by Nene Adams ©1999 - All rights reserved
This story (sequel to Through a Glass Darkly) contains graphic violence as well as the depiction of a loving relationship between two mature, adult women and some adult language, plus some sexual content. This story also may contain religious references - specifically to Catholicism - within a historical and semi-fictional context which may be deemed offensive by some persons. If you are one of them, please stop reading now.
12th Century Anno Domini
The Eating Hall at Caer Loughnashade, the Castle of the Lake of Jewels and principal seat of Lord O'Ciaran, was every bit as elegant and graceful as the lord's wife, Elaine Lilymaid, could make it. Stone walls were softened with colorfully embroidered tapestries; fat tallow candles were held in sconces the shape of dolphins; the rushes underfoot were sweetened with rue, lavender and meadowsweet. Most rare and costly of all, a pair of large rectangular windows set near the ceiling, which ran the length of the room on both sides, were of stained glass, imported from Florence at great cost and divided into panels depicting God's creation of the world.
Aislinn sat on one of the long wooden benches, staring up at the east window. The final panel showed God taking a rib from Adam in order to create Eve.
And so causing more sorrow and trouble than even the Dark One himself ever dreamed, Aislinn thought. The sun was rising and the jewel-like colors of the window - crimson, emerald, azure, imperial purple - were striped in bands across her face, dyeing her red-gold hair a garish orange.
She glanced down at her hands, folded together in her lap. I know not what to do. I love Dunlaith, I truly do! But what is between us now cannot go on forever.
It had been a year and a day since the laoch had come to the peaceful island of Niamh, home of the convent of St. Ailbe's, and shattered the only world the orphaned Aislinn had remembered. The girl had been blind then, her emerald eyes unseeing as a result of the horrifying abuse she'd suffered at the hands of her father, those memories suppressed and buried. But though dead, the Earl of Ciardha, known as the Wolf of the Forth, hadn't finished torturing his daughter. Returning as a taibhse, an evil spirit, he'd been exorcised by the nuns and ultimately destroyed by Aislinn herself, who had faced her fears, winning freedom and sight back at last.
Leaving St. Ailbe's was hard but contemplating life without Dunlaith harder still. Aislinn's love for the dark haired laoch was as steady as her own heartbeat and she had no doubt she was loved as much in return. She had gladly followed Dunlaith to Caer Loughnashade, where the laoch was in service to Lord O'Ciaran as captain of his privy guard. The future had been unknown and unsure, but she'd willingly tossed caution aside for the sake of love.
The O'Ciaran's wife, Elaine, treated Aislinn as a foster daughter, as did the lord himself. The pair were very fond of the beautiful young woman, having no children of their own, and were delighted to do what they could for her. For her part, Aislinn found their attentions embarrassing and quite overwhelming. She had been offered a fine suite of rooms in the castle proper; instead, Aislinn had asked for a little room at the top of the westernmost tower to share with Dunlaith. They'd tried purchasing her costly gowns; Aislinn preferred to cut down Elaine's cast-offs, so as not to cause jealousy among the lady's other servants. After a while, Elaine and the O'Ciaran, understanding Aislinn's modesty, disguised their gifts and took care not to be overly extravagant or show too much affection in public.
The lord and his lady still had no true idea of the real relationship between Dunlaith and Aislinn. They knew, of course, about the young woman's parentage and the laoch's past. They'd been told as much of the story as Dunlaith thought necessary and prudent, but the true nature of the love shared by Aislinn and the warrior was kept secret. Elaine Lilymaid was a very devout Christian who would have probably taken holy orders had her father not been in need of making a marriage alliance with a powerful lord. Her household attended Mass twice every Sunday; the castle's chapel had a priest in permanent residence and everyone was encouraged to make confession as often as they could. There was no moral slackness here; maids who were indiscreet or got themselves with child were pensioned off, as were the fathers of their children. Elaine intended that there be no sin within the walls of her home; she kept to the strict moral guidelines she'd set and expected everyone else to, besides.
Dunlaith had feared to lose her place if the Lilymaid knew the truth. The fact that she'd known Aislinn in childhood had helped disguise the real reason why the two women shared such affection between them. As far as Elaine knew, Aislinn and Dunlaith were like close sisters who, having been separated, could not bear to be parted again. The fact that there was far more to their relationship never occurred to the lord's lady. As long as the two maintained an appearance of innocence, all would be well.
Aislinn hadn't like the deception and still didn't. That is was for her own benefit was even more galling. Dunlaith had no money of her own, no family connections, and Aislinn was just as poor. Without an occupation and a place to stay, the two would have become prey for robbers, slavers or worse. Trying to take service with a more open-minded lord was out of the question; few men in this time would have willingly accepted a woman warrior, much less allowed her a command.
So here we are, so careful, so cautious, so discreet it makes my teeth itch! Aislinn thought bitterly, ignoring the blaze of color that saturated the air around her. Always fearing the tiniest shred of gossip might be our downfall, always making sure there are no witnesses lest we be seen sharing even a kinsman's kiss. Lies piled upon lies; to choose the lesser of two evils is no easy thing!
This public role-playing put a great strain on their relationship but an even greater stress came from within.
No need for such pretending lately; t'is been a while since we touched at all, even in our privy chamber. Dunlaith is distant, almost cold and terrible cruel; she no longer shares a bed with me, preferring a pallet on the floor. I understand why she does this, for have I not offended her grievously? T'was my fault, mea maxima culpa, all my guilt and shame. Merciful Father, is this my punishment for sinning against Thee? Aislinn turned her emerald eyes up to heaven imploringly.
In the beginning, Aislinn had accepted Dunlaith's caresses joyfully. The laoch was careful not to push the young woman further than she could go; they had shared kisses, embraces, little touches and gestures but no more than that. Dunlaith was patience itself, slowly coaxing Aislinn to trust, hoping one day to consummate their love, to teach Aislinn about the pleasures of the marriage bed. She sensed hidden fires smoldering beneath Aislinn's skin and knew that once unleashed, theirs would be a passionate coupling that would quake the very earth and unite them in bonds that could never be broken.
Slowly, slowly, with the care and infinite patience of any general planning a campaign, Dunlaith seduced Aislinn with all the powers at her command. Just getting Aislinn to sleep with her in bed, warm bare skin against skin, was a major undertaking. At last, Dunlaith had judged the time right and began her wooing in earnest. Far from being disgusted or frightened, Aislinn had accepted the growing intensity of Dunlaith's caresses with delight. Then... disaster.
While brilliant swatches of gold, verdant green and fiery crimson wheeled around the walls, Aislinn closed her eyes, bitter tears slipping from beneath the lids, able to recall that terrible night as clearly as if it had happened yesterday...
And so could Dunlaith, who had slipped into the Eating Hall and was watching Aislinn through half-closed eyes. The tall warrior leaned against the wall, arms crossed protectively across her chest, her face expressionless, but behind that calm facade roiled turmoil, doubt and a heavy soul's burden of guilt. Dunlaith shook black bangs out of her eyes and her mouth stretched into a thin, tight line. The memories were etched with acid on her brain and she cursed herself without pause. Part of her wished she'd never met the girl, never known such sorrow and such a coil of trouble as now made their lives miserable; but another part of the laoch ached with bitter regret.
The warrior watched Aislinn and could not help remembering a time, not so very long ago...
Dunlaith glanced around in satisfaction. Although the room she and Aislinn shared was small, it commanded a spectacular view of the lake that adjoined the O'Ciaran's castle. The dark waters were covered in tiny ripples which glimmered in the twilight like diamonds, mirroring the stars above and giving the lake its name.
The furnishings in their room were simple but comfortable - a rope bed with a deep feather mattress, boasting tapestries that could be drawn against the evening chill; a pair of wooden chests, heavily carved and inlaid with copper and brass; a small table and two rush-seated chairs. Since the jakes were so far away, a close-stool was set into a niche in the stone walls, this necessary luxury surrounded by a screen of woven reeds that Aislinn had decorated with bits of ribbon and brocade.
Dunlaith had lit candles and stuck them to every surface, so that the bed was surrounded by glowing, flickering, golden light. The linen sheets on the bed were fresh; the mattress had been aired and turned; the floor rushes scattered with rose petals. Everything was in readiness for the night to come.
The laoch smoothed a hand across her shining black hair and raised an arm, sniffing. She'd taken a bath earlier, dousing herself in expensive orangeflower water that had been a gift from Elaine, but she was nervous. This evening, she and Aislinn would reach the culmination of all her careful plans; she would initiate the younger woman fully into the pleasures of lovemaking and they would, at last, be together as a truly bonded couple.
It had been no easy task and Dunlaith had exercised every ounce of patience she'd possessed getting them this far. Now, she waited for Aislinn to come to their chamber, their private world away from prying eyes, and felt no fire in her loins at all. She wanted Aislinn desperately, that much was true, but at the moment, desire took second place to anxiety. She so wanted everything to be perfect...
The door creaked open and Dunlaith glanced up, pale sapphire eyes glowing at the sight of her love.
