come back safe.”

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The firepit burned low in the hearth, casting a lambent glow over the interior of the small hut that Eithni and Lucrezia shared. It was a still night outdoors, with no wind whistling against the walls; even so, the evenings were cold at the moment.

Lucrezia lay in her furs, staring up at the low ceiling beams. After the day that had just passed, she could not sleep. Her mind was too active, her body too sensitized.

“Luci.” Eithni’s voice reached her across the space. She had taken to calling her the familiar name that Lucrezia’s family and Marcus had once used with her. “Are you awake?”

Lucrezia huffed a breath. “Yes … unfortunately.”

A pause. “I heard what happened today between you and Tarl … in the armory.”

Lucrezia flushed, glad the darkness hid her embarrassment, before she muttered a curse. “Is there anyone in this fort who doesn’t know by now?”

Eithni let out a soft sympathetic laugh. “Perhaps the shepherd who tends goats outside the walls has not yet heard, but I can check tomorrow.”

Lucrezia sighed and made a mental note to give Alpia a tongue-lashing the following day. “Why are the people of this fort such gossips?”

“We live in isolation. Gossip is our greatest source of entertainment.”

“Well, I wish folk would tend to their own gardens instead of trampling all over mine.”

Silence stretched between the two women for a few moments before Eithni broke it. “What’s it like … to want a man?”

Taken aback by the question, Lucrezia did not answer immediately. She was not used to speaking of such things, given the sort of marriage she and Marcus had shared. “It’s many things,” she murmured finally. “Exciting, consuming … frightening.”

“I’ve never felt that way,” Eithni replied. “I once looked forward to the day a man would catch my eye, but that future is dead to me.”

Lucrezia propped herself up on an elbow, peering through the gloom at the pale face framed in walnut-colored hair that looked back at her. “What happened to you?”

Eithni grimaced. “Is it that obvious I am damaged?”

Lucrezia smiled. “Not immediately, no. But living with you, I sense a reserve, a fear … today, I saw it when you argued with Donnel.”

Eithni drew in a sharp breath. “I don’t talk of it these days; I prefer to let the past lie.” She paused here, as if deciding whether to continue. When she did, her voice was flat, hollow. “After Tea wed Galan and the folk of The Wolf returned to our broch, life changed for us all. A warrior named Forcus, a man who had once been Tea’s lover, killed my brother Loc, and took control of our tribe.” Her voice faltered, and Lucrezia realized she was forcing the words out. “As chief, Forcus took me as his woman … used me … hurt me. He had always wanted my mother you see, and I look like her. I found out later that he raped and murdered her … but he’d loved her too in his own twisted way. When he realized I was not her, and never could be, he did such vile cruel things to me that I fear I can never let a man near me again … even if I know they’re not all like him.”

Lucrezia listened, her throat tightening as Eithni finished speaking. Horror swamped her. “Eithni,” she whispered, her voice breaking. “I’m so sorry.”

She could not tell her that she would overcome the wounds of the past, or that she would find a man who would love her and treat her gently. Lucrezia had been through enough to know that there were some scars that took a long time to fade, while others lasted a lifetime.

“I watched you and Tarl at supper this eve,” Eithni said after a few moments, her voice husky now. “I saw how he looked at you. It’s the same way Galan gazes upon Tea—he’s in love with you.”

Lucrezia’s vision blurred and a hot tear escaped, trickling down her face. “Oh, I don’t know about that,” she replied, forcing a lightness she did not feel. “He’s certainly in love with himself—I’m not sure there’s room for anyone else.”

Eithni laughed, a carefree sound that was at odds with the grim tale she had just told. “He’s certainly sure of himself.”

Lucrezia huffed. “That’s one way of describing it.”

“And yet you love him back … don’t you?”

Inhaling deeply, Lucrezia leaned back against the furs. The tears continued to flow; she felt them run down into her ears and soak into her hair.

“I think I do,” she whispered.

 

Lucrezia lay there for a long while after she and Eithni had finished speaking.

Sleep would not come. After a spell she heard Eithni’s breathing slow and deepen, signaling that the young woman had fallen asleep. It had been a revealing conversation between them, and an emotional one. If her mind had been wheeling beforehand, it was spinning now.

Had she spoken true? Was she really in love with Tarl mac Muin? It had crept upon her, like the first winter frost. And now that she risked losing him forever, she finally admitted it to herself.

What am I doing here?

They only had a short time left. She could not waste a moment of it.

Lucrezia slid out of the furs, pulled a plaid mantle around her shoulders, and padded across to the door, letting herself out as quietly as she could manage. Outdoors a full moon rode high in a clear dark sky. Silver light bathed the scattering of cone-roofed huts and the bulk of the round-tower at the settlement’s center. There was not a soul about as Lucrezia made her way up the track to the fort. She climbed the steps to the entrance, her bare feet whispering on the rough stone.

Indoors there was only the red glow of the embers in the firepit to illuminate her path. Lucrezia edged around the circular space, stepping over the prone bodies of the men, women, and children who slept within. She passed curtained alcoves, some so small they could only fit one person, others big enough for a couple to sleep comfortably. Eventually she stopped before Tarl’s alcove.

Doubt assailed her for a moment. What if he no longer slept here? What if Donnel had reclaimed his alcove? Tarl’s brother was so foul tempered of late, she did not wish to accidently stumble upon him. She would shrivel with embarrassment if she mistakenly chose the wrong chamber.

Inhaling deeply and gathering the shreds of her courage, Lucrezia pushed the heavy fur aside and slid inside the alcove.

A single oil cresset burned low on the wall, illuminating a welcoming, stone-lined space dominated by a pile of furs in the center. And there, sprawled upon them asleep, was Tarl.

Lucrezia watched him a moment, drinking him in.

He lay on his back, one arm thrown over his face, the edge of one of the furs covering his loins. Her gaze slid over his long muscular limbs, the faint battle scars on his torso, and the large eagle tattoo upon his right bicep. He was a breathtaking sight.

For a moment her courage failed her. She was tempted to look upon him for a while longer before slipping back to bed. Now that she was standing here, just feet away from him, the situation felt too real, too raw. What if he rejected her? Or mocked her?

Don’t be a coward.

Lucrezia straightened her back and forced herself to steady her breathing. Her heart was thundering as if she had just sprinted four circuits around the outer walls. She needed to calm herself.

“Tarl,” she whispered finally.

He stirred, stretching with feline sinuousness as his eyelids flickered open. And then those grey eyes settled upon her. She watched surprise ripple across his face. “Lucrezia,” he murmured, his voice husky with sleep. “What are you doing here?”

She did not answer; talking would not serve her. Of late, words just seemed to drive a wedge between them.

Instead she shrugged off her mantle and let it fall to the rushes. Underneath she wore a thin linen tunic, the material so gauzy that it was almost transparent. She reached down, grabbed hold of the hem and pulled the tunic over her head so that she stood naked before him.

He stared at her, his breathing stilling. “Gods,” he whispered. “You are so lovely it hurts to look upon you.”

Lucrezia wet her lips, nervousness fluttering within her. “Let me see you too,” she murmured.

Tarl’s mouth quirked before he reached down and pulled the fur aside. His shaft, thick and swollen, sprang up like a banner before him. Lucrezia stared at it, fascinated.

Tarl smiled. “Are you going to stand there all night?” He reached out a hand. “Come here.”

She obeyed, padding across the rushes to where he lay. Tarl propped himself up against the furs, his gaze never leaving hers. She put her hand in his, and climbed upon his lap, straddling him. Then she lowered herself to him for a kiss.

It was questing, tender, sensual—an exploration. The taste of his mouth, the heat of his tongue, the feel of his hands sliding over her skin, unraveled the last of Lucrezia’s restraint. She let out a low groan and melted against him, marveling at how good he felt pressed against her. His shaft was the hottest part of him, it burned against the sensitive skin of her belly when she shifted against him.

They kissed for a while, while Tarl’s hands lazily explored the length of her back, the curve and cleft of her buttocks, the softness of her thighs. He seemed to have all the time in the world, his hands cupping her full breasts, his fingertips teasing her nipples into hard swollen buds till she gasped.

Eventually Lucrezia reared back, out of breath from their kisses. There would be time to explore each other further later, but for now the deep throbbing ache within her could not be ignored. She had to have this man inside her.

Lucrezia slid back off his lap, reached down, and traced the proud length of him with her fingertips, smiling at his gasp as she touched him. Then, acting on instinct, she leaned down and took him in her mouth, tasting him.

Tarl’s groan echoed through the alcove. It was loud, but Lucrezia did not care; she did not care if they woke up the entire hall. She was enjoying herself too much to stop. She licked, sucked, and stroked Tarl until he gently took hold of her head and prevented her from continuing.

“Stop,” he said, his voice hoarse with need. “I want to be inside you.”

Her breathing ragged, Lucrezia straddled him once more, this time guiding his shaft into her. She arched her back as she slid down the length of him, impaling herself to the root. The sensation was glorious; it filled, caressed, and tickled her all at the same time. She let out a low groan of her own, giving herself up to the sensation.

Tarl took control then. He gripped her hips and guided her so that she shifted against him in a lazy sinuous circle. Lucrezia gasped as pleasure arrowed up from her lower belly into her womb.

“Tarl … I …”

His slow answering smile made her breathing hitch. “What is it, mo chridhe?”

My heart.

