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Northumbrian kingdom of Galstead in the year of our Lord 657
Alric of Galstead drove his noble steed toward the gates of the fortress where his mother lay upon her deathbed. The horse snorted, tossing its head and sending foam splattering back. It was lathered and weary. Much as he’d like to, Alric could offer no reprieve from the hard ride that had begun the moment his ship had put into port and he’d found the dread news awaiting him.
He had to get there. He had to speak to his mother one last time, to let her know how much she meant to him before…
Alric shuddered, reluctant to even think of the world, much less his life, without Orlaith. His mother was like the sun, nourishing to the body, heart, and soul—a peaceful refuge from the darkness of a daily existence riddled by treachery and war. Only with her did Alric feel truly at ease. It was unfair that she be taken so soon.
Unfair! Unfair! Each pound of his heart screamed in protest. Surely it would shatter before he reached his destination.
Nightfall edged out the sun on the horizon behind him as Alric cleared the city gates at a full gallop. The sentries hailed their young prince, but he paid them no heed, racing by the cluster of A-framed dwellings toward the one that loomed over their roofs ahead: his father’s royal hall. Yet it was not to this hall that Alric headed after handing his panting, sweat-soaked horse to a servant, but a small cottage near it.
The cottage was no guest house, as were the others nearby. It had been built for its beloved occupant many years ago, after the birth of the king’s son. Even though Orlaith was King Lambert’s slave, she was no ordinary servant. She’d been a princess of the Dalraidi Scots to the north, captured by their Northumbrian enemies and purchased by Lambert the moment the Saxon king laid eyes upon her. His love for Orlaith was no secret—not to his queen Ethlinda, nor to the people. Some thought the king’s eyes shone a little brighter for Alric, the Christian slave’s son, than for his elder half brother, Ricbert, the legitimate heir to Galstead.
Bracing himself with a deep breath, Alric approached his failing mother’s side. The fever that ravaged Orlaith’s body bled her face of color even as it bled her body of strength. She was as white as the fine linens on which she lay. Her eyelids fluttered and opened, as if she sensed his presence.
“Alric.” His mother tried to raise her hand to him, but weakness would not allow it.
Her golden hair was only beginning to silver. Surely this can’t be happening. Alric gathered the slender hand in his own. “Mother, I came as soon as we put in.”
Orlaith drew in a shallow breath through her nostrils. “You smell of the sea. I believe it has bewitched you.”
“It has. But you should rest. Save your strength.”
“God will give the strength I need to say what I must.” She turned to Abina, who’d been her handmaid at the time of their capture. Lambert bought Abina for his lovely royal captive, but the two were more like soul mates than mistress and servant. “Leave us, dear friend.”
Tears bright in her eyes, Abina gave her mistress a kiss on the forehead and rose to leave. “She’s held on for you, Son,” the stooped servant mouthed to Alric, her words less than a whisper.
He nodded. The woman still acted like his nursemaid, though he was man now in his twenties.
“Abina has a slight limp,” he said as he watched her leave.
The surprise in his voice caused Orlaith’s lips to twitch. “None of us are as we were.”
And he was away so much, he’d not noticed. His mother didn’t say it, but Alric knew the truth hovered at the edge of her mind…and his.
“Seeking my fortune has blinded me to the changes,” he admitted. “But I don’t want a share of Ricbert’s birthright.”
Lambert had told Alric to establish an estate on the seacoast, which he knew Alric loved. But that was a part of the kingdom the elder legitimate son would inherit and so, while it was a generous offer, Alric graciously refused. He determined to seek his own fortune, than either win or purchase the land. His son would have a legitimate birthright. No child of his would know the ridicule and contempt Alric had suffered.
The very thought of it tasted of bile in his mouth.
“Your birthright lies beyond the sea, my son. God has shown it to me.”
Alric held back his response, not wishing to upset her. Her Christian God had allowed her to be taken from the royal womb of her home in the north. Pampered and loved as she’d been, she was still Lambert’s property.
“It is not here in Galstead,” she went on, then shook her head wearily, the limp strands of her perspiration-darkened hair falling away from her ashen face.
Alric needed no holy vision to know that. By law, his birthright would not be among his father’s people any more than it was among his mother’s Dalraidi kin. No, the only way he’d have a Celtic kingdom was to take it by force.
Once King Oswald, bretwalda of Northumbria, chose the Christian faith for himself and all his subkingdoms, the newly baptized Lambert finally succumbed to Orlaith's pleas that she and her son would visit her family and see that Alric was properly educated according to his noble bloodlines. It was not unheard of for Saxon princes to seek a universally esteemed Irish education. While Lambert's belief in Oswald's new Christian God was not that strong, his faith in Orlaith's promise to return to him was.
