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Authors: Patricia Malone

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BOOK: Lady Ilena
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She eats with us in the Great Hall and assumes a bright smile whenever she is around me. However, I have seen the anger in her eyes when she didn't know I was observing her, and I am still uneasy around her.

Gradually the days lengthen and soft sunshine breaks the gloom of winter. The snow cover on the mountains to the west melts farther and farther until at last the passes open so that travelers can get to us. A bard arrives with news of Saxon movements along the southern coast of Britain, and a monk visits and holds services for those of us who wish to attend.

But Durant does not come.

One afternoon I walk eastward on the wall, enjoying the clean spring breeze that freshens the smoky air. Dun Alyn sits high atop a promontory that juts out into the sea. After my childhood far to the west in a valley surrounded by mountains, I never tire of this view—water and sky to the eastern horizon and the rugged coastline of northern Britain stretching south and north as far as I can see.

Smoke filters through the thatched roofs of homes throughout the compound as people in from the fields stir their hearth fires to life against the evening chill; cooks' helpers turn spits of venison haunches and birds above the firepit outside the main kitchen. A young woman rakes loaves of bread out of an oven onto a plank and carries it into the Great Hall. I can hear herd dogs and the high voices of the children who are driving our cattle in from the meadow to the night pens.

It is pleasant up here a little above the commotion; if Durant were beside me, I would be content. Everyone in the fortress and in our territory outside the walls looks forward to our wedding feast. Some think that Arthur himself might come.

There is a mournful howl as Machonna finds me. I look down at the bristly white muzzle pointed in my direction and call, “All right, Machonna. I'm coming.” As I head toward the ladder with the hound racing back and forth below me, I hear a shout from a sentry on the north wall.

“Riders!”

It must be Durant at last!

A sentry at the front gate takes up the call. “Riders. An armed troop!”

I turn and look down the trail to the south. There is no one in sight.

The trumpeter stationed over the front gate blows an alarm, and activity erupts in the courtyard below.

The first sentry calls again. “Riders from the north. They fly a blue pennant—with a brown wolf.”

It can't be Durant. He would not come from the north, and I don't recognize that pennant. I pull his ring out from under my tunic and hold it tightly for reassurance. He will arrive soon; I know he will. Someone is coming up the ladder, so I put ring and chain out of sight and try to hide my disappointment.

Sorcha climbs up beside me. “Faolan! It's Faolan,” she yells. Her face is brighter than I've ever seen it. She has spoken often of Faolan since she returned from Dun Struan, but I have not met him.

We stand together and watch the band approach; there are twelve in the group, and one of them leads a lovely little black colt. The two of us hurry down the ladder and join my father near the inner gate.

One of the visitors calls out, “Faolan—of Dun Struan!”

My father responds, “Dun Struan is welcome at Dun Alyn.”

While our visitors are negotiating the entrances, everyone in the fortress who isn't bustling about preparing for guests gathers to see them.

Faolan is only a little taller than I am. Still, he is an impressive figure. His hair is loose about his shoulders and has the vivid stripes of an experienced warrior: glossy chestnut colored at the crown, deep auburn shading into reds and oranges through the midlength, and gold fading to light
yellow at the tips. Long ago all the warriors of Britain molded their hair into a stiff ruff about their heads with a paste of lime and water when they prepared for battle. Now the custom is found only in a few tribes of the North. Those who practice it stand out because their hair has colorful stripes bleached in successive summers by the lime.

Despite the warm spring sun, he wears a wolfskin cloak. A wolf tail totem circles his left upper arm, and a gold chain and pendant hang over the cords that close his tunic. His bootlaces are tipped with the clawed feet of a small animal. Blue tattoos decorate his face and arms, and his chestnut mustache flows around his mouth and droops below his chin. His brown stallion is saddled over a bright blue cloth, and gold fittings decorate the leather harness straps.

He greets Belert first. “Blessings on this house and all who live in it. It has been too long since Dun Struan and Dun Alyn have feasted together.”

“Blessings on the feet that brought you, Faolan,” Belert responds. “It has been two years at least. How is your mother, the lady Edana?”

“She is well. Both she and my sister, Blath, send greetings to you and to the lady Ilena.”

