Preparations over, one evening we were escorted from our quarters and taken to the audience chamber. The room was busy with the court, all the resident wives and many of the Laird’s adult children among the buzzing throng. Voices hushed momentarily as we were settled in place. And then, suddenly, there he was – the Lion of Alba.
Failbhe was a strong man, his flowing grey mane home to many wife braids, all of them with child beads. Whatever the girls had thought at seeing me I could imagine that there was some frantic re-calculation going on when they realised the difference between a slim young buck and this thick-set middle aged man. Even though I was committed to giving myself to the man should I get the opportunity I still had a moment of doubt when I saw him nod a greeting up to the svelte Chamberlain’s aide.
What to make of this man? Fourth son of the previous Laird he hadn’t been expected to succeed his father. That he had survived his father while his older brothers hadn’t had taught him a lesson about ensuring the survival of the line and the importance of maintaining power. The arrival of Eilionoir after passions waned for his first wife marked the change from wastrel to something altogether more focussed. Their union, however, produced only daughters and it had not been long before she encouraged him to start on his quest for other wives and heirs. Now she stood at his side, still tall and graceful, her long golden hair having turned white by degrees, she remained his most senior wife despite the passage of time and the vagaries of his affections.
We stood in two rows, all of us cloaked and hooded, all of us nervous to finally be in the presence of the man who would decide our futures. There was no way he hadn’t noticed me, at least half a head taller than the women, but he made no outward comment and observed the form of the audience. In a voice made nervous from fear of what might come next the Chamberlain gave the order and fifteen identical robes fell to the floor. I’ll confess, there was a part of me that enjoyed the intake of breath as the court finally saw fourteen young women wearing very little made up of silk and lace, and me in my cingulum skirt and long vambraces – all black leather and steel buckles, hints of forbidden flesh visible between the loose vertical straps making up the body of the skirt.
Strange that, how no one said anything. In the tense air I could almost feel the pressure of eyes flicking from Failbhe to me and back again. My own gaze I tried to keep fixed a short distance ahead of my bare feet. We had been instructed not to look at the Laird unless spoken to. Apart from the reflex glance as he was announced to the room, we were all either cowed or self-controlled enough to keep to our instructions. A laugh finally broke the tension – a deep, rumbling sound – and the room breathed again. The Lion of Alba apparently appreciated some humour in the gift of the virgin from World’s End.
The frisson of fear and excitement focussed again in our little group as Failbhe inspected his prospective brides. He spoke to a few girls – low murmurs of conversation lost against the background chatter as the room relaxed – I was aware of his presence moving past me but he did not speak to me and I did not look up at him. Only after he had returned to his dais did I feel myself relax before another wave of apprehension hit, would Moshen be allowed to ask for me?
Maybe he was in a perverse mood to upset the court, to annoy his Chamberlain, or the wives who wanted to control him. Maybe he was just bored with the restrictions of everything that was expected of him. Whatever the reason, the next thing I heard was his clear command to take the boy. The Laird was in the mood for some sport he said, a wife could be picked later. For that night he would use the rare creature that had come from the wilds.
I was led from the room in silence, taken to a suite of rooms and guarded by two distinctly unimpressed brutes until a woman came to prepare me for the night ahead. Something in her eyes and the dark cast of her skin was familiar but I was too wrapped up in myself to continue with the thought. Her manner efficient, she repeated the instructions Moshen had first given me – what the Laird wanted the Laird would have, submit to him and I should make it through the night. After ordering the guards from the room her manner and tone softened. Gently she offered me something the make the night’s experience easier. I had to refuse her suggestion. I’d gone into this willingly I would see it through with a clear mind. She flashed a grim smile – I hoped it was of approval – and wished me luck, leaving me nervously pacing the room.
Time stretched. I began to think that maybe I had overestimated myself in rejecting the offer of narcotics.
Angry voices approached in the corridor, expressions of disapproval at Failbhe’s choice of companion, the damage caused by doing such a thing in so public a manner. The voices boomed and were cut off abruptly as the door opened and was slammed in their faces. I knelt before my lord, waves of anger rolling off him, a tempest of violence pent up and needing an outlet. Braced for an attack I risked a look up into his glowering face.
For all the speculation and calculations up to that point there was no conscious decision as I gazed at him. Need came unbidden, as if hard-wired from my core. Submission to the stronger man was just the way I was. And the storm broke. And it was brutal. And yes, I enjoyed it.