He moved her in the same sensuous rotation once more, and Lucrezia choked back a cry. No one had ever told her it could feel like this. The one coupling she had shared with Marcus had been painful, awkward, and embarrassing. There had been no pleasure, no sense of unshackling herself from the world and letting herself fly.

He continued to move her, grinding her against him as their hips moved in unison. Tremors of heat radiated up from where their bodies joined. She shuddered as the pleasure crested.

“Tarl,” she moaned his name in a plea. “Please … I can’t … I want …”

He rolled over, taking her with him, and pinned her against the furs. Then he spread her legs wide, and thrust deep into her.

Lucrezia stared up at him, their eyes locked as he took her. The tenderness and passion she saw there merely inflamed her further. She wanted to consume him, to be consumed in return. Lifting her hips to meet him, Lucrezia matched each thrust. She wrapped her legs around him, drawing him deeper still into her.

Throbbing rippled out from her loins, turning her limbs weak and molten, setting her core alight. The last shreds of restraint fell away.

Lucrezia lifted out of herself. She felt scattered by the wind, tossed high upon the crest of a great wave.

She cried out, arching back off the furs, her fingers digging into the hard muscle of Tarl’s broad shoulders. A heartbeat later Tarl’s deep cry joined hers, and she felt the heat of him spill inside her.


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

tarl gazed down at Lucrezia.

She was dozing in the aftermath of their lovemaking, her hair fanned out across the furs in a dark curtain. Her dusky skin was flushed, her full lips parted. The scar upon her forehead had faded to a pale line. Tarl’s throat constricted, and his vision misted. He was not a man who wept easily, but he almost did now.

She was beyond beautiful.

Reaching out, Tarl stroked her cheek. He wanted to make this moment last—to draw it out—but it seemed as if time was speeding up. Dawn was not far off, and he wished to be gone from Dun Ringill before the first rays of sun broke over the edge of the world.

Lucrezia’s eyes fluttered open, and she gave a soft sigh. She looked up at him, a smile stretching those sensual lips that were swollen from his kisses. “Did you not sleep?” she asked huskily.

Tarl nodded. “For a bit—but then I thought I’d prefer to watch you. You’re a glorious sight.”

Her dark eyes grew soft, and she reached out a slender hand and placed it over his chest, over his heart. “Don’t leave,” she whispered. “Don’t go to Wurgest.”

Tarl sighed, placing his hand over hers and squeezing gently. “I must.”

Those words cost him, each one ripping from his chest. Suddenly he wished he had not been so eager to fight Wurgest again, to show Galan that he really did have this tribe’s best interests at heart. Both his brothers had tried to dissuade him one final time just before he went to bed the night before—Ruith had gone to them about her divination, which had caused alarm. However, Tarl had been stubborn.

He had his faults, but he was a man of his word. He never broke a promise made.

“He will not fight fair,” she said, her eyes glistening. “You know that.”

“Aye—and I will be ready for any treachery. Worry not, I won’t ride into that valley without making sure Wurgest doesn’t have an ambush waiting.”

He sat up and pushed his shaggy hair out of his eyes. Every fiber of his being wished to remain here with Lucrezia. He felt as if he had only just tasted her; there was so much more to discover about this passionate proud woman from a faraway land. For the first time in his life he felt at peace. He no longer wanted to be somewhere else, he no longer chafed at the confines of his life. It was a bitter irony to make this discovery today, of all days.

Lucrezia sat up too and wound her arms around his neck, giving him a soft kiss. Tarl’s body reacted instantly to her touch. Desire arrowed through him, and his groin hardened. He deepened the kiss, tangling his hands in her thick dark hair.

A short time later he broke away, a groan of frustration rumbling in his chest. “Gods, woman.”

She smiled, although he glimpsed the disappointment in her eyes. “I wish you’d stay.”

Tarl cupped her face with his hands and looked down at her. “I will come back,” he murmured. “I promise you.”

Her smile trembled, and the sight was a dart through his heart. “You can’t make such a promise.”

“I can,” he replied firmly, before he grinned. “You under-estimate my stubbornness. When I say I’ll do something, I will.”

She gazed up at him. “I want to believe you.”

It was suddenly hard to breathe. The Warrior strike him down, he did not want to leave her. The gods had handed him a gift—he could not bear the thought of losing her. “You’re the best thing to ever happen to me,” he whispered, wiping away a tear that now trickled down her cheek, with the pad of his thumb. “You’re the only one who’s ever really seen me. To most folk here I’m merely Tarl ‘the hothead’, Galan’s rash younger brother. You see beyond all that.”

Her eyes gleamed, the tears streaming freely now. The pressure in Tarl’s chest increased. He had to leave now, or he never would.

Gently, he extracted himself from her embrace and climbed to his feet. Then he met her gaze once more. “I will not let you go, Lucrezia. Once this is done, I’m coming home, and you and I will not leave this alcove for days.”

Through her tears, she smiled. “Then I will hold you to that promise.”

 

The first rays of dawn were lightening the eastern sky when Lucrezia climbed the wall of the outer perimeter to watch Tarl leave.

He did not know she was there. They had said their goodbyes in the alcove earlier, before he had slipped out into the sleeping hall. She had waited till he had gone—and then she returned to her hut to dress. She now wore a leather vest and leggings, with a knee-length plaid skirt split at the sides. On her back she carried a square oaken shield, and a light iron sword hung at her side. She was ready for battle.

Tarl rode upon a bay pony with heavy feathered hooves. Dressed in dark leather, his brown hair flying in the wind, he cut a proud figure. He did not look back as he rode south-east, for he would not expect her to be out here on the walls, watching him go.

It hurt to see him leave like this. After the night they had shared, the words that had passed between them, Lucrezia felt as if she was having a limb removed.

She could not believe that she had ever hated him, that she had wanted to be free of him. At that moment she would gladly go back to being Tarl mac Muin’s war prize if it meant he would turn around and ride back into Dun Ringill.

Yet he did not.

Lucrezia inhaled deeply, her breath ragged. She wanted to believe his promise, and knew he had made it in good faith. But she would not let him ride off to meet that fiend, Wurgest, alone.

Tarl seemed to think he was invincible, as if an iron blade would merely bounce off him. Yet she had seen the hate on Wurgest’s face the last time the two men had locked gazes. She knew The Boar was out for blood. Nothing else would do.

The pony and rider disappeared from view and Lucrezia turned away. She made her way down the narrow steps from the wall and strode back toward the fort. There was no time to waste; she would saddle a pony and ride after him.

But when Lucrezia entered the stable yard, she stopped short.

A company of ponies and warriors were amassing there—Galan and Donnel among them. The chieftain spotted Lucrezia and strode across to greet her. Galan looked formidable this morning, two swords strapped across his back, his long hair tied back at the nape of his neck.

Seeing Lucrezia’s shock, he smiled. “You didn’t think we’d let Tarl go alone, did you?”

Donnel approached from behind Galan, his expression feral. “He’ll not keep all the fun for himself.”

Lucrezia swallowed, finally finding her tongue. “You’re going after him?”

Galan inclined his head, taking in her attire. “As are you, I’d guess.”

Lucrezia nodded. “I can fight.”

“I know you can.” Galan motioned toward the stables. “Go on—Alpia’s saddled the dun mare for you. Hurry, we leave now.”

Lucrezia did as bid, flying across the yard to where Alpia was now leading the pony out for her. The female warrior smiled at her, although exasperation flared in her blue eyes. “I don’t know where you thought you were going on your own,” she chided her. “The Eagles of Dun Ringill fly together. We’re stronger that way.”

Lucrezia returned the smile, took the reins from Alpia, and swung up onto the mare’s back. The pony stamped its feathered hooves and snaked its head round, snapping its teeth at her. Lucrezia sighed. She had hoped to choose a different pony for this journey. Still, she was relieved Galan was letting her come at all. When she had seen him approach, she had worried he would be angry at her.

Tea entered the stable yard, and she and Galan embraced. The chieftain’s wife looked stern but calm this morning, her hand resting on her swelling belly as she waved them off. Lucrezia did not doubt that if Tea had not been with child, she would have joined them.

The company of twelve warriors thundered out of Dun Ringill, following Tarl’s path south-east. Galan had left the fort well defended, just in case Wurgest planned an attack while their attention was diverted elsewhere.

The warriors of The Eagle rode at a steady canter, the crisp morning air brushing their faces. A milky mist curled in from Loch Slapin, but inland the sky was clear, save for a few wispy clouds upon the horizon.

A short distance from Dun Ringill, the company turned south—Galan and Donnel leading the way. Lucrezia rode toward the back of the group, alongside Alpia. They had been riding for some distance before the warrior called out to her.

“You kept us all awake last night, you know.”

Lucrezia glanced over, meeting Alpia’s eye. Unlike when the woman had teased her earlier about Tarl, she felt no embarrassment. She had known they had been noisy. Once the lovemaking had begun, the pair of them had lost all inhibition. Lucrezia was sure she had screamed the rafters down at one stage.

Holding Alpia’s gaze she merely smiled.

“I’m happy for you,” Alpia said warmly. “For you both.”

Warmth spread through Lucrezia. That long night would be forever etched upon Lucrezia’s mind. It had taken everything she had to go to Tarl and disrobe before him, but she was so relieved she had. Months of pent-up longing had culminated in a night she would never forget.