Aislinn walked inside, shutting the door behind her. She was dressed in a barley colored robe, tied shut with a sash at the waist, and the length of her red-gold hair rippled to her knees. The soft light in the room emphasized her eyes, making those brilliant green orbs seem enormous. Aislinn scrubbed her hands on the front of her robe and looked shyly at her lover.
"By Jesu, ionuin," Dunlaith breathed, calling Aislinn 'beloved' as was her habit. "I vow you grow more beautiful by the hour."
Aislinn gave her a nervous smile. "My sorrow to disagree, a chroi, but you are the loveliest to me."
Dunlaith glowed; Aislinn had taken to calling her a chroi, meaning my heart, and every time that phrase fell from the young woman's lips, the laoch felt as if her breastbone would split from sheer affection. "Ah, sweetheart... come and sit with me, if you will."
She led Aislinn over to the bed and sat down with her upon the edge. Aislinn's palm was damp with sweat, which only endeared her to the laoch more. Dunlaith clasped her hand and said, "We've been through much together, you and I. We've dwelled beneath this roof, slept in this bed, kissed and embraced. You know I want more that that, for we've discussed it, have we not?"
Aislinn nodded, still too shy to speak. How could she explain the strange sensations that rocketed through her veins, the breathless feelings Dunlaith had caused her to experience with each little touch, the longing ache that seemed but a promise of better things to come. She wanted this moment with all her heart, wanted to give herself to the warrior she loved completely and freely, craved the pleasure she would find when she became a woman in Dunlaith's arms. She wanted all these things so much, but...
There was still a shadow of fear, a black thread that ran through her happiness. She trusted Dunlaith with her life and couldn't understand why she should feel like drawing back sometimes when the laoch touched her intimately; why she should suddenly, without warning, feel panic rising, choking her until she wanted to scream aloud. Aislinn had managed to control these occasional reactions so well that Dunlaith hadn't suspected there was a problem.
Nor would she, Aislinn vowed. Dunlaith is everything to me and I would sooner cut off my own right arm than hurt her with my foolish fears. Truly, what right have I to be so frightened of the one I love? She does nothing save love me in return and want me to be whole. So... leave off acting like a child, Aislinn of the Dreams! You know there is naught to fear with your beloved. Once this thing is done, once we have come together as in marriage, then all will be well. T'is naught but a bride's nervousness and you know full well that she would never cause you harm.
Dunlaith began slowly, capturing Aislinn's lips to share slow, deep, voluptuous kisses. Her hands, sword callused but sensitive, touched and teased, stroked and caressed, until Aislinn whimpered for more. Soon, the two cast aside their robes and lay on the bed together, limbs entwined; the smoke from the herb-infused candles was a misty haze that coiled among the tapestries, charged with perfume so heavy and sweet it made their heads spin.
Aislinn lay on her back, eyes half-closed, body thrumming as Dunlaith's clever hands and lips brought sensations she'd never felt before. She gasped, twisting in shocked pleasure, when the laoch did something with her tongue that was terribly sinful, wickedly wonderful and unbelievably good. Her hands came down of their own volition and tangled themselves in Dunlaith's silky dark hair. Sweat-slicked skin was gilded with candlelight, washed by bars of milky moonlight, patterned with dappled shadow.
Then, so swiftly and suddenly that Aislinn could not control it, that sickening feeling of panic and mortal dread began to rise. Her head tossed from side to side and she bit her lip, trying to force it down, but it was as though a demon had entered her body and taken over. Swamped with fear, breathing faster and faster, she tried to push Dunlaith away but the warrior misunderstood and clasped her closer, locking her strong arms over the girl's thighs. Now feeling utterly trapped, helpless to prevent the wave of pure terror that washed over her, Aislinn struggled, vision narrowing to a single pinpoint of light at the end of a tunnel of darkness, breath rasping in and out of oxygen starved lungs, her last shred of conscious control snapping with an almost audible twang. She began to scream thinly, the sound almost a high-pitched whistle, and struck out in pure panic, trying desperately to get away, get away, GET AWAY! Wrenching her legs out of the warrior's grasp, kicking and flailing, Aislinn was caught in the inexorable grip of pure animal instinct, fighting to survive without even comprehending her enemy.
Dunlaith was startled and reacted without thought. She avoided Aislinn's blows and, hauling herself up the bed, clamped a hand tightly over the young woman's mouth. Aislinn's eyes were wide emerald pools of fright, glistening with tears, and she struggled harder, whimpering and trying to bite. Dunlaith threw her body over the girl's, holding her down with sheer force, grabbing both of Aislinn's wrists in her free hand and pinning her to the bed. She hissed, "By Jesu! Do you want every guardsman in the castle to come a-running? Hush, now, hush!"
Aislinn's eyes rolled back in her head and she bit into the meat of Dunlaith's palm, earning a scalding oath from the laoch, who snatched her hand away from the girl's mouth. Shaking and convulsing, Aislinn began to wail in between great gulping gasps of air, a piercing, heart-wrenching sound that nevertheless scoured the warrior's already wire taut nerves rawer still.
"Calm yourself," Dunlaith said forcefully, giving Aislinn a little shake. Her strong fingers were like steel bars, locking the girl's wrists together, bruising the tender flesh. "Be calm and stop this! Now!" The warrior was getting angry and no little frightened herself. She certainly didn't want Aislinn's screams to rouse the guard - their position was compromising at best and such a confrontation would most likely end in them both being thrown off O'Ciaran lands.
She didn't understand what was wrong with Aislinn, why she was reacting so hysterically, and wondered wildly - and with no small amount of guilt - if it was something she'd done that had caused this attack. She was beginning to panic herself and the situation wasn't helped by the heavy thumping of boots on the staircase. Alerted by the noise, the guard had been roused and was coming to investigate. Dunlaith panted, the hammering of her heart echoed by the crashing thuds of men's fists upon the door. Muffled voices were raised in shouts, demanding to know if all was well.
Consequently, caught in the grip of her own mounting hysteria, Dunlaith reacted with less sensitivity and more expedience than she might have if their situation hadn't been so precarious.
Releasing Aislinn's hands for a second, she drew back and slapped the screaming girl smartly across the face, following that with a brisk backhand blow.
Rocked by the crisp slaps and already close to unconsciousness, Aislinn gave in to the blessed peace of oblivion and fainted, body relaxing bonelessly, eyes fluttering closed, that frantic breathing slowing down, returning to the normal rhythm of a deep and dreamless sleep.
To appease the guards with a story of Aislinn suffering from nightmares was the work of a moment. After they'd gone away, Dunlaith stared down at Aislinn's slack face and cursed herself for a hard hearted bitch, already regretting her actions but knowing that they couldn't be erased, would always lie between them like an unsheathed sword.
She'd struck her beloved, her ionuin. She'd raised a hand against the woman she loved. She'd hurt Aislinn more than just physically, there had been severe emotional damage as well. The trust between them was broken, never to be repaired. Although the laoch cowered to admit it, she knew their love was gone as well. It had to be. That was the only proper punishment for her crime.
All her fault, her grievous fault, her sin and everlasting shame. Mea maxima culpa.
Dunlaith knew she could never forgive herself...
And decided that Aislinn could never forgive as well.
These visions of the past were shattered by the present when a voice said softly, "Ionuin?"
Aislinn's eyes snapped open and she beheld Dunlaith standing near. She gave an involuntary start and rose from the bench, ignoring the warrior's politely offered hand. Aislinn stood with her back absolutely straight, fingers twitching the folds in the skirt of her gown into place, and stared at the floor as if it was the most fascinating thing in the universe. The laoch still called her 'beloved' and each time that word slipped unthinkingly past Dunlaith's lips, Aislinn felt as if her soul was being scourged by barbed whips.
The perversity of it was that while she hurt immeasurably, she still derived a modicum of comfort from that endearment. It was a slender thread that Aislinn hung onto as if her life and sanity depended upon it. Unable to be Dunlaith's beloved in truth, at least she could be so in habit.
The two women stood in the hall for some moments in silence, Dunlaith's manner as stiff and unyielding as a swordblade, Aislinn torn between wishing the warrior far away and hoping desperately for some sign of affection, no matter how small.
The young woman was sorely disappointed when Dunlaith cleared her throat and said, "My sorrow for disturbing you, but the lady Elaine sent me to say that she wishes you to join her in the solar as soon as it is convenient. A visitor has come to Loughnashade and she requires you to greet the honorable guest." The laoch's voice was cool and utterly neutral, as was the expression on her face. Aislinn risked a peek from the corner of her eye and this fresh evidence of indifference on the warrior's part broke Aislinn's heart all over again.
The young woman blinked back tears. Suppressing a suspicious quaver in her own voice, Aislinn replied, "Many thanks for the bringing of the message. I will join Lady Elaine now."
Without meeting Dunlaith's eyes, fearing what she might see in those icy blue orbs, Aislinn scurried out of the room as if the hounds of hell were snapping at her heels.
The warrior watched her go and sighed, slumping back against the wall. She avoided the young woman whenever possible during the day and only spoke to her if it was absolutely necessary, but Castle Loughnashade was relatively small. Confrontations could not be avoided forever and it seemed that every time Dunlaith turned around, she was tormented by the sight and sound of the woman she still loved beyond all else.
