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From a window in the Grianan, the women's sun house, Erin mac Aed stared out upon the graceful wooden buildings and rolling slopes of Tara, the ancient and traditional home of the Ard-Righ, or High King of the Irish. Not long ago the meeting in the great banqueting hall had ended, and her mother had been called from the Grianan by her father. Since then Erin had kept her vigil by the window, for she desperately wanted to seek out her father.
She chewed upon her lower lip as she waited impatiently to see her parents return from their walk. It was a beautiful scene she stared upon. The verdant green grass dazzled beneath the sun until it appeared as a field of glistening emeralds, and in the distance the little brook that rounded the southernmost dun took on the hue of sapphires. Geese ambled about the brook, and cows and horses grazed lazily upon the hills.
Yet today Erin could not focus on the beauty and peace spread before her. She stared upon the grass and sky feeling as if the world spun. She could not help being haunted by memories. Visions of the past took precedence over reality, and although she swallowed furiously and blinked, the memories remained of fire, of blood, and the trample of horses' hooves that was like a thunderous beat. . . .
Mist seemed to settle over the sunblaze of the golden afternoon, and she saw herself too clearly, two years past, as she sat with her aunt, Bridget of Clonntairth, in the garden. Bridget, sweet, beautiful Bridget, had been laughing so gaily. But then the alarm had come and Bridget had forced Erin to flee. Erin had turned back in time to see Bridget burying her small pearl-handled dagger deep into her own heart in terror of the Norsemen coming. Then high-pitched screams had risen and risen to vie with the terrible drum-beat of the Norsemen's horses as they bore down upon her uncle's kingdom of Clonntairth.
Even now Erin could hear the bloodcurdling war cries of the Norsemen, the shrill wailing of the unprepared Irish. Even now she could smell the fire, hear the earth itself tremble with thunder. . . .
Erin blinked and forced herself to dispel the image. She drew in a deep breath and exhaled shakily, her excitement suddenly growing as she saw that her parents were at long last returning from the copse by the brook. She had sat with her eyes unwaveringly fixed on those trees since Maeve had been summoned, her fingers pulling knots in the threads of the robe she mended. In the two years since Clonntairth, she had tried to settle into living again. She had tried to enjoy being a princess of Tara, and she had tried very hard to convince her father and gentle mother that she had been able to put Clonntairth in the past, but she had never fogotten, and she never, never would.
She knew that today the kings and princes of Eire met to discuss their stand in the coming battle between the Danes and the Norwegians. And though she hated the Danes, she despised the Norwegians–and one in particular: Olaf the White.
Just thinking his name made her palms grow damp, her body flush and tremble with fury and loathing.
Erin desperately wanted to know if the Irish chiefs who had debated all morning in the great banqueting hall would take a side; if they did, she prayed that they would not decide the Norwegians were the lesser of two evils.
"If you paid attention to your work, sister," Gwynn said sourly, interrupting her vigil, "your stitches would be small and neat. You should bring your head in from the window anyway. It hardly befits a princess to stare out with the ill-concealed nosiness of a farm wife!"
Erin started and drew her gaze from the window to glance at her older sister with a sigh of resignation. Gwynn had been picking at her all day, but Erin could feel no rancor in return. She knew that Gwynn was terribly unhappy.
Her marriage had been a dynastical one, to be sure, but Gwynn had been smitten by the young king of Antrim long before her royal wedding. Belatedly she had discovered that her prince's gallantry was the type to last only to the altar. Heith was handsome, suave, and charming, and now, with his wife five months pregnant and in her father's house, he was apparently practicing that charm on other women. But Gwynn dared not complain to her father; Aed would either chastise her for being a jealous wife or, worse still, vent the terrible rage he was generally known to control on her husband.
"You're right, sister," Erin said softly. "When I sew, I will try not to allow my mind to wander." She smiled at her sister, sensing the depth of misery that had taken Gwynn from a cheerful girl to a morose woman. "But you know, Gwynn, you always were the most talented of us! Mother used to despair of all our stitches, while applauding yours."
Gwynn slowly smiled in return, aware that she didn't particularly deserve the charity of one whom she had spent the day harassing. "I'm sorry, Erin, for truly I've been a miserable lot for you to draw today."
Erin dropped her stance at the window to go to her sister. She knelt beside her and placed her head briefly upon Gwynn's knees before meeting her eyes. "You are truly forgiven, Gwynn. I know that the babe makes you most uncomfortable!"
