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'He's going to die, isn't he?' Iseult MacFergus stared down at the bruised body of the slave. Lash marks creased the man's back, raw and unhealed. His skin was pale with hard ridges of bone protruding, as though he had not eaten well in several moons. Her mind rebelled at the thought of the torment he must have suffered.
Davin Ó Falvey handed her a basin of cool water. 'I don't know. Likely I wasted a good deal of silver.'
Iseult sponged at the blood, lowering her eyes. 'We don't need a slave for our household, Davin. You shouldn't have purchased him.' It was becoming less common among the tribes to own slaves. Her own family had never been able to afford them, and it made her uncomfortable, remembering her lower status.
'Someone else would have, if I hadn't.' He came up behind her and placed his hands on her shoulders. 'He was suffering, a stór. At the slave auction, they beat him until he could no longer stand.'
She covered Davin's hands with her own. Her betrothed was never one to let a man endure pain, not when he could intervene. It was one of the reasons he was her dearest friend and the man she had agreed to marry.
A hollow feeling settled in her stomach. Davin deserved a better woman than herself. She had done what she could to salvage her torn reputation, but the gossip had not died down, not in three years. She didn't know why he'd offered for her, but her family had seized the opportunity for the alliance. It wasn't every day that a blacksmith's daughter could marry a chieftain's son.
'Let the healer tend him,' Davin urged, his voice turning heated. She recognised the intent in his words, along with the hidden invitation. 'Walk with me, Iseult. I haven't seen you in a sennight, and I've missed you.'
She stiffened, but forced a smile. Go with him, her head urged. Though Davin had never once held her to blame for her sins, she felt unworthy of his love.
After summoning the healer, Davin took her hand and led her outside. The moon cast its shadow across his face. With fair hair and piercing blue eyes, Davin was the most handsome man she'd ever seen. He drew her hand to his bearded cheek. Apprehension sliced through her, for she knew he was about to kiss her. She accepted his embrace, wishing she could feel the same ardour that he felt for her.
Give it time, she urged. But even when she poured herself into the kiss, it was as if she stood outside her body, an observer instead of a participant.
He held her closely, whispering against her ear. 'I know you don't wish to become lovers before Bealtaine. But I'd be a fool if I didn't try to convince you.'
She pulled back, her gaze cast downwards. 'I can't.'
Her face brightened with shame, even now. The thought of lying with a man, any man, only brought back grievous memories.
Tension knotted across Davin's face, but he did not press further. 'I would never ask you to do anything you don't want.'
And that was why she felt even guiltier. She didn't want to lie with him, but what kind of woman did that make her? She'd surrendered to a moment of passion years ago, and paid the price. But now that a man loved her and wanted to marry her, she couldn't seem to let go of the bad memories.
Davin dropped a hand across her shoulders, kissing her temple. 'I'll wait until you're ready.'
He walked her back to her dwelling within the ringfort, his hand holding hers. When they reached the hut, Iseult paused beside the wooden door frame, as though it were a shield.
'What will you do with the slave?'
'I don't know yet. Possibly he can help with the crops or tend the horses. I'll speak to him once he's awake.
'I will see you in the morning,' Davin said, regret edging his tone. He kissed her lips again. 'See what you can do to keep our slave alive.'
Iseult nodded, ducking inside the house. For a moment she stood at the entrance, gathering her thoughts. Why couldn't she feel the blaze of ardour that women spoke of? Davin's kisses and affection evoked nothing but emptiness.
What was wrong with her? He, of all men, deserved to be loved. He treated her like a cherished treasure, offering her anything she wanted. It made her feel unworthy of him.
Her heart heavy, she walked inside to join the others. Muirne and her family were busy setting out food for the evening meal. Though the Ó Falveys were not her kin, they'd willingly opened their doors to her, granting her hospitality. Because of them, she had a place to stay while growing accustomed to her new tribe.
And, bless them, it kept her from having to live with Davin's mother. The chieftain's wife didn't like her at all and made no secret of it.
