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The Irish Warrior
By Kris Kennedy
ZEBRA BOOKSCopyright © 2010 Kris Kennedy
All right reserved.
Chapter OneEarly autumn, Northern Ireland, 1295 A.D.
"It's simple, really," drawled the voice from the shadows. "Submit, or men start dying. The choice is yours."
Finian O'Melaghlin, Irish noble, warrior, and chief councilor to the great O'Fáil king, finished his grim smile. Everything was going as planned. Or rather, as expected.
From the moment The O'Fáil sent Finian to accept Lord Rardove's long-standing but ultimately treacherous invitation to meet, Finian had been separated from his men, plied first with food, then with prison. Rardove was proving predictable. And dangerous.
Finian had argued against the meeting, but his king insisted. The Irish suspected Rardove was up to something. Something dangerous. Something related to the legendary Wishmé dyes.
Unfortunately, Rardove suspected the Irish were up to something as well.
Pain shuddered through Finian's body from the savage beatings he'd already suffered, but that meant nothing. All that mattered was finding out what Rardove knew and preventing him from finding out any more. For that, he and his men had committed to die if needed.
"Somehow, Rardove"-he angled a glance over his shoulder-" I don't feel I can trust ye."
The guards holding his arms eyed him warily. Shackled around the wrists, cast in a prison with a blade at his throat and a guard on both arms, he was scaring them half to death. He could see it in their anxious eyes, smell it in the stench of fear rising from their pores. He growled once, to warn them and amuse himself.
Iron chains bit into his wrists as one of the soldiers twisted his arm up and into his spine. Lord Rardove, baron of a small but strategically important fief on the Irish marches, stepped out of the shadows and made a slow circuit around the entangled foursome.
"Stop scaring my men, O'Melaghlin," he said, and deposited a disgusted glance on a soldier who'd backed up a pace at the feral growl. "Join with me and you'll be a rich man."
Finian laughed hoarsely. "Rich, is it? I'd have something different in mind than to be fettered in chains and thrown in a prison."
Rardove gave an exaggerated sigh. "You did not begin in chains, did you? We began in my chambers, with wine and meat. Now look at us."
Finian glanced around the small cell, where the stone walls wept rancid water from abovestairs and old blood from previous guests. "I agree. We've deteriorated."
A wan smile crossed the baron's face. "You will find me a most accommodating master."
"Master?" Finian spit the word from his mouth. Tall, ruddy-faced, blond, Rardove was the English ideal of noble handsomeness. Finian wanted to kick his teeth in.
"A hundred marks to you personally if you secure The O'Fáil's goodwill in this matter."
"Rardove," he said wearily, "ye've been here for twenty years, and the land is dying under ye. The crops don't yield, your people die of ague, your cattle from murrain. Yer overlord can't stand ye, and neither can I. Why on God's good earth would I align with ye?"
The careful mask of calm covering the baron's visage cracked slightly. "Your king sent you here to parley, did he not?"
'Get inside the bulwark of Rardove Castle,' was actually what his king sent him here to do. Step one, accomplished.
"Parley?" Finian retorted. "Is that what ye call this?"
"I call this a necessary measure."
"My question is simple, Rardove, and has not changed since I knocked on yer door: what would ye get out of such an alliance?"
Step two: Ascertain what Rardove knew, how much he knew. And above all, stop him from learning any more.
The baron waved his hand through the air, a vague gesture. "Reduced threat of war on my borderlands. An end to an old feud." His voice slowed. "Perhaps, say, access to some of your Irish documents."
And with that, Finian had his answer: Rardove knew everything.
It was what he'd feared all along. Why would one of the most powerful lords in northern Ireland-powerful enough to seize these lands without his king's permission twenty years ago, then powerful enough to acquire the typically unforgiving Edward's royal dispensation afterward-now be begging for an alliance with the very people he'd conquered?
"Ye know about the dyes," Finian said slowly.
The mollusks, the Wishmés, had been forgotten for centuries, but their legends stretched back to the Romans. In a time when majesty was instilled primarily on the point of a sword, the indigo shade was allowed only for royalty, but it could make a man with the recipe richer than a king. Much richer. And more powerful. Disguise and rumor were half the game, and there was no disguise so rich, so stunning, so fueled by some inner blue-black fire, than the Wishmé indigo of the Western Edge. Ireland.
Rardove's lips stretched into an insincere grin. "I haven't the faintest notion what you're talking about."
The Wishmé dyes were truly the stuff of legend. Stunning. Rare.
Slowly, like climbing down a rope, Finian slid down the cords of his anger, fighting the almost overwhelming urge to smash Rardove's face with his boot. Then slit his throat.
"Does yer King Edward know?" he asked tightly.
Rardove smiled. "At the moment, you ought to worry more about me."
"Och, don't worry, cruim-inside, I'm shaking like a lamb," Finian retorted absently, his mind turning. The recklessness that would prompt Rardove to imprison an Irish nobleman on a mission of parley bespoke grave desperation. Urgency. Which wasn't surprising, because the Wishmés were generous with their perils.
