Outcast, clanless, and but a junior officer in Arthur the Pendragon’s army, Angusel struggles to rebuild the life stolen from him through betrayal by the person he had held most dear. His legion allegiance thrusts him onto the campaign trail as one of Arthur’s forward scouts, stalking Angli troops and being among the first to clash with these vicious enemies at every turn. But the odds loom high against him and his sword-brothers, and they will need a miracle just to survive.
Pressured to make the best choice to ensure her clan’s future leadership, Eileann struggles with her feelings for Angusel, whose outcast status makes him forbidden to her as a mate. When Angli treachery threatens everyone she loves, she vows to thwart their violent plan to conquer her clan. But she is no warrior, she has no soldiers to command, and she will need a miracle just to survive.
How can one soldier make a difference? How can one woman save her kin and clan? In the crucible of combat, Angusel must surrender to the will of the gods, and Eileann must invoke divine power to forge the most dangerous warrior the world has ever known.
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The former exalted Heir of Clan Alban of Caledon was dead.
He was certain of it.
There existed no light, no pain, no smells, no heat, no chill, no sensation of any kind save the most beautiful strains of harp music he'd ever heard. The images it evoked bespoke love in its many incarnations: the frenzied passion of the Belteine fire dance, the soaring joy of two souls bonded by desire, a mother's fierce protectiveness of her children, the lament of a bereaved spouse, a lullaby for a newborn, the rapture of a long-delayed reunion. The Otherworld wasn't like what he had been taught — he saw no eternal battlefield where Lord Annaomh's Army of the Blest fought Lord Annàm's Samhraidhean minions. None of the ancient tales mentioned music in the Otherworld, but he supposed the Old Ones could have whatever they liked.
Comforted by the melody, which was jaunty and lilting and mournful and jaunty again, he wasn't about to complain to his sithichean hosts.
The final notes thrummed into silence.
"Well done, Eileann," spoke a nearby male voice in Caledonaiche. "I'll wager the Old Ones themselves are pleased by your harping." This won the murmured assent of other Caledonach men.
"Thank you, Tavyn." The female Caledonach voice sounded demure, as though unaccustomed to hearing such praise.
He was about to add his lauds to Tavyn's when pain battered his head and chest. Apparently, the gods weren't done tormenting him. He had been housed with his people — his former people. If this group had recognized him, they never would have allowed him into their company.
Caledonaich did not associate with those who had been stripped of honor.
Dragging a hand across his eyes, though unwilling to open them, he encountered the folds of a bandage swathing his brow. His hand dropped to his chest, and he found another bandage where his battle-tunic and undertunic should have been. He probed the ache's source and winced. Half a handspan farther down, and the wound would have gifted him one-way passage to the Otherworld.
Where am I?
"Rest easy, brave one." He must have uttered the question aloud, and the lady harper sounded much closer than before. "You're in the field hospital at Port Dhoo-Glass."
The Caledonach ward.
Someone pressed a cool, damp cloth to his cheeks and neck. He had to admit it did feel good.
"Medics found you with a gash on your forehead and a spear in your chest," the woman continued. "If you hadn't moved when you did, they would have left you for dead. You're lucky to be here."
Some luck. He wished the medics had left him to the ravens.
Worse, his pain-fogged brain at last attached meaning to the names Eileann and Tavyn. They belonged to the daughter and son of Chieftainess Dynann of Clan Tarsuinn, his dead father's clan. Tavyn was commander of Second Turma, Manx Cohort, the unit that had charged the Sasunach line beside his. He turned his head onto one cheek and tried not to groan louder.
A hand slipped under his head to lift it a bit. Keeping his eyes closed, he didn't resist. No sense in rushing the inevitable.
A cup touched his lips, brimming with a warm, honey-scented liquid.
He flickered open his eyes and gazed past the cup's rim into the face of the most beautiful woman he had ever seen, save one. Lustrous black hair tumbled past her shoulders to sweep toward his chest. Graceful eyebrows accented brown eyes that glimmered with more compassion than he deserved. The light flush of her cheeks made him think of roses beneath a dusting of snow.