'Who was the man Davin brought with him?' Muirne asked. A stout, raven-haired woman who had borne seven children, she fussed over Iseult as though she were one of her own. Without waiting for a reply, she continued, 'You haven't eaten this night. Come and sit with us.' She gestured towards the low table where her other foster-children sat, teasing one another as they devoured their food.
'He was a slave,' Iseult answered. 'Half-dead from what I understand.'
'Well, that's not much of a purchase.' Muirne rolled her eyes and handed Iseult a plate of salted mackerel and roasted carrots. 'But that's Davin for you.' She smiled as if speaking of a saint.
'Mother, may I have more fish?' one of the boys asked.
And me!' the other chimed in. Glendon and Bartley charmed her, though the sight of them deepened the ache of loss in Iseult's heart. Her own son Aidan would have been two years of age now.
Iseult picked at her food, her appetite suddenly gone.
'Why haven't you wed Davin already?' Muirne asked, adding a slice of bread on to her plate. 'I don't understand why you'd want to wait until Bealtaine.'
'Davin asked me to wait. He wants a special blessing upon our marriage.' When Muirne was about to add even more food, Iseult covered her plate with a hand. 'I've had enough, thank you.'
'I'll eat it,' Glendon offered. Iseult slid the fish on to his plate, and the boy devoured it. Muirne muttered words beneath her breath about Iseult being too thin.
She tried to ignore the criticism. 'I think I'll take the rest of this with me and see if the slave is hungry.'
'You shouldn't be associating with the likes of him,' Muirne warned. 'He's a fudir, and people will talk.'
Iseult faltered. They would, yes. The wise thing to do was to remain here and not to think about the slave. Likely the man would die, a stranger to all of them.
'You're right.' When Muirne's back was turned, she tucked a slice of bread into a fold of her cloak. 'But I'm going to go for a walk. I won't be long.'
Her friend fastened a knowing gaze upon her. 'Don't do anything you'll regret, Iseult.'
She tried to muster a nonchalant smile, but it wouldn't come. 'I will be back soon.'
Outside, the moonlight illuminated a ring of twelve thatched stone cottages. The hide of a red deer was stretched across a wooden frame on one side, while outdoor cooking fires had died down to coals. The familiar scent of peat smoke lingered in the air, and the early spring wind bit through her overdress and léine. She raised her brat to cover her shoulders, seeking warmth from the shawl. Though she had only lived among the tribe since last winter, she was starting to consider the ringfort her home.
At last she stopped in front of the sick hut. Why had she come here? The healer Deena would already have fed the slave and tended him. Her presence would be nothing more than an interference. She almost turned away when the door opened.
'Oh,' Deena breathed, touching a hand to her heart. The healer had cared for members of Davin's tribe for almost a generation, but her hair still held its black lustre.
Fine lines edged her smiling mouth. 'You startled me, Iseult. I was just going to fetch some water.'
'How is the slave?' she asked.
Deena shook her head. 'Not well, I fear. He won't eat or drink anything. Stubborn, that one is. If he wants to die, that's his concern, but I'd rather it not be in my sick hut.'
'Shall I speak with him?'
'If it pleases you. Not that 'twill do any good.' Deena expelled a sigh of disgust. 'Go on, then.'
Iseult stepped across the threshold into the darkened room. The hearth glowed with coals, and she smelled the intense aroma of wintergreen and camomile. The slave lay upon a pallet, his eyes closed. Unkempt black hair fell across his neck, his cheeks rough and unshaven. He looked like a demon who'd crawled from the underworld, a dark god like Crom Dubh.
But as a slave, he might have travelled across Éireann. He might have seen her son Aidan or have news. She tried to shut down the wave of hope building inside.
Don't be foolish, her mind warned. With a countryside so vast, the chances of him knowing anything about a small boy were remote.
'Will you eat something?' she asked, kneeling beside the pallet.
He didn't open his eyes, didn't move. Iseult reached out to touch his shoulder.
His hand shot out, crushing her wrist. Dark brown eyes flashed a warning at her, and she cried out with pain.
'Get out,' he said. The razor edge of his voice shocked her. He had none of the penitent demeanour of a slave.
Mary, Mother of God, what sort of man had Davin bought? Iseult scrambled to her feet, wrenching her hand away from his grip. 'Who are you?'
