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When she is sent to Alba (ancient Scotland) to fulfill a marriage agreement made in her youth, Trelagh Mahon discovers her new husband, Colain, is a brutal man who despises her and has agreed to marry her only to please his father. Cold and merciless, he demands her absolute obedience and schemes to cripple her independent spirit. Trelagh is despairing, but unsurprised. In her experience, the gods have never smiled upon her – not, at least, until the moment she first laid eyes on her new husband's half-brother, Gabhan, gifted harper and son of a Pictish slave.

Trelagh finds favor with Colain's father, the powerful Chief Kintire, but she knows even his affection will not protect her if Colain discovers the growing relationship between herself and Gabhan, whom he denounces as a bastard usurper. When at last Colain's abuse becomes unbearable, Trelagh and Gabhan flee together and take refuge with his Pictish relations in the beautiful glen above Loch Sule. Gabhan is content to stay there and take up his inheritance but Trelagh, feeling she does not belong, becomes restless. For her sake, Gabhan agrees to move on, and Trelagh has only herself to blame when Colain at last hunts them down, and her world is rent asunder.

Trelagh is hauled back to Kintire where she emerges from her darkness only to discover she is carrying Gabhan's child which Colain, enraged, threatens. With help from Colain's brother, Druan, she manages to escape, only to be forced to take refuge with the same Pictish tribe she had persuaded Gabhan to leave.

Years pass, but Trelagh's contest against Colain is not done. Kintire warriors, hungry for land, bring war from the west. Trelagh, now fighting with the Pictish, finds herself defending Glen Sule. But Colain's campaign is powerful; all will be lost unless the Picts can enlist the aid of the mysterious northern chief called the Gray Man. Still, the gods refuse to smile. At last, captured and nearly broken, Trelagh must weigh her faith and face her greatest fears: Colain's hatred, and the possible loss of a life far more precious to her than her own.

Colain's chambers – which, I supposed, were now also mine – were somber and grand, lit by a great, roaring fire and liberally strewn with thick rugs and blankets of fine-woven wool. Several slaves were busy there when we arrived, laying a supper – as if we would be able to touch a thing more – and making final preparations for the night. I stood silent in the middle of the room, intending to wait until they finished and withdrew, but Colain had no such reservations. Immediately, he began speaking loudly, just as if the servants did not exist. It was a habit of his to which I was to grow accustomed, but would never approve.

"Well, mistress Trelagh," he began, "I hope you are pleased with yourself. Were the revels and festivities quite to your liking? And what of the fine jewels that were bestowed upon you? They must make you feel – almost – worthy of your new position."

He paused full in the firelight, to look at me. It was obvious he was very drunk. But still, he held himself carefully, a man who was never caught off guard.

I struggled for the right thing to say, while quite aware that the slaves were staring in open curiosity. I preferred not to air my feelings before them. But I did not wish to let the sarcasm contained in Colain's words go unanswered.

Steadily, I said, "I have never been impressed, particularly, with jewels. Someone might have told you that, about me."

"They might have told me a great number of things."

He swung round and snapped his fingers. One of the slaves hurried to place a filled goblet in his hand. I drew a deep breath and tried to relax my fingers which, I discovered, were clenched into fists.

"Colain," I said, "please dismiss the slaves. I wish to speak privately with you. In fact, it seems imperative that we do so."

"Talk? By all the gods, that is outside of enough. Do you not know this is a wedding night? I can assure you, you were not bought for your conversation."

"Bought? I was not bought at all, and that is an insulting term. Our marriage was arranged long ago, by our fathers. It was a mutual agreement, owing nothing to price."

He looked at me, and even through the haze induced by the strong mead I could see the disdain in his eyes. "I might have known you would be unsophisticated as well as – shall we say simple? – in every other respect. It all depends, surely, on how one defines ‘price'? The arrangement was profitable enough on your mother's side, I think you will concede."

"I think," I told him, fighting to control anger that was rapidly growing, "that I brought enough with me in wealth and influence to allow me to expect a measure of respect."

