I shall be out of touch for a while. I am off to enjoy myself for a week or two, so I thought it only fair to give you something to read while I was away. This is an extract from my first book The Banners of Alba.
The torn remains of Finlay’s fine linen shirt stuck damply to his ribs and shoulders and his black hair hung over his eyes and stuck to his cheek. “Now,” he said in a voice that showed no amusement at all, “where is Thorfinn’s sister?”
The watching men sighed, relaxed and reached for their abandoned ale mugs. Moddan shook his head, sweat rolling down his temples. Finlay pulled his dagger from his belt and tilted the shining blade against the jumping artery at Moddan’s throat. The golden skin twitched at the touch of cold metal and the blue eyes rolled sideways.
“Do you think it matters at all…to me…whether you live or die?” Finlay’s voice was light and neutral between hurried snatches of air. Moddan’s lip curled back from his teeth. “We are at war.” Finlay continued. “To kill you now would save me time. I know your plans.It is in my mind to stop you reaching Thurso.”
Moddan’s eyes rolled back in an effort to see what was going on around him as the relentless voice continued. “The only way you can buy your freedom is…tell me what I want to know.”
Ross, forgotten in the crowd, was perhaps the only person who realized what Finlay suggested. He opened his mouth, and was distracted by someone who tugged at his sleeve. He twitched his arm aside, but when the hand persisted, turned and glared into a pair of mocking silver eyes he knew very well indeed. “Hareth!” His eyes went back to the crouched figures in the centre of the crowd.“How long have you been here?”
Hareth was watching them, too. “Long enough to see and enjoy most of it. Finlay’s lost none of his style, has he?” There was something close to nostalgia in Hareth’s voice. “Only a day,” he added. “Got in yesterday.”
A faint line of blood threaded the knife blade where Moddan’s skin chafed against the impatient steel. Hareth sang out happily,“Kill him, Finlay. Whether he tells you or not is unimportant.”
Two heads, one dark and one fair, turned in response, and the thread of blood lengthened on Moddan’s throat. Ross cried out a warning just as Moddan heaved, careless of the dagger, and wrenched himself out of Finlay’s slackened grasp. Before anyone could stop him, Moddan seized a burning brand from the hearth and punched it into Finlay’s face.
Swift reflexes carried Finlay away, rolling and coiling from the flames and the shower of sparks. Moddan leapt round, kicked blazing peats across the hearth into the corners of the room, then whirled for the door, pausing just long enough to hurl the still blazing brand high under the rafters. Every eye in the Hall followed the trail of sparks and flame into the roof shadows and saw the torch lodge in a crossbeam. As they watched, a thread of light quested out into the thatch far above their heads.
Such was their fear of fire that they let him go. They scrabbled desperately through a fog of sparks and smoke to retrieve the smouldering peats. Someone ran for a thatcher’s ladder to retrieve the torch before the roof caught alight and others grabbed leather and wooden buckets and filled them with water.
Ross and Hareth knelt by Finlay. His face was buried in his hands, and his shirt was a mass of small smouldering burns and ragged tears, with glimpses of reddened flesh beneath. Ross put a gentle hand on the younger man’s shoulder, and hesitated.
The dirty hands moved, and within their protection, the lids lifted the merest slit, and then a little wider. Ross held his breath.
Finlay’s brows were undoubtedly singed. The lashes, blunt and shorter than they had been, ringed reddened, watering eyes that gazed back at him. Finlay sat up and tugged free the clean tail of his tunic to pat his face. “I must smell like roast pork. I wondered where you were,” he said to Hareth. “What is unimportant about the place he has hidden my wife?”
Ross cut in. “You can see? Your eyes are undamaged?”
Finlay nodded, and Hareth smiled. “You smell far worse than roast pork ever did!” He sobered and added, “I am here on an embassy from King Duncan to Thorfinn and your wife is safe within my care. You should have slit his throat.”
Finlay stopped dabbing at his watering eyes, and waited, the cloth bunched in his long fingers, his gaze fixed on Hareth. “Well, go on,” he said. “Don’t stop there.”