"Sweet Erin," Gwynn murmured, her eyes, so like her sister's, growing misty. Despite the bulk of her pregnancy, Gwynn was still a beautiful young woman. Her face lacked the ultimate perfection of her youngest sister's, but she had been sought by many a prince across the countryside. That fact made her life all the more bitter now. She laughed suddenly, for Erin had always been her favorite and guilt because of her harassment of her sister plagued her. "Off your knees, Erin! I'm behaving like an old witch, and you are humoring me. We all know it is not the babe who plagues me and makes me old before my time, but that worthless husband of mine."
"Gwynn!" Bride, the oldest sister, a matron now of three and a half decades and mother of grown sons, spoke sharply. "You should not speak so of your husband. He is your lord and you must give him homage."
Gwynn sniffed. "Homage! If I had any sense I would consult a Brehon and demand a separation. The laws declare that I would keep what's mine, which would hurt my noble husband. He would lose half his gambling assets!"
"Gwynn." The address came this time in a soft, quiet voice. It was Bede who spoke, and even the simple intonation of Gwynn's name was musical.
Bede had never possessed the beauty that even Bride still retained; her hair was a plain mouse brown, her face was thin. Her only true asset was the deep emerald eyes that she shared with her siblings.
She had always been the happiest of the brood, always able to find pleasure in the smallest things. That she had been promised to the church since birth had brought her complete happiness. She had joined her order at twelve and came home only for special feasts. She was here today because her father had requested that all his family be present, and as Ard-Righ his word was law.
"I do not believe you would be happy to set your husband aside," Bede said wisely, "for you love him still. Perhaps when the babe is born, things will improve. Remember your pride, sister, but remember too that time can be your friend. When trysts of the night have long since passed, you will still be wife and mother of his heirs."
Still at Gwynn's knees, Erin glanced at Bede's sweet face. Her sister's intuition was often startling. A nun Bede might be, but she was far from innocent or sheltered. She met the world with commendable good sense.
Gwynn sighed. "You are right, sister. I would not set the man aside for I am fool enough to love him. I crave him; I accept the crumbs of his affection and weep and scream when I discover his wenching! But . . . still I love him, and so I believe, as Bede suggests, that I will dazzle his heart again. When the babe is born. . . ." Her lashes lowered as she sighed and gazed once more upon Erin. "Do forgive me, sister. I thought to inflict misery upon you because I have become such a bitter wretch! You are wise, Erin, and in my jealousy I resent your wisdom in not marrying. Never marry! And never, never be foolish enough to love! Give your heart to God as Bede has done, if you would, but never, never let it be trampled by mortal man!"
"What rubbish you feed her!" Bride interrupted with derision. "She is past the age she should have married already, and you would have her go merrily on playing swordsman with our brothers until all hear of her lack of maidenliness and despair of her! She is the daughter of Aed Finnlaith! It is her duty to wed, as we have, sister, to better our alliances and hold safe our father's and brother's crowns!"
Bede, still and dark in her long black habit, suddenly moved impatiently. "Bride, leave the girl be–"
"I will not!" Bride snorted. "Father fears for her feelings like a foolish, besotted old man! Well, Clonntairth was a fact of life and Erin must get over it."
Mention of Clonntairth suddenly reminded Erin how faithfully she had watched for her parents to return. If she didn't hurry now, she would miss her father before he sent his servants for his bath, and then she would not be able to speak to him till late in the night.
She hopped to her feet, aware that her unseemly hurry would send Bride to Maeve with warning tales of woe, but Bride would not be at Tara much longer. When the meeting split and the tribes broke, Bride would return to her own province with her husband and sons. "Excuse me, sisters," Erin muttered. Then she fled them and the Grianan, smiling and acknowledging the other ladies who sat about sewing and conversing.
As she reached the open air, Erin overheard her father speaking with her mother about the meal that would be served that evening. Erin did not want to see her mother. Maeve was not half so critical as Bride, but she would look at Erin with such weary sadness that the young woman would feel riddled with guilt. Erin didn't believe she would ever capture any of Maeve's qualities of kindness and sweetness.
She allowed herself a brief, wry smile. She was justly proud of both her parents. Aed Finnlaith was the High King of Eire, ruling over a number of lesser, constantly squabbling Irish kings. A magnificent warrior, he had banded the Irish together with a force greater than any king before him. And still he had always been a tender, loving father and husband. When his heart and soul were clouded by worries such as today, he would seek out his Maeve, and she would always lighten his heart with gentle laughter and wit and amusing tales from the rivalry within the Grianan.
To avoid a confrontation with both parents, Erin slipped around to the rear of the Grianan and paused by the gnarled trunk of a great tree. Her father would have to pass her to reach the handsomely adorned building that was their residence.
As she waited, she bit her lip. She would have to watch each of her words carefully. She didn't want her father to know that vengeance was the ruling factor in her heart.
