Scent of the Soul

ScentOfTheSoulSmallScientists tell us that of all our senses, scent is most closely linked with memory. For this reason, certain scents remind us of people and places from our past. Take, for example, a musty basement. This scent always sends me “home” to the house I grew up in (built around an 1800’s era log cabin). Pumpkin pie reminds me of my grandmother. Cigarette smoke? My dad.

You get the idea.

But what if you encounter a scent that wakes a memory from a past life?

That’s exactly what happens to Breagha, a torc-wearing slave in SCENT OF THE SOUL. Brought as a captive before Somerled, 12th c. King of Argyll, she recognizes his intoxicating scent somehow, an impossibility, since she’s never met him before.

Somerled, who has just proposed marriage to the Manx princess, shares Breagha’s intense attraction, but he resists his feelings for her. She offers no political gain, and he won’t have a mistress making demands on him while he’s negotiating a marriage his people need. Besides, Breagha belongs to a rival king, one whose fresh alliance Somerled can’t afford to lose.

It’s when Breagha vanishes that Somerled realizes just how much he needs her. He abandons his marriage plans to search for her, unprepared for the evil lurking in the shadowy recesses of Ireland—a lustful demon who will stop at nothing to keep Breagha for himself.

Please enjoy Chapter One below:

As Godred’s oarsmen shoved off from the jetty, Somerled wondered if there was any man less suitable to deliver a marriage proposal. Godred of Dublin was coarse, marginally Christian—indeed, marginally sane—and easily riled. Nevertheless, King Olaf liked him, and for that reason alone, Somerled had selected him as his envoy.

“No side trips,” Somerled shouted before Godred was too far away to hear. “Ye have three places to go and that’s it: the Isle of Man, your clan, and back here.” Godred was prone to unscheduled detours.

Unless bad weather or the scent of easy plunder pulled Godred and his thirty oarsmen off course, Somerled would have Olaf’s answer in a few days. If Olaf agreed to the marriage, Somerled would add a wife to the items decorating his new castle at Finlaggan and eventually, the Isle of Man to his expanding area of influence.

The nobles would respect him then. Half-breed or not.

Behind him, a door squealed on one of the two guardhouses standing sentinel over the Sound of Islay. The small building spat out Hakon, his chief guard, another man of Dublin birth and temperament. Hakon strode the length of the jetty to join him. “I have every confidence the Norns will weave Godred a successful journey, my lord king,” he said, his words puffing white clouds above his tawny sheepskin cape.

“If your goddesses have woven anything, it’s an unfortunate headwind,” Somerled said. “Godred is forced to tack.” He closed his cloak and secured it at his throat with a brooch he once plucked from a Viking who no longer needed it. “The wind promises hail. My proposal will be delayed.”

“Aye, likely,” Hakon said, his hair and beard whipping into copper clouds, “but it will hasten Olaf’s reply. Do not despair, my lord. Ragnhilde will marry ye soon enough.”

Despair? Somerled stifled a laugh. Did Hakon think he had feelings for a lassie he had never met? He was about to tease his guard about being a romantic when Hakon stiffened.

“Another ship,” Hakon said, looking past Somerled’s shoulder.

Somerled spun around to inspect the northwestern waters of the channel separating Jura and Islay—the jewel of the Hebrides and the island that served as the seat of his burgeoning kingdom. “Where?” he asked, squinting.

Hakon thrust a finger toward the fog bank blanketing the horizon. “There, at the promontory, in that pale blue strip of water. See it?”

At first, Somerled saw nothing but swooping terns and ranks of swells. Then, an unadorned sail appeared. It crested on a wave, dipped low, and vanished.

“Should I sound the horn?” Hakon asked.

Somerled raked his fingers through the coarse, wheaten mess slapping at his eyes and held it at his nape while he considered his response. Behind them, the signal tower on Ben Vicar was smoke-free. Across the sound, the towers on the frosty Paps of Jura were likewise unlit, although clouds partially obscured their peaks. The Paps had a commanding view. If a signal fire blazed anywhere, the men stationed there would have seen it and lit their own.