She knew Aislinn feared her - how could she not believe the evidence of her own eyes? Did not Aislinn shrink away from any contact, even the most casual? Did she not weep quietly at night when she thought the warrior was asleep? Did she not avoid meeting the laoch's eyes, cringing away as if she were a beaten hound? And when the warrior called her 'beloved', did not Aislinn flinch as if she'd been struck a savage blow? Oh, the girl concealed her terror well but not enough to keep it secret from the warrior's eyes.
Dunlaith castigated herself bitterly day and night; lying on a cold and comfortless pallet in the tower room, that room where they'd once been so happy, not more than a few feet away from her beloved but unable to act, to make things right between them, the warrior had often felt like opening her veins with a knife and ending the torture then and there.
She did not fear the fires of Hell that greeted a suicide's soul - no torment the Devil could dream up would be equal to the agony she already endured. No, however much Dunlaith craved the peace of the grave, she could not commit suicide and leave Aislinn alone, friendless and defenseless in the harsh world. The protection of the O'Ciaran was unsure; what if he and his lady had a child and cast Aislinn aside? Besides, the girl was sensitive and might do an injury to herself in misplaced blame.
I deserve to suffer as I have made Aislinn suffer. I am no coward, to shirk just punishment and flee at the first sign of trouble. I will live as I must and endure what I must. T'is the only way.
Dunlaith could not bring herself to speak; she was too ashamed of the way she'd acted, the harm she'd done. So she retreated into a chilly politeness, showing Aislinn a face of ice... but within she burned and writhed in the fires of guilt.
Elaine had noticed the sudden coolness between the two and commented upon it to Dunlaith. The warrior had conjured a thin lie from the air, blaming it on a quarrel and assuring the lady that all would be well. Elaine had been satisfied but Dunlaith knew that it would never, ever be well again.
I have lost her, the laoch thought, closing her eyes against the endless throb of pain. My ionuin is lost to me as surely as if she were dead. But though I grieve, I must never allow her to see my true feelings. Aislinn's nature is so sweet and brave that she would come back to me out of pity alone, swallowing her fear and trying to hide the fact that she finds me repulsive, a disgusting monster that does not deserve to be loved. I cannot do that to her. I cannot!
I cannot live with her nor can I live without her. Truly, I am caught between the mountain and the sea!
Dunlaith welcomed the agony that ripped her soul asunder. She knew she deserved worse for what she'd done.
She scrubbed her face with a hand and shoved unruly black bangs out of her eyes. She hadn't been eating much the last few weeks; her already lean frame had become scrawnier, ropy muscles laced with prominent veins that snaked just beneath the skin. Dunlaith had put aside her sleeveless leather vests in favor of long-sleeved, loose tunics that concealed how much weight she'd lost.
To the men she commanded, the laoch had taken on the aspect of an aesthete; a thin, pale figure whose eyes burned like pale blue flames as she drove them to the edge of exhaustion in the practice field, shouting until she was hoarse, wielding sword, spear and shield until she was on the point of collapse, insisting on perfection and turning savagely on any warrior who was not capable of achieving it. As grueling as the pace was for her men, Dunlaith was twice as hard on herself, setting up impossible, dangerous tests and pulling them off by the skin of her teeth.
Only after she'd drained the last dregs of energy did Dunlaith crawl painfully up the tower stairs to collapse on her pallet, too tired to drink, eat or think, falling into sleep only to waken to the sound of Aislinn's weeping.
Dunlaith sighed. She felt weak, her knees barely able to support her weight. Her skin felt greasy, her teeth and tongue covered with a layer of foul tasting scum. She knew she stank, too, having been too tired to bathe last night. Stale perspiration and salt made her itch and she was too apathetic to scratch, couldn't even muster up the energy to curse. Her tunic was stained and torn; the knees of her trousers ripped; the soft leather shoes she wore indoors had been gnawed by dogs and were in a disgraceful state.
The laoch was absolutely miserable...
And felt she deserved every second of it. Suffering was her meat and drink now; if she starved on such a meager diet, so much the better.
Pushing herself away from the wall with an effort, Dunlaith sought the baths. Their visitor was a highly ranked lord and she could not disgrace the O'Ciaran's household by appearing like a scruffy, scrawny scarecrow. Still, she could not help but think how Aislinn had once admired her; could not help but remember how the young woman's emerald eyes had filled with the light of love when they'd caught sight of her. Dunlaith sighed again. Those days were past; she was a martyr now, her sole purpose in life to pay for her sins.
If she could just make sure that Aislinn was taken care of, that the girl's place in life was assured, that she had a protector who could shield her from the world. Only then could Dunlaith seek to ease her suffering with a mercy stroke.
The solar was the one part of the castle claimed by Elaine Lilymaid alone. The big chamber was surrounded on three sides by windows, but the panes were scraped sheepskin instead of costly glass. Still, the translucent parchment allowed enough sun inside to ensure the room was filled with a mellow, amber glow. Carved oak chairs, deep and comfortable, were softened by plump cushions in bright colors; tables, cabinets, chests, looms and embroidery frames were masterpieces of the craftsman's work, painted and inlaid with ivory, sandalwood and cedar. The fireplace was surrounded by a silken screen from the far Orient, brought back to Loughnashade by the O'Ciaran's Crusader father, and the floor, unlike the rest of the castle, was covered not by rushes but with an intricately woven rug, also spoils of the Saracen.
It was here, in the privacy of her solar and surrounded by her women, that Elaine ran the household, saw to the weaving of cloth, the sewing of tapestries and clothing, acted as advocate in servant's disputes, and performed the all important function of hostess to her husband's guests and kin.
Aislinn slipped inside quietly, her feet making not a sound on the thick rug. Elaine and her ten serving women had drawn up chairs and stools into a rough circle; from her position, Aislinn could see the Lilymaid but nothing of the mysterious guest except the back of his head. She came further into the room but remained on the periphery, too shy to thrust herself forward. Elaine looked up and called her over; the young woman had no choice but to obey.
Elaine Lilymaid was well named; although she was past the age of eight and twenty, she was still as lithe and slender as a maiden, her skin milky white and pure as an Easter blossom. Her chestnut hair was worn in a trio of braids that fell to her ankles and her eyes were the warm blue of a summer sky. When she smiled, fine lines arched from the sides of her nose to her mouth, and a fan of faint wrinkles decorated the edges of her eyes, but she was still considered one of the most beautiful women in Eire.
Elaine gestured to Aislinn, indicating a place at her side. One of her women, Eadaoin, glared at the pretty red-head and yielded her chair with ill grace. Elaine chose not to notice.
"Ah, at last! My lord, this is Aislinn, of whom I have been speaking." The Lilymaid beamed with pleasure and patted the girl's hand. "A chara, this is Lord Cairbh Gaduigh of Rath Meargach, which is in Mug's Half. He is recently widowed, poor man, and will be staying with us a little while."
Aislinn kept her eyes cast politely downward but peered at the man from beneath her lashes. She couldn't put her finger on what his name signified but she was sure that he came from noble, honorable stock. His lands were in the southern half of Eire and called the Fortress of the Green Spears; this, too, was vaguely familiar. Altogether she had the feeling that she ought to know Lord Cairbh and was mildly embarrassed when she couldn't place how or when she'd met the man before.
The lord's appearance was unforgettable and befitting the scion of a wealthy house. He was richly dressed in a brocade tunic and velvet trousers, all of a smoky plum color and embroidered in black with touches of bronze. His hair was bright gold and worn as long as a woman's, bound up into a single braid that swung near the backs of his knees, and a sheaf of curls bobbed over one eye. His face was fine boned, the skin a pure ivory that reminded Aislinn of fresh cream, and his crimson lips were sensuously full. When he spoke, he revealed teeth that were whiter than new snow, and the scent that wafted from his skin was like wildflowers and musk. Lord Cairbh was the most beautiful man she'd ever seen; he had a languorous air about him, a lazy grace that was both feminine and feline, and Aislinn's heart began to beat faster when he clasped her hand and gave her greeting in a high, sweet voice that sent chills down her spine.
When she brought herself to look him in the face and return his greeting, she nearly gasped and had to suppress the urge to snatch her hand from his grasp. Lord Cairbh's eyes were... strange. Pale as winter-blasted bilberries, a washed out violet veiled in the misty beginnings of cataracts, they were rheumy and bloodshot, the lids covered in crepey skin and innumerable wrinkles.
Sensing her disquiet, the beautiful lord said in his sweet voice, "My dear mistress Aislinn... forgive me for startling you. I suffer from an inherited weakness of the eyes, you see. I hope I did not frighten you too much." He gazed at her dreamily and she felt her heart melt with pity for this poor young man, so perfect in every aspect yet possessing a such cursed flaw.
Her gaze transferred to his hand, which was curled around hers in a cool and gentle welcoming embrace. He wore no gloves; his hands were small with long, narrow fingers that bore rings of gold set with glimmering jewels. The nails were immaculately manicured, smooth and polished until they gleamed like diamonds; it was clear that Lord Cairbh had done no heavy physical labor in his life.
He pursed his lips and said, "Lady Elaine did not exaggerate, mistress. I had heard that Eadaoin Nemthenga is reputed to have the most beautiful eyes in all of Eire but the reports were mistaken. T'is the lovely bright emeralds that God has given you which entrance me utterly, Aislinn."