I'm not sure about this man. It is expected that a warrior will be confident, but Faolan's bold stare makes me uncomfortable. One glance at Sorcha tells me that she finds him pleasing.

He signals to one of his followers, and the young woman
steps forward, leading the black colt. Faolan takes the rein and, with a slight bow, hands it to Belert. “A gift,” he says.

A horse is the traditional bride gift brought by a suitor to the father or guardian of the young woman he desires. Sorcha's face shines with pleasure, and Belert smiles at her as he takes the colt's rein.

Faolan steps back beside his saddle pack and reaches into it. “And for the lady herself …” He pulls out a gold bracelet and holds it up so that sunlight catches the twining decorations worked around it.

Machonna has pressed against my leg since I came off the wall. Now, as Faolan steps forward, the dog moves toward him and growls. I lean down to grasp his collar and look up again to find the gold bangle on Faolan's outstretched palm. I stare for a few moments at the strong warrior's hand and the dragon tattoo that snakes its way up the sun-browned arm. Machonna growls more loudly, and I jerk him back to sit beside me.

“Will you accept this, Lady Ilena?” Faolan asks. “And consider it a token of my request for our betrothal.”

All fall silent around us. Even the horses stand quietly while I try to interpret this unexpected offer. I look to Belert and find no help. He stares straight forward with the aloof expression he often wears in public when he wants to conceal his feelings.

I catch a glimpse of Sorcha as she turns away into the crowd. There are tears on her cheeks, and her face is pale.

I reach out and touch the gold with my fingertip. “It is beautiful, Faolan. A gift far too fine for me.” I do not pick it up.

Those behind me are shifting to let someone through; Machonna turns and whips his big tail in welcome as Spusscio pushes past to stand between me and our visitors.

He and Faolan face each other in silence for a time.

“What brings you to Dun Alyn?” Spusscio finally says. “Your usual trails lie farther north.”

Faolan's eyes narrow, and he presses his lips together as if to keep from answering. When he does respond, his voice sounds forced. “In times like these it is wise to renew old friendships. And besides”—he makes a point of looking around Spusscio to see me—“I've heard much of the lady Ilena's beauty; those who spoke did not exaggerate.”

I'm annoyed to feel myself flushing. I do not know this wolf-man, and I don't wish to show any reaction to his compliments. I think hard for an appropriate remark, but thankfully Belert takes over.

“Enough talk. We've kept our guests standing for too long.” He turns to Cormec, who is our doorkeeper and thus responsible for matters of hospitality. “Are accommodations ready?”

“Of course,” Cormec says. “Rooms are being prepared, and water is heating.”

Belert speaks to Faolan. “I'll take you to the men's guest quarters, and Ilena will show the women to their rooms.

We'll wait for you in the Great Hall, where food will be ready by the time you've refreshed yourselves.” Before Belert turns to lead the way across the compound, he stares at Spusscio, but I still can't tell what he is thinking. Faolan holds the bracelet out to me for another brief moment, then carries it away as he follows Belert.

Servants have opened chambers in the women's house, and we have our guests settled quickly. “Come to the Great Hall when you are ready,” I say before hurrying back to my room.

As Machonna and I cross the central hearth area of our living quarters, I'm startled by loud voices in Belert's room. In the months I've lived here, I've never heard him yell at Spusscio, nor have I heard Spusscio's voice raised in anger at anyone.

“By the gods, Spusscio, you're not thinking clearly.”

“There is no thinking about this. The man is as wily as the wolf he's named for.”

“He came to the gate and asked admission. Of course I welcomed him. You know the laws of hospitality as well as I do.”

“He wants Dun Alyn.”

“I will not give him Dun Alyn! He made a formal betrothal request, and we must treat that with courtesy. I do not intend to insult a neighbor by refusing to meet with him.”

Spusscio is near the door now. I hasten to my room, but
once inside I stay near the wicker wall between it and Belert's chamber. Spusscio's voice is clear as he takes his leave. “Neighbors, indeed! I've told you how he deals with neighbors. You trust that one at your peril.”