A crackle in the velvet-green grass warned her of her father's approach. Erin looked up, smiling to meet him.
Aed raised his graying red head and smiled warmly in return. "Daughter! How sweet of you to come and ease the strains of a tired old man. You are a breath of spring to see, my Erin."
Erin went to his side and accepted his hug.
"What do you here, daughter?"
Erin shrugged. "I've come to walk with you a spell, Father."
Aed stopped in his tracks and stared down into her face, raising his brow doubtfully. "Come to walk with me, have you, minx? Or to ply me with questions?"
Erin grimaced. "Well, I would like to hear the decision of the council."
Aed looked at her long and hard. She was an uncommon beauty, this last of his ten children. In her eyes was all the green beauty of the land; in her shapely and straight form, its strength. Beneath the sun her ebony hair gleamed gloriously, framing a face that was both fair and sharply intelligent, and in no need of powders or paints. His daughter's skin was like a rose petal, soft and fair and naturally blushed. He took a terrible pride in her. She understood every nuance of politics, she read with a comprehension superior to any of her brothers', and she wrote with a beautiful hand. Her voice, like Bede's, was like a melody, and she could play the harp, surpassing her sisters in talent.
And she had a wicked sword arm. Though his sons complained, Aed would not refuse his daughter's tutelag by their masters. He was secretly pleased when she would best her brothers, and he silenced his boys' grumblings with the reminder that they must work even harder. If their sister could bring them to their knees, what would a Norseman do?
But now Aed frowned with her query. He had watched her carefully since the day she had stumbled home cross country after the Viking raid at Clonntairth with only her half-crazed cousin Gregory beside her.
Clonntairth had been destroyed. Its buildings razed, its people taken in slavery by the Norwegians. Yet by crawling through wreckage and ancient tunnels, Erin and Gregory had escaped. Aed had had to send Gregory to the monks at Armagh. But Erin had been strong and recuperated at home, living on hate.
Aed was a wise man who knew hate could lead to desperate gestures. It was not a feeling one could forget, but neither was it one that should be fostered. Acting with passion but without wit was foolhardy. It could too easily lead to destruction.
He had tried to teach his daughter these things, yet despite her pleasantry, her apparent ease with the womanly arts, Aed knew that Erin still harbored her terrible hate. That it seemed to be a personal hate surprised and bewildered Aed. Bridget had died by her own hand; Brian, her husband, in battle. The attack had come from the troops of Olaf the White, a strangely merciful man for one of his heritage. He allowed no slaughter of children or of women; nor, for that matter, would he allow the senseless murder of warriors. That those conquered became slaves was but the way of the world, and slaves did not always live in misery. It was said that the vassals of the Norwegian Wolf ate better than many a prince and were clothed in wool in the winters.
Aed stared at her a moment longer and then shrugged. "They have chosen to support the Danish princes, for the Danes have sworn to pray to Saint Patrick and offer up great riches to his honor should he help them in battle. And"–Aed paused a moment, but he could hold few secrets from Erin's sharp mind–"and I am glad we support the Danes, for I believe they will take the coming battle. They are stronger now; they are united."
Erin lowered her lashes and smiled, but not before her father saw the glitter of pleasure in her eyes. "Don't take this to mean much, daughter," he warned sharply. "I believe the decision we make means less than the time it took to come to. We do not raise arms for the Danes. They too are murdering barbarians, no matter what cloak they wear. Oh, a few Irish tribes will fight. But I warrant, despite the decision reached here today, that a few Irish tribes will also fight on the side of the Norsemen. I tell you this, daughter: I will be glad to see the Norwegians fall, but we pass merely from one set of hawks to the next. The Viking is here to stay, and I care not his nationality. In the years to come, we must look to men carefully, and weigh our enemies."
Erin nodded, although she wasn't particularly interested in her father's wisdom at the moment. She kept her eyes carefully downcast, for she dreaded her father reading her thoughts. Just as she could too clearly remember the carnage at Clonntairth, she could too clearly remember the Wolf. . . .
The battle had ended, and she and Gregory had escaped to a dun overlooking the town. She had held back her screams by biting her wrist, for what she had turned back to see was Lady Moira, the wife of one of her uncle's warriors, being raped. Again and again Moira had been ravaged. Then he had ridden up, like a sun-god upon a midnight charger. Taller than his own men, he stopped them with a single shout, rebuking them for their treatment of the woman. What good, he had demanded, were half-dead slaves? Dear God, how she had hated him!
Erin understood her father's reasons and his thoughts. No, the Norwegian Wolf had not murdered her aunt, nor had he raped poor Moira. But Clonntairth had been taken by his command and the residents as slaves. Slaves! The Irish were not meant to be slaves to the barbaric pagans who invaded from the north.