“My lord king, should I sound the horn?” Hakon impatiently palmed the battle horn dangling at his broad chest.

Men began to gather on the jetty.

“Let us wait. It is only one ship, and it looks to be a trader. The signal fires would blaze by now if it were someone worthy of our concern.” Somerled glanced back at the mud and thatch cottages shouldering against one another. At their doors, the bows of half his impressive fleet rested on the shoreline, a sandy slip extending well into the distance. The rest of his ships sheltered at the far side of Islay, in Loch Indaal. A signal fire would deploy them quickly and, perhaps, needlessly.

“Alert the village. Have Cormac ready Dragon’s Claw,” he said, “but send only the nyvaigs for now.” The nyvaigs were smaller, but no less deadly. They would be out and back quickly.

Hakon sprinted through the gathering crowd and past the guardhouses. He leapt over a pile of rocks with surprising agility for a man of his years and size. In no time, specialized warriors and oarsmen were boarding the boats. A pony thundered inland, its rider instructed to warn, not panic, the people of Finlaggan.

Though Somerled carried his mighty sword, he had dressed for warmth, not battle. His mail shirt, aketon, and helmet hung in his bedchamber, two miles away in Finlaggan. He singled out a boy in the crowd. “Lad, find me a helmet and a shield, and be quick about it.”

The boy shot like an arrow toward the cottages.

Somerled held his breath as he watched the nyvaigs head out. At the first flash of steel, he would blow the battle horn. His men would light the towers and he would board Dragon’s Claw. The foreigner would be sorry he entered the Sound of Islay.

The ship’s features were barely discernible, but he could see that its high prow lacked a figurehead. He was trying to identify the banner fluttering on its masthead when the ship’s sail dropped and scattered gulls like chaff in the wind. His heart hammered against his chest as he waited for the foreign vessel to sprout oars; it didn’t. It stalled—a sign its crew had dropped anchor.

Dragon’s Claw bobbed next to him at the jetty, her top rail lined with colorful shields and her benches holding sixty-four of his savage warriors. Cormac gripped the tiller, but he would move aside when Somerled barked the order to do so. He would serve as his own shipmaster in the face of an enemy.

Low and curvy with a dragon’s head exhaling oaken flames from her prow, Dragon’s Claw was his favorite vessel, not because she was new or particularly seaworthy, but because he had wrenched her from the last Viking to leave his father’s lands.

The memory of that battle warmed him and occupied his thoughts while the nyvaigs swarmed around the foreigner. Then, they swung about, furled their sails, and rowed for home like many-legged insects skittering on the water’s surface.

When the boats reached the beach, Hakon jumped from his nyvaig and jogged through ankle-deep water, apparently too impatient to wait for his men to haul the vessel’s keel onto the sand. “Well, my lord king,” he said, “it seems to be the day for marriage proposals. It is an envoy from Moray, who comes at the behest of Malcolm. He asks to speak with ye regarding Bethoc.”

“Malcolm MacHeth . . . the Malcolm MacHeth . . . wants my sister?”

He had met Malcolm MacHeth only once, at King David’s court, on a night spoiled by ill-bred lassies who had mocked his foreign garb and speech. Malcolm, a bastard nephew of the Scots king, had observed his humiliation and pretended not to notice.

Yet here was Malcolm of Moray, a claimant to the Scottish throne and a known rebel, seeking Bethoc’s hand in marriage. Tainted bloodline or not, Somerled was apparently worthy of notice now.

# # #

Somerled wished, as he led Bethoc past the guardhouses and onto the jetty, that Malcolm had not sent boarskins. Stacks and stacks of the musky things . . . and equally pungent men to offload them. The skins had endured a wet journey to Islay. Now as they steamed in heaps on the jetty, their greasy odor proved overpowering.