Orlaith’s family had received the returned princess and her son as Celtic hospitality demanded, but Alric and his mother were treated worse there than among the Saxon heathens. Alric’s sword arm grew stronger defending his mother’s honor than it had in practice. Soon his Celtic cousins dared not challenge him. He’d worked just as hard to surpass them in academic study, until his wit was as keen as his blade—
“You are a prince, my son, and your true kingdom will be won by faith, not by the sword.”
“Ah, the kingdom of heaven.” Alric tried to suppress the bitterness with which he usually responded to his mother’s sermons. For her sake, he hoped she would inherit that kingdom when her last breath was spent…unless her God rejected her the same way her family had. She deserved a place of honor for all she’d suffered. Although, even the cold grave was a relief from the broken heart he believed had sapped away his mother’s health and given this fever its lethal teeth.
And it was her own people—Christians, no less—who’d broken her heart.
“But God also revealed to me your earthly kingdom.”
His mother’s hold on Alric’s hand slackened, but the light that shone in her eyes would have shamed the sun. Or was it fever? Still, the mention of an earthly kingdom reached through his drowning ocean of anger and grief and pricked his curiosity.
“Its colors are the royal blue of a sky lighted by the moon and its full consort of stars.” She licked her dry, cracked lips to no avail. Death was drawing breath and water from her body by the moment. “And the gold of your hair.” She’d always marveled at his warrior’s mane with motherly pride.
With a pang of guilt, he leaned closer that she might touch his hair once more as she had so oft in his life. He could give her that, even if words of comfort eluded him. Anguish had cut them from his tongue, holding him hostage. His mother was the only truly good thing he knew in this life. Her only ambition was to love.
“And the symbol on the cloak I made for you. You will know it by that.”
“Enough of kingdoms, Mother. Save your strength.”
What did kingdoms or birthrights matter without her? Alric held her hand so that she could finger one of the natural curls that gave her such pleasure. She straightened it and let it go, smiling as it sprang back into shape.
"My muirnait," she sighed.
Beloved. She hadn’t called him that since he was a weanling.
“Always,” he assured her softly. It felt as if stones enough to build a wall round his father’s kingdom had been laid upon his chest. There was so much he wanted to thank her for, so much love he needed to declare, but never had he known the right words to do so. The one thing he believed in could not be measured. But nothing could hurt so much and not be real.
“And your earthly kingdom, Son, will be won by love.”
Not this love. It was reserved only for his mother. Then there was the poet’s game to be played upon the fairer sex, or the mutual respect he and his father held for each other…but the love his mother spoke of—
“I’ve seen her.”
Alric’s furtive musings stumbled. This was something different from Orlaith’s Scripture-based prophecy, which was vague now and certain only after death.
“Her namesake is sorrow, yet she will bring you great joy. Her chatter will be like birdsong to your heart.”
He cleared his throat. “Have you a name?” Why he asked, he didn’t know. Certainly he didn’t believe these feverish mumblings.
Whether she did or didn’t, Orlaith closed her eyes and took a deep, shaky breath. In a whisper, it escaped her lips. “God be with you, muirnait, until we meet again.” Her chest dropped, ever so slowly, as if death’s unseen hands pushed the last remnant of air from her body. The hand in Alric’s grew limp.
His mother was gone and with her, the only real love he’d ever known.
Desperate to hold on to her warmth until death took that away from him as well, Alric pressed his mother's hand to his cheek. The blades of anguish and anger that held his tears at bay, shredded the words he spoke into it: "This I vow to your memory, Maîthar, that I will not repeat the crime my father committed against you. She who bears my son will be my lawful wife."
Seventh century, beyond the coastal waters of Erin
Less than a day from Wicklow's shore, the Irish merchant ship Mell shuddered beneath Deirdre's feet. The wind caught the leather riggings and clapped overhead, like gulls' wings at the lofty promise of freedom. Excitement infected the young princess of Gleannmara with a wild longing to shed the trappings of her disciplined albeit privileged station. Oh, to fly before the wind—at least in spirit! Yet all that expressed that abandon were the flaxen tendrils of her hair, waving bannerlike away from the regal set of her oval face and squared shoulders.