On that day at Clonntairth, Erin had solemnly sworn to avenge her aunt and her uncle–and Moira. And so now she could not help but be pleased with the belief that death might come to the Norwegian Wolf and slavery to his she-wolf, the woman as blond as he who had ridden with him that day, a warrior like him. Though she had been beautiful, her sword had carried the sheen of blood. When the Wolf had seen her, he had smiled, and his granite features and ice-blue eyes had almost appeared human. Human! The Wolf of Norway! Erin wanted to spit. Olaf the White, Prince of Norway, was a barbarian, an animal!
But now it was decided. The Irish and the Danes would fight against the Norse, and likely, very likely, he would die.
She tried to control the excitement in her voice. "Fennen mac Cormac told me that the armies were mustering at Carlingford Lough. He says that you plan to ride out and observe the battle. I would go with you, Father."
"Oh? And why is that, daughter? Such bloodthirstiness is unattractive to God and man, Erin. I should send you to Bede so that she could work on the cleansing of your soul."
"Father!" Erin protested. "You hate these heathens! I have seen the fire in your eyes, I have heard you swear against them, and–" She bit her lip but then continued. "And I have often wondered why you have not let that hate raise you to swift and sure ven–"
"Enough, daughter!" Aed commanded. "I am the Ard-Righ, Erin, I cannot run about like a maddened schoolboy. Yes, I have hated. In my dreams I have slain many a man. But I am a king of many kings, Erin. My hold upon my throne is tenuous, at best. I cannot lead men to senseless slaughter because of my personal hatreds or losses. Your uncle's death is most recent in my heart, Erin, so aye, I will be pleased to see the Norwegians down upon the field of battle. But that is patience and wisdom, daughter. The Danes will do what I cannot." He paused for a moment, glancing at her sadly. "Even for you, daughter, I can never forget that I am Ard-Righ. The decisions I make will always be for the land."
Erin lowered her head. She respected her father, she even understood his wisdom; and besides being her father, he was her king. Without his blessing she could do nothing, and so she kept her head lowered so that he might not see the sparkle of cajolery that had come to her eyes.
"I understand what you say, Father," she told him solemnly. "But I would ride with you for another reason."
"Oh?" Aed lifted his shaggy brows. "And what might that reason be?"
Erin hated lying to her father, but she could never explain the horror of her vision at Clonntairth. According to Saint Patrick, vengeance is mine, saith the Lord, but Erin's heart cried out for vengeance. To her father many things were lamentable, but they were also the business of politics. She could not see how the taking of Clonntairth had been an admirable military move, nor could she see the temperance of Olaf the White. She could see only her aunt, beautiful Bridget of Clonntairth, lying in a pool of blood. She could see Moira dragged and mauled and screaming. She could close her eyes and remember the stench of the fires. . . .
She looked up and smiled into her father's face. "It is not vengeance I seek, Father, it's . . ." She paused, blushing prettily. "It's Fennen mac Cormac. I think he woos me, Father, and as yet, I know not what I think. If I could be near him for a while . . ."
Aed lifted his bushy brows with interest. "Fennen mac Cormac, eh? Well, well. He seems a likable man. He fights well, but still thinks with his mind rather than his fists. I'm pleased, daughter."
"Then you will let me ride with you?"
"I don't know, Erin. They are heathens. It might be dangerous. We must have a deputation to know who takes the victory, but whereas a truce holds men safe–"
"Father," Erin interrupted. Her excitement was showing, but she could allow that now since Aed Finnlaith seemed to be pleased with her interest in the young king Fennen. "The old Druid Mergwin has a cottage near the lough, remember. I would be safe there while you met with the Danes. And yet I could still be with the party."
Aed shrugged. He was a Christian king, but he bore no rancor to the scattered Druids who still practiced their old beliefs. He was quite fond of the ancient Mergwin; in fact, he had entrusted Erin to Mergwin's care many times. And Erin was right. No harm could come to her in the cottage deep in the woods. But he didn't mean to give in to his daughter immediately. He wanted her to think deeply on duty and obedience and charity, the qualities necessary in a princess and a wife.
"I will make my decision with your mother and speak with you in the morning, daughter," he said firmly. "And for tonight, well, you may sup beside this young king who holds your fancy, and then you will spend the hours with your sister Bede and study her serenity."
Erin dutifully lowered her head and humbly said, "Yes, Father."
She accepted his pleased kiss upon her forehead and waited until his footsteps took him away toward their dwelling.
Then she raised her head with a very real and very mischievous smile on her face. She knew her father well; she knew she had won. Tomorrow she would ride with the envoy.
From the Paperback edition.