He had surprised her too. He was a headstrong man, and she had expected him to be a commanding and controlling lover. Yet Tarl had let her take the lead numerous times, had enjoyed watching her ride him. Not only that, but he had held her gaze throughout, and in those eyes the color of weathered iron she had seen a depth of emotion that had shocked her. He had been with her at every moment, taking her to the brink and over, before he found his own release.

Alpia was right—he knew how to please a woman in the furs—only Lucrezia would never admit it to her. She felt too possessive of her discovery to share it with anyone besides Tarl.

She had once dreamed of such a union, but marriage to a man who could never fully love her had turned those dreams to dust. Who would have thought that she would find love here, far beyond the fringes of the Empire? Who would have thought a man of the Picti—the ‘painted people’ north of the wall—would steal her heart?

 

Tarl urged his pony through a shallow burn and up a rounded jade hill. He had made good time since leaving Dun Ringill, but there was still some way to go.

The sun rose to the west, and the sky turned pale blue promising a fine day to come. A light breeze feathered his face as he rode. His stallion was a hardy beast; it kept up a tireless pace, its ears pricked forward in the direction of travel. If Tarl had not been riding to meet Wurgest, he might have enjoyed the excursion.

As it was, he felt tense this morning, his mind a whirl of conflicting thoughts.

He had not slept much the night before—never a good idea before a battle—but he could not bring himself to regret that. If he was to meet his end today, he would rather do it with one fine memory to cherish.

Leaving Lucrezia at dawn, walking out of the alcove and to the armory, where he had readied himself for departure, had been hard. Still, he had forced himself to focus, to concentrate on what lay ahead. If he wanted to survive this day, he could not let himself be distracted.

Yet it was difficult not to think of her as he rode south.

He also berated himself. Had he not been nursing his wounded pride for months, he would have realized he loved her earlier. They could have had more time together. He had wasted precious days that he could never get back.

At the rise of the next hill Tarl rode by a massive cairn of stones. Legend told that this was the grave of the King of the Giants, when their kind had ruled the world. The cairn was so old that grass grew upon its summit, and weeds poked out between the stacked stones. The story went that the king had died here after turning his back on his enemy during a battle.

Tarl gave a grim smile—he would not make the same mistake. He knew Wurgest well. The warrior had a mind like a ferret: cunning and sharp. You never turned your back on such a man.

Pushing thoughts of Wurgest’s wild eyes and crazed grin aside, Tarl urged his stallion on, toward the wide valley strewn with heather below.

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

tarl reached the Valley of the Tors just as the sun crested the top of its arc across the sky.

He knew his destination was near when he passed giant slabs of rock, protruding from the ground like the broken stumps of teeth. The landscape was distinctive here. The tors which littered the hillsides were said to have come from that long ago battle between two tribes of giants.

Slowing his stallion to a walk, Tarl approached the northern edge of the valley. He reined his pony in at the top and cast his gaze into the wide vale below. The Valley of the Tors was a lonely spot, windswept and barren. The breeze whistled in between the stones, keening a soft lament.

Tarl’s gaze narrowed as he studied the terrain. A solitary figure waited below. A hulking bearded man with untamed dark hair stood in the midst of the valley, his pony tethered a few yards distant.

Wurgest was here—but had he brought friends?

Tarl scanned the southern edge of the vale, where a forest of high tors rose against the sky. He could see no one, but that did not mean there were not men waiting up there, ready to attack when Wurgest gave the word.

He would need to be careful.

Tarl reined his stallion west and entered the valley from that direction. Wurgest watched him approach, his heavy-featured face an expressionless mask. Tarl’s wariness increased. If Wurgest was not grinning, he was definitely up to something.

Around twenty yards away from The Boar warrior, Tarl halted and dismounted, tethering his stallion to a rock. He put on an iron helm—the one he had taken from the Roman general he had slain at the wall. Then he slung his shield over his shoulder and walked forward to meet Wurgest mac Wrad.

“Still strutting like a rooster,” Wurgest rumbled in greeting.

Tarl grinned. He always liked the banter between opponents before a fight, and Wurgest was inventive with his insults.

Wurgest spat on the ground and loosened the muscles in his neck and shoulders. “I’ve been looking forward to spilling your guts, and listening to you scream like a girl. This has been a long time coming, Eagle.”

Tarl shrugged, his grin widening. “And I shall enjoy cleaving that ugly head from your shoulders.”

 

Lucrezia spotted the tors first, great slabs of granite thrusting up from the damp earth on the far horizon. “Look.”

Alpia nodded, her strong face creased with concentration. “Aye—we draw close to the valley now.” The warrior then glanced up at the sky. “Tarl will be meeting Wurgest as we speak.”

Her words caused anxiety to tighten its grip around Lucrezia’s chest. She hoped they were not too late.

The company slowed, gathering around Galan who had drawn up his black stallion and was staring south. His gaze swept back to the warriors surrounding him. “We must be careful from this point on. They can’t hear us approach.” His gaze shifted to Donnel. “You, Cal, and Alpia go on ahead and check the northern edge of the valley. As soon as you’re sure the way is clear, send word back.”

Galan had barely finished speaking, and Donnel had not even had a chance to respond, when the ground beneath their feet started to tremble.

Lucrezia, who was upon her dun mare at the back of the group, twisted in the saddle to see warriors on ponies charging up the hill behind them. There were over half a dozen of them: big men with blue painted faces and weapons drawn.

In an instant it hit her. This was Wurgest’s plan—to attack Tarl’s reinforcements while he faced him alone.

Her yell echoed across the hillside with the force of a thunderclap. “Ambush!”

The scrape of swords sliding free of leather scabbards followed—and then The Eagle warriors were wheeling their ponies north, plunging down the hill to meet their attackers.

A thrill swept over Lucrezia, frightening in its intensity. She had expected to feel fear during an attack, and had worried that her courage would desert her. But instead her blood caught fire. The wild cries of The Eagles, their feral faces as they rode past her, swept her up with them. These were her people. They were under attack, and she would not cower at the back while they fought for their lives.

She had been born into a noble Roman family, had been bred to be a lady—but her destiny lay here upon this wild island. This was who she really was: a warrior woman at heart.

She drew her sword, unslung her shield so that she held it with her left arm, and dug her knees into her pony’s sides. For once the dun mare did not balk, did not try to throw her. Instead it leaped forward, following the others down the incline, toward battle.

 

“How’s that pretty slave?” Wurgest sneered. “Does she squeal in the furs? Or does she still think you’re a piece of dung?”

Tarl ignored the insult. Instead he glanced right, to the southern edge of the valley, before his gaze returned to Wurgest. “Aren’t you going to bring your friends out to play? I know they’re lurking up there. Cowards.”

Wurgest gave a deep belly laugh, his midnight blue eyes gleaming. “You’ve got it wrong, Eagle. My men aren’t waiting up there … they’re circling north to where your brothers will soon meet their end.”

Tarl stilled. Despite that it was a warm day, a chill settled over him. A moment later he drew in a deep breath. Thank the gods he had insisted he come alone. So this was the treachery Ruith had warned of.

“My brothers didn’t follow me here,” he replied. “Your men will meet no one from Dun Ringill.”

Wurgest laughed again, the sound booming off the sides of the valley. “You’re wrong. Of course they’re here. They wouldn’t let you ride off to face me alone. Galan’s too noble for that.” Wurgest spat those last few words out, making it clear what he thought of Tarl’s elder brother.

Tarl smirked, masking the sense of foreboding that slid its icy fingers down his spine. Galan and Donnel thought his decision folly, but neither of them had come out to see him off this morning. He had asked them not to do so, yet had thought they would come out to say goodbye anyway. He realized then that they were probably readying themselves in their alcoves while he saddled his pony.

What if they have followed me here?

He had to delay Wurgest, had to find a way to warn Galan. And yet it was impossible to leave this valley now that he stood before his opponent. Wurgest would see it as cowardice, and would merely chase him down.

“And what of your brothers?” Tarl drawled. “Have they come to help carry your carcass home after I’m done with you?”

That wiped the grin from Wurgest’s face. “They let me fight my own battles,” he growled, pulling free two huge fighting axes from where they had been strapped to his back. The whetted blades gleamed in the noon sun. “Men loyal to me will see to your kin—while I deal with you.”

Tarl pulled his sword free and unslung his shield with practiced ease. “I’m hard to kill, Boar. Surely you’ve realized that by now.”

Wurgest sneered back at him, his teeth flashing white against his dark unruly beard. “Aye—but every man has to die sometime. Today’s your day.”

Wurgest’s axes whistled through the air.

The Boar wielded them easily, cutting and slicing with deadly precision. The two warriors danced around each other. Tarl held his shield aloft with his left arm and carried his sword with his right. He had once thought on how he would not like to meet Wurgest in battle, and he had been right. The Boar was a formidable foe. Fighting with fists was one thing, but Wurgest brandished those axes as if he had been born swinging them.

Tarl circled him, ducking and parrying, waiting for an opportunity to get under Wurgest’s guard. His best chance of winning this fight was to tire his opponent out a bit first, or to anger him and get him to overreach.

He decided to try to enrage him first. Wurgest was always quick to anger—and it was time to start fighting dirty.

“Do you know why your brothers aren’t here to watch your back?” he asked, slamming his shield against the side of one of his opponent’s axes, deflecting the blow. “I’ll tell you why. They want you dead.”

Wurgest snarled at him. “Like you soon will be.”

“Loxa said so, two days ago. He called you a witless oaf. Once you’re dead he’ll be next in line to be chief.”