The fine woven material of her dress billowed about her as she let go of its folds and gripped the ship’s rail, lest fantasy become reality. She could not allow that to happen. She was the princess of Gleannmara, and she was on a mission on behalf of her ill father—a grievous task that pricked at her pride and faith. The thought of it struck like a rain cloud, dousing the whimsy in her heart with the dark flood of memories…
Deirdre had been at academically reknowned Clonnard, devouring her studies in her private quest to someday become a teacher, when a grim messenger rode through the gates demanding an audience with her. She feared her stepmother had found yet another suitor in her quest to marry Deirdre off. Though she had made it plain to both her father, King Fergal of Gleannmara, and to his second wife, Dealla, that she’d choose her own life mate in her own time, her stepmother was resolute.
Bracing against a shudder of anxiety, Deirdre thinned her lips—lips that her last admirer had likened to the color of a rose. Would that another prospective husband had been the news the man brought to them.
“Would you like me to fetch your cloak, milady?”
Deirdre turned to Orna, her attendant, and shook her head. “Nay, leave it in the chest.” She took a deep breath. “This sea air is blood stirring.”
“More like bone chilling, to my notion.”
Three years Deirdre’s junior and clearly not of the same mind, Orna drew her own cloak closer, shivering enough for the two of them.
“Then take cover amidship.” Deirdre nodded to where a makeshift tent had been constructed for their passage.
Orna shrugged. “No, I’ll stand for a while. I get queasy if I remain inside over long. ’Tis what I deserve for agreeing to sail on a ship named for lightning.” She broke into a smile, the freckles she tried futilely to rid herself of fading of their own accord.
“It was also the name of the mother of seven saints,” Deirdre reminded her gently, considering it aptly named for both excitement and piety. “To think, it was from the sea that God brought forth the first living creatures. Did you ever wonder why He chose the sea first rather than the land?”
“Far be it from me to question our creator, milady. The motives of men are confounding enough.” Orna gave a sniff of pure disdain.
The girl had received her education at Dromin, which was enough to serve her well, given her sole purpose in life was to marry well and breed children. Her latest prospect, Dromin’s heir, had failed to show at their early morning departure, and the maid was miffed.
“I suppose.” Subjects of this meat were best shared with scholars of the church, though they were no less exasperated at Deirdre’s curious inquiries. It wasn’t as if she were challenging God’s choice—the usual assumption when they had no answer. She merely wondered about the why of it.
“Perhaps it’s better to ask the good Lord why the heathen Saxons invaded our shores and took your brother among their hostages,” Orna added.
Deirdre was forced to agree. “Aye, and don’t think I haven’t.”
With a pang of guilt for trying to escape the weight of her duty for a few moments, Deirdre focused on the events of the last few days as due penance.
She’d ridden with the messenger straight for Gleannmara, a good two-day journey even on horseback. The shock of the new Northumbrian king’s invasion, the details of the carnage and pillaging he invoked in the name of God against not just the kingdoms on the coast but the sacred monasteries, still curdled her stomach. Surely God would not let the atrocities committed against the nuns and priests go unavenged.
Her brother, Cairell, and other young nobles from the nearby university had rallied to stop the onslaught, but the aspiring young warriors were no match for the seasoned attackers hurled against them by this demon-possessed Ecfrith, who claimed to be championing the church. Now the pride of fine Irish families were captives, bound for slave markets in Rome. Because Cairell was a prince, the heathen dogs, under the guise of civility, had offered his salvation through ransom from a prosperous tuath. The other prisoners, hailing from lesser kingdoms or poorer clans, were not so fortunate.
Deirdre’s father had only one moon cycle to deliver the money.
“Would that King Fergal was well enough to take the gold and a host of warriors to pour it, molten and hot, down the devils’ throats.” Orna relaxed her folded arms for a moment on the rail, clearly savoring the idea with the same indignation Deirdre felt.
As the ambassador of Gleannmara, she had to keep a level head. So her father insisted when she’d given in to a fearsome rant as she placed one of the tuath’s most cherished treasures—the sword of her ancestor, King Kieran of Gleannmara—in to the ransom chest. A century ago, Kieran had surrendered his weapon and his life to Christ and laid the jeweled sword upon the church altar with a prayer that it never be used against God’s will. There it remained, only removed to fight for Gleannmara and the One God who blessed it…until now.
“Cairell is a good man, raised and educated to be both a king and a servant of God. ’Tis the man himself, not the sword, that will carry on God’s glory,” Deirdre murmured, as if to convince herself. She’d cut her teeth on the tales of Gleannmara’s glorious past, and her country’s indomitable spirit lived in her. Would that her ancestor’s sword be used against the villains rather than handed over to them.
Perhaps if Gleannmara’s warriors had not been summoned into the high king’s service, Fergal might have responded differently, but the time needed to summon them back home was not on their side. And while Deirdre was no novice at swordplay, she was no warrior queen like the legendary Maire.