"Aye." His tone was scathing and he ran his eyes over me, as one might regard an inferior-bred pony. "You have a fair idea of your own worth, have you not? But I tell you, you are only a woman like any other. If I beckon for you, you will come and if I tell you to sit, you will be silent and do so."

My anger – and dismay – was such that I was beginning to feel sick. And all this in front of the servants! I turned my eyes upon them and said one word, shortly. "Go."

One or two of them glanced at Colain, but when he made no sign they scattered with barely a sound, delving the draperies swinging behind them.

When they were gone, I walked over to the fire, seated myself, and stretched my hand out to the blaze. In truth, I was still struggling to master my emotions. I knew he was drunk, and that I was angry enough to speak words that might forever destroy our chance for a cooperative relationship. Dislike it as I may, I had to live with this man. Somehow, I had to learn to reason with him.

After a moment, when I was able, I said, "It is very clear you think little enough of this match. Let us be honest with one another. Are you opposed to me, in particular, or merely the marriage? Is there someone else?"

He drank deeply from the goblet before flashing that look of unutterable scorn at me again.

"You flatter yourself. Do you suppose it would require the existence of another woman to make me take exception to you? Since you demand honesty, I will tell you this: you have brought us some rights of sail and ten curragh loads of gold – the pledge of ten score warriors in times of trouble. Very well. But I shall one day be the greatest chief in Alba. I might have chosen any woman in the five kingdoms to bear my sons. Instead, what do I have foisted upon me? A rustic from Erin who holds herself in more regard than she deserves, and who looks like she'd be more at home grooming my ponies than gracing my dun! Oh, you have fire in your eye, no missing that. But it will be wasted on me. You belong on the field somewhere, with a sword in your hand, my fine warrioress – not here. I like my women a bit more gently bred. Where did you learn your mannish ways? From your mother, perhaps? There are tales enough about how she took the reins so eagerly from your dead father's barely cold hands."

I was on my feet without knowing how I got there. "I will hear none of your slanderous lies! My mother, at least, deserves your respect. She has worked courageously and selflessly to hold together what my father left behind. I could wish for nothing more than to be like her."

"She takes young boys into her bed, did you know that? And, rumor has it, young girls as well. But what can be expected from the leader of a pack of Erin heathens? The sooner the whole lot of them leave my shores, the better pleased I will be."

I have never been one to ponder much, before taking action. This time rage did the thinking for me. I was at him in an instant, sharp and hot as fire. My fingers left a red imprint on his face, where they struck.

But his retaliation was even more swift. I clearly saw the blaze of rage in his eyes when he drew his arm back. The first blow knocked me off my feet and the second and third were so hard my senses swam. It was a good thing, perhaps, that I was no delicate flower, unused to rough handling. Yet I still distinctly remember the feeling of injury I experienced then – I had never before been deliberately struck. My fingers went to the corner of my mouth and I remember being surprised to find blood starting there.

Viciously, he said, "Do not speak about your worthiness, to me. I have undertaken this arrangement only to please my father, and what you feel means nothing – nothing to me. If you try to act high and mighty, I will break you. And if you disobey, I will give you more than this taste of my discipline."

I sat, stunned, with my fingers to my lips, staring at him. I was not afraid – I have never feared much for myself, physically. But I knew in that moment, so quickly, any hope for my new life died. I had been sold, abandoned and forsaken. I belonged to a man who had less than no regard for me.

"Get up," he ordered. "Do not lie there staring at me like a half wit." He sloshed another generous portion of mead into his cup and drank it straight down. "Let us get on with the night's work." He paused and looked at me, before tossing the goblet aside. "I hope you inte

Laura Strickland has been writing for nearly forty years and is never happier than when introducing readers to the Celtic world her characters inhabit. Her interests encompass Irish, Scottish, Welsh and Breton music, lore and legend, and she is a student of pre-Christian religion. Currently, she lives with her family in Western New York.x


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