Aislinn blushed and pulled her hand away. He continued to stare at her and she felt her cheeks beginning to burn under his steady regard. "I thank you for the compliment, sir, but in truth, t'is more than I deserve."
"Nonsense!" the lord said, much to the fuming Eadaoin's fury. "Lady Elaine... do you not find mistress Aislinn's eyes to be perfection itself? The color, clarity, size... all wonderfully wrought. I vow I could search through all of Eire without catching a glimpse of eyes half so fine."
Lady Elaine beamed upon her visitor, clearly bewitched by his charm and womanish good looks. "I must agree with your lordship," she replied. "Aislinn is indeed a beauty and much beloved by both my husband and myself."
"Are you not married, then? Have you no sweetheart?" Lord Cairbh teased, making Aislinn blush brighter. "Why, I fancy every handsome rogue on the island lies panting at your feet, mistress. You cannot take a step out of doors without tripping over some ardent young swain, or visit the jakes without finding a flower bearing hopeful lurking in the brush!" He laughed, a rippling giggle that was more like the notes of a flute than any human noise.
Aislinn felt herself warming to the lord despite her embarrassment at his flirtatious attentions. "Nay, lord, I am not yet wed," she said softly. "Nor have I any man's sole regard."
Lord Cairbh smiled in a lazy, feline fashion and relaxed more fully into his chair. "T'is a shame no man has captured your heart, a chara, though t'is not for lack of trying, I think." He lifted up a hand and toyed with a stray golden curl that had escaped his braid. "I am surprised some rich and handsome lord has not yet snapped you up."
"I have no dowry, lord," Aislinn replied. "And my blood is... well, t'is not as good as it could be."
"A peasant! Good Lord!" Lord Cairbh goggled in an exaggerated fashion, earning peals of laughter from the women. Even Aislinn was forced to guffaw at the silly expression on his face. "Oh, dear. I shall have to burn this coat, much to my tailor's wrath, for he just finished it a fortnight ago!"
Elaine shook her head. "Nay, my lord!" she said, laughing still. "Aislinn comes from noble stock, I assure you, though she is an orphan now." The lady had the glimmering of an idea; if Lord Cairbh was interested enough in Aislinn to propose a marriage alliance... well, that would be a fine thing, indeed. The mere contemplation of a matchmaking coup such as this made Elaine almost giddy with delight.
Looking at Aislinn's glowing, smiling face as she continued chatting and gently flirting with Lord Cairbh, Elaine felt almost as if she was swelling with satisfaction. By Jesu, it could be a love match! The lord was intrigued, that much was certain. But if that could be turned to infatuation...
Elaine sat back, watching and plotting and scheming. If her husband found out about her meddling, he would be infuriated, but she would risk his wrath for Aislinn's sake. It was high time the girl was married; she was certainly of an age to begin her own household and her training with the nuns of St. Ailbe's would stand her in good stead. And the lord was handsome and charming enough, and acted like the sort who would spoil his wife beyond measure. Aislinn would be very happy with him, she was sure of it. And they would certainly make beautiful children together...
The Lilymaid cleared her throat, interrupting the couple's chatter. "Aislinn, a chara... p'raps you can show the lord the gardens and the grounds. T'is a fine, sunny day with no rain in sight, and I've heard that taking a walking turn before dining is good for the digestion."
Lord Cairbh rose, making a little bow in Elaine's direction. "Quite right, my lady," he purred. Extending a hand, he helped Aislinn to her feet. "Although I am sure that no flower in the lady's garden is as beautiful as you, mistress, we should nevertheless take this good advice. And besides, I am eager to see the grounds of Loughnashade, which I've heard are worthy of great praise. Shall we?"
Aislinn nodded and led him from the room. Elaine watched them go - the petite and pretty red-head with the tall, slender and inhumanly graceful golden-haired lord - and her smile grew wider still as she began to calculate the cost of a grand wedding.
Even Eadaoin's mean-spirited complaints about Aislinn's conduct couldn't spoil the Lilymaid's good humor.
If she had her way - and if the Holy Mother answered her prayers - Aislinn would be married before the new moon's turning.
Cleaned up and wearing a brand new set of clothes, Dunlaith felt better physically but she still ached emotionally. She smoothed the front of her peacock blue tunic with a hand; scrolling bands of racing deer had been embroidered around the collar, cuffs and hem, all Aislinn's handiwork. Her trousers were in a blue, brown and yellow plaid, decorated with bronze buttons and gathered below the knee with ribbons. With her black hair pulled away from her face with a silver ring and a massive silver torq around her neck, Dunlaith was the picture of a valued servant of a powerful lord.
She missed the weight of the leather baldric she habitually wore but her scabbard and sword had been put away in the guard's quarters at the orders of the O'Ciaran. With such a noble guest in residence, the lord of Loughnashade did not want to risk offending the man with a show of arms. Dunlaith had seen this Lord Cairbh from a distance and thought it odd that he'd had no escort, as befitting a gentleman of high rank, but she'd shrugged it off as unimportant.
Crossing the gardens on her way to the postern gate, Dunlaith was startled to see Aislinn walking with the strange lord. Their heads were close together and she could clearly hear the young woman's laugh. The sound was almost foreign to her; she hadn't heard Aislinn's voice raised in mirth since...
Dunlaith thrust the thought away. Creeping to a nearby hedge, she concealed herself behind it. Illogical as it was, the laoch felt as if she was intruding on a private moment; jealousy rose up, swamping her common sense and all but turning her vision green. She suddenly wanted to know exactly what was going on between Aislinn and Lord Cairbh and as she watched them laughing and talking as if they were the most intimate of friends, the grinding of Dunlaith's teeth was nearly audible.
Her pale blue eyes narrowed when the lord drew nearer, making a joke in a drawling tone that infuriated the jealous warrior. This fellow is more a maiden than Aislinn, the warrior thought in disgust. Soft as a rabbit's belly, faugh! and pretty as an unbreasted girl. I'm thinking he prefers a good stiff pole to a wet fur muff in his bed when the lust's upon him!
She grinned at the thought but her smile faded when Aislinn sat down on a nearby bench and patted the stone surface in a clear invitation to the lord to sit down. He did so, placing himself so close that their thighs touched. They spoke seriously for a while and from the snatches of conversation that Dunlaith could hear, the lord was gently urging Aislinn to tell him of her history, her family.
To the laoch's shock and surprise, Aislinn did just that. She omitted the real nature of the relationship between herself and Dunlaith but that was the only subject she didn't touch upon. After a while she began to weep quietly and Lord Cairbh put an arm around her shaking shoulders. Dunlaith couldn't hear what he was murmuring to her but it seemed to give the girl comfort. Shaking her head, Aislinn continued until he'd heard the entire story from beginning to end.
The sun was dropping down towards the horizon when the young woman finished. By then, Dunlaith's legs were frozen with cramp and there were shooting pains in her back from holding her position so long. At last, Aislinn and Lord Cairbh hugged and the warrior's heart almost burst asunder.
The two walked out of the gardens, back to the castle, and Dunlaith blew out a breath and rolled over, massaging her calves. Her jealousy drained away in an instant, leaving her cold and numb. Although they'd just met, Lord Cairbh had already wormed his way into Aislinn's affections, and it was clear that the girl hadn't minded his attentions at all. Why, she'd behaved as if they were old friends... or long time lovers.
The laoch felt tears welling up in her eyes but in a way, this new attachment of Aislinn's was a relief. She knew the lord was recently widowed, although precisely how she'd come by that information the warrior couldn't say. Dunlaith knew that beside his stunning beauty, fashionable clothes and refined manner, she would appear an uncouth oaf; she was no match for the man in any way. And he was rich, with good lands, well able to support a woman in comfort and style. It was clear that Cairbh had come to Loughnashade to go a-wifing and it was equally clear that his choice had fallen upon Aislinn. The two had a connection, an instant ease with one another that was rare.
Was Aislinn in love with Lord Cairbh? It was too early to tell but Dunlaith felt sure that such a declaration was not far off. After all, hadn't she hurt the girl to such an extent that any feelings Aislinn might have felt for the laoch were dead?
If she chooses another, the blame falls squarely upon me. T'was I that destroyed our love, betrayed her trust, Dunlaith thought. She stared up at the sky and blinked away tears. She couldn't abandon Aislinn but if the young woman married... well then, t'would be a good thing for my ionuin and myself, besides. If I were sure she'd be taken care of, wanting nothing, I could p'raps begin to heal. Or mayhap I'll lay down in my grave and die of sorrow.
She rolled her head from side to side. No matter. T'is best that I watch and wait. If the lord's intentions are honorable, then so be it. T'is fated to be so and I cannot blame Aislinn for turning to another.
Dunlaith felt resolved. For the first time since that terrible night, she was focused, her goal clear. Although the idea of losing Aislinn cut like a jagged sword, she would do what was best for the girl. She loved her still, would always love her, but Aislinn's happiness meant more to her than anything else.
If she loves him, she will go with him, and none will say her nay. I swear it!
Although there was a certain amount of satisfaction and relief in this resolution, Dunlaith still felt as if she'd swallowed broken glass.