As a color, they made a true dye that could drop a king to his knees. But that wasn't enough to make a lone English lord on the Irish marches goad his enemies with such abandon.
Weapons were. And the Wishmés could be made into a powder that would blow the roof off Dublin Abbey.
The question was, did Rardove know?
"Pretty, aren't they?" Finian said, testing. No use in subterfuge any longer.
"I do appreciate their hue," Rardove agreed, his tone musing. "But more, I like the way they explode."
Finian nodded coldly. "And yet, here I am. Ye might have the Wishmés, but ye don't know how to make the dye. Ye need the recipe. And someone who can read it."
Rardove smiled and spread his hands. "And thus, why should we not draw together, the Irish and I?"
Possibly because the Irish had lost the Wishmé recipe hundreds of years ago. Were, in fact, on a desperate hunt for the dye manual at this very moment. But Finian saw no pressing need to inform Rardove of that.
"You don't like the terms?" the baron inquired.
"Let's say I don't like ye."
"Tsk, tsk." Rardove shook his head. "You've to learn manners, O'Melaghlin, like all your kind." He snapped his fingers at the guards. A smelly hand reached up and grabbed a lock of Finian's hair, wrenching his head backward.
The sound of groans drifted in through chinks in the stone walls. Finian tried to turn but couldn't. It didn't matter. He knew who it was: O'Toole, one of his best men, whose leg had been broken in the attack.
Every member of his personal retinue knew this might turn out to be a death duty. Finian insisted each man choose it; no orders accompanied this mission except his own. But while his men may have been willing to sacrifice their lives for the good of Eire, Finian wasn't quite ready to give them up yet.
"And if I agreed?" he said quietly. Perhaps he could feign surrender, leave with his men.
"Why, you'd be free to go."
"Every day you don't return with an agreement from your king, I'll kill one of your men."
Barely able to see from the torturous angle, Finian freed his head with a savage jerk. He fixed the baron in a murderous glare, pausing barely a second to wonder on the wisdom of a God who would give a man so evil the face of a saint. "My men would come with me."
The baron shook his head in mock sadness. "You must agree I'd be a fool to release all of you, giving me no recompense were the terms of our agreement not upheld."
"I would agree ye're a fool."
Another thin, unwell smile lifted the baron's lips. "I think perhaps two a day," he mused, peering at his fingernails. "One in the dawn and one before bed. Like prayers."
"I'll sign the treaty," he said coldly. "Release my men."
"Release them? I think not. We sign papers, get witnesses, turn over the dye manual, all that messiness, before they leave."
Finian turned back to the wall in grim silence.
Rardove sighed. "Well, I didn't expect much wit from an Irishman." He turned to the guards. "Chain him to the wall and lay a few lashes against his back. We'll see if he thinks differently then."
They dragged him forward and shackled his hands in manacles dangling from huge metal braces bolted into the wall. A shield of dark hair fell forward as he dropped his head between his shoulders and braced his palms against the dank putrefaction, muscles contracted in readiness. He managed a brief prayer for survival, then one for vengeance, before the assault came.
It descended in screaming strips of leather, tearing open his flesh. Clamping down on his jaw, he scorned the agony, thinking only of what would happen to the spirits of his men if they heard him howling at Rardove's feet. Battered back, stomach, ribs; he'd been beaten into a bloody mess twice already. Once more couldn't matter much.
The assault was cut short on a shout from one of the baron's men, who came slipping down the moss-covered steps to the prisons.
"Good, my lord," panted the breathless courier. "Word has come. Senna de Valery arrives."
"Ah, my ... betrothed." A pause. "Unshackle him."
Finian spared a brief prayer of thanks to the woman who had saved him from this beating.
"How long until she arrives?" he heard the baron ask. The guards began unlocking the heavy iron cuffs from his wrists.
"Soon, my lord."
The simple but sinister question made Finian curl his lip in disgust. The soldiers jerked him around. A woman in Rardove's care? She wouldn't last a month.
"You will be disappointed in neither her face nor her form, my lord," the messenger said.
"Yes, I'd heard she's a pretty thing, if not so young. Twenty and five, if I recall."
The soldier flicked a glance at Finian, then looked away. "She has a great number of heavy ledgers with her, should that matter."
Rardove laughed. "It will not matter overly much, no. She will be ... otherwise engaged."
She will be like a lamb to slaughter, thought Finian.
The baron turned back. "We'll have to continue our negotiations later, O'Melaghlin."
Finian shrugged. "We've more to say?"
"I do not. You do. There is a great deal for you to reconsider. I will enjoy watching it."
"I'll reconsider the terms of my mercy if ye release my men."
One graying, aristocratic brow inched up. "Mercy?"
Finian's slow grin stretched from ear to ear. "I can make yer death a quick one or slow, Rardove. The choice is yers."