Here was a situation where the spiritual strength of the ancient queen’s husband, Rowan, was needed. He would truly believe, as Gleannmara’s priest suggested, that the attack on the innocent clergy and the kidnappings might be turned into a blessing by God. Unlike Rowan, Deirdre had dwelt more on the pursuit of practical knowledge than of spiritual. Sadly, it was the latter she needed now.
“He’ll make a fine husband, as well,” Orna added wistfully beside her.
Aye, a man like Rowan would suit her just— “Who?” Deirdre cut her eyes sharply at the maid.
“Why your brother, milady. Were we not just speaking of him?”
Deirdre mentally backtracked. It was yet another fault of her eager mind, running ahead of conversation on some tangent and leaving her clueless when it came her turn to speak.
“Yes, he will…when he meets the right woman.” Faith, how many men did the woman want on her string? “Like as not, he’ll seek a princess…or at least a marriage that will ally a great clan to Gleannmara.”
“And one no more than seventeen or eighteen in years,” Orna added pointedly, stung by the reminder that she was not among that select group. Her people belonged to one of Gleannmara’s subsepts.
The maid’s pluck was well matched with ambition. Deirdre laughed, and her gaze traveled to where the newly ordained Father Scanlan, another of Gleannmara’s sons, spoke with the ship’s captain. Although they traveled on the same ship, their objectives were different. The priest was intent on saving the very souls who demanded the ransom from Gleannmara, while Deirdre, God forgive her, leaned toward condemning them.
“You mean unlike me?” Deirdre knew full well that was exactly what Orna meant.
Deirdre had just attained her twentieth year, still engaged in aca-demic studies rather than wedded to some nobleman who would want her only to make his life comfortable and provide an heir. Admittedly, it was unusual for a woman not pledged to the church to reach such an age without marriage, but it was certainly no crime.
“Oh no, milady,” Orna recounted hastily.
“You would not be the first to bring this to my attention, nor the last, I’d wager…but I want to be more than a peace weaver, or the instrument of a political alliance, or a vessel for producing heirs, or a Saint Brigid, dedicated to saving souls.”
What exactly she did want, Deirdre wasn't certain, but she knew true love—the kind glorified in legend and in Scripture—was central to it. She yearned for adventure and travel, but not the sort in which she was engaged now.
“To be a scholar is a high aspiration, milady,” Orna offered without conviction.
Deirdre struggled not to laugh at her attendant’s confoundment as to why a princess with so many more prospects than she found aca-demic study and discussion preferable to marriage. “Aye, it is,” she reflected, straight-faced. “And far easier than having to live with a man one simply doesn’t understand.”
Relieved for the common ground Deirdre offered, Orna nodded eagerly. "Aye, that it is. I cannot for the life of me explain why Corc of Dromin did not come to see us away as he promised most fervently last eve. I vow, the only heart he has lies in his name."
“Moonlight passion cools in the warmth of the sun, or so I’ve heard.”
“His kiss did warm me like the sun never has,” Orna admitted. “And I am considerably cooled this day and see him in a much clearer light.”
“Ah, I see.” At least in theory, Deirdre mused. Moonlight passion is hotter than the sun and addles clear thought…like too much sun.
Her thoughts shifted instantly to her ailing father. He'd not been well since he married his younger brother's widow, a woman scarcely a decade Deirdre's senior. Dealla had boldly flirted with him before his grown children and all Gleannmara, though their sainted mother was scarcely cold in the tomb. Enough gossip circulated about the winter-summer affair as it was, echoing the sentiments that filled the air when their uncle Eber had taken Dealla as his wife years before. At the time, all Deirdre knew was that it was difficult to call a woman so few years her senior aunt, and impossible to call her mother. At his brother's funeral, even Fergal confided that Eber's marriage to a woman half his age was enough to kill the aging warrior. So why had her father up and done the very same thing?
Now he was so weak that the news of Cairell’s abduction sent him to bed. Proof positive that passion addled the brain and the physical constitution, at least for some. Deirdre frowned. Why was her father so affected?
Biting back the question teetering on her lips, she glanced at her attendant. There was no point in asking Orna if too much, or perhaps ill-matched, passion could really drain a body of health. The maid was no more keen than she of such things. Well, perhaps a mite more, Deirdre conceded. Orna had at least been warmed by a kiss, where Deirdre had found kisses a curious physical attempt by her suitors to win her favor.
“You ladies appear to be enjoying this glorious day that the Lord has made,” Father Scanlan commented as he joined them, folding his coarse gray-frocked arms on the rail.
“Aye, and I’ve enjoyed all I can stand, save taking a fatal chill,” Orna answered with a shiver. “Lady Deirdre, will you have your cloak now?”