In her room at the top of the tower, Aislinn shut the door and whirled around, pressing her back against the solid wooden surface. Her face was flushed and she couldn't stop grinning. Lord Cairbh was the most fascinating man she'd ever met in her life. Granted, she hadn't had much experience in the world, but still, the way he spoke; the good breeding apparent in every chivalrous gesture; the compliment of his undivided attention; his sensitivity and charm... Aislinn had never experienced anything like it and she felt dizzy, happy and in such high spirits that she wanted to shout, laugh and dance, all at the same time.
Sadness had been her constant companion lately; the sheer relief of being somebody's cherished companion was so great that it made her giddy.
She hadn't meant to blurt out her life's story; after all, they'd had barely an hour's aquaintance. Yet under the lord's gentle persuation, she'd found herself telling him things that she'd kept secret for so long. Her father's abuse, the escape engineered by Dunlaith, her loss of memory and life with the nuns... everything except what had happened between herself and the laoch. That much, at least, she kept to herself. Every other aspect of her life was given to him freely; she'd unburdened herself with few reservations and by St. Brigid! He'd not only lent a sympathetic ear and a strong shoulder but had seemed to understand, to accept without judgment.
Aislinn already considered him a good friend.
If Lord Cairbh wasn't a man, I'd say I've finally found the sister I always wanted! Aislinn thought with dizzy delight. She flung herself onto the bed with a squeal.
It was such a relief to be able to talk to someone again. She sorely missed the closeness she used to share with Dunlaith, and Cairbh filled that void perfectly. She'd been too overawed to speak to Lady Elaine familiarly and the serving women were a closely knit lot who resented outsiders. The lord was a godsend to the lonely young woman who'd felt friendless for a long time.
He's so pretty, much prettier than I am. And so well bred! And so clever! He's already promised to pick out the fabric for a new gown for me and he'll design it as well. Aislinn's face ached with smiling but she couldn't stop. All thoughts the warrior had been driven clear out of her mind until she suddenly found herself thinking with a giggle, T'is a sure bet that Dunlaith wouldn't like him...
That sobered her quickly enough.
She still loved Dunlaith will all her heart and nothing - not even a man as fascinating as Lord Cairbh - would ever change that. But the laoch no longer loved her; that much was certain.
Does she not avoid me at every turn? When is the last time that we've exchanged more than two words together? I ache for what we used to have but the ease of our loving is gone. I did this; I drove her away with my stupid fears. I blame Dunlaith not; nay, not even for the blows she struck. T'was no less than I deserved, acting like child frightened into fits by a shadow. Were I saddled with such a silly cow for a lover, my regard would wither, too.
It hurt - oh, by St. Brigid it hurt! But Aislinn was too ashamed, too fearful that the trouble between them was a direct result of their sinning against God. For all her brave words to Mother Bebhinn when she'd left St. Ailbe's, the girl still couldn't help but feel that the disasterous turn their love had taken was the curse of a vengeful Father.
I cannot help myself; I must love her or die! Still... she loves me not. I am a burden weighing her down, useless and foolish and oh! if only I could leave. Then she would be free to find another. T'is only her honor that keeps her tied to me.
The next fortnight was pure hell for Dunlaith and a taste of heaven for Aislinn.
The beautiful Lord Cairbh was attentive to the point of near slavishness, insisting on sitting next to Aislinn at the evening meal and sharing her trencher, goblet and salt roll, cutting her meat and complimenting her at every turn. He followed her into the garden every day, carrying a shawl in case she grew cold, a fan should the day prove too warm, sweetmeats in the pocket of his coat should she be hungry and a flask of honeyed wine to quench her thirst. He was the first to greet her with a tray of milk and cakes in the morning and carried the nightcandle to her chamber when it was time to retire. Lord Cairbh was sweet, eager to please and so very appealing that Aislinn began to forget the strangeness of his old man's eyes, seeing them only as a familiar part of a face that grew prettier and more desirable every day.
She didn't love him, not in the way she loved Dunlaith. But the laoch was avoiding her and Cairbh was there every day, almost smothering her with his affection, his attention, his absolute adoration. Each time they were seen together, the Lady Elaine grew more swollen with satisfaction and had already made tentative overtures to Aislinn, trying to determine whether the girl favored a match with the widowed lord.
Now Aislinn was in her room in the tower, sorting through some embroidery thread. She had pleaded a headache to Lady Elaine and Cairbh, wishing to be alone for a while. It had taken all her powers of diplomacy to convince the doting lord that she wished for no company or medicines or food or amusements; it seemed the lord was determined not to be parted from her and it was only with the greatest reluctance that he'd acquiesced to giving her an hour or two of peace and solitude.
Earlier that afternoon in the garden, Cairbh had fallen to his knees with a passionate proposal of marriage, going so far as to press his dry lips to her mouth and clasp her tightly in an embrace that was oddly cool for such intimacy. Aislinn had been shocked; not by his presumption but by her reaction. She'd felt nothing at all, no spark, no fire - just sudden revulsion and the desire to thrust him away. Aislinn had suppressed that urge, willing herself to feel something, anything, for this beautiful, rich and powerful man who was her friend.
Nothing. In the circle of his arms, with spicy perfume rising from his skin, that lyrical voice murmuring endearments and promises, his soft and golden curls tickling her cheek, all she'd felt was cold and dead inside. She'd barely been able to gasp a polite excuse and tear herself away from him, fleeing to the kitchen garden and vomiting behind the hedge. Afterward, Aislinn had been sick and dizzy, feverish and frail. Her ghostly pale face, with two hectic spots of color burning on her cheeks, had been enough to convince the Lilymaid of her indisposition.
She did not love him and it sickened her that she might have led him to believe otherwise.
What sort of evil dwells in my soul? Aislinn thought, savagely tearing at the tangle of thread in her lap. That poor man... what am I to do?
It was clear that Lady Elaine wanted this match to come about. In rejecting Cairbh, Aislinn would not only hurt the lord but also disappoint a woman who had been generosity itself. She had no idea how the O'Ciaran felt but was sure that he'd be happy to have the responsibility for a kinless foundling off his shoulders.
Aislinn felt trapped. On the one hand, she did not want to disappoint anyone. But on the other... there was Dunlaith to consider.
Sweet Jesu! My heart trembles at the thought of leaving her. I cannot say and I cannot go... Aislinn of the Dreams I was, but now should I be called Aislinn of the Sorrows.
The door opened and she looked up from her task, brightly colored threads wound around her fingers and trailing in the folds of her gown.
Dunlaith came into the room; the laoch's face was pale and shone with sweat. Her pale eyes glittered with some strange emotion and her hands trembled.
Aislinn sucked in a breath, preparing to make her apologies and leave, but was forestalled by the warrior's upraised hand.
Dunlaith's face contorted with rage. "You little whore!" she spat, and Aislinn was so shocked she could not make an immediate reply. The laoch slammed the door shut behind her and stalked into the room.
"I've been watching you and that lord," the warrior seethed. Her lips drew away from her teeth in a snarl. "Aye, you harlot! I saw the two of you together in the garden, sharing kisses. What else have you given him, eh? What have you given him that you could not give to me?!!"
Aislinn hastily shoved the embroidery thread onto the floor and stood, measuring the distance between herself and the door. But Dunlaith was between the girl and freedom, and for the first time, Aislinn began to feel an icy fear of the laoch welling up..
Dunlaith was far from finished. "Whore, by Christ! You lift your skirts and spread your thighs for that pretty, poxy boy-chaser! Jezebel! Whore! Damnu ort!" With each expletive she came closer, forcing Aislinn to retreat further into the room.
Aislinn twisted her skirt between her hands and stammered, "It wasn't what you think! I swear it!"
Dunlaith sneered. "Filthy liar! I saw you! Or p'raps you're thinking my eyes are liars as well!"
"Nay, I swear!" Aislinn was close to weeping. "He asked me to marry him!" she blurted, flinching as the laoch's hand swung up to deliver a blow. "T'was naught but a kiss and he wants to marry me!"
Dunlaith's face paled even further and her eyelashes fluttered. "W-w-what did you say?" she croaked, stepping back a pace.
Aislinn was crying in earnest now, tears sliding down her cheeks. "He asked me to marry him!" she wailed, sinking to her knees and bowing her head.
The laoch stood over her, mouth working. At last, Dunlaith said hoarsely, "Did you accept?" When Aislinn didn't answer, the warrior bent over and screamed, "Did you accept him!!?"
The frightened maiden sobbed louder.
Cords stood out in the laoch's neck and a vein began to throb in her forehead. She grabbed the girl by her upper arms and hauled her up off the floor by main strength. Aislinn screamed and struggled but Dunlaith held her in place and shook her until her teeth rattled.
There was an insane light in the warrior's blue eyes and it struck absolute terror into the girl's heart.
"Did you accept him?!!" Dunlaith roared.
Terrified almost out of her wits, the red-haired girl gulped and cried hysterically, "Yes! Yes! YES!!"