Her berry-red lips gave him the gift of a genuine smile.
He swallowed a mouthful of the liquid and grimaced, its bitterness a fitting reminder of the state of his soul.
"Valerian." Her smile adopted an apologetic cast. "For your pain. Does it need more honey?"
"Nay." Was his voice as harsh as it sounded? He couldn't help it; his worst pain, valerian couldn't cure. He grasped the hand cradling his head and moved it so he could lie flat. To his surprise, he found it difficult to let go. He did his best to return her smile, though it had been moons since his facial muscles had moved in that direction. "Thank you, my lady."
Nodding, she disengaged her hand and rose, leaving the cup on the stool beside his cot. She bent to dab his cheeks with the damp cloth and placed it beside the cup. "I'll be staying at the fortress until my brother is well enough to travel. Send for me if you need anything," she whispered. Her kind smile inflicted the anguish of a hundred spear thrusts. "My name is Eileann."
He knew; gods, how he knew. If he had never heard her speak, he'd have known from the blue woad Tarsuinnach falcon tattoo spread-winged and screeching across her right forearm, symbol of her status as their àrd-banoigin. Chieftainess Dynann would retain clan leadership for as long as she remained fit for the task, but Eileann carried the responsibility for continuing the line of succession. By Caledonach law, Eileann was free to choose her consort. That her left arm bore no tattoo meant she hadn't exercised that choice.
Mayhap he could ... nay; he was forgetting himself. Or rather, what he had become.
Eileann nic Dynann probably had suitors lined up from one shore of Caledon to the other. If she didn't, the likelihood of her choosing an outcast was less than the sun changing its course at zenith to set in the east. Best to put her out of his mind. Best for him — and for her.
As she glided to her brother's cot and reached for her harp, he found he could no sooner forget her than forget the shameful events of his past that prevented him from ever trying to woo her.
He groaned into the pillow.
Seated on the stool beside Tavyn, Eileann picked up her lap-size traveling harp. She plucked a few chords but couldn't decide what to play.
What a strange young man, whose pain runs deeper than the wounds of his flesh.
Other men, those not wounded past caring, lavished upon her their smiles and winks and words. That one didn't appear to want her ministrations, yet he'd clung to her hand as though it were a lifeline. A lifeline to what, Eileann couldn't fathom.
Nor could she fathom how she might comfort him, but the thrumming of her heart commanded her to try.
"Well, dear sister, are you going to play something else for us? Or do you intend to daydream the hours away?" Tavyn's tone carried its usual hint of affectionate mockery.
She smiled. Play something ... yes, of course. The injured men enjoyed her harping, but that one in particular — the one with a hole in his chest and a hole in his soul — had appeared to be entranced by the music. As her fingers found the correct strings, she slid a glance at him. The warrior's eyes were closed, but a faint smile lingered on his lips. She poured her heart into her playing, hoping she could coax that smile to strengthen.
The next time she chanced to look his way, he had turned from her.
She finished to greater applause and spoken praise than before. Yesterday, that would have pleased her beyond measure. Today, the person whose response mattered — and it was strange to think of anyone outside her clan in those terms — remained silent.
So did her harp's strings.
Leave it to Tavyn to drag her into reality. She nodded at the mysterious warrior. "Who is he? Do you recognize him?"
Tavyn's face tensed. "No, I don't — wait." He lowered his eyebrows. "Angusel mac Alayna." The name sounded like poison on Tavyn's lips. "Now he calls himself Aonar."
Then Eileann recalled why: Angusel mac Alayna of Clan Alban had tried to rescue Chieftainess Gyanhumara's bairn, and his failure had resulted in the bairn's murder. Gyanhumara had dissolved his Oath of Fealty to her and banished him from Clan Argyll lands. Clan Alban considered him a disgrace, as well. By extension, so did all of Caledon. No wonder his pain had seemed so deep.
As she gazed at his sad and vulnerable face, she could find in her heart no hatred or disgust or contempt or even pity, just profound sympathy.