Somerled was helping his sister up the gangplank to Malcolm’s galley—and wondering if there was a boar left alive in Moray—when Bethoc turned to him and whispered, “Brother, if my betrothed greets me wearing boarskin, or looks anything like his men, I pray I am widowed quickly.” She smiled, but it added no radiance to her eyes.

He patted her hand, which was like ice on his forearm. Bethoc had no cause for concern. Malcolm of Moray was handsome enough. She might even grow to love him, whatever good that would do her.

A lump choked off his airway as Bethoc glided away, her handmaid sobbing on the sea chest beside her. Five of Argyll’s longships followed. Cormac would see to Bethoc’s comfort and return in a few days.

“That’s Bethoc away,” Hakon said, as the beats of the rowing gongs faded.

“And Moray added to our territory,” Somerled replied, swallowing hard. “She has always been a good lassie. Never complained, not even during our exile.”

“Malcolm will treat her well, I think,” Hakon said.

“He’d better,” Somerled replied, “or Cormac will hand him his own guts.”

They watched in silence until Malcolm’s galley disappeared behind Jura’s southwestern bluff. It struck Somerled that the best thing he could do for Bethoc—for all of Argyll and the Isles—was to move forward with his plans. Succumbing to emotion weakened a man. He could not—would not—allow it.

“There will be no shortage of good news to share at the clan gathering,” he said. “By now, Godred should have seen Olaf. It will be good if he returns before the rest of the clans arrive.”

“It will be good if he returns at all,” Hakon said, fingering the Thor’s Hammer amulet that always hung at his throat. “He is already a day late.”

# # #

The nobles gathered for the first meeting since returning from exile. All, that is, except Godred, who was now three days late.

Furious, Somerled stood at the end of the corridor, just short of the feasting hall. Beyond him, the hall was thick with men and torch smoke. His nobles, chieftains of the ancient Gaelic clans—like his father—were dressed in their finest plaids or tunics, gliding like eiders from one group to another. The harps and flutes prevented him from overhearing their hushed conversations, but he could guess the common topic: Dublin was late.

Of all clans, Dublin.

It was unfair that Godred’s clan remained cinched to that placename, for the boorish chieftain had severed ties with the Dublin Norse years ago. His lot had lived itinerantly under Somerled’s protection ever since, supplying conscienceless warriors and plunder in return. Somerled had always intended to offer the clan—his mother’s—an island of their own.

He waited a respectable amount of time for the buzzards to pick the gossip carcass clean before squaring his shoulders and entering the room.

“The King of Argyll!” someone shouted.

“King Somerled!” the rest acknowledged him, lifting flagons and tankards above their heads.

He nodded and charged to the head of the stone table dominating the feasting hall, where his seat awaited him, facing the door according to Gaelic custom. His position there had the unfortunate consequence of raising and dashing his hope each time someone entered the hall.

The nobles gathered around the table. Servants appeared with platters of food. A wide woman served Somerled a roasted mutton joint, and just as he sank his knife into it, MacGillivray whispered to MacEachern, “Did ye notice that Dublin is late?”

Whispers rippled down both sides of the table—rhythmically, like a rowing song—“Dublin’s late . . . Aye, Dublin’s late . . . Aye, Dublin’s late,” until it reached the far end, where MacIan muttered, “Pagan bastards, the lot.”

A bite of mutton halted mid-way to Somerled’s mouth.

His simmering frustration boiled over, kicking his heart into a gallop. The vein on his forehead was likely bulging—his “angry vein,” Bethoc always called it, visible only in times of extreme agitation.

Men put down their eating knives and stared at their plates. Servants abandoned their tasks and scurried out of the hall. Only the harpists continued their business, although they peeked around their instruments, evidently wondering why the room had quieted.

Somerled locked his eyes on MacIan. He pushed his chair away from the table and stood with his hand still clenching his eating knife. It shed its mutton with a light thud.

MacIan, apparently unaware of his offense, busied himself with a bowl of steamed mussels. A spoonful of the shellfish clattered onto his plate, conspicuously loud. “Could someone pass me the . . .” He looked up and appeared to notice the nobles first, then Somerled. He half-smiled, then deflated like punched bread dough.