Dunlaith dropped her as if she'd turned red hot. Aislinn landed on her hands and knees; she glared up at the frozen figure of the warrior and hissed, "Yes! I'll have him as husband! For God's truth, he loves me and would never, ever strike me! He's more a gentleman than you, Dunlaith of the Burning! And I hate you! I hate you! I hate you!"
Aislinn broke down into weeping once again, huddled on the floor with her skirts pooling around her knees, head in her hands and loosened strands of red-gold hair spilling over her shoulders like flames.
Dunlaith stared at her for another heartbeat, then turned around and walked out of the room without another word.
Aislinn cried until her sides were sore and her heart felt like bursting. She cried until there were no more tears and her body was racked by dry, heaving sobs. She cried until it felt like the misery of the world was gnawing at her soul. She cried because she knew she could no longer deceive herself - the love of her life was gone, never to return.
Aislinn mourned for shattered illusions and the death of dreams. She had made her decision; she could no longer live with a woman who loathed her as much as Dunlaith.
She would marry Lord Cairbh... though the thought of such a union brought little joy to the utterly wretched, broken hearted girl.
He wants to marry me...
Those words had pierced the laoch to the core, fanning the flames of fury like nothing else. The idea that the lord had put his hands on Aislinn had been enough to drive Dunlaith into a killing frenzy but the rest of the girl's answer had extinguished anger in an instant, leaving the warrior frozen and numb.
I'll have him as husband... he would never strike me... I hate you!
Dunlaith pushed a lock of black hair off her forehead. She'd never been so angry in her life as when she'd come barreling up the tower stairs to confront Aislinn. The laoch closed her eyes. She was past rage now and felt so weary she could've died on the spot.
Oh, Aislinn! I am a monster! Dunlaith thought. What have I done to you, my inouin? You who are my life... I've hurt you worse this time than before. My oath to God, I cannot blame you for seeking the love of another. Cairbh will take good care of you... and you were right. He loves you and would never raise a hand to you in anger. Unlike me.
The warrior swallowed, feeling faint. It is better this way, she thought. Better that Aislinn should marry, keep her own household, bear children and watch them grow. I can never give her these things. Nay, she deserves to be spoiled, pampered and protected. Better Cairbh than an ill tempered wretch like me. I love her... so I must let her go.
The more she thought about it, the more she sought arguments to convince herself, the more Dunlaith came to feel that she was right. Marrying Cairbh and leaving Loughnashade was the best thing for Aislinn...
Even if that joining made her heart break into a thousand bitter pieces.
Lord Cairbh almost wept when Aislinn met him privately to tell him she was accepting his proposal.
"Oh, my dearest mistress!" he cried, sinking to his knees despite the girl's protests. His rheumy violet eyes swam with moisture and he clasped her hand tightly, pressing his dry lips to her palm. "You have made me the happiest man in Christendom!"
Aislinn endured the clammy embrace. "When shall we publish the banns?" She couldn't bring herself to look him in the face; she was not marrying Cairbh for love and feared he might sense her reservations, no matter how carefully she hid them.
Still, he is happy. The O'Ciaran and his lady will be happy. And Dunlaith... Aislinn caught her breath and squeezed her eyes shut against the sudden pang. My warrior will be happier when I am gone.
She already regretted her angry outburst but knew that the words, once spoken, could not be taken back. God help me, the girl thought. If ever Dunlaith harbored the smallest feeling for me, then that is dead, slaughtered by my stupid pride and willful tongue. T'is true my marriage is a lie but p'raps in time I will learn to love him.
Aislinn glanced down at Cairbh, who was staring at her in adoration and kissing her hand. At the very least, I will make him a good wife. He will never have cause to complain. I will shut my feelings for Dunlaith away, bury them deeply and try to forget. In honor, I can do no less.
After her acceptance, there was a whirlwind of activity as preparations were made for their joining. Contrary to custom, the lord decided that there was no need to publish banns in church and wait a further three weeks; he wanted to be wed as quickly as possible so he and Aislinn could begin the long journey to his lands. Oddly, Lady Elaine and the O'Ciaran made no objection; instead, they followed Cairbh's lead and allowed him to have his way in all things.
As neither bride nor groom had any living family, no guests were invited save the lord and lady of Loughnashade and whatever retainers wished to attend and witness the ceremony. Aislinn's wedding gown was crafted from one of Elaine's old dresses, cut down and altered with trimmings of ermine around neckline and long, pointed sleeves. The rich, crimson brocade fabric suited Aislinn's coloring and the tightly laced bodice made the most of her womanly curves.
A bare two weeks after Cairbh's proposal, Aislinn stared at her wavering reflection in the precious pier-glass mirror in Elaine's bedchamber and could not believe her eyes. A bride looked back at her with sad, emerald green eyes; the thin white veil that covered her hair, held in place with a crescent diadem of gold, reminded her of the nun's habits worn at St. Ailbe's. She turned away, thrusting frozen hands into the deep sleeves of her gown, and began taking deep breaths to ward off tears.
After a soft scratch on the door, Lady Elaine poked her head into the room. "Are you ready, a chara?" The Lilymaid was splendidly dressed in a rich gown whose black satin sleeves had been slashed to show the scarlet underlay beneath. Loveknots of gold braid looped over the bodice and hem; as jewels, she wore the diamond and heart-shaped ruby buttons that her husband had given her, sewn in a straight line down the front of her dress and decorating the wrists and shoulders.
Aislinn nodded; her gown was heavy and she should have been sweating but all she felt was cold to the core. "Yes," she whispered.
Lady Elaine thrust a prayer book into the girl's hands. "The priest is waiting in the chapel. Do you want some warm wine before we go?"
Aislinn shook her head.
The Lilymaid smiled and touched Aislinn's face. "Don't be affrighted," she said. "All virgin brides are nervous. But the marriage duties are no hardship, believe me. Just do as your husband bids you and all will be well."
The girl could not reply; what was there to say? T'was her hand that had crafted this coil and there was no turning back. Clutching the prayer book so desperately that her nails left crescent shaped scars on the leather binding, Aislinn followed Lady Elaine to the chapel, where her husband-to-be waited impatiently.
The ceremony went by in a blur. Among the sweet scent of summer flowers and the smoky odor of incense, with the priest's voice droning in her ears, Aislinn knelt when she was told, repeated the priest's words in a cool little voice, tilted up her face to receive her new husband's kiss. She felt nothing. It was as if her body was being driven by an outside force while her mind was wrapped in cotton wool.
Leaving the chapel arm in arm with Lord Cairbh, Aislinn was jolted from her reverie by the sight of Dunlaith's strained, white face. The laoch stood behind a small knot of well wishers, stooping slightly and trying to be inconspicuous, but the woman's unusual height made her stand out all the more. The new bride stopped dead in her tracks, earning an annoyed frown from her husband.
Aislinn blinked. Turning to Cairbh, she said with a trembling smile, "I beg you to excuse me, my lord." The words nearly stuck in her craw but she knew she'd have to get used to addressing Cairbh in a properly wifely manner. "I see someone I must speak to. Please... t'will take but a moment and I will join you at the wedding breakfast."
Cairbh's lips drew tight for a bare second and then the lids of his eyes lowered. "Very well, wife," he replied without a trace of anger in his sweet fluting voice. "But mark me, we leave directly after the breakfast. Do not be late. I vow, I will not eat a bite of food unless I have your precious eyes to gaze upon."
Aislinn stayed where she was until he had gone back into the castle, accompanied by Lady Elaine and the O'Ciaran. As soon as he'd disappeared, she walked over to Dunlaith; the laoch looked left and right, as if seeking a means of escape, then sighed with resignation and stood firm.
The warrior looked terrible; her eyes were bloodshot, the rims raw and red. "I wish you joy," Dunlaith croaked. She'd lurked in a dark corner of the church during the ceremony, telling herself over and over again that the marriage was in Aislinn's best interests. Despite these intentions, the warrior had still wished the ground would gape apart and swallow her whole. Sweet Mother Mary! She loved Aislinn and always would.
I must let her go, Dunlaith thought, forcing herself to be calm and in control. T'is better this way. Once she is gone, I can learn to live without her. All the thoughts she'd once harbored about suicide were gone.
I am a warrior trained to bear the sharpest pain and should not be acting like a child who leaps from a cliff to avoid a bee sting! I am strong as a river and flexible as a willow; this storm will pass over and though I be not whole in heart or soul, I will still have life and breath enough to see my natural end of years. To take the coward's way is not in my nature.
I am strong. I will endure.
From somewhere, Dunlaith found the courage to straighten up and smile slightly.
Aislinn took a deep breath. She had precious little time and did not want to waste a second. "I have something for you," she said. Reaching into one of the voluminous sleeves of her gown, she withdrew a small flat package wrapped in linen and handed it to Dunlaith. "We're leaving after breakfast; my lord says that his lands are several days travel away and he wants to get started as soon as possible."
Dunlaith nodded. Her fingers picked nervously at the linen wrappings until she'd unveiled Aislinn's gift. Nestled in her palm was a silver chain with a crescent moon pendant attached. Closer inspection revealed the pendant was actually a lock of Aislinn's red-gold hair, wrapped in silver wire.
The girl continued, "You've been a good friend and I wanted you to have something to remember me by."