Wurgest roared, lunging at him with such speed that Tarl barely avoided an axe blade embedding in his skull. “Liar!”

“It’s the truth.” Tarl was grinning now. “They were disappointed when you returned from the wall. Urcal wanted you speared upon a Roman blade.”

Wurgest’s gaze was wild. He had that crazed look Tarl had seen on him in the south.

Unfortunately, instead of enraging him to the point of making a blunder, Tarl had merely succeeded into turning The Boar into the ruthless killer he was in the heat of battle.

Wurgest slammed his right arm down hard, his axe crashing into Tarl’s shield. The force of the impact reverberated deep in Tarl’s bones and shook his teeth. The blade embedded, the point of it thrusting out just a hair’s breadth from Tarl’s forearm.

Wurgest yanked his axe back, forcing Tarl to let go of his shield. The heavy square of oak, covered in leather with a heavy iron boss in its center, flew upward, still impaled on the axe.

There was no time for Wurgest to yank his weapon free, so he cast both the shield and his axe aside, leaving him with just one weapon to fight with.

The Boar favored Tarl with a savage grin. “Let’s even things up shall we?”

 

It took Lucrezia mere moments to realize that fighting on foot and on horseback were entirely different matters. These warriors were skilled riders, guiding their ponies with their knees as they swung axes, maces, pikes, and swords with one arm, and wielded shields with the other.

Although Lucrezia considered herself a good rider, she had never sparred on horseback, and was not ready for the speed with which The Boar riders approached, or the impact as the first one’s sword hit her shield.

Pain lanced through her shoulder, and it took all her effort to keep hold of her shield. Her attacker was so close she could see the whites of his eyes. He grinned, knowing he had the advantage, and drew a fighting knife.

A heartbeat later, a pike hit him with a dull thud, knocking the man off the saddle. Lucrezia twisted to see Alpia at her side.

“Dismount!” the woman shouted at her. “Fight on the ground!”

With that, Alpia leaped off her pony, yanked the pike from The Boar warrior’s guts, and finished him off with a slash to the throat.

Lucrezia slid to the ground, clutching her sword in her right hand so hard her fingers ached. The roar of battle around her was so loud that it felt as if she stood in the midst of a great storm.

Another Boar warrior came for her then, a massive axe sweeping toward her. She was fast and light on her feet. As the axe swung toward her, Lucrezia ducked and stabbed upward with her blade, driving it into the man’s thigh.

Blood spurted over them both, and the warrior fell, roaring, off his pony. Lucrezia was on him in a moment. Alpia had taught her that you only had an instant in situations like these to go in for the kill. You could not show mercy, or hesitate, or the advantage would be lost.

He saw her coming and raised his shield, but she was too fast. Her blade slipped under his guard, and into the hollow of his neck. The sensation of sliding a blade through flesh was sickening. Acid stung the back of Lucrezia’s throat, and she averted her face from the dying man.

“Lucrezia—behind you!” Donnel’s warning shout caused her to spin around.

A huge warrior, easily as big as Wurgest—the biggest man she had ever seen—was coming for her. He wielded a long pike, and fury contorted what would have been handsome features in other circumstances.

Time slowed.

She saw the man lunge, and knew there was no way she could move out of the way in time.

Tarl. She would never see him again. This was her first battle, and her final one.

Those were her last thoughts, before a body flew in between them. A tall muscular woman with dark braids: Alpia.

Horror welled within Lucrezia when she realized what the woman was doing.

“Alpia—no!”

It was too late to stop her, too late to halt the pike. It slammed against Alpia’s shield, knocking it to one side—and drove into her belly.


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“not so cocky now, are we?”

Wurgest swung his axe once more, and Tarl felt it whistle past his ear. The Boar was right—he was no longer goading his opponent, or toying with him. Their fight had deteriorated into a grim battle for survival.

For the first time it occurred to Tarl that Ruith might be right. He risked dying here in the middle of this desolate valley. He sliced his sword under Wurgest’s guard, and the tip of his blade scored a crimson line across the warrior’s thigh. The sight brought him grim satisfaction: if he was to fall here he would bring this bastard down with him.

Wurgest was limping from the three wounds he had sustained to his left leg, but Tarl was also bleeding. Wurgest had caught him across the shoulder and bicep on his left side. He could feel warm blood running down his arm, and his left hand was starting to go numb, but he paid it no mind.

Survival. That was all that mattered. He had to get back to Lucrezia. He had made her a promise—he could not let her down.

Sweat was pouring off him now, although he could see that Wurgest was also tiring. His face was bright red, his bare torso gleaming. However, his eyes remained murderous, almost black now in their intensity. Since he had lost an axe, he fought two-handed with the remaining one, chopping and swinging it at Tarl in a frenzy. The Boar moved so fast that the blade was a blur.

Tarl twisted, feinted, and attacked—taking his chance to cut under Wurgest’s guard the instant he finished each lunge. With one sharp thrust, Tarl cut into Wurgest’s forearm, slicing through the leather bracer he wore.

Wurgest grunted and let go of the axe, stumbling back. The blade had gone deep, cutting through tendons. Not wasting his chance, Tarl cast aside his sword, drew his fighting knife, and lunged at the bigger man. He was good with a sword, although not quite the equal of Galan and Donnel. However, with a knife Tarl was lethal.

Wurgest reeled back, snarled a curse and reached for his own knife. As the warrior fought with both hands, he did not favor one as most would. He drew his fighting blade swiftly. Tarl felt its sting as the tip scored across his chest.

Roaring a curse of his own, he grabbed hold of Wurgest’s wrist with his free hand and drove his knife up under The Boar’s ribs. Wurgest gasped and fell backward, bringing Tarl with him.

Their faces were just inches apart, and although Tarl had just sunk a blade into his opponent’s ribs, Wurgest still fought him. Wurgest’s knife inched closer to Tarl’s neck. A moment more and the tip of that wickedly sharp blade would kiss his throat.

Tarl gritted his teeth, yanked his own blade free from Wurgest’s ribs—and slammed it home into the base of the warrior’s throat.

Wurgest’s dark-blue eyes went wide, his teeth bared in a rictus of madness and hate, and then Tarl felt the life leave him, draining away like a receding tide.

Wurgest’s body went limp, and the blade lowered.

Gasping for breath, his heart thundering like a galloping pony, Tarl yanked off his helmet and tossed it aside. Then he rolled off Wurgest and onto the hard valley floor. He was so exhausted he felt sick; Wurgest had come close to overcoming him. For an instant there, he had seen his life flash before his eyes.

“Tarl!”

He propped himself up on his elbows to see a woman running toward him. She was small, her hair braided down her back. Dressed in leather and plaid, and splattered head to foot in blood, she raced across the stony ground.

Alarm jolted Tarl upright.

Lucrezia … what is she doing here? Why is she covered in blood?

Behind her he saw other figures approach, Galan and Donnel among them. Wurgest had been right—they had followed him south. As Lucrezia drew closer, her feet flying, Tarl saw that tears streaked down her grimy blood-splattered face.

She reached Tarl, gasping, and fell to her knees before him. “You’re hurt.”

Tarl shrugged it off, instead reaching out and grabbing hold of her hands. “Nothing that Eithni can’t heal. But you … what happened?”

Lucrezia glanced down at herself, her face twisting. “It’s not my blood.” She gasped out the words, her brown eyes glittering. “It belongs to the warriors who attacked us … and to Alpia. She’s badly wounded.”

Tarl stared at her a moment, before rage surged through him. He glanced across at where Wurgest lay, staring sightlessly up at the heavens.

Treacherous, scheming dog.

Tarl was aware then that the others had reached them, forming a protective circle around him and Lucrezia. Covered in blood but unharmed, Galan’s gaze was hard as he glanced around, watching out for signs of another ambush. Next to him fury twisted Donnel’s face. He had sustained a deep cut across his bare chest, but he hardly seemed to notice it.

Donnel spat on Wurgest’s corpse. “Someone will pay for this,” he growled.

Galan did not respond. Instead his attention returned to Tarl. “Can you stand?”

Tarl nodded, and with Galan and Lutrin’s help, he staggered to his feet. His brother’s penetrating gaze narrowed as it settled upon Tarl’s left shoulder and arm. “We need to get you back to Dun Ringill.” His expression softened then, his eyes gleaming. “You did well … few men could fight Wurgest mac Wrad and win.”

“He was a hard bastard to kill,” Tarl replied with a grimace. His gaze shifted to Lucrezia. She had also climbed to her feet, and was looking so shaken that he reached out and pulled her gently into his embrace. She was trembling. “It’s difficult to best a man who fights dirtier than you.”

Donnel barked out a laugh. He was still standing over Wurgest, glaring down at The Boar. “I hope you made him suffer.”

Tarl shook his head. “Not nearly enough.”

“Come.” Galan stepped back, his gaze sweeping the desolate vale once more. “We’ve left Alpia with the others north of here.”

 

They reached Dun Ringill just as the last of the daylight drained from the sky. It had been a slow and difficult journey home, for they dragged Alpia on a litter and did not want to risk causing her more pain than she was already in.

Lucrezia walked alongside the litter, constantly stealing glances at her friend. Alpia was stoic, but one look at her ashen face and the deep grooves either side of her mouth, and Lucrezia knew she was suffering.

They had bandaged up her stomach wound as best as possible, but even Lucrezia understood that such an injury was usually fatal.