The guards launched forward and flung him face-first to the ground. The weight of a heeled boot against his spine kept him pinioned as Rardove stepped over his legs and sighed.
"Would that these beatings worked," he said in a plaintive voice, "for I do appreciate their simplicity. But there you have it: they do not. One wonders whether it is due to the stubbornness or the stupidity of your people. Ireland is a strange land."
Finian shifted slightly, trying to ease away from the rock gouging into his thigh. The guard's heel pressed down harder, and he stilled.
Rardove's voice drifted in from his right. "And Senna de Valery knows nothing of it, coming as she does from England."
Finian spared another brief thought for the woman. To the slaughter.
Scuffed leather boots paced an inch in front of his face then stopped, folding into thick leather wrinkles as the baron crouched beside him.
"I shall have to devise an educational welcome for her, don't you agree, Lord Finian? Perhaps a few Irish rebels dangling from the end of a rope?" He put his mouth close by Finian's ear. "I'll save you for the last."
Rage surged through him, red-hot and dangerous. He shoved his hips off the ground. The guard whose foot had been planted on his spine went somersaulting into the air. Finian swung around and kicked out with a boot, catching Rardove around his ankles. He went down hard. Finian leapt on top.
Four soldiers hauled him off and sent him flying through the air. He smashed into the wall, the back of his head hitting first. A knee in his stomach guaranteed he wouldn't rise again anytime soon, and one to his groin made him never want to anyhow.
The soldiers dragged him back to his feet. He stood, fighting the swaying tug of unconsciousness, his boots planted wide. Summoning what ebbing strength he could, he lifted his head and shook away the blood dripping into his eyes.
"Christ," Rardove snarled, his breath coming hard. "You're all savages." He jerked his head to the soldiers. "Make him pay for his insolence."
They did, and later, as the light from torches carried by the retreating guards faded to nothing, Finian lay spread-eagled on the floor of his cell, barely breathing. But he was thinking hard.
The Englishry were a plague, an infestation of stark naughts, Rardove being the best example of their descent into hell. Finian would not ally with them were he offered the lordship of Tír na nÓg in return. He hadn't wanted to come and even feign parley, but The O'Fáil wanted it done, and Finian could not refuse.
But now, even a feigned agreement with the worm would do nothing to save his men, only himself. Which was unacceptable. They would all leave, or none.
But either way, Rardove had best look to his back, for the Irish tribes were going to come down from the hills and besiege his castle from Lent until Yuletide. Then Finian himself would burn it to the ground, if he had to drag his bones out of the grave to do so.
Chapter Two"This shouldn't take long," Senna deValery murmured as she passed under the gates of Rardove Keep as the sun went down. It was four days after her ship had dropped anchor in Dublin and left her to her fate.
It had been a slow, long ride and Senna held her silence for most of its length, listening to the sounds of her new world: the host of riders accompanying her, creaking saddles, muffled voices, wind sighing over the Irish earth. Most of her time, though, was spent calculating how much money this business alliance would provide, if it came to fruition.
It was fresh hope, and that was practically priceless.
Forty sheep followed somewhere behind, the first installment of her bleating business proposition. Atop their sharp little hooves, her sheep carried the softest, most absorbent wool west of the Levant, a strain Senna had been perfecting for ten years, ever since she took over operations of the business from her father.
Wool was highly lucrative business. The fate of a dozen lesser crafts and a few minor princedoms rested on its commerce. Entire fairs in France were dedicated to the trade, sending coveted wool from England through the rich southern markets, straight to Jerusalem and beyond.
Senna wanted to nudge her way in to this market. If the wool being moved through the trade halls now fomented merchants' enthusiasm, Senna's strain would make them salivate. It was more absorbent, more silklike, more lightweight than any other wool out there, and required little mordanting to make dyes take.
She knew she had something special with her stinky, furry little sheep. She was simply running out of coin.
Rardove could give it to her. He had money that could save the business, the one Senna had spent the last ten years building up, while her father recklessly, relentlessly, inexhaustibly, gambled it away.
She stared hard ahead, trying to pierce the evening mists, eager for her first glance of Rardove Keep. Such purposeful peering had the added benefit of distracting her from the stench rising from her escort of burly, damp, leather-clad riders.
"Are the mists always so thick?" she asked the closest rider, pinching her nostrils as she moved closer to hear his reply.
He grunted and snorted back a sneeze. Or perhaps he said, "Most there's 'bout." Either reply was equally illuminating.
Senna lifted her eyebrows and said "Ahh," in a bright, cheerful voice, then reined a few paces upwind.
She could feel the eyes of the burliest soldier boring into her back. Balffe was his name, the captain of Rardove's guard. A block-chested warrior with a face like old sin, he hadn't taken his eyes off her for two days. And it wasn't leering, either; it was more like loathing, which was ridiculous, because she'd done nothing to him.
Excerpted from The Irish Warrior by Kris Kennedy Copyright © 2010 by Kris Kennedy. Excerpted by permission.
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