I can hear his footsteps as he stomps out of the building. There is silence from Belert's side of the wall for a short time. Then, as I am considering whether to take my questions to him, he calls me.

“Ilena, will you come here, please?”

I sit down across from him, and Machonna settles at my feet.

“Faolan is a problem,” he begins. “He courted your sister two years ago, but fortunately she too was betrothed to someone else. He and his father before him have tried to reunite our families, as did Ogern.”

“At first I thought that Faolan had come for Sorcha,” I say.

“So did I, but Sorcha does not have Dun Alyn as dowry, and you do.”

“I am pledged to Durant,” I say, “and I won't change my mind.”

Belert smiles. “I didn't think you would.”

“Can't we just tell him about Durant? Wouldn't Sorcha have told him already?”

“There are customs to be followed. Since Durant is not here, and you are not already married, the betrothal request
is reasonable. We cannot take it lightly without insulting Faolan and all of Dun Struan.”

I feel a jolt of fear and bend to pet Machonna to hide my face while I calm myself. More than one young woman has had to marry someone she didn't love in order to fulfill political strategies of the families involved. I wish Durant would arrive.

When I raise my head, Belert looks sympathetic. He reaches out and puts his hand over mine as he says, “I do not intend for you to marry Faolan. But we must turn him down in such a way that he has no complaint about it. If there is trouble between us, it will be because of Faolan's action and not because we have violated our old traditions.”

“I could hear Spusscio,” I admit. “He doesn't seem to care about traditions.”

“Spusscio is not the chief of this fortress. His advice is invaluable, but he has his own reasons to hate Faolan. We will attempt to settle this peacefully. We'll meet with Faolan at half till noon tomorrow. Now let us go to dinner and show proper hospitality to our guests.”

The Great Hall is full when I enter. Our bard is settled just below the head table and strums a peaceful melody on his harp. Faolan sits on Belert's right, and Sorcha is beside Faolan. There is no sign of the anger she showed when he handed me the bracelet; the two of them whisper together like old friends.

I speak to the other guests from Dun Struan as I pass the table where they're seated. “Are your quarters comfortable? Do you lack anything?”

When they've assured me that all is well and that they are honored to be our guests, I turn to the head table. Faolan is staring at me with the same bold gaze I found so disturbing at the gate. He smiles and raises his tankard to drink, still watching me over its rim. As the highest-ranking woman in the hall, it is my responsibility to honor an important guest by serving him, so I reach for his tankard.

“You are the most beautiful ale bringer that I have seen.” His hand brushes mine, on purpose, I'm sure, as he hands it to me.

I keep a smile on my face. “Welcome to this hall. Dun Alyn is honored by your presence.”

Gillis is the last to arrive at the head table. When he is seated, Belert signals the servers, and the meal begins. Spusscio does not appear at his place beside me, and I do not see him anywhere in the hall.

When Faolan's tankard is empty again, Sorcha leaps up to refill it, and once, when I have failed to notice that Belert's is empty, she refills his also. She tosses her head and smiles at me, clearly enjoying the opportunity to take over my duties.

I remember Belert's words about hospitality and try to concentrate on being a proper hostess, but I still picture that gold bracelet gleaming in the afternoon sun.

The evening ends at last. When Faolan, swaying from the ale he has consumed, moves toward me, I smile politely and hurry around the end of the table. When I look back from the door, he and Sorcha are walking away from the table together. Gillis has moved to a seat next to Belert, and the two of them are deep in conversation.

I go into Belert's room and try to calm myself while I wait for him.

When he arrives, he doesn't look surprised to see me. “I'm glad you're here, Ilena. We should talk about the meeting with Faolan tomorrow.”

“His attention distresses me. I am uncomfortable around him,” I say, “and why does Spusscio hate him so much?”

“Tell her, Belert!”

I didn't hear Spusscio come in, and I jump in surprise when he speaks.

He still wears his cloak, and he brings the scent of cold outside air into the room. “Or shall I?”

“It is your story, old friend. Not mine.”

He hangs his cloak on a peg beside the door before taking a seat on a bench across the table from me. The fire makes a comfortable crackling noise, and the darkness around us makes our small firelit space seem a friendly refuge.

BOOK: Lady Ilena
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