They entered the fort through the outer gate. Folk ran out to meet the bloodied and weary band, while someone ran to fetch Eithni. A few of the warriors had sustained minor injuries, but it was Alpia who needed seeing to first.

Tarl rode next to them, his face drawn with pain and exhaustion. The blood on his arm and shoulder had congealed, although Lucrezia could see that the two gashes he had sustained there would need tending to and stitching. They had barely spoken on the way home. Likewise the other warriors had not conversed amongst themselves. She had never seen Galan look so grim, and Donnel seethed throughout the journey.

The Battle Eagle wanted blood—that was clear.

Lucrezia only wanted to return home, to try and forget the horror of battle. After that warrior had thrust a pike into Alpia’s belly, the rest of the skirmish had become a blur. She barely remembered rushing at him, screaming, or slicing his chest open with her blade.

“Lucrezia.” Alpia’s weak voice drew her out of her brooding. She glanced down to see the warrior watching her. They were traveling up the path to the fort, where the gateway yawned before them.

“Not long now,” Lucrezia murmured. “We’re almost home.”

“You fought well today,” Alpia rasped, a smile upon her taut features. “You did me proud.”

Grief blossomed in Lucrezia’s chest. Her vision swam. “Not well enough,” she replied, choking out the words, “or you wouldn’t have had to save me.”

Alpia’s strong face twisted as a spasm of pain caught her. “You’d have done the same for me,” she croaked finally.

Tears trickled down Lucrezia’s face. “I shouldn’t have been there. If I had stayed behind—”

“The Reaper comes for us when he wants,” Alpia cut in, her voice surprisingly strong. “Nothing you or I say or do can change that. I regret nothing, and neither should you.”

 

The men carried Alpia into the fort, to her small alcove. Eithni was there waiting with her basket of herbs, remedies, and bandages. Lucrezia took her place behind the healer, ready to assist. However, when Eithni unwrapped the bandage from Alpia’s stomach, her heart-shaped face paled.

She glanced up at where Galan, Donnel, and Tarl stood, her expression stricken. “It’s fatal … there’s nothing I can do but keep her comfortable, and give her something for the pain.”

“I know that,” Alpia spoke up, her voice weak now. “And I also know there is no herb or potion you can give me that will stop the agony of this wound. I will die screaming.”

Lucrezia went cold. She glanced over at Eithni. “Is she right?”

Eithni’s lips compressed before she eventually nodded.

A few moments passed before Galan spoke. “What do you wish, Alpia?”

The warrior and the chieftain’s gazes met and held for a heartbeat. Then she answered in one word. “Mercy.”

Lucrezia inhaled sharply. She knew what Alpia was asking. It was a terrible thing, and yet she understood why.

A nerve flickered in Galan’s jaw, but his gaze remained steady. “Then I will give it to you.”

Alpia’s drawn face creased into a smile. “You are a man of valor, Galan. I have been honored to follow you … but I wish for another to grant me mercy, if I may?”

Galan’s eyes widened, but he nodded. “Aye—if that is what you wish.”

Alpia’s attention shifted to his younger brother. “Tarl, will you do this for me?”

Lucrezia watched Tarl’s face, saw grief shadow his eyes. His throat bobbed before he answered, his voice catching. “I will.”

 

Alone in the alcove, Tarl sat down at Alpia’s side and took her hand. She was looking up at him, her blue eyes hollowed and glassy with pain.

“Are you sure about this?” he murmured.

She nodded. “The pain is almost unbearable now,” she gasped. “I don’t think I can suffer it much longer. Grant me this, Tarl … please.”

He squeezed her hand, steeling himself for what was to come. He had fought many battles, and yet even his fight with Wurgest had been easier to face than this. He had grown up with Alpia. She had once been his lover, and had always been his friend. They had fought at the wall together, traveled together. She had sacrificed her own life to save Lucrezia’s.

“You are a brave woman,” he whispered, struggling with a grief that made it hard to draw breath. “You’ve the heart of an ox.”

“Lucrezia is also brave,” she replied, the words coming out in pants now. “You should have seen her today. You’ve chosen well—make sure you treat her right.”

Tarl’s vision blurred. He swallowed before nodding. He did not trust himself to speak.

Alpia’s face contorted then, her long body going taut against him. She was on the edge of the abyss. He could delay no longer.

“How do you wish me to end it?” he asked.

Her gaze met his, steady, resolute. “A knife across the throat,” she whispered. “Do it quick.”

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

lucrezia found tarl standing upon the western edge of the inner wall, looking out across the loch.

She approached him slowly, hesitant to intrude upon his solitude. It was getting late—the moon was already high in the sky—but Lucrezia did not want to return to the hut she shared with Eithni. Nor did she want to remain in the feasting hall. The mood in the fort tonight was somber. She had waited with the others, while Tarl was alone with Alpia.

No one had spoken when he finally emerged, his face like hewn stone, and crossed the floor. No one had tried to intercept him. Galan and Donnel had watched him closely though, their gazes worried. Likewise Tea, who had been seated next to Lucrezia near the fire pit, had looked troubled.

“It was a brave, noble thing to do,” Tea had murmured once Tarl had gone. “Only it will cost him.”

Lucrezia had watched Tarl leave, her gaze lingering on the doorway for a long time after he disappeared. She had waited for as long as she could bear it, before going outside to find him.

She circled behind Tarl now, and stopped at his left shoulder. The row of torches upon the wall guttered slightly as a breeze whipped in from the loch, their light illuminating his face.

His cheeks were wet, his eyes hollowed. Realizing he was no longer alone, he turned, and managed a tight smile. The expression broke her heart.

“Tarl …” she whispered. “Are you well?”

“I don’t know,” he replied. “I’ve never taken a friend’s life before. I wish she hadn’t asked it of me.”

Lucrezia’s vision swam. She reached out and took his hand in hers, squeezing gently. “It was the greatest gift you could have given her. You saw how she suffered. It was her choice to end it.”

Tarl inhaled deeply, and Lucrezia could see he was struggling to remain composed. “She was dear to me, and I took her life. It doesn’t feel like a gift.”

Lucrezia wrapped her arms around his torso, careful not to touch the wounds upon his left shoulder and bicep. She felt the tremor in his strong body. She had never seen Tarl like this, so shaken. From the moment she had met him, he had been so sure of himself. Nothing had appeared to bother him. Now she realized that it was the shield he presented to the world; the reality was a warrior who hid a tender heart, and passion that ran deep.

She buried her head in his chest and squeezed him hard. “You are a wonderful man, Tarl mac Muin. And I love you so much it frightens me.”

He drew back from her, crooking a finger under her chin and raising her face so that their gazes met. “You do?”

She stared up at him. “You sound surprised.”

His mouth quirked. “I am … No one has ever said that to me before.” His expression turned serious. “Before meeting you, I didn’t think I deserved to hear it.” He cupped her face with his hands, his eyes glistening in the torchlight. “I was a lucky man the day you appeared in my life, Lucrezia. I shall thank the gods for it, every night before going to sleep.”

She held his gaze. “And I will thank them that you found me that day … or things would have turned out very differently.”

He watched her, his face tender. “Do you know the moment I realized what you mean to me? When I knew I could not bear losing you?”

She cocked her head, intrigued. “No … when?”

“That night you ran away, after we kissed. Until then I hadn’t admitted to myself how I felt. But when I saw the tent empty, and knew you were out there fleeing blind in the darkness, I was filled with terror that I’d lose you.”

She smiled. “Was it such a difficult thing to confess?”

He huffed out a laugh. “You didn’t know me before. I used to brag to my brothers how women were for plowing, not loving. I would tease Donnel about how soft he was on Luana … but I wouldn’t now.” His expression turned sad. “You wouldn’t recognize him now, if you had known him then. He has turned so harsh, so bitter. When Luana died, she took Donnel’s heart with her.”

Lucrezia nodded. “I saw what happened when Eithni tried to get him to hold his son—he’s still so angry.”

“Aye … it has made him restless. He spoils for another fight.” Tarl’s mouth twisted. “I understand that well enough. I used to chafe at the confines of my life.”

Lucrezia reached out and placed a hand upon his chest. She could feel the warmth of his body through the leather vest he wore. “And do you still feel that way?”

He shook his head. “These days there’s only one thing I want.” He paused here, lowering his hand and placing it over hers. She could feel the thud of his heart against her palm. “To spend the rest of my days with you. You are my air, my sunlight, my warm south wind. You make me want to grab hold of life and cherish it. I’ve never felt like this before.”

Lucrezia swallowed, blinking back tears. “I’m yours, Tarl.”

He drew her against him and buried his face in her hair. “Thank you for following me out here,” he said, his voice muffled. “I wasn’t in the mood to be left alone for much longer.”

Lucrezia drew back and slipped her hand in his once more. “Come on. Let’s go back inside. You need Eithni to look at those wounds.”

Together they walked down from the wall and entered the fort. Indoors the mood was still melancholy. Galan sat alone at the chieftain’s table, his expression brooding as he nursed a cup of mead. It was late, and it appeared Tea had already retired for the night.

Surprisingly there were still a few folk awake. Eithni and Donnel sat by the fire pit. She was tending to the slash wound across his chest, while he sat there, his lean frame taut, his face sullen. Even from yards away, Lucrezia felt the tension between them. Eithni purposefully avoided looking at Donnel’s face as she dabbed ointment on his chest. Tarl’s brother sat stiffly; he appeared to barely suffer her ministrations.

