A Scottish-Irish flavour for a tale set in 1036 AD ~ a great read!
"The next day Domnal, Leod and half a dozen men left Bundalloch without telling me of their plans. A day and a half after that, a huge Viking longship arrived, frightening the women. A tall, attractive man stalked ashore as if he owned Bundalloch, and when I saw the gold circlet of kingship at his brow I realised that he did indeed own it. I also knew that my brother was in grave trouble.
The King of Alba’s self-confidence and the size of his entourage initially unnerved me, but pride came to my rescue. My gown might be plain, my apron spattered with milk and my hair tied back and unadorned, but until Domnall married, I was the lady of Bundalloch and knew my duties. Hurrying forward, I stuttered a welcome. He smiled, dispersed his men around Bundalloch, and walked into the hearth-hall without waiting for an invitation.
Late in the afternoon of the fourth day I waited with anxiety churning my stomach as my brother tore off his cap and strode toward me. His brown curls flattened, his homely face reddened by rough weather, he noted Bundalloch men loitering around the hall when they should have been at work in the fields and barns. His frowning gaze came to me, and it was only then that he noticed the stranger beside me.
His stride slowed and his frown deepened.
My hands gripped together beneath my breastbone as I saw the storm clouds gather on my brother’s face. Then he took a quick breath, bent his head and forced out a sentence of stilted politeness. “I trust my sister has offered food and drink, Your Grace?”
My nails dug into my palms. Of course I had. Did he think I was stupid?
“We heard you’ve been away on business,” the king said in his surprisingly deep voice. “To do with cattle, I believe?”
My stomach turned over. Oh, Domnall! He had been raiding after all, and now he would suffer for it.
Stiff as a pine, his fists clenched hard against his thighs, my brother’s teeth showed briefly before he spoke. “The beasts wander too far and must be brought back.”
The king raised mocking brows, but before he could speak, the double doors burst open to admit a flood of sunlight and a vibrant young man with dressed in dark leather. “You've been raiding, Domnall.” He strode across the rough earthen floor in long strides. “We've seen the beasts and watched you at work.” His men trailed through the open doors behind him.
“We've been working with the beasts for the last couple of days,” Domnall said stiffly. “It's hard work, mac Enna.”
I knew the name. According to Leod, Hareth mac Enna was the newly appointed Mormaer of Moray as well as the king's oldest friend. Domnall, thirsty after a hard ride, beckoned a servant who held a tray bearing several wooden beakers.
Mac Enna calmly intercepted the servant. With his hand heavy on the man’s shoulder, he steered him toward his followers, then turned mockingly to my brother. “They're not your beasts. We've checked the markings, and they come from the western edge of Moray.”
Thirsty and furious in his own hearth-hall, Domnall flushed with temper and embarrassment. I caught the eye of another servant, who grasped an ale jug and a beaker from the table and hurried forward. Domnall snatched both from him before they too vanished into other hands.
Domnall gulped ale, and wiped his moustache with the back of one hand and shoved the jug back into the servant’s hands. “They're our beasts, mac Enna.”
“We've had men watching the hill passes for days,” Hareth countered. “We can tell to a head how many beasts you've stolen.”
“Count them all you like,” Domnall growled, “but they're mine! Every man here will agree with me!”
A ripple of movement went through the Bundalloch men. Well-muscled hill farmers who did not take insults lightly, the air around them shimmered with dark glances and brewing violence. Someone snarled an insult deep in his throat, at which Hareth's men closed the main door, and stood in front of it with spears at the ready. Women caught hold of their children and backed away into the dim recesses of the hall.
Domnall was trapped, unless he remembered the servants’ door. I checked over my shoulder. No guard stood before the small, unobtrusive exit used by servants and children. I caught my brother's gaze and indicated his escape route with a jerk of my head. His bright, angry gaze roamed past me, and lingered on the forgotten exit. He emptied the contents of the mug down his throat.
Hareth mac Enna pulled a scrap of fine leather from his belt-purse, and dangled it at arm's length so Domnall could see the dark squiggles and circles burned into the surface.
“We have a copy of the marks the Moray farmers use. All we have to do is check this against the exhausted beasts you left in the Glennan valley and we'll know for certain that you have stolen Moray cattle. More than that, you left one of their men dead.”
It was worse than I feared. As the echo of the words died away, Domnall spun on his heel, raced passed me to the rear of the hall and vanished through the overlooked door. The men of Bundalloch met the king's men chest to chest with a growling roar of aggression.
I dithered, unable to decide if I should run after my brother or stay where I was, then started as a strong hand grasped my elbow. The king yanked me to his side, his attention on the mêlée in front of him.
My teeth dug into my lip as Hareth’s troop overpowered the hill-farmers. The encounter was short and sharp, and several Bundalloch men sat and nursed sore heads. At least no one had chased Domnall, for which I was thankful.
The king surveyed each dirty, unkempt Bundalloch face in turn. “Your lord will be fined, and the animals returned to their rightful owners. Some of you will help, and in doing so will avoid fines yourselves. I tell you now,” he went on in the voice that was peculiarly his, “thievery will not be tolerated under my rule. There are fish in the sea and deer on the hills and birds in the air. Grain will be delivered to you from my stores, if and when you need it. No man need starve, for the sake of a little effort.”
Sullen, battered faces glared back at him. “If an offence of this kind happens again, whatever the provocation, the penalty will be death.”
My knees trembled beneath my long skirts. Still, I comforted myself with the thought that he had not, so far, threatened my brother. At that moment the king turned his head in my direction.
“Domnall of Bundalloch should come to us at Inverness and pay his fine within the month of June. The Lady Eilidh will be our hostage against his good behaviour and swift appearance.”
I gasped. Slowly at first, warmth swarmed into my face.
“That's hardly fair on the lady.” Leod’s voice came from the crowd.
“Life is rarely fair,” Finlay of Alba said. “When the Lord Domnall pays his dues, the lady will be free to return home.”