Tavyn's shout broke her reverie. He had sat up and was waving an arm. "Tavyn, what's wrong? Are you all right?"
He gave her an annoyed look. "Of course." A pair of medics scurried over to his cot, and Tavyn regarded them. "Move that soldier out of this ward. Now." He jabbed his thumb in Angusel's direction. "The one who owns the legion officer's cloak."
Eileann scanned the ward, but every other cloak displayed a Caledonach clan's pattern. Angusel's was plain scarlet.
Angusel pushed himself to a sitting position. As she watched in shocked silence, he swung his legs over the cot's side and bent to reach for his boots, reeling and gritting his teeth.
Shaking her head, Eileann gripped Tavyn's forearm. "You can't! He's too badly hurt!"
"He doesn't belong with us." The alien sternness of his stare made her gasp. She released his arm. He glared at the medics. "You have your orders, men."
"Aye, Decurion Tavyn," they replied, saluting.
The medics gathered Angusel's few belongings and got him to his feet for the walk to the Breatanach ward, and Eileann's heart went out to him. She couldn't debate her brother's logic or military authority. Angusel no longer held a place in Caledonach society, including the portion of it that resided within the Pendragon's mostly Breatanach army.
Supported by the medics, Angusel shuffled toward the door. Except for a warrior's occasional moan and the footfalls of Angusel and his escorts, the converted barracks room lay silent. Men able to watch the scene trained their gazes upon the departing trio. Angusel ignored them, his head hung low. Eileann ached to play him one last song.
In her mind she played that tune for him, a rousing warrior's send-off, and prayed for his recovery.
They paused at the ward's outer door, and he looked up. One of the medics proffered the iron dragon brooch and cloak that had betrayed his identity to Decurion Tavyn. Not that his identity mattered; he was but one of Arthur's soldiers, duty bound to go where ordered.
If that meant crawling elsewhere to die, then so be it.
The other medic helped him don his rent battle-gear and handed him his sheathed sword. He took the cloak from the man's companion and pinned it in place. His helmet he'd lost in the battle, yanked off by a Sasun who didn't live long enough to regret the mistake.
As the first medic opened the door, a gust bullied its way inside, unfurling his cloak, guttering the oil lamps, and stirring the rushes. The wind bore the clean scent of the outdoors. It heightened the lingering stench of injury and death. The cold air braced him.
Across the compound, heading his way, shadowed by a dark billow that resolved into an Argaillanach-patterned cloak, strode ... her.
He exited the Caledonach ward. As he turned to his sword side, a hand gripped his uninjured shoulder.
"The Brytoni ward is this way, Optio," said the first medic, in Breatanaiche.
He shrugged the man off. "I have business elsewhere. Dismissed, both of you." He needed no help for what he had in mind.
They exchanged a glance, shrugged, saluted him, and reentered the ward. He headed toward the fort's gates and away from her as fast as his pain and the ragged remains of his dignity would permit.
He stood on the bluff, staring at the gray-green sea pummeling the Manx beach a score of paces below. The Sasunach funeral pyre at his back belched draconic heat and eye-stinging smoke and gut-wrenching stench. As dizziness washed over him, the sandy ground felt as insubstantial as the cloud-laced sky. Palm to sweating temple, he tossed off the surreal sensation with a shake.
Earth, sky, fire, water ... as if he were a god imprisoned at the convergence of the elements.
No longer did anyone address him by his given name, which meant "raging sea." The official duty roster listed him as Optio Aonar, a junior officer not of command rank. No matronymic, no clan, no country; physically, emotionally, spiritually alone.
Uttering a dry chuckle, he gave himself a nickname: "a Dubh Loch," a poetic description of the condition of his soul.
He drew his sword. The blade bore mute testimony in myriad notches and scratches to the Sasunaich he'd consigned to today's pyre during last night's battle, but it gave him no satisfaction. He had prevented the death of the most important person in his life, and she had displayed more care for that thrice-cursed battle trophy he had helped her capture.
If not for him, it would have been her head gracing a Sasunach spear, and yet she had rejected him. Again.