Dunlaith's lips trembled. She raised her eyes and there was such anguish in her face that Aislinn had to look away. The laoch rasped, "My thanks. T'is beautiful." She struggled to suppress a sudden rush of tears and cursed herself inwardly for being so weak.
Aislinn felt a tearing ache in her chest. With the little money she'd taken with her from St. Ailbe's, a gift from Mother Bebhinn, she'd bought the chain and had the pendant made by a traveling goldsmith. She'd intended to give it to her beloved warrior at their joining, a symbol of her love. Now that they were parting, the giving was bittersweet, indeed.
Dunlaith put the chain over her head and centered the pendant on her blue tunic. "My sorrow but I've nothing... wait." Drawing a dagger, she grabbed a thick lock of her black hair and sawed at it with the blade. Then she laid the piece of hair into the linen square and tied the corners together, making a little bundle which she presented to Aislinn.
"T'is not so grand as yours but the thought's the same. To remember me by," Dunlaith said.
Aislinn bit her lip and tucked the package into the bodice of her gown. "I must go," she whispered, unwilling to leave yet knowing that her duty lay elsewhere. This part of her life was drawing to a close; her new husband would be waiting.
Dunlaith leaned down and her lips brushed Aislinn's cheek. "Luck to you, ionuin," she said softly.
Almost trembling and unable to bear anymore, Aislinn whirled around and fled to the castle, crimson brocade skirts flying around her ankles, her white veil billowing about her face.
The warrior watched her go, a hand on the silver pendant that lay upon her breast.
There were no more words to say, no more gestures to make; the thing was done, the lovers parted.
Much later, when Aislinn was being helped up on her horse by her new husband, she looked in vain for Dunlaith among the crowd that had gathered to wish the couple good-bye.
She was surprised that it hurt so much that the laoch was not there.
Dunlaith spent the rest of the day in a fog of misery, barely tasting the great feast that the Lilymaid and her husband had ordered. Afterwards, instead of enjoying the minstrel's music and the storyteller's tales like the rest of Loughnashade, she made her weary way up the tower steps to the room she'd shared with Aislinn.
All of the girl's things were gone, including the chest that had held Aislinn's dresses. With a small cry, the laoch noticed a wooden comb on the bed; she'd carved that with her own hands as a Midwinter gift and had taken much pleasure in watching Aislinn pull the comb through her long, red-gold hair. It had been forgotten in the rush to pack everything for the wedded couple's leave-taking.
The warrior was suddenly tired, so very tired...
Dunlaith collapsed on the bed and curled up into a ball around the comb. The scent of Aislinn's skin, a sort of spicy musk, still permeated the sheets and rose up into a faint cloud around her. She wriggled out of her tunic and crumpled it up into a ball, which she shoved under her head. The heavy silver pendant was cool between her breasts and she closed her fist around it.
The laoch missed the soft silky warmth of Aislinn lying next to her, of the girl's back nestled against her breasts. She missed the feathery caresses, wine-spiked kisses and gentle murmurs in the dark.
Her ionuin no longer.
As the sun slowly sank behind the hills, igniting the diamond glitters of the Lake of Jewels, Dunlaith fell into an exhausted sleep, dreaming of twining Aislinn's hair around her fingers and losing her soul to a bewitching pair of emerald green eyes.
Awakening the next morning, Dunlaith shook her head gingerly and rolled out of bed. She didn't remember drinking at all the previous evening but by Jesu! she felt as if she'd fairly wallowed in hippocras and drowned in uiscebeatha, the potent water of life.
Knowing Aislinn was gone forever made her feel no better. She would never love another the way she loved her red-haired ionuin; Dunlaith's emotional wounds still bled but at least she would have the chance to heal, no matter how imperfectly. Love was lost but life went on.
She lifted the pendant to her lips and kissed it, tickling her lip with the lock of Aislinn's hair that was wrapped within its silver prison.
To remember me by...
With a sigh, Dunlaith ran her hands through her dark hair and decided it was time to start living again.
After splashing a little cold water on her face and donning a fresh tunic, Dunlaith made her way downstairs, trying not to moan as each step she took made her head feel as if it was going to explode.
Judging from the slow way the servants were moving as they went about their tasks, as well as the green faces and bloodshot eyes, the laoch knew she wasn't the only one who'd indulged too much. She nodded carefully to one Lady Elaine's women, who was carrying a shallow dish of porridge with an averted face. "Fine wedding, wasn't it?"
The woman gave her an astonished look. "What are you talking about? We've had no wedding at Loughnashade, not since the Lilymaid was joined to our lord these many years ago. Faugh!"
This response shocked Dunlaith into speechlessness. Before she could gather her scattered wits and formulate a question, the lady-in-waiting was gone, sashaying down the corridor to Lady Elaine's bedchamber.
Dunlaith grabbed an old man by the arm. "Was there not a wedding here yesterday?" she demanded.
The ancient retainer blinked. "Nay, nay, my lady." He wet his lips nervously and glanced at his arm, where Dunlaith's fingers were biting into the flesh. "Not 'less you mean my Milly weddin' Josh the shepherd's boy, but that were three years ago, praise God."
The laoch let him go and turned away; the old man scurried away, casting frightened glances over his shoulder, but she did not notice. Had the world gone mad?
The lord of Loughnashade was walking towards her, a slight frown upon his face. His chestnut hair was swept up off his forehead and clipped short in the back, emphasizing his high forehead and bull neck. The chief of the O'Ciaran clan was a short, thickset man whose muscles had acquired a layer of fat from good living but he was still solid, quick and a good hand with sword or lance. Although he preferred plain, dark brown homespun to the sumptuous materials the Lilymaid flaunted in her dresses, there was still enough braid, embroidery and gold trim on the dagged sleeves of his tunic to indicate his high rank and importance within his own walls.
"My lord!" Dunlaith called, hastening up to him.
His mild hazel eyes looked at her with polite inquiry. "Yes?"
The warrior wiped beads of sweat from her forehead. "Did... I mean, was there..." She stopped and swallowed while the lord made encouraging noises. Finally, she blurted out, "Was there a wedding here yesterday? Between Aislinn and Lord Cairbh Gaduigh?"
The O'Ciaran's brows drew together in a frown. "Do you mean to insult me, laoch? But no... t'is the wine talking, I wager. We were all a bit baiht 'sy jough last night. Go and cool your head, get something in your stomach besides drink, eh? I'll be wanting to speak to you later about the northern border. There've been a few bandit raids that are making my yeomen quiver in their breeks."
He started to walk away but Dunlaith adroitly stepped in front of him. "My lord... are you certain of what you say?"
"Do you name me liar?" It was clear that he was getting annoyed at her importuning.
"Nay, my lord. Of course not." Dunlaith moved to one side to allow him to pass, calling after him desperately, "You know no one named Aislinn? None named Cairbh?"
The O'Ciaran stopped again and chuffed through his nose. "Dunlaith Breanda, you have served me faithfully and well for many years, and if it were not that I know you are still tipsy with drink, I would have you beaten for insolence. I know none who bear the name of Aislinn and furthermore, I am not yet so desperate or dishonorable that I would call a corpse thief my friend. Now go about your duties, laoch, and try my patience no further till you're sober."
Dunlaith watched him go, her heart beating rapidly. Corpse thief! That was the meaning of Cairbh's name! She could have kicked herself. Why hadn't she realized that sooner? Unless...
A heavy sense of dread settled in her breast.
Oh, sweet Mother of God! Dire enchantments! What terrible coil have I driven my ionuin into?
Discreet inquiries among the servants and guards of Loughnashade revealed that no one remembered either Aislinn or Lord Cairbh. They did not recall a wedding; instead, their sketchy memories were of some kind of celebration but none could say why the castle had thrown a feast. They could describe the food and drink in detail; a few were able to conjure up fuzzy images of the minstrel and storyteller. But of the wedding itself - and of the bride and groom - all professed ignorance.
Dunlaith was nearly driven out of her mind by fear and frustration. Despite the fact that Aislinn had lived at Loughnashade for more than a year, none of the people, from highest to lowest, were able to remember her. It was as if she never existed.
Only the laoch could recall the beautiful young girl with emerald eyes and hair like a Beltane bonfire.
Stranger still, all recollection of the pretty, languorous lord with the golden hair, sweet voice and salt white teeth had vanished from the people as well. He had been a guest of Loughnashade for more than a fortnight yet he, too, had been banished into the collective forgetfulness that was affecting the castle folk.
By mid-afternoon, Dunlaith was exhausted, her nerves worn to raw shreds.
In the name of God, what is going on here? Why do I alone remember what the others do not?
Her hand reached up and caressed the pendant absently as she considered these questions. All at once, the answer came to her and the warrior was so stunned that she had to sit down.
Something to remember me by...
She alone wore a talisman of sorts, the lock of Aislinn's hair set in a silver wire frame. Somehow, that had protected her from Cairbh's spell, for Dunlaith had no doubt that the so-called lord was a powerful sorcerer of some kind.
An enchantment had been woven in Loughnashade to purge the people's memories. Precisely why this had been done, Dunlaith had yet to figure out.
But no doubt t'is for an evil purpose. Oh, God! Aislinn!