“Perhaps,” Somerled said through clenched teeth, “ye would care to explain yourself, MacIan.”

“I . . .” MacIan turned the color of a waterlogged corpse. His eyes darted from man to man, but the other nobles sat with bowed heads, as if whatever rested on their plates was of paramount importance.

Somerled leaned over the table. Its edge pressed into his thighs. “Perhaps,” he said, narrowing his eyes, “ye forget who restored ye to your rightful lands. The men of Dublin found ye cowering in a cave on Loch Aline, did they not? While the Vikings enjoyed your women and ate your cattle?” He allowed his words to penetrate. “Ye may also forget that the one who directed them—the one who now protects ye and feeds ye mussels by the barrelful—is, in fact, only half Gael!”

MacIan hung his head. “My lord king, I beg your—”

It was Ivar Flathead—of Dublin—who spared MacIan further abuse by flinging the door open. “Signal fire’s lit!”

The harpists’ final plucks were sour and extinguished by the squeals of swords. Somerled’s warriors poured through doorways like floodwaters. Chairs grated on the floor or tipped over as the nobles rushed to the hearth, looking dazed and panicked and seeking their guards.

MacEachern said, “It is Olaf, come to reclaim what is rightfully his. We will die here.”

“No one’s reclaiming anything. Olaf benefits by our presence on Islay.”

“But my lord, to build a castle on another king’s island . . . surely, ye must see how that might be seen as a bold move that canny be ignored. Perhaps your proposal was the final insult to his—”

“Enough!” He was tired of MacEachern nipping at him like one of the dogs on the common. “Take the others, go to the second floor, and wait.”

“Up your arse,” someone whispered in his ear as the nobles whirled away. Maguire—Somerled’s Irish cousin and the only man allowed such insolence—flashed a perfect grin, framed by a black mustache and beard.

“Come on then,” Somerled said. They rushed to a chamber, where servants helped both men don their mail and aketons. Somerled buckled his sword belt and lifted his helmet and shield from their pegs. “Let’s go.”

They joined the flow of warriors exiting the castle into a night gone crimson. Fire cast its eerie glow on everything—the skyline, the ripples on the loch, the glints in their eyes and on their weapons and helmets. Even the stones of the castle blushed an angry red.

“Bar the door,” Somerled ordered.

A servant closed the great oak door. A crossbar clanged behind it.

Drunken warriors knelt and dipped into Loch Finlaggan to splash their faces. Men paced along Eilean Mor’s shoreline, fuming that they had to wait their turn to cross the bottlenecked causeway leading to Finlaggan, on mainland Islay. Somewhere, Hakon’s battle horn blared. The Hebridean Sea would soon be prickly with masts. Whoever had the balls to punch Somerled’s beehive would shortly feel his sting.

“Where is that ginger bastard?” Maguire asked, a crimson sheen dancing on his sleek hair.

“He’s coming,” Somerled said, nodding at the shadow gliding toward them.

They waded into the loch and swung aboard Hakon’s skin-covered curragh without waiting for it to stop. Two oarsmen resumed their rowing, and the boat’s bow lifted in response, nearly tumbling Somerled and Maguire overboard. They sunk to their knees in the hull.

“Ginger bastard,” Maguire muttered, rubbing his hip.

Hakon scowled, his expression made fiercer by firelight.

“What has happened?” Somerled asked, fearing the worst, a Viking attack or an invasion by Paul Haakonsson, Jarl of Orkney.

Hakon’s beard plaits bounced on his chin as he answered. “It is Dublin, my lord.”

What had Godred done?

“Godred’s ship has returned,” Hakon said, “hacked up. We are towing it in now. With Odin’s blessing, it may make it to the jetty without keeling over. I thought it best to light the fires and send out the fleet.”

Maguire crossed himself.

“The ship lists badly,” Hakon said. “There is but one man left.”

