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Authors: Patricia Malone

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BOOK: Lady Ilena
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“My family had holdings north of River Dee, near Dun Struan's territory. My brother, Marrec, was younger than I.” He looks down at the table and we wait. When he continues, his voice is sadder than I've ever heard it. “He was
handsome and the joy of my parents' lives; I'm sure they had feared that he too might be a dwarf, but we all rejoiced when we saw that he was growing normally. He was betrothed to Faolan's sister, the dower heiress of Dun Struan, when both of them were young.

“My parents sent me to Gorre to study with Dubric, the head Druid of Britain. Though I could not be a Druid, my father was sure that knowledge would help me compensate for my size. Since there was no female heir in our family and my brother would be a chief of Dun Struan, I would rule our small fortress.

“I came home early the spring that they were married and celebrated with all of our people and with those of Dun Struan. Faolan was young, but already a warrior; he seemed courteous enough, and his parents, like mine, were happy with the union. I returned to Gorre in the fall and had no news of things at home all winter.” He stops talking and turns to stare into the fire.

“This is painful for you,” Belert says. “Go on to bed; I can tell Ilena the rest.”

“I need to remember it,” Spusscio says. He turns back to face us and continues. “When I came into our territory in early summer, I stopped to greet one of our farm families. They told me what had happened.” He stops, and we wait in silence till he begins again. “Faolan's father had died of an illness in the winter. According to our customs, Marrec, as
husband of the dower heiress, became a chief at that time; he would assist his mother-in-law in ruling Dun Struan.

“In the spring Andrina, Faolan's cousin from Dun Lachan, had come for a visit. One day the three of them, Marrec, Faolan, and Andrina, rode out to hunt. When they returned, Marrec was dead—of a fall from his horse, they said.

“And soon after, a band of warriors attacked my home; my parents were killed along with everyone in the fortress, the livestock driven off, and the buildings put to the torch. The farmer told me that Faolan came to him a few days later and ordered him to muster and pay tribute at Dun Struan from then on.

“I went to the place where our fortress had stood and saw the ruins exactly as the farmer had described. With no home, no war band, and no hope of avenging my family, I wandered all summer, sheltering with friends for a night or camping in the forest.”

“And then, thank the gods, you came here,” Belert says.

“Aye,” Spusscio says. “And found a home.”

I've heard stories of raids on fortresses and of families wiped out, but I cannot think of anything to say to Spusscio. I reach across the table and cover his hand with mine. No wonder he hates Faolan.

I remember the way Faolan looked at me and shiver. I'll be glad when he is gone.

Chapter 3

When I enter Belert's chamber for our midmorning meeting, my father stands at the window with his hands behind his back; sunlight glances off his head, highlighting the gray in his hair.

Gillis arrives next. It is necessary for our Druid to be present when something as important as a betrothal is discussed. He alone knows all the laws, and he will be witness to whatever is said. “Greetings and God's blessing to you both,” he says.

“And to you,” I reply.

Belert turns away from the window and joins us at the table.

We hear footsteps, and I stand to greet Faolan.

He does not wear the wolfskin cloak today, and he has exchanged the gold pendant for an elaborately enameled piece. He nods to Belert and Gillis and takes a seat beside me on the bench.

Gillis begins, as is proper in important meetings, with a recitation of our family members. As I listen to the names and the relationships, I remember Moren telling me stories of these people—preparing me, though I didn't realize it at the time, for my role as chief of Dun Alyn. Gillis works his way back to Faolan's and my great-great grandparents, Sionnha and Ruarc, before he stops to summarize.

“The two of you are members of an ancient family that existed here before the Romans came. Your mothers and grandmothers and their mothers and grandmothers for nine generations and more have been chiefs of these lands. Your fathers, grandfathers, and the fathers of your grandfathers for nine generations have been heroes, brave fighters, and champions in the halls where they have feasted.

“A union between you would bring together two branches of an honorable old family and would make a formidable alliance here on the eastern seacoast.” He pauses and looks at me.

I keep my face still so that no emotion shows. I understand now how important it is for such delicate matters as a betrothal request or, especially, a betrothal refusal to be handled with dignity and attention to the honor of the families involved.