Now that they were indoors, Lucrezia noted Tarl’s pallor, the hollows under his eyes. Although he had not made a complaint, she knew he would be in pain from his injuries and heartsick after having to end Alpia’s suffering.

Tarl took a seat by the hearth, waiting for Eithni to finish with Donnel. Once she had tended to his wound, Donnel grunted his thanks and stalked off to his alcove. Eithni watched him go, her expression haunted.

“Don’t mind him,” Tarl said. “He’s not as ungrateful as he appears.”

 Eithni shrugged her slender shoulders and forced a smile. “I don’t need his gratitude.” She turned back to Tarl, her attention shifting to the congealed blood covering his left side. “I just want to help.”

Lucrezia sat behind them in silence, while Eithni cleaned and dressed Tarl’s injuries. Both the cuts were deep and so needed some stitches. When the healer was done, Tarl was ashen with pain, sweat beading on his forehead.

Lucrezia leaned down and kissed him gently. “You should rest,” she murmured. “I will see you tomorrow morning.”

He managed a strained smile and reached out, taking her hand. “I don’t want to sleep alone. Will you join me?”

Wordlessly, Lucrezia nodded and followed him to his alcove. She had wanted that too, only a sudden shyness had descended upon her. She was glad he had asked. Stepping inside the chamber, memories of the night before assaulted her, causing a flush of heat to creep up her neck. The way she had come to him—she had never thought herself capable of it. And yet after all that had happened since it seemed a lifetime ago.

They lay down upon the furs still fully clothed, and Tarl stretched out on his back so that his shoulder and arm would be more comfortable. However, he had winced as he lay down, stifling a groan of pain.

Lucrezia curled close to him. She placed her head upon his chest, smiling as she felt his hand stroke her hair. She had also missed this during all those years of marriage to Marcus. Not just the physical union but the tenderness and companionship as well. Her body relaxed into it, and she felt the horror of the day drift away. Here in Tarl’s arms, she felt as if nothing could touch her—she was protected, safe.

Moments later, she felt Tarl’s breathing deepen, and realized he had fallen asleep.

 

 

Galan stared down at his half-empty cup of mead, listening to the muted sounds of the hall around him. He should retire—Tea would be waiting for him in the furs—but he could not settle.

This tribe had known so much war and feuding over the years, and he had thought that now peace had been made with The People of the Wolf, they might enjoy a period of stability—that his people might thrive and prosper. Yet the shadow of war was always there, just out of sight but lurking all the same.

Things would not end here, he knew that much. Urcal mac Wrad, chief of The Boar, was not likely to let this lie. Tarl had told Galan that Wurgest had acted alone, that those men who had attacked them followed Wurgest’s orders, not their chieftain’s. Yet Urcal would be angered by their deaths all the same.

So deep in thought was he that he did not notice at first when a shadow fell across him. It was only when he felt the table shift that he realized he was no longer alone.

He looked up to see Donnel seated across from him, watching him. Galan was surprised to see Donnel; he had thought his brother had retired to his alcove for the night. However, it appeared he too could not settle. The intensity in his younger brother’s eyes warned him that this would not be a pleasant conversation.

“We must have reckoning,” Donnel said without preamble. Nearby Galan saw Eithni packing up her things next to the fire pit after tending to Tarl. Her pretty face was pinched, her gaze hooded. Eithni liked most folk, but she had developed an aversion to Donnel of late. Galan did not blame her. As much as he sympathized with Donnel’s loss, his brother’s aggression grated on him these days.

“Reckoning will not change anything,” Galan rumbled. “It will not bring Alpia back.”

“No, but someone needs to teach those Boar bastards a lesson.”

“Tarl says Wurgest acted alone.”

Donnel snorted. “Aye, but their chief would have sanctioned it. Wurgest and his men would have traveled north with Urcal’s blessing.”

Galan inhaled deeply. He was too tired for this conversation. Leaning back in his chair, he folded his arms across his broad chest, and looked down his nose at Donnel. “And what would you have me do?”

Donnel leaned forward. “I say we take revenge. Two Boar villages lie south of The Valley of the Tors. I say we sack them, take the folk there as slaves. Let’s show our enemies what happens to those who cross The Eagles.”

Galan watched him silently for a few moments before answering. “Our father would have followed such advice—yet I think it is folly. The Boar are not our enemies, Donnel. I would not make them so.”

His brother’s expression darkened. “How can you say that? Especially after today.”

“Today was an isolated incident: a madman and his followers with a score to settle. I won’t make an entire tribe my enemy on the strength of that.”

Donnel’s mouth thinned. “So you’ll do nothing?”

“I will shore up our defenses and place more warriors upon our southern borders, but I will not attack our neighbors, nor accuse them of anything without proof.” Galan could feel his own irritation rising. He did not like having to explain himself to Donnel, or to repeat himself for his brother’s benefit.

Their gazes locked for a few moments. Galan saw Donnel’s fury, the simmering resentment on his face. He did not understand Galan’s decision, but then neither did he want to. He wanted blood-letting, not peace. The campaign to the south had not sated him of the desire to wreak havoc on the whole world for taking Luana from him. If anything his experience fighting the Caesars had merely whetted his appetite for more.

“I used to admire your quest for peace,” Donnel began, his voice a low growl. “But now I see it for what it is. Cowardice.”

The insult hung between them, reverberating in the now silent hall.

Galan let it lie. Donnel wanted him to react. He was looking for a fight. After a long pause, Galan finally answered. “You may see it that way, but I don’t.” Galan pushed aside his half-finished cup of mead and rose to his feet. “Battlefields are littered with the bones of men like you, Donnel. You might not care if you drowned in the loch tomorrow, but I’d rather live to see my children grow up.”

With that he turned from the table and walked away toward his alcove. As he did so, Galan felt Donnel’s stare boring into his back, knifing him between his shoulder blades. He would not let this matter lie, Galan realized with a sinking heart.

The battle of wills between them had only just begun.

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

tea sang a lament for Alpia. She had a lovely voice, and it carried through the cool morning air, causing all who heard it to grow still.

 

Color drains from the sky

The winds of sadness blow

The red sun does not rise

The streams no longer flow.

 

The tide draws out forever

The stars dim and fade

Summer never comes

In eternal grief I wade.

 

Lucrezia had never heard such a song. It was both beautiful and haunting. She sang on: verses telling of Alpia’s valor, her strength, and her indomitable spirit. She sang of a woman taken too soon, before she’d had the chance to find a mate or start a family. Lucrezia wept at these words, for they expressed what she too felt. Alpia had been so stoic, so accepting of her end—but Lucrezia still railed against it.

In saving her friend’s life, Alpia had cheated herself out of a future.

Lucrezia stood by Tarl’s side at the front of the crowd of mourners. Like her own people, the folk of The Winged Isle buried their dead in stone mounds—or tumuli in her native tongue. Here they called them cairns, and judging by the line of fresh ones upon the hill east of the fort, it appeared Dun Ringill had seen a lot of death in recent years.

They slid Alpia’s body into the cairn and sealed the door with a stone slab. Women keened and scattered wildflowers before the door. Then the procession of mourners began their slow journey back to the fort. It was a still grey morning, and Loch Slapin was dull and flat like a disc of slate under a washed-out sky.

Walking at Tarl’s side, Lucrezia felt his hand reach for hers. She took it, enjoying the warmth and strength of his fingers wrapped around hers.

“Does Alpia have any kin here?” she asked him. She had not seen anyone resembling her friend among the mourners.

“No,” he replied. “Alpia’s mother died birthing her, and her father fell in battle a year later. She was brought up by the older women of the fort. In a sense, we’re all her kin.”

Lucrezia gave a wistful smile. She liked the sound of that; the folk here looked out for each other. She glanced across at Tarl and found him watching her. His grey eyes were shadowed. Her smile faded. “What’s wrong?”

“Guilt,” he replied with a grimace. “I can’t help but feel responsible for all of this. I should have killed Wurgest the day he tried to rape you. I would have saved us all a lot of trouble.”

Lucrezia gave a rueful shake of her head. “I wish you had too, but you weren’t to know what he’d do.”

“I should have guessed—he was a mad bastard even before we were enemies.”

They approached the outer walls of Dun Ringill, taking the path that led to the gate. Ahead, Lucrezia saw Ruith quicken her pace so that she could walk next to Donnel. She watched the bandruí speak a few words to him, and saw Donnel’s broad shoulders grow tense.

Tarl snorted. “Ruith’s wasting her time. In his current mood, Donnel won’t listen to anyone.”

“Galan’s afraid that Donnel will do something rash, to take revenge against The Boar,” Lucrezia replied, frowning. “Tea told me yesterday that they argued, and haven’t spoken since.”

Tarl’s gaze narrowed. “Aye, I’d noticed something amiss between them.”

“Maybe you should speak to Donnel. He’s closer to you than anyone.”

Tarl gave her an incredulous look. “And it’s for that reason I’ll let him be.”

Up ahead Ruith and Donnel had concluded their brief exchange of words. Donnel snarled something at the seer and strode on ahead, making it clear he did not wish for her company.

“But what if he rides off, kills someone, and starts a feud between your tribes?” Lucrezia asked.

Tarl sighed. “I think Galan worries unnecessarily. Donnel’s not himself these days, but he’s not a murderer.” He slung his good arm around her shoulders and drew her against him as they walked. “He’s cleverer than me … he won’t do anything foolish.”