Deirdre shook her head, dismissing the attendant in silence. Piece by piece, she was getting to the core of what troubled her most about this mission, that burr which was hidden by the obvious.
“Something weighs heavily on your mind, milady. Perhaps you’d care to share it with me?” Scanlan’s look was enshrouded in compassion. His perception was uncanny but slightly off the mark, just as her own had been. He believed, as had she until this moment, that her mission alone furrowed her young brow in the midday sun, when, in truth, it merely deepened it. Faith, she had been loathe to leave her father, seeing how frail he’d become.
In particular, she’d not wanted to leave him with Dealla.
“Do you think Father has been drugged by my stepmother?” As the compassionate fix of his dark Irish features gave way to wide-eyed shock, she explained quickly, “His health has faded since their marriage.”
“Your father is aging, milady. From what I’ve seen, your stepmother has helped him regain a portion of his youth. Remember, your mother’s death left him old beyond his years.” His words were slowed by a concerted effort at tact. “Besides, what possible gain is there for her in his demise, when Cairell is the undisputed heir?”
Cairell is gone, she wanted to say. And yet her father's health began to deteriorate long before all this came to pass.
“Suppose this drugging was inadvertent,” she hypothesized. “The result of…” The age difference. That was it. “Mismatched passion!”
“I b-beg your pardon?” Scanlan’s eyes looked ready to pop from his head.
With analytical tenacity, Deirdre switched from the obvious to the scriptural. “We are wonderfully made, the Word says so, does it not?”
Scanlan’s nod was slow, hesitant.
“So when we disrupt that order, intentionally or unintentionally, we are corrupted.”
“That all depends on—”
"And passion outside of wedlock is corrupt," Deirdre went on, hot on the philosophical trail. "It makes people do sinful things that they ordinarily wouldn't think of like David's pursuit of Bathsheba. His brain, even his soul, was addled by his passion." Faith, he first saw her at night, bathing no less. Moon addling was more intense than sun addling.
Scanlan dug in with saintly resolve. “I would hardly compare Fergal’s marriage to David and Bathsheba’s story. Your father married Dealla. It is a blessed union.”
“But physically, they are mismatched by age and hence in…um…vigor.” In truth, she could feel her cheeks gaining warmth on the sun, but she felt close to a marvelous theory backed by Scripture itself.
The young priest retreated. “This has nothing to do with drugs or physical ailments. Nor is it a matter for man to discern, but for God.”
“But it does! When a body ingests food that is overly rich, yet not tainted, does the stomach not turn sour? Bilious juices are manifested within the body itself, like a poisonous drug, making it ill.” She had to keep herself from clapping her hands with the thrill of this intellectual hunt. “And just as unwed passion can impair one’s sensibilities, cannot a union, mismatched in vigor—the bland with the rich—render similar health-impairing effects?”
“Well I…I don’t know what to say.”
“That science and Scripture concur!” Deirdre reined in the triumph she felt, lest it sound as though she delighted in what had happened, not only to her father, but to her uncle as well. “Passion must be restricted to wedlock and matched according to the order of time or, in the case of mankind, age.”
"Yes, I do know what to say," Scanlan announced even as blood infused his face. "This is not a fit subject for a princess but best left to physicians and scholars. How do your tutors deal with this unbridled curiosity and tongue of yours?"
Soundly put in her place, Deirdre took a stubborn stand, jaw jutted for emphasis. "I am a scholar, or I will be when my studies are complete." She'd hoped for more from a man as well-read as Scanlan, but he was as shortsighted as her suitors when it came to conversation beyond subjects of their interest or experience. Or comfort.
Father, somewhere out there, there has to be someone like me, a dreamer, a thinker, someone unafraid to explore the unknown…a young, strapping, and, not quite so saintly, Saint Brendan, if You will.
A precocious smile tugged at her lips, but she mastered it out of reverence. If God truly loved her like a father, then He would smile behind a stern countenance when she slipped into harmless mischief. His love was first and foremost, and she was certain He liked to laugh as well, what with all the truly serious matters He dealt with day in and day out. A feeling of comfort swept over her, as if she sat on her Father’s knee, as beloved as she had been as a child on Fergal’s.
Without notice, a shout of “Sail ho!” from above drew her attention to the sea. An approaching vessel that hadn’t been there only a few moments ago was practically upon them, as if conjured from the belly of the sea itself. Its single sail strained toward them, full of the wind their own vessel seemingly lost with the collective gasp of surprise echoing round the deck.
Deirdre stood riveted by the sight, one word too loathsome to utter coming to mind…
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