“The laws are clear that such a suit deserves serious consideration and is not to be denied lightly,” Gillis says. “But the laws are also clear that a prior betrothal cannot be set aside without proper reason and recompense to the other party.”

He looks at me sternly. “Lady Ilena, do you wish to break your promise of marriage to Durant of Hadel in order to make union with Faolan of Dun Struan?”

I hesitate to be sure my voice is calm and courteous. I avoid Faolan's gaze and keep my eyes on Gillis as I answer. “I am betrothed to Durant of Hadel, and I do not wish to break that vow.”

Gillis nods and turns to Belert. “Our customs require that a maiden's father be consulted. If you wish Ilena to break her vows with Durant, then you must speak now, and I will talk with the two of you to see whose wishes will prevail.”

Belert does not waver. “Ilena is betrothed to Durant of Hadel. I have given my consent and my blessing to the union. Between God and myself, I will honor that agreement.”

Faolan has been sitting still without speaking, but now he rises and says, “Durant of Hadel is from the South. For generations his family has allied with our enemies. His great-great grandfather was a member of the Roman legions! Such men do not belong here in the North.”

Belert nods. “What you say has merit, but things have changed in Britain. We face new enemies from across the
water. The old alliances are important, but so are new alliances that present a strong united front against the invaders.”

“The Saxons have come by invitation of the old chiefs. There is room for them.” Faolan's voice rises as he continues. “The families that have descended from Sionnha and her husband, Ruarc, belong together. A marriage between us is proper.”

“A marriage between you and Ilena would indeed be proper,” Gillis says, “but the lady Ilena is betrothed. That is a sacred vow and not to be set aside without good reason.”

Faolan braces his arms on the table and leans closer to Belert; he stares from him to me and then to Gillis as he speaks. “I will not withdraw my offer. Who knows whether Durant will come back or not? He rides far and meets many people going about Arthur's business. He may have more important things to do than risking travel in the North for a woman he knew for only a short time.”

I study his face, searching for the meaning behind his words. Is Durant in danger from Faolan? Or could he be right? Could Durant have changed his mind? I take a deep breath and try to draw strength from the weight of the ring against my chest.

Gillis watches me closely as he responds. “I have not met Durant, but the men who ride with Arthur are men of honor. I am sure that he would have sent word if he did not intend to keep his commitment to Ilena.”

“Hah!” Faolan barks as he shoves his end of the bench back
and stomps to the door. He turns and adds more quietly, “If indeed Durant appears, send word to Dun Struan, and I will come to the wedding feast—in peace—to drink to your marriage. If he does not appear by the time the Beltaine fires are laid, you will hear from me again.”

After he leaves, the three of us look at one another without speaking. I'm shaken by the malice in Faolan's voice when he spoke of Durant and annoyed by his arrogance in pursuing a betrothal that neither Belert nor I desire.

Gillis breaks the silence. “Arthur expects a move against his alliance in the North early this spring, perhaps right after Beltaine.”

Belert says, “This is probably the beginning, then.”

I cannot sit still any longer. “If you don't need me, Father?” I say.

He shakes his head, and I turn to Gillis. “If you will excuse me…?”

He nods. “Try not to worry, Ilena. And stay out of Faolan's way while he's here.”

“Gladly!” I say.

I head for the stables. A ride on the meadow with the wind and the sound of the ocean against the cliffs will calm me and clear my head. Rol whickers as I enter, and I head for his stall.

The black colt is in the stall next to his. “Hello,” I say, and stretch my hand over the wall. The colt eyes me warily and backs away.

“I won't hurt you, pretty fellow,” I say. I open the stall gate and move inside, but keep away from him. I want him to take a step toward me. He stretches his head and sniffs; I think he is ready to move in my direction, but then he looks at something behind me and shrinks back against the stall wall.

“His name is Dubh.” Faolan came in so quietly that I didn't hear him. He opens the gate and joins me in the stall. “He has the best of our bloodlines; his dam is from the warm lands on the Mediterranean, and his sire's sire came from Gaul.”

“He is a beauty,” I say, stepping as far from Faolan as I can. Dubh stays against the wall, watching Faolan, while Rol peers through the wicker between the stalls.

