by Nancy Blanton


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781475957242
Publisher: iUniverse, Incorporated
Publication date: 10/31/2012
Pages: 292
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.81(d)

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A Novel
By Nancy Blanton

iUniverse, Inc.

Copyright © 2012 Nancy Blanton
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-4759-5722-8

Chapter One

River of Hope

December 1649, Province of Munster, Ireland

This is a righteous judgment of God upon these barbarous wretches who have imbrued their hands in so much innocent blood ... —Oliver Cromwell, 1649

From the beginning, all I had ever wanted was to live my destiny. I was the daughter of a great warrior, born to be a leader of my people and defender of my country. I was not a liar. I was not a killer, and hardly an assassin. It is only by the cruelest of circumstances that I was thus transformed. I had just turned fifteen years of age—too young to question whether my choices would be my own, and too foolish to realize the world turned on its own relentless path with little regard for a red-haired orphan girl. I was safe. I had hope. And then, just before dusk on a bleak December day, a traveler arrived on a thick black horse.

A cold blast of wind caused me to shudder the moment he entered our dank little tavern, tucked as it was off the roadway amongst the junipers beneath a great Scots pine. I felt a rare chill seize the back of my neck, but my mind was distracted by Uncle Aengus's shouting. He did so frequently and I knew I should not let anger command my behavior, but I had no one about me with a reasoned head to tell me how to do things otherwise. Uncle Aengus was nothing but a child in men's clothing, and any of the villagers would describe him so. He was twenty years my senior and yet we argued like siblings. Aengus had set me about cleaning the tavern hearth, though I'd just finished scrubbing every table and every tankard, and cleaning up after our meal. I allowed my bitterness to swell and rule my tongue. I spewed out a worthy string of curses on his life for him thinking I'd have my sore hands in the filth again, and mind you I'd learned some fine curses from the wives of our steadfast customers. "Die, Aengus O'Daly, and make a puddin' for the crows!" I cried. But Aengus pinched the fat of my arm with such a fury I fast conceded, grabbed my pail with as much clatter as I could muster, and set to the task.

"And make quick of it Elvy, or ye'll be dumping the ashes after dark and you know it's a fearsome danger. When you're done, set a good hot fire for the lads."

"It's the dark I should fear, is it? And never mind the raging storm a-comin'?" I flicked my tongue at him as he turned his back to me. Elvy was not my true name, and though I had grown accustomed to it I still resented it when I was angry. I was called Ailbhe by my own mother before a violent fever took her away from us—it is a strong Irish name meaning white, noble and bright, and I I knew she intended me for the pure and high life my grandfathers had ordained. My mother descended from Gerald FitzGerald, the 15th Earl of Desmond, and I was proud to have grown tall and lanky as she and her forebears had been. I was daughter of a warrior on my father's side from the powerful clan of Burke, and like them I was strong and quick. My ancestors were kings owning great tracts of land sweeping across the province of Munster. My given name should have been revered in every household. But our lands and houses had been taken by the English many decades before my birth. And it was not my noble name that was known throughout our village, but the soft and loving sound uttered from my father's lips. Elvy was the only name Uncle Aengus would call me, except urchin when he wished to raise my hackles.

The twinkle in the eyes of our few customers meant our quarrel had provided entertainment, and so for a brief wisp of a moment I was glad when the traveler's arrival drew the attention off me. Aengus's tavern was the first structure just west of the old bridge that crossed the River Ilen. Though the local gentlemen were our mainstay, we gladly welcomed the coins from parched folk crossing the river off the Cork road. I glanced up, brushing an unruly copper curl from my eyes, and returned to my work until the sight of him registered like a whip's lash to my brow. I dropped my pail to the stone hearth, spilling the ashes I'd just collected on the dirt floor I'd just swept.

With the tails of his black cloak dripping mud and the hood pulled over his brow, he could have been the Devil himself, risen up from the bog. He collapsed on a rough-hewn bench like wet sack of bones and upset a full tankard of ale. I might have cursed him as well for the mess he'd made, had he not looked up with the vacant eyes of a man who has foreseen his own end. Those eyes sent a shiver up my spine and caused the voices to hush and the old village men to stare, their ales half drunk and their mouths gaping. I pulled the rough-spun hem of my skirt close around my ankles and watched the color drain from Aengus's face until his jowls turned stone gray.

We had seen this man before, passing through Skebreen from Youghal, and Aengus knew him as Malcolm. His appearance surely heralded disaster, for word had come already that the English General Oliver Cromwell had chosen Youghal to establish his winter quarters. Malcolm needed say nothing of the general's terrible progress from Drogheda in northeast, where the great Irish rebellion had begun, to Wexford in the southeast, for the news had preceded him in morbid detail with entire villages slain, women and children cut down like weeds and left to die in blood-sodden ditches. In Wexford, just a few days ride away, two thousand souls had been lost and the destruction was so horrific it prevented even the army from camping there. And so, the brutal general had pushed farther west on the rocky coast road toward Munster, toward Cork, seeking every last rebel even where there be none. In Skebreen we had all prayed Cromwell would tire of his crusade before marching any farther.

