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Forbidden. The possibility that he and his friend Gregory could be held in high treason by the English king was the last thing on Edmund's mind as he stared at the lovely creature walking through the crowd toward them. Fair-skinned with luxurious red hair, she sauntered with ease, greeting vendors, charming all with whom she came in contact, offering them a smile from lips that Edmund found himself wanting to taste. He watched as the object of his attention accepted an apple from an old man and bit into it. She closed her eyes at the pleasure of its taste, and Edmund licked his lips in response. She curtsied to the old man in thanks and he offered her a toothless smile before waving her on.
Not before this moment had Edmund ever seriously doubted his future in the priesthood, a future designed by his parents without discussion. Nonetheless, he questioned it now, for his next breath hinged on capturing just one glance from this fair beauty. Edmund was mesmerized.
"Aha, now there is a flower ripe for picking, eh, Edmund?" Gregory slapped him on the shoulder, biting into his own apple with a noisy slurp. "Good enough to eat."
Edmund jabbed Gregory in the ribs to end his annoying gibberish. With every step he took, the air seemed to pull in as though the center of his world were closing around him. His heart pounded against his ribs. "On my oath, she is no common woman. Are you blind? Do you not see how the magic surrounds her? She is the envy of all she passes."
"Oh, my boy," Gregory said with a chuckle, "it is by magic you are smitten, of that there is no doubt." His friend huffed. "But do you see her escorts? Am I the blind one, then? Surely, were she as respectable and fine a woman as you say, she would not be left unattended." His gaze flitted from one maiden to another in the crowd. "And to remind you, my friend, may I say our purpose in coming here today was to merely sample only, not to find a wife." He chuckled again.
It was midday and dark clouds had rolled in, playing hide and seek with the sun, casting long shadows over the lush spring valley. Here, beyond the newly imposed barricade barring the Gaels from the English, the ancient rites of spring were being celebrated. Plentiful food and drink mingled with mirth and promiscuity were the reasons Edmund and Gregory chose to ignore the new Statutes of Kilkenny imposed by the paranoid English king. Not easily enforced, they served to keep the Gaelic influence from swallowing the small English contingency in Ireland. Gregory's and Edmund's fathers, involved in the English governing bodies in Dublin, placed both them and their families at great risk of prosecution by the crown.
All of which was inconsequential as Edmund stared at the Gaelic beauty walking toward him.
"Shall we draw straws, then, to see who shall try to win her favor?"
Edmund glanced at his friend in amicable warning.
Gregory's eyes glistened with mischief, but he smiled. "Very well, there are countless such flowers waiting to be plucked today." He shrugged.
Edmund's body reacted to her of its own accord and he panicked at his discomfiture, unused to the protocol of approaching the fairer sex. That was Gregory's specialtythe wooing of women.
"What shall I say?" Edmund mumbled from the side of his mouth.
"Let her see you are interested, but do not reveal your intent. Make her come to you," his friend calmly advised.
In a hazy fog of virginal ecstasy, Edmund found the advice fading into oblivion, leaving only her beautiful face and dancing brown eyes meeting his as she passed. He sucked in a breath, unable to speak, certain that he'd met his destiny.
"Good day." She offered a quick curtsy and journeyed on, but then favored him with a glance over her shoulder. Edmund swore her cheeks were flushed. Or was that his imagination?
He held his hand to his heart, finally finding his tongue. "God forgive me. Surely I will die and be cast into hell for my thoughts," he whispered aloud, without care for who might hear him. His eyes were pinned on the gentle sway of her hips, his cock straining to follow her.
A harsh slap on his back woke him from his carnal trance. He gave Gregory a startled look. "Was she not the most beautiful maiden ever to grace the earth?"
His friend rolled his gaze upward. "Go after her then. You've not taken any vows of celibacy yet, my friend. I should think that God would prefer you purge yourself of your carnal demons now rather than later, wouldn't you agree?" Gregory winked at a young maiden who caught his eye. "Oh, my brother, I do not envy you your future. You are far nobler than I, to have the strength to give up such earthly pleasuresmore to the point, women."