“Come here,” Faolan says, and grasps the colt's halter. Dubh rolls his eyes and tries to pull away. “Let the lady pet you.” Faolan jerks the halter, and the colt stands trembling beside me.

“There, there,” I say. “It's all right. I won't hurt you.” I can feel him quivering as I stroke him. “I'll let you go. Don't tremble so.”

Faolan laughs. “Horses need firmness, not petting. He'll come around with some training.”

“Perhaps,” I say, turning to leave the stall. “Our stablemaster is gentle with them, and they seem to thrive.”

The stall gate is ajar, but Faolan has stepped in front of the opening and blocks my exit. “You've affection enough
for a colt, but you show none to me.” There's an edge to his voice that worries me.

I try to sound pleasant when I reply. “I've told you; I'm betrothed. I keep my affection for one man alone.”

He continues to block my path. “A woman like you needs a man of the North. Arthur's men are hardly men at all—soft, most of them, without the vigor to wed a lass like you.”

I toss my head and raise my voice. “Let me pass, Faolan. I've no wish to wed you.”

He laughs and moves as if to let me out of the stall, but when I brush against him to pass through the narrow opening in the gate, he seizes me and pulls me to him.

“Don't!” I cry out as I push him away.

He starts toward me again.

I draw my dirk and shift into a fighting stance.

He acknowledges the weapon with a nod and reaches for the dagger on his own belt. “As you wish, Lady Ilena.”

His mocking tone tells me that he has no fear of my blade. I realize with a sinking feeling that, despite my hours of dirk practice with Moren, I may be no match for this experienced fighter.

I move toward him, and he turns his body away from my weapon, raising his left arm to deflect a strike. His back is to the open gate. As we shift positions, I glimpse a familiar figure

Machonna.

The dog is racing down the aisle so fast that I would
not have time to call out a warning if I wanted to. When he reaches the stall gate, he springs and lands on Faolan's shoulders, driving the man facedown into the straw on the floor.

I leap sideways just in time to avoid being knocked down by the two of them. Faolan's dirk flies from his hand and clatters against the wall beside the terrified colt.

Machonna is growling and barking fiercely now, trying to grasp his prey by the neck. “Off, Machonna!” I order. “Back!”

The colt whinnies in high shrieks, and Rol rears and trumpets on his side of the stall partition. Other horses stamp and whinny, answering Rol with their own fighting calls. The kennels just outside the stable door erupt into loud barks and howls.

I struggle to keep Machonna's teeth away from Faolan's neck, though I don't attempt to drag the dog completely off him.

Spusscio's voice rises above the noise. “Ilena! Where are you?” He rushes into the stall with his sword in hand. The stablemaster is close behind him.

I sheathe my dirk, then pull the hound completely off his victim and drag him out into the passageway.

Faolan, freed from the weight on his back, leaps for his dirk and wheels around with it at the ready. He looks surprised to find Spusscio in front of him with his sword raised to strike. The
two stand unmoving for a few moments. The stablemaster is breathing hard as he keeps his staff up, ready to support Spusscio.

Rol can see me now and has stopped trumpeting. The other horses and the hounds are quieting. I keep a firm hand on Machonna's collar and try to gain control of myself. I don't know whether I'm trembling more from my anger at Faolan's insolence or from my unexpected fear when I saw how eager he was to fight.

Faolan looks from Spusscio to the stablemaster and then to me. He manages a grimace that might be a smile. “The lady does not take a compliment with good manners.” He slips his dirk into its case and nods to Spusscio, who lowers his sword and steps out of the way. As Faolan passes me in the aisle, Machonna growls and tries to jerk free of my grasp. “That's a vicious animal,” he says. “You should get rid of him.”

I won't stoop to exchanging insults with the man and force myself to keep silent while he makes his way out of the barn.

Spusscio and I leave the stablemaster calming Dubh and take Machonna to the kennels. “I'm glad the hound was running free,” I say, “and that you came when you did.”

“How did you end up alone with him?” he asks.

“I stopped to pet the colt,” I say. “Then I drew my dirk to defend myself.”

Spusscio stops and turns to face me. “You drew your dirk
against Faolan? That's foolhardy! The man is known for the number of warriors he's killed in close combat.”

BOOK: Lady Ilena
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