Malcolm opened his lips to speak but no sound came, his voice lost in a fierce constriction, and the old men waited until at last his sound eked out as high as a woman's: "He comes!" He raised an arm and pointed a bony finger toward each of us in turn, twisting slightly as if he himself were the instrument of death selecting the next soul to take. "I bring news of Oliver Cromwell and his filthy cavalry. They ride this way, sure as you breathe, and his fleet, heavy with cannon, sails beside him. He rides from Kinsale to Desmond Castle, and from there southwest. In my own village, the magistrate fell at his feet, snivelin' like an idiot and pleading for our lives to be spared. But that be not enough for this monster. His work be not done until he sees a river of blood. Now he presses his deadly boot upon our very throats, so I've come with a warning. You must all collect your families and leave here and make haste! Join me now and head deep into the wilds of Kerry where the butcher dare not follow. What say you, Aengus O'Daly, my old friend? Will ye go?"

Aengus looked as if he'd seen a spirit pass before him, his mouth hanging open for the flies, his fine graying hair in long strings about his face. Tall and narrow as the pines he was, but bending to the winds like a willow. As my guardian since I was seven years old, he protected me fierce, like a big brother who'd dare any soul to touch his sister. He looked at me with his sad brown eyes, then down at his battered old shoes and I knew his answer. Had my father been with us, he'd have raised his sword already. But Da was in his grave, and all the able young lads who might defend the village had joined rebel bands to the north or pirate ships to the west. Aengus was no warrior. In his whole life, he'd not been more than a stone's throw from our village, and I'd never seen him lift more than a thumb to kill a flea. The little windowless tavern with its drafty door and leaking thatch offered little comfort, and yet I wondered did he fear leaving more than he feared to stay. He shook his head, an autumn leaf barely turned by the wind.

"Should I go, what's here will be burnt sure as we breathe. And should they come, they'll be wantin' the drink and not the man. I'll serve 'em what I have and mayhap be spared."

"Ye're daft!" Malcolm cried. "Cromwell spares nothing but his own and those who can bring him profit. He leads a path of murder and destruction so bloody few survive to tell the tale."

A fragile silence filled the tavern until old Mr. Fitzgibbon stood and scratched his white-bearded chin with the tip of his pipe. No one knew Mr.

Fitzgibbon's exact age, but his craggy face and bent stance suggested years beyond anyone else in the village, and he seemed to know the history of the earth and all its wisdom. He gruffly cleared his throat and his rumpled brown cloak fell in folds from his shoulders to his shins. "'Tis the land that draws Cromwell. He's fresh out of a civil war and cares to know what's here for the taking to reward his best men. Mayhap he's not in a killing mood after all the bloodshed that has been, though I'd not lay a wager on it. Anaways, do not fool yourself into believing Kerry offers escape. Are you forgetting the battles fought by the Earl of Desmond nearly seventy years gone now? And after that the bloody massacre at Smerwick on Ireland's farthest edge? You'll find no refuge west of here if it's where the English wish to go. I say, pray you with fervor this madman will pass us by. We've no rebel camp and hardly an establishment suitable for a general's rest. Insignificance may be our brightest hope."

I whispered a prayer to my beloved St. Brendan for protection. He alone I trusted, who had sailed west from our island in a tiny leather boat, and returned years later to prove that indeed Heaven exists and is magnificent beyond anyone's dreams. If he could return safely from such a daring voyage into the unknown, he could lift the curse that now befell our little village. But I could not prevent the whisper of doubt that found my ear, nor the heavy weight of dread filling my chest as I remembered the omen I had seen the last eventide: a setting sun with a blood-red circle around it and a stroke cleaving it in two. I could not read its meaning then, and I dared not ask Uncle Aengus for he would either swoon or panic, but I was sure it warned of a danger. If it foretold something terrible for Skebreen, naught could be done now. I scooped the spilled ashes back into my pail and uncovered the banked coals with the tip of a willow branch as my father had taught me. In my mind I could see his blue eyes, bright and challenging as my own, and hear his voice as clear as if he crouched beside me. "Is it honor ye value, daughter," he would ask, "or will ye be takin' defeat?"

Since he'd first lifted me screaming from my mother's arms, he had filled my head with centuries of chieftains and warriors defending a great kingdom. With each telling he breathed the fire into my belly. Honor or defeat—both always there for the choosing, and it was no true warrior of our blood who would choose the latter. "To choose honor is to choose life," he would say, "even if it brings death." And then he would laugh out loud at the irony. Would Da find it honorable to wait for Cromwell's coming and hope we'd be ignored? Or to flee to the wilds where we might not be followed? Or would he see defeat? My belly began to burn as the smoking coals found new life, and I sucked in a quick breath.

"The bridge!" The words escaped my lips before I'd even thought them. Mr. Fitzgibbon's head snapped around and he gave me a curious stare.

"What say you, girl?"