Confused as much by the battle warring between propriety and the reaction of his body below his belt, Edmund was dismissed by his friend with a jaunty wave. "Go on, enjoy yourself. I'm going to find a bit of shade and a drink for my parched throat." Gregory sauntered off and soon struck up a conversation with two maidens.
Edmund chuckled and turned, immediately stumbling over two pairs of legs protruding from a makeshift tent. He righted himself, ready to make his apologies, but the loud groans from within caused him to stumble backward again, realizing the pair likely hadn't been disturbed. Edmund took in the sights and sounds of the festival, searching for a tankard of mead, trying to avert his eyes from the public displays of carnal pleasures going on around him. He found drink and settled himself on a knoll, content, if need be, to stay away from temptation. Within moments a crowd began to gather nearby to watch a small acting troupe. He sipped his mead and listened as the story unfolded, involving the betrothal of the lovely May Queen to the cold and ruthless Winter King. He'd heard bits and pieces of the tale before, but never from a Gaelic perspective. He was enthralled, drawn up in the slow thrum of the music and the pleasant buzz from the need forming in his head. His attention, riveted to the sensual dance of the May Queen for her secret lover, the Green Man, left a disturbing awareness inside him, causing him to shift his legs to hide the protrusion in his brocs. Finally consummating their love, the queen straddled her lover's lap. Their realistic acting skills were not lost on the crowd as cheers and whistles encouraged the actors to portray the forbidden lovers. Edmund stared in fascination that this carnal behavior was not only publicly permitted, but also encouraged. His gaze landed on the scowl of the actor portraying the betrayed Winter King, his frustration increasing even as Edmund's erection became his frustration. The woman's soft cries brought his attention back to the couple, acting out the mating ritual with determined fervor.
Edmund's cup slipped from his hands and rolled down the hill, and he stood to retrieve it. Over the heads of the enamored audience his eyes met with those of the lovely maiden he'd seen earlier. The sounds of the play and the intense desire he felt swelling pushed him through the crowd, seeking an escape from the seduction of the play. He found a space beyond the crowd and took a gulp of air to settle his nerves.
"Come in here, boy. I have what you need." A woman called to him from a tented sanctuary across the road. She pulled down her bodice, exposing her plump breasts.
Edmund turned away, needing time to think. He hastened toward the outer edge of the festival and came to rest near a grove of trees. Deep fingers of purple began to stretch across the pink horizon. Passion surrounded him, wanton and sensual. Not exactly the kind of place for a young man about to go into the pastoral life. But his parents had given him no choice. The priesthood would bring both wealth and social stature to him and his family. He was torntorn between what they wanted and what he wanted, right now. He was a young man in his prime; should he not be allowed a little taste of life's pleasures?
His eyes were drawn to a flickering light in a clearing beyond the trees. He entered the wood, aware of how the sounds of the festival grew faint, and curious to know what lay ahead. He emerged to find a small stone abbey, and nearby, the crumbling shell of a castle with one tower still standing as sentinel over what appeared to be a dormant garden.
A movement caught Edmund's eye as a brown-robed monk began lighting the tall torches that hovered a head above him. As the flames began to illuminate the area, Edmund noted the path of a massive circular maze made of small stones. Surely this was part of a pagan ritual, but the purpose of the maze intrigued him.
"Do ye seek quiet fer yer soul, my son?" A lilting voice came from beneath the monk's hood.
Edmund stared down at the man, unable to see the monk's face, but feeling the heat of his words as much as the torch that he held. "It is true, Father, my soul is unsettled."
"Aye, I sensed as much. Passionate men quite often find themselves lost in their purpose. You must walk the labyrinth, my son. Let the silence speak to you. Listen to your heart. It will lead you to your destiny." The monk turned and walked away.