Lucrezia gave him a censorious look, digging her elbow gently into his ribs. “You’re impulsive and irritatingly sure of yourself, but you’re not dull-witted, Tarl mac Muin.”

He grinned back at her, the melancholy in his eyes that had been there ever since Alpia’s death lifting. “Impulsive and irritatingly sure of myself—so you like such men?”

She smiled back. “It would seem so.”

 

 

Tarl awoke to the feel of something tickling his chest.

He stirred against the furs, his eyes flickering open. A delicious sight greeted him. Lucrezia—naked, her skin glowing in the light of the single cresset that guttered behind her—was kissing her way down his chest, her long dark hair trailing over his skin.

He lay on his back, naked to the waist. He had lain down for a doze in the late afternoon, dressed in leather breeches, and had obviously fallen into a deep sleep. For the first time since he had sustained them, the wounds on his shoulder and arm had stopped throbbing. Initially the pain had drained him. Since returning from The Valley of the Tors, all he had wanted to do was sleep.

Right at this moment though, rest was the last thing on his mind.

His gaze devoured his lover, sliding over her smooth limbs, the long curve of her back, and her lush breasts. She was deliberately grazing their tips along his chest, before trailing after with her lips and tongue.

Lust shot through his groin, and he felt his shaft harden and lift toward her.

Lucrezia gave a soft, throaty chuckle. “I see you’re awake then.”

“How can you expect me to sleep?” he replied with a groan. “When you’re doing that …”

She glanced up, her dark eyes full of passion and mischief. “Would you prefer I let you be so you could go back to sleep.”

“No,” he countered swiftly. “Just get back to work, woman. Don’t let me distract you.”

She laughed, the sound heating his blood. He wanted to grab her, throw her onto her back and plow her till she screamed, but his injuries would make that difficult. He groaned again, this time in frustration. “I feel like a cripple.”

Lucrezia gave him a soft, beguiling smile. “This won’t give your shoulder any problems. Just lie back and let me take the lead.”

Tarl gave her a slow smile. He loved how forthright this woman was in the furs. “Go on then.”

Lucrezia flicked her hair back and lowered herself to his torso once more. Moments later Tarl was lost. The way she raked her fingernails over his skin, how she licked and kissed her way down his body, drove him insane. And when she took him in her mouth, he nearly lost control completely.

All teasing was gone now. He panted, writhing under her mouth and hands as she pleasured him. “Gods,” he groaned, closing his eyes as he sought to keep himself under control. “Lucrezia.”

A moment later she straddled him, and he felt hot velvet heat envelop his shaft. He opened his eyes to see her astride him, lost in her own pleasure. The sight took his breath away. Her back arched, she threw her head back as she rode him. He had never seen something so beautiful.

With his good arm he reached out, stroking his hand down the soft curve of her belly to the nest of dark curls below. He touched Lucrezia there, where their bodies met, the pad of his thumb stroking each time she slid down his shaft.

Her throaty groan filled the alcove, and he felt a shudder ripple through her. A flush spread up from her breasts, and he watched her give herself up to him.

A fierce love washed over him then, the emotion so strong it took him by surprise. It felt as if his heart had swollen and would explode at any moment.

This woman was his. She was giving herself to him, body and soul, and he would protect her with his life.

He watched her climax, her cries mingling with his. The pair of them were loud, but Tarl did not care. He cared not if the whole world heard them. Closing his eyes, Tarl threw his head back and roared his pleasure.

 

Lucrezia snuggled against Tarl’s chest, listening to the rhythmic thud of his heart. Their bodies were still slick with sweat, and they were both breathing hard. Her body felt boneless, weightless, as if she was floating three feet off the ground. Their coupling was even better than she remembered. The pleasure had crested so intensely it had made the world spin.

Eventually gathering her scattered wits, she raised herself up on one elbow and looked down at Tarl. He was watching her, his eyes the color of the sky before a thunderstorm.

He reached up then and silently traced the thin scar on her forehead with his fingertip. “This was my fault,” he murmured, his features tensing.

Lucrezia shook her head. “I made the decision to run away.”

Their gazes held then, full of many things still unspoken.

“I hope I didn’t hurt your shoulder,” she said, suddenly shy.

He gave her a lopsided smile. “What shoulder?”

She laughed. “Do you think everyone heard us again?”

“Probably.”

Lucrezia gave his chest a playful slap, her cheeks warming. “Stop it—I won’t be able to face them later.”

“Don’t worry about them.” His gaze was soft now. “Never hold yourself back when you’re with me.”

Lucrezia felt herself grow hotter still under his stare; the throb between her thighs, which had momentarily subsided, returning. “I can’t help myself,” she whispered, trailing a finger down his chest, tracing the whorls of hair there. “You drive me wild.”

He grinned. “Go on … tell me more. A man loves to hear of his prowess in the furs.”

Lucrezia gave a snort. He really was incorrigible, but then that was part of why she loved him. Tarl made other men seem bland, boring, and predictable. His dry humor, with its wicked edge, would keep her company during the long cold winters here.

“That’s enough,” she admonished him, forcing herself not to smile. “You’re too full of yourself already.” And with that she leaned down and gave him a long lingering kiss.

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

Three months later …

 

 

they wed just after Harvest Fire, when the barley had been reaped from the fields outside Dun Ringill and the bounty of summer crops had been gathered. Soon the whole fort would begin preparations for the long bitter season—storing what fruit and vegetables they could, salting meat and fish, and preparing rounds of cheese to age—but for today they would stop work and celebrate the handfasting between Tarl and his sweetheart.

It was a balmy summer’s eve. Tarl and Lucrezia stood barefoot upon the shingle shore beneath Dun Ringill. Tarl wore a leather vest and plaid breeches, while Lucrezia wore a simple green tunic, cut in the style of a stola. She had left behind many things from her homeland, but she would always love the dresses she had grown up wearing. This one was made of fine wool, and girded under the bust with a golden ribbon. She wore her hair loose, although Deri had taken pains to thread daisies through it for the occasion.

A sultry breeze blew in, rippling the waters of Loch Slapin. It also brought the aroma of roasting venison. Two lads were turning three haunches on a spit over hot coals farther down the shore for the feast after their joining. Every man, woman, and child inside the fort had come out to witness their handfasting. All were dressed in their best plaid tunics and leather vests.

Ruith led the ceremony, wrapping a length of plaid around their joined hands as she called upon each of the gods to protect and wish the couple well on their new journey. Then she asked them to repeat their promises to each other.

Lucrezia’s voice caught as she spoke the words slowly after the seer. “I, Lucrezia, daughter of Cesare Pontius, pledge to honor you, Tarl mac Muin, with my body, and my life.”

Once they had both made their promises, Ruith unwrapped the plaid ribbon joining them. Tarl pulled Lucrezia into his arms, kissing her deeply—much to the delight of the watching crowd.

Galan and Tea cheered. Lutrin, Cal, Namet, and Ru hooted and cat-called. Eithni and some of the other women wept. Even Donnel managed a smile.

Lucrezia drew back from the kiss, breathless, and gazed up into Tarl’s eyes. For a moment she had forgotten they had an audience. She had been so caught up in the ceremony that the world had shrunk to just her and Tarl.

He smiled down at her. “You’ll have to do as I say now … wife.”

She grinned back. “I think not … husband.”

 

The wedding party moved down the shore, to where men were now carving off slices of venison and heaping them onto platters. A long table had been set up with low benches to sit on. Barrels of wine and ale had been rolled down from the fort for the occasion.

Lucrezia took a seat at the head of the table, next to her husband. For once, the chieftain and his wife did not take this spot. This eve, she and Tarl were the center of attention.

Tea, whose belly was now huge, moved around the head of the table pouring wine for her kin, while other women served drinks at the opposite end. Pregnancy suited her. Tea’s skin glowed, and she wore a serene expression as she took a seat next to Galan.

“Are handfastings like this where you’re from, Luci?” Eithni, who was seated a few feet down from Lucrezia and Tarl, leaned forward, her hazel gaze bright with curiosity.

Lucrezia smiled. “Some things are similar, although we also have different traditions.”

Beside her, Tarl lifted an eyebrow. “Like what?”

“The bride wears a special belt around her waist, with a knot in it, which only her husband can undo.”

“Really?” Tea was watching her too. “What else?”

“The bride wears a ring upon the third finger of her left hand—to encourage love. She also has a locket, given to her at birth, which she must give to her father at the wedding, and never wear again.” Lucrezia glanced back at Tarl, her smile widening. “And then, on the wedding night, the man must carry his new wife over the threshold into their new home.”

“That’s a lot to remember,” Tarl replied with a snort. “How long do Roman weddings take? All night?”

Laughter reverberated around the table, but Lucrezia merely smiled. She thought back then to the day she had wedded Marcus. He had been handsome in full centurion regalia, a red cloak hanging from his broad shoulders. Lucrezia had worn a flowing blue gown with satin trim, and had wreathed flowers in her hair. They had wed in a temple near her parents’ villa, where a priest had blessed them. She had been happy that day … until the disappointment of her wedding night. The memory of her girlish delight, her excitement, gave her a pang now.

Many years had passed since that day. She was a woman now, not an innocent girl full of fragile dreams.

And yet she had never been as happy as this moment. She had passed through fire to reach this point, to be at peace with who she was and her place in the world. There had been times along the way when she had thought she could not go on, when life would beat her. But here she was, wedded to a man she adored. A man who had seen the best and the worst of her.