"The bridge, sir. The little stone bridge crossing the river Ilen. 'Tis the only thing leading him right to us. What if we could tear it down, and him pass right by?"

The others stared at me now, and Aengus stood hard as a stone, glaring fierce as if to make me disappear. He always preferred me to stay quiet and unnoticed when the customers were in, the better to protect my maidenhead, and always he was disappointed for I could not hold my tongue. Mr. Fitzgibbon stepped away from his bench, his whiskers twitching and his lips moving without words.

"Ye cannot hide a bridge, lass," Mr. McSherry said as if placating a dull child, and shrill laughter erupted from his brother Sean. Always together in their farming frocks, the McSherrys never had a fresh idea between them. But old Mr. Fitzgibbon stepped closer, one of his frail legs trembling, and found the strength of his voice that had guided our little village for decades.

"Hold now, gentlemen," the elder said. "To be sure, our Elvy's an impulsive little sprite, but in fact she may have something there for us to consider."

There was grumbling across the room as if we'd just raised the price of ale. "It's insanity, man. Ye cannot remove a bridge once it's built!" Mr. McSherry argued. "And do I needs bother to mention you're takin' strategic advice from a flame-haired fop of a barmaid who's still with the hips of a boy and always believin' she's some kind of a princess?"

The men of the tavern knew me as well as their own children and grandchildren, including the most tender places to cast their barbs and get a rise. I stood, as tall as I could manage, ash-blackened fists on my hips. "A fop, am I? And here ye are, a bunch of gossipers carrying on with your feeble tales," I hissed, "whilst our lads and lands are to be attacked by this vicious, killing enemy! How can you sit so, drinking your ale and blatherin' as if it's just the lord of the manor having a bad case of the gout? I'm far more a princess than you are a man, for at least I'm looking to solve our troubles and not just fume about them!"

But Mr. Fitzgibbon silenced me with a wave of his hand. His eyes had turned bright as the stars and he straightened his back, standing taller than ever I'd seen him, then he cast his smoldering pipe at our feet. Its sparks died quickly as they settled. Another omen, I was sure, but there was my weakness with omens. Would our troubles be extinguished? Or our village? My mother would have known the answer instantly, but I could not read the meanings until circumstances made them obvious. I could not read them in time to change the future.

"Insanity? No." Mr. Fitzgibbon said, and then paused for emphasis. "Genius is what it is." At this the others erupted into arguments in every corner of the tavern and lasting well into the night. I stayed in the shadows by the hearth as they raged, but in the end no one could pose an alternative that could stand up against Mr. Fitzgibbon's wise counsel and worldly experience. He persuaded them with his gentle, unyielding tongue, and then commanded them. "Go now, gentlemen, and come back on the morrow's dawn, your wives, your sons and your daughters with you. The old folk, too. If each takes a stone, the bridge will fall in the wink of a cat's eye. Bring buckets and axes, an ox and a plow horse if you've got them. When you go home after, bring in the livestock for the warmth, as we'll have no hearth fires until the threat of Cromwell is gone. You can maybe hide a bridge, gentlemen, but ye canna hide a village with the peat smoke rising above the trees.

"And when the bridge is gone," the old man added, "our boys will hide along the riverbank to let us know when Cromwell's band has passed us by. Elvy, have your shoes on and your shawl about your shoulders. Being your idea, you'll lead us all to our task."

I felt the prideful spirits soaring in my head. Genius, Mr. Fitzgibbon had called me! We would dismantle a stone bridge that had existed before any of us were born. We would save the village from Cromwell, and I—but a girl—would lead the way! And then I felt the spirits of the dead rise against me for daring to scatter ashes after dark. Aengus warned me it would anger them and now they planned their revenge as they swarmed around me, their tiny needles pricking and digging sharp points into the back of my neck. Fear, plain and simple, that a brilliant idea one instant could lead to disaster the next.

By the songs of the first bird the following morning, I dressed and I pulled my mother's green shawl around my shoulders. It was old, nubby and threadbare, but still green as the leaves in spring, and it was the only thing I had left that had been hers. It offered little warmth but it was a great comfort, as if my mother's arms were about me as I marched toward the Ilen, with Aengus beside me muttering all the way. The night's storm had passed but the ground was puddled and muddy, and above me the clouds seemed thin and bruised. Along the river's edge everyone in the village had gathered, nearly three score of us, shivering with cold anticipation.

The Ilen took no notice. Coming south to us from the Mullaghmesha mountain, she lay in bronze repose with her misty veil close at her surface. She was the very river who nourished every fox and sparrow from above Bantry and all the way out to sea at Baltimore. At Skebreen she abruptly turned west as if she'd simply changed her mind, and then south again as if to wrap a gentle arm about us. Sometimes flowing narrow and peaceful, she was our meandering ribbon of sweet dark nectar yielding trout in the spring and salmon in summer. With the winter rains she swelled at her seams, as anxious and irritable as a new mother; and, yes, wasn't the earth at her flanks the most fertile?


Excerpted from Sharavogue by Nancy Blanton Copyright © 2012 by Nancy Blanton. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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