Rage made his hands shake. Tightening his grip, he lowered the sword to heart height, as though she were standing captive before him, but he couldn't enjoy that fantasy. She had stripped him of his place, his kin, his clan, his country, his very identity, but he could no sooner harm her than cut off his hand. His oath forbade it.
But the gods alone knew how much longer it would restrain him.
The soldiers moved on to build a new pyre, leaving him, indeed, alone.
He studied his sword. A smith could hone it for someone else's use. Too bad his life couldn't be salvaged as easily.
As he considered dropping the sword, the thunder of the sea gave him an idea.
The warrior who had named himself Aonar a Dubh Loch cocked his sword arm and launched the weapon into the heavens. He tracked its progress toward an outcropping of boulders near the water's edge and swore.
"You, down there!" he shouted in Breatanaiche, hands cupped to his mouth. "Watch out!"
Cursing his ill luck, he summoned strength he didn't realize he possessed and hurried for the path leading down to the beach.
Through Niniane's fatigue-dimmed senses, Sister Willa's warning sounded muffled and remote. A whirring noise intruded. She glanced up to see an object streaking toward her. Gasping, she flung herself from the donkey's back, hit the sand, and rolled. Her braying mount bolted. In which direction and how far, Niniane could but guess. She stretched facedown, arms over her head, grimacing as pain jolted her left shoulder. The object struck nearby with a resounding thwack.
A gentle hand came to rest upon her uninjured shoulder. "Are you hurt?" Willa's voice trembled.
Swatting sand from her face, chest, and arms, Niniane sat up. She massaged her sore shoulder, thankful it had not been dislocated. "I'm fine, Willa." She studied the sword. Its sweat-whitened leather grip, dried bloodstains, and nicks along the blade's edge proclaimed recent use. The sword had embedded, point down, at the base of a rock, quivering as the waves baptized it in sea foam. "Where in heaven's name did that come from?"
"From me, Prioress."
Niniane whipped her head around to see Angusel finish sliding down the embankment. The still-gangly youth regained his footing and staggered toward her, grimacing.
"I'm so sorry, my lady," he said between rasping breaths. "I hope I didn't hurt you."
Merciful God, glistening blood soaked his bandages, and he was worried about her? She scrambled to her feet. "No! I —"
Willa stepped forward, finger wagging. "And a good thing for you, lad. I ought to —"
Groaning, Angusel collapsed onto the sand.
"Oh! Prioress, he needs help!"
No lie. "I will assist him, Sister." As Niniane drew abreast of her would-be protectress, she laid one hand on Willa's arm and pointed at the receding equine form. "Please see Heather home and tell the sisters to expect me soon. I can ride Ironwort." Niniane glanced toward their pack animal. Ironwort was pulling wisps of salty sea grass from the nearby embankment.
While Willa retrieved Ironwort's pack frame and empty baskets and strode down the beach, Angusel tried to stand but sank to his knees. He swatted away Niniane's attempts to examine his wounds, though she ascertained that they weren't life-threatening.
His spirits, however, required drastic therapy.
Niniane hitched up her skirts and waded through the chilly late-September surf to the sword. It took several twists and tugs to free it, as if the sand and water were too greedy to surrender their treasure.
She approached him. He had managed to stand, and the rising tide was licking his booted feet. Holding the sword by the pommel, point down, she stretched her arm toward him. "Yours?"
"Not anymore." An ocean of anguish resounded in those two whispered words.
Her arm aching from having spent too many hours, too recently, tending too many wounded soldiers, she lowered the sword's point to the sand and leaned on the pommel, as old Sister Octavia would use her cane. She prayed for the right words. None came except, "What will you do?"
"What I must." He raised his head, clenched his fists, brushed past her, and strode into the water.
"Angusel, no — wait!"
Surf breaking around his knees, he stopped and turned. "I am Aonar a Dubh Loch." She must have looked as puzzled as she felt, for he added, "Alone from the Black Lake."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Raging Sea"
Copyright © 2018 Kim Iverson Headlee.
Excerpted by permission of Pendragon Cove Press.
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