Conversation resumed around her, and the feasting and drinking began. Lucrezia took a sip of wine. It was bramble—rich and spicy—reminding her of the wine her father used to make. She wondered if he and her mother were still alive, or if they ever thought of her. Had they even heard about what had happened at Vindolanda?

“You look pensive.” Tarl’s voice drew her out of her reverie. “Is something amiss?”

She glanced over at him, noting the concern in his eyes. “No,” she replied. “I was just thinking on the past. I wedded Marcus nearly eight years ago now, and thought it would be for life. I would never wish him dead … but I’m so glad I found you.”

Tarl smiled, the worry on his face evaporating. “I know you come from another world. You must miss it sometimes.”

“I don’t really,” she replied honestly. “I did at first, when we came to Vindolanda—especially the weather—but these days it feels like that life belonged to someone else. I’m happier here than I ever was before.”

Tarl raised his cup to her, his smile widening. “And I intend to keep it that way.”

 

After the feast Tarl and Lucrezia shared a piece of honey oatcake. When Lucrezia asked him about the tradition, Tarl explained that it symbolized fertility and happiness between the couple.

He also told her about Galan and Tea’s wedding feast. “She licked the honey off his fingers,” Tarl said, with a wicked grin in his elder brother’s direction. “I thought he was going to take her then and there at the table,”

Lucrezia appeared delighted by the tale, casting an impressed look over at the chieftain and his wife. In response, Galan cast Tarl a quelling look, while Tea actually blushed.

The reveling went on long into the evening. Darkness fell late this time of year, but when the curtain of night finally drew across the sky, the folk of Dun Ringill lit fires along the shoreline and danced to music. Eithni had taken up position at the edge of the dancers, her fingers flying across the strings of her harp. She played a series of jaunty festive tunes, her face composed with concentration.

Lucrezia and Tarl danced awhile. He swung her around, her long dark hair flying behind her like a banner. Her face was flushed, her eyes sparkling. He had never seen her look so radiant.

Finally, out of breath and gasping for something to quench their thirst, Tarl and Lucrezia stumbled away from the dancers. Galan and Tea were still sitting at the table; with Tea heavily pregnant, she did not feel up to dancing.

“We’re off to our furs,” Tarl announced, before picking up a cup of wine and taking a thirsty gulp.

Galan nodded, before raising his cup in a silent toast. Tea smiled and favored Lucrezia with a sly look. “We’ll see you both at noon tomorrow then?”

Lucrezia laughed, linking her arm through Tarl’s. “Aye—if we can manage to drag ourselves out that early.”

They left the celebration, their bare feet crunching over the fine pebbles of the beach, before they climbed the steps up to the fort. The village was deserted, save for a few warriors who were taking their turn at the watch outside the outer perimeter. When they entered the tower itself, there was no one around. A low fire burned in the great hearth, although they could still hear the music and celebrations upon the shore below.

Halfway across the floor toward their alcove, Tarl stopped and scooped Lucrezia up into his arms.

She squealed, caught by surprise. “What are you doing?”

He raised his eyebrows. “Following one of your traditions. I don’t have a ring to give you, but I can carry you across the threshold.”

She laughed and twisted toward him, her breasts jiggling against his chest, and wrapped her arms about his neck. “Dolt—if you’re going to do that, you should have carried me into the tower, not pick me up once we’re inside it.”

Tarl rolled his eyes. “An insignificant detail.” He grinned then, warmth spreading through him as he gazed down at his wife’s lovely radiant face. “I say it’s time we made a new tradition.”

 

The End

 

 


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BATTLE EAGLE is coming!

 

 

. As you might have guessed, this story is all about Donnel and Eithni: BATTLE EAGLE. Grief has turned him bitter and cruel—only a woman who is still healing from wounds of her own can heal him.

 

Yes … it’s going to be an emotional tale!

 

Read BATTLE EAGLE before anyone else!

 

Join my Review Crew, and I’ll send you an ARC (Advance Review Copy) ebook of BATTLE EAGLE. All I ask in return is an honest review on Amazon and/or Goodreads upon the novel’s release. If you’re keen to join my Review Crew, please email me at and put ‘Review Crew: BATTLE EAGLE’ in the subject line.

 

 

 

Although this novel is set back in the Dark Ages, a time we have only scant records of, the story hinges on a real historical event: the clash between the Picts and the Romans. The Great Conspiracy of 367 AD (also known as the Barbarian Conspiracy) is one of the most dramatic events in Romano-British history.

 

In the winter of 367 AD, a group of tribes north of the wall (the Picts, the Attacotti and the Scotti—and they may have even have had help from Saxons to the south) banded together and attacked Hadrian’s Wall. At this time, the Roman Empire was in turmoil and the garrison at the wall was weakened, and ready to fall.

 

At the beginning of the story, we spend some time at the ancient Roman fort (or castrum) of Vindolanda, just south of Hadrian's Wall. Located near the modern village of Bardon Mill, it guarded the Stanegate; the Roman road from the River Tyne to the Solway Firth. The heroine of this story, Lucrezia, is the wife of a high-ranking Roman garrison soldier living in the fort. These days, this fort is noted for the Vindolanda tablets. This is the site of some of the most important finds of military and private correspondence (written on wooden tablets) found anywhere in the Roman Empire.

 

Here are a few facts about Hadrian’s Wall to give some historical context:

 

• Hadrian's Wall was a stone barrier built to separate the Romans and the Pict tribes in Scotland.

• Hadrian's Wall was built on the orders of the Roman emperor Hadrian, who was born in Rome in AD 76.

• The Romans began building the wall in 122 AD. It was constructed by three legions of soldiers.

• It allowed Roman soldiers to control the movements of people coming into or leaving Roman Britain.

• Every Roman mile along the Wall there was a milecastle; a fortified gateway which allowed Roman soldiers to go on patrol to the north of Hadrian’s Wall and control other people passing through the Wall.

• During the building of the Wall, it was decided to add forts. There were 16 forts in total along the length of the Wall. These meant that even more Roman soldiers were based along the wall and the frontier was more effectively controlled.

• It was 117 kilometers (73 miles) long across the narrow neck of England, from the North Sea to the Irish Sea.

• The wall was eight to ten feet wide and fifteen feet high.

• It took about 14 years to complete Hadrian's Wall. The largest structure ever made by the Romans.

 

The culture, language, and religion of the Picts is one largely shrouded in mystery. Unlike my novels set in 7th Century Anglo-Saxon England, which is a reasonably well-documented period, researching 4th Century Isle of Skye proved to be a challenge. Pictish culture is largely an enigma to us. However, they did leave behind a number of fascinating stone ruins, standing stones, and artifacts, as well as a detailed collection of symbolic art.

 

I created the four tribes of The Winged Isle from Pictish animal symbols. This is not a far-fetched idea; many Iron and Bronze-age peoples identified themselves with animal symbols. The clans we identify with Scotland did not appear until a few centuries later.

 

 

 

 

As always, I’d like to thank my readers for their AMAZING support. I hope you’re enjoying this journey, following Galan, Tarl, and Donnel’s stories in Dark Ages Scotland!

 

I’d also like to thank Maria, fellow romance author and friend. It’s always great to be able to chat endlessly about storylines, characters, and writing inspiration, and not have the other person’s eyes glaze over!

 

Once again, my gratitude goes to RWNZ (Romance Writers of New Zealand). This is a truly supportive organization, full of authors who are only happy to help each other out.

 

And I’d like to thank my husband, Tim, who works as tirelessly on these books as I do. He has usually read each manuscript at least four times before it’s published. Really good constructive criticism can be hard to find … but he delivers it every time.

 

 

HISTORICAL ROMANCE SET IN DARK AGES BRITAIN

 

THE KINGDOM OF THE EAST ANGLES

 

 

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Get Jayne's FREE Starter Library and read the prequel novella and Books #1 and #2 to her first series, THE KINGDOM OF THE EAST ANGLES:

 

THE KINGDOM OF MERCIA

 

Click on the banner below to find out more about this series.

 

 

THE KINGDOM OF NORTHUMBRIA

Book #3: Lord of the North Wind (to be released in 2018)

 

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HISTORICAL ROMANCE SET IN DARK AGES SCOTLAND

 

THE WARRIOR BROTHERS OF SKYE

Book #2 Barbarian Slave

 

 

EPIC FANTASY ROMANCE

 

LIGHT AND DARKNESS

Book #2: The Lost Swallow (to be released in 2018)

 

 


 

 

Award-winning author Jayne Castel writes Historical Romance set in Dark Ages Britain and Scotland, and Epic Fantasy Romance. Her vibrant characters, richly researched historical settings and action-packed adventure romance transport readers to forgotten times and imaginary worlds.

 

Jayne lives in New Zealand's South Island, although you can frequently find her in Europe and the UK researching her books! When she’s not writing, Jayne is reading (and re-reading) her favorite authors, learning French, cooking Italian, and taking her dog, Juno, for walks.

 

Jayne won the 2017 RWNZ Koru Award (Short, Sexy Category) for her novel, ITALIAN UNDERCOVER AFFAIR.

 

Get Jayne's FREE Starter Library and read the prequel novella and Books #1 and #2 to her first series, THE KINGDOM OF THE EAST ANGLES:

 

Connect with Jayne online:

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Twitter: @JayneCastel

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