"But how will I know what is the truth?" Edmund called after him.
The bow-backed man looked over his shoulder. "If it is truth you seek, then the truth you shall find. You need only listen."
Edmund frowned, and looked about him, searching for anyone else nearby, but there was not another soul around. "Is it always so desolate here?" He turned back to the monk and found himself alone.
Though he didn't take to heart the old man's word, he decided the solitude might help his perspective. He stepped inside the ring and methodically followed its narrow path.
Determined, Edmund tried to empty his mind of the soft moans he heard through the trees, reminding him of the sinful lust occurring within the woods. He turned his mind to his family, and the hopes they had for his futureone that would bring them better social and political connections with the king of England. He was to leave in a few days to begin his teachings, and yet it seemed an eternity away.
A twig snapping nearby caught his attention, and he searched the twilight shadows, thinking perhaps that the old man had returned. Instead, his eyes locked with those of the beautiful maiden he'd seen at the festival, and all previous thought ceased to exist.
Cara Ormond's heart pounded in her chest. Her father's wary concern flashed in her mind as she remembered how she'd begged and pleaded to attend the festival. Only when her older sister, Kiernan, agreed to let her accompany her and her betrothed to the faire did their father relent, but with a stern warning to both daughters. "Do not think I am unaware of what goes on at the festival. The two of you stay together and be wise of trouble."
No sooner had they arrived at the celebration than Kiernan kissed her sister, bidding her farewell. "Mind ye, Cara, stay away from trouble. You heard Da."
"And the same to you. Where are you off to, then?"
Her sister smiled impishly, squirming in her lover's tight embrace. "We'll be a-mayin', of course. Be good." And Cara had watched them run into the woods. She was happy for them, and true, they were within a few weeks of wedding, yet Cara couldn't help feel a twinge of melancholy. Things were changing, and she felt restless, yearning for someone special herself.
She pushed aside the concerns of her family, pondering for the span of a heartbeat the wisdom of her actions here at the abbey. She'd sensed something different about this young man, with his broad shoulders and hair the color of straw, from the first. He'd stared at her as though she were a ripe peach. He did not speak as she'd passed him at the faire, though his friend smiled with blatant admiration. A backward glance confirmed the blond man's interest, and he'd smiled as he held her gaze until she turned away, her cheeks aflame. Cara had tried to forget the episode, finding delight in watching a skit retelling the Gaelic tale of the forbidden triangle of the May Queen, the Winter King and her lover, the Green Man. However, the torrid affair, played well by the acting troupe, did little to quell her curiosity about the gray-eyed man or her lustful thoughts of him. After sampling some wine and wandering about the festival she saw him enter the woods, and she'd followed, hoping he wasn't going to meet a maiden. Cara had no idea where he was from, though she suspected him to be English, given that she would have certainly remembered him from any of the nearby villages. And if that were so, despite that her da called the new edict "cow dung," he was at risk for breaking the orders sent down from the English crown, mandating separation between Gaels and the English settlers in Dublin.
But as Cara watched him silently from the shadows, she felt certain the Mother Goddess had fashioned this meeting and so, drawing a deep breath, she took a step forward, a brittle twig breaking under her foot revealing her presence. Despite his lingering glance, Cara averted her eyes, stepped onto the path and followed the maze. She focused on the sound of her leather slippers brushing over the soft earth. This was a sacred place, respected for private meditation, and with no talking permitted within the perimeters, she could not even ask his name.
The longer they walked, the more Cara sensed the powerful magic of the labyrinth and the festival, calling to her to listen to the whispers of her heart. Around the circle, passing close but not touching, they moved in silence. Cara chewed the corner of her lip, aware of her nakedness beneath her kirtle, where she'd not thought of it before. A delicious shiver slithered between her thighs as she swerved, following the path that led back to the center of the maze. It was odd, this dance she found herself in with a handsome stranger, yet it stirred her emotions, urging, demanding.