'Kieran Ó Brannon. And I want to be left alone.' He rolled over, and Iseult shuddered at the sight of his raw back. The voice of reason demanded that she leave. Now, before he lashed out at her again.
'I am Iseult MacFergus,' she said calmly. 'And I've brought you food.'
'I don't want it.'
Steeling her voice, she added, 'If you don't eat, you'll die.'
'I'd rather die than live like this.'
Instead of grief, she sensed a seething rage within him. It terrified her, not knowing what he would do or say. Like a wild animal, he was ready to strike out at anyone offering compassion.
Iseult dropped the food on the ground beside him, not caring if the dirt mingled with the bread. 'If you're going to die, do it quickly. Or if you decide to live, know that you'll not be harmed here.'
Before he could reply, she fled outside. She would get no answers about her son, not from a man such as this. As far as she was concerned, the sooner Davin got rid of this slave, the better.
Kieran Ó Brannon wanted to laugh. It was fitting, wasn't it, for one of God's angels to appear before him. After the past season he'd spent in hell, the irony did not escape him.
Her hair was the colour of a sunset, gold and red intertwined. The blue Mine and overdress she wore revealed a slim body and long legs. Once, he might have tried to charm a lady like Iseult MacFergus.
But women were not to be trusted, especially not beautiful women. He'd learned that the fairer they were, the more treacherous their hearts.
He stared at the fallen bread. Though his body cried out for food, his mind refused it. He no longer cared what happened to him. If he could encourage death to come sooner, so be it.
The healer Deena returned a moment later. She sat across from him, a foul-smelling decoction in her mortar. Her black hair hung down in a long braid, covered by a length of linen.
'Why do you want to die, lad?' she asked.
She reminded him of his grandmother, a brook-no-foolishness woman who spoke whatever was on her mind. When he didn't answer, she prodded again. 'Now, then, I know you can speak, as you nearly frightened Iseult to death. You must know that it won't work with me. I can be quite a force to be reckoned with. Not to mention, I'll be preparing your food and drink for the next few weeks.'
His head ached from her chatter. She had kept up a stream of talking while she mixed up God only knew what in her mortar.
At last he answered, if for no other reason than to make her cease the noise. 'Why would I want to live?'
She shrugged, a faint smile tugging at her mouth. She'd won and knew it, too.
'You're an intelligent one, aren't you, lad? Somewhere, you've got a family. And you'll live because your kin would want it so.'
Had she read him that easily? Was she a soothsayer, as well as a healer? The unwanted memory of his younger brother sprang forth from his mind, Egan pleading for help. Like a cold blade, it sliced open his guilt, making him bleed from it.
His kin would rather see him dead.
But when she started to talk again, he shut off his emotions and picked up the fallen bread.
You don't deserve it. You deserve to starve, like the rest of your tribe.
He shut out the voice and ate. It tasted as dry as it looked, but the vicious hunger inside him begged for more.
Deena handed him a clay cup, and he took it with shaking hands. He was so thirsty, he didn't even remember the last time he'd eaten or drunk. When he tasted the bitter wine, he nearly choked at the vile taste.
Deena chuckled again. 'It's to make you sleep, lad. You'll need to be on your feet again soon.'
If it would bring about forgetfulness, he'd drink it all. Without argument, he drained the vessel.
The healer spread the herbal mixture on his back, and, as promised, the cooling effect of the medicine did ease the pain of his wounds. The lash marks weren't as deep as others he'd endured. He welcomed the pain, for it was a physical act of contrition.
'You'd best be on better behaviour with Iseult MacFergus,' Deena warned. 'She is promised to wed the man who owns you. Davin Ó Falvey won't look kindly upon anyone who mistreats his betrothed.'
'Then I won't speak to her at all.' Kieran gritted his teeth when she laid linen atop his lash marks. He knew why she was tending him. Not out of compassion. A weakened slave held no value.
The thought of servitude chafed at his pride. He'd never been any man's slave, and the instinct to fight back rose up, stronger than ever. Thoughts of escape tempted him, beckoning to his sense of pride. Healed or not, he could find a way out of this ringfort.
And then what?