Dunlaith thought back to the past fortnight, ever since Cairbh's coming, and realized that everyone had been behaving oddly. It was as though some portion of their characters had been intensified to the point of near madness. Lady Elaine's sudden obsession with matchmaking, the O'Ciaran's uncharacteristic indifference, Aislinn's fascination with the pretty lord, her own jealousy and rage. Not to mention the fact that everything she knew about Cairbh had somehow been implanted into her brain; she could recall no one actually telling her anything at all. Instead, the information had just been there and she hadn't questioned it.
No one had questioned anything at all.
We all knew the same things about him, Dunlaith thought, in nearly the exact same words. He is a widower and his castle, Rath Meargach, is in southern Eire. Beyond that, and the evidence of his riches in his clothes and his high-born manner, we know nothing else.
Which was passing strange as every family of high rank was intimately familiar with the others, either through kinship, marriage alliances, friendship or blood feuds.
Something else occurred to her and the hairs on the back of the warrior's neck stood on end. If this Cairbh was so powerful, why go through the farce of a marriage? He could have just kidnapped the girl and been done with it; no one would have been the wiser. What did he want from a wife that he could not get from any other woman?
Dunlaith stood up, shook her head and briskly brushed her hands against the back of her breeches.
The time for consideration was done. Aislinn was gone, married to a foul sorcerer and traveling blind into a life threatening situation. What evil plot he was engineering, the laoch didn't know or even care. It was enough that her ionuin was in danger. Of all the questions and confusions that swirled through her brain, the warrior was certain that Aislinn's life would be forfeit if she did not reach her in time. They had only left yesterday morning; it should be possible to catch up to the pair if she rode hard enough.
Where and how I will find him, God alone knows. But I will find him. I must!
And first, I must steal a good horse...
Within the hour, Dunlaith set out on a gelding, following Cairbh's trail. She'd left no word with the O'Ciaran, just quietly slipped away with her saddlebags full of food and the few possessions she owned. The horse wasn't the best from Loughnashade's stables - neither was it the worst - but the price of it was more than she could earn in a lifetime. She'd left behind a tiny bag of mixed coins - her entire savings - but the laoch knew her honor and good name were gone forever. She'd branded herself a horse thief and there were few worse crimes in all Eire.
The O'Ciaran would hang me for the offense, she thought as the horse picked its way through the forest, could he but catch me. My life is forfeit. By Jesu! Everything I have fought and bled for is lost to me now; I am clanless, kinless and without friend or protector. No matter; if I can save Aislinn, t'will be worth any price.
The warrior was dressed in a leather jerkin covered in iron studs, with a chain mail shirt beneath; although heavy, the shirt and jerkin would provide protection against light sword stroke or knife. Against javelins or arrows, she carried a small round shield of boiled leather stretched over oak; the hammered steel boss came to a wicked point and could be used as another weapon in combat. A helmet was fastened to the saddle and swung near her knee; her sword was sheathed at her back, supported by a baldric that crossed her chest from shoulder to hip.
Dunlaith gathered the reins in her gauntleted hands and brought the gelding to a stop. The horse put his head down and began to lip at the sparse clumps of grass growing beneath the trees while she slid off and examined the trail she'd been following.
Two horses and four mules had passed this way, heading south. There was something odd about the hoofprints, however. Granted, they were more than a full day ahead of her... but the tracks they'd left weren't as fresh as they should be. Instead, it was as if Aislinn and her husband had ridden over this trail a full week ago.
We've had little rain, Dunlaith thought, poking at a dry hoofprint in the dirt with her gloved finger. And none these past two days.
A little ways further down the path she discovered the remains of a fire and evidence that Cairbh and Aislinn had spent the night there. Once again, the laoch was not entirely happy with what she found.
This fire's as cold as a witch's tit, she thought, sifting through the gray dust. T'was not doused but allowed to burn out. Yet even if they left camp at dawn, there should still be some warmth here. St. Brigit! Has the man warped time itself to hasten his way?
Dunlaith swung herself back up on the gelding's back. It was getting late; the sun was sinking in a blaze of scarlet and gold, igniting the sky, staining the clouds with gilt and rich vermilion. The laoch intended to ride through the night, always heading south, and hope to pick up their trail again in the morning. But she had a feeling that no matter how hard she rode, Cairbh would always be ahead.
Sooner or later he would turn off the public path and make his way towards his castle. Dunlaith had no idea precisely where Rath Meargach was located and doubted that a sorcerer of his ruthlessness would blaze a trail directly to his door. Somehow, she would have to find the Cairbh's fortress without relying on her tracking skills.
Judging from what happened at Loughnashade, I very much doubt the folks hereabouts have ever heard of the bastard, she thought, giving the gelding his head. Still... it cannot hurt to try. The next village I come across, I'll seek out a wisewoman or a healer. Such a woman would be more likely to see what is hidden than a common peasant.
A waft of smoke drifted across her face, stung her eyes. Dunlaith jerked the reins and the gelding bucked a little; she spent a moment calming him down while she scanned the surrounding woods.
A fire burned somewhere... but where? Whose? A charcoal maker, perhaps? Or a yeoman drying meat for the winter? Or was it something else...
Suddenly, she knew. This was no honest wood smoke, as came from oak, ash or pine; someone was burning branches of rowan. Dunlaith stood up in the saddle, sniffing, trying to pinpoint the source of the fire.
She believed that help might be closer at hand than she'd thought.
For Aislinn, it seemed as if she and her husband had traveled for days instead of hours, their horses clipping along at a fast pace while she held on grimly and jounced in the saddle until her head felt fit to burst. Her mare had an irregular, teeth-rattling step and a habit of painfully jerking the reins out of her hands whenever Aislinn's attention wandered. She'd asked Cairbh if they might stop so she could put on a pair of gloves to protect her hands, but he'd shook his head and urged her to more speed. He was eager to reach Rath Meargach as quickly as possible and had no intention of stopping unless it was absolutely necessary.
By the time he called for a rest, it was late afternoon and Aislinn was close to weeping in exhaustion and pain. Her palms had been wealed by the mare's willfulness; every muscle in her body was so stiff that when she slid out of the saddle, she collapsed on the ground, legs unable to support her. The mare, a gray appropriately named Succubus, took the opportunity to step on her helpless mistress' loosened hair and pin her to the grass, grinding Aislinn's face in the dirt while she spluttered futilely.
Once he noticed the girl's plight, Cairbh came to her assistance, clucking as he pulled the mare away and hauled Aislinn to her feet, half carrying her to the fire he'd built. In the short time since they'd stopped, not only had the lord managed to find wood and start a campfire, he'd unloaded a few rugs from the mules and made a relatively comfortable sitting place. While she sat down in a half daze and started picking clumps of dirt and grass out of her hair, he gave her a jerkin of lukewarm wine and a loaf of manchet bread, split down the middle and stuffed with thick slices of cheese.
He sat down beside her, sharing the wineskin, eating his bread and cheese in quick, neat bites. The meal might have been sawdust and water for all that Aislinn cared; she hurt too badly and in too many places to enjoy a single bite. When he'd finished eating, she asked if they'd be staying the night there.
Cairbh gave a short, sharp bark of laughter. "Nay, sweet wife," he said, and never had there been such a streak of cruelty in his beautiful voice. "We'll be moving on in a moment. There'll be plenty of time to rest when we've reached my... our home."
Aislinn bit her lip to stifle sudden tears. When he made to rise, she laid a hand on his arm. "My lord," she said humbly, hating to complain but feeling she could not go another step, "I am unused to such hard travel. Please, I beg you, let me rest for a little while."
When that argument didn't seem to sway him, she continued desperately, "What of the horses? We brought no other mounts save the mules. What if they founder from weariness and we are left without a way to continue?"
Cairbh snatched his arm away and leaned down to peer directly into Aislinn's upturned face. His pale violet eyes, which had always been watery and mild, blazed with unconcealed fury. "Get on your horse," he snapped. "And keep your whining complaints to yourself, woman. We will ride until I say our traveling day is done. If you cannot ride, I will tie you to the saddle and lead your mount, but we will go on!"
Shocked by this display and fearing to rouse his anger further, Aislinn quickly braided her hair with trembling fingers, thrusting wooden pins into the twisted tresses to hold them in place on her head. While she worked, Cairbh rolled up the rugs and put them back on the mules, then stood by the horses, tapping his foot impatiently at her delay. At last, she was ready, although he had to help her up; he did this with such impatience that she was sorry she'd asked.
As he was pushing her up onto the mare, a linen packet fell out of the bodice of her gown. He swooped down on it immediately, scooping it up and holding it between two fingers.
"What is this?" he asked with a sneer. "A love token, perhaps?" He undid the knots and looked at the lock of black hair, his brows knitting together in anger.
Aislinn felt a chill. She settled herself into the saddle, wincing as sore muscles protested. "T'is nothing, my lord," she answered as casually as she could.
Cairbh sucked in a breath. "Whose is it?" he hissed, grabbing her stirrup. "Do not lie to me! Whose heart-gift do you carry, sweet wife, for I know it is not mine!"
He looked like a high born woman in an absolute rage, his features sharpened to a razored brilliance that was terrifying in its beauty. "My lord, you are mistaken!