Somerled slammed his shield against the ribs of the curragh, too furious to care that he might pierce the fragile skin covering them.

Hakon answered his next question before he could ask it. “The man is not Godred.”

Somerled fumed. “Does another ship follow?”

“No.”

Olaf had returned the crippled ship as his answer. There was no other possibility. Had Somerled’s proposal somehow offended the King of Man? There were better ways to decline a betrothal. He would sail Dragon’s Claw straight up Olaf’s arse for this. “Row!” he shouted to the oarsmen. To Hakon, he asked, “Has Dragon’s Claw sailed?”

“No, and it pains Cormac to wait, my lord,” Hakon said. “The rest are surely in open waters by now.”

“Wait he will,” Somerled said, “until I am good and ready.”

The curragh hissed onshore among a swarm of others. Men splashed out of the boats, joining the clans organizing in front of Finlaggan’s cottages. Some were already sprinting through the village, heading for the main road with their round shields strapped to their backs, anxious to cross the two miles separating them from their ships.

“Where are the women and children?” Somerled asked, seeing only men.

“The chapel, and in the hills with the archers.” Other than Somerled’s castle on Eilean Mor and the meeting hall on Council Island, the chapel was the only stone building in Finlaggan.

“My men—where are they?” Maguire asked.

“They could not wait, as your ship was blocking the others.”

“Arseholes,” Maguire muttered.

“Ye’ll sail with me in Dragon’s Claw,” Somerled said. “First, I want a look around from Ben Vicar.”

The few thick-necked ponies remaining in the paddock were wild with panic. Somerled handed Maguire the reins of a shaggy mare while a groom bridled another. They mounted and galloped through the village and onto the main road, passing a jogging group of Highlanders, identifiable by their plaids. They turned at the common grazing lands, bolted a flock of sheep, and urged their mares up a rocky incline. The smoke from burning ash stung Somerled’s eyes as they neared Ben Vicar’s summit.

Maguire’s mare reared and tossed her head. He cursed her and maintained balance until she calmed. A quick slap on her rump sent her lunging through the acrid smoke. “Remind me to send ye a real horse as Fermanagh’s next tribute,” he said. “How ye can tolerate these stumpy things is beyond me.”

Somerled ignored him and dismounted his mare. He flicked the reins over her head and trotted beside her toward a sentinel. The fire was hot, and the mare refused to go farther. She reared, and Somerled fumed. He was in too big a hurry to deal with her, and he dropped the reins and jogged the rest of the way without her. By the time he reached the sentinel, he was gasping. “Where . . . is . . . it?” he asked, waving at falling sparks.

The sentinel coughed and pointed toward Finlaggan. “I saw the two towers near the village go up an’ lit my own. When the Paps lit up, I saw her. She was leanin’ pretty good, sail flappin’. The nyvaigs swarmed ‘round her. Next thing I know, men are runnin’ like their arses are on fire. Towers in the east an’ west went up after that.”

Hakon had covered the sound with ships. The southern fleet was surely out of Loch Indaal and onto the sea by now. On the water below, only two vessels were inbound, one of them leaning hard to port and rocking perilously on the choppy water. He could see no enemy ships.

Maguire sidled up to him, rubbing at watery eyes. “Jaysus, the smoke. Anything other than the one ship?”

“No,” the sentinel replied, “but if there’s anythin’ out there, they’re not gettin’ away. By now, the fires are lit from Argyll to Ireland.”

Somerled inspected the coastline in all directions and saw that the sentinel was right. The sky glowed red in all directions. “Let it die down,” he said, “and begin work on a replacement at first light.” To Maguire, he said, “Let’s go back down. They’re nearly at the jetty.”

The ponies were more than willing to descend the fiery hill quickly. Somerled pulled his mare’s head toward the jetty and jabbed his heels into her flanks, mentally preparing himself for what was likely to be a gruesome sight. The wounded Dublin ship would be in by now. Hacked to bits, Hakon had said.

He hoped the surviving oarsman lived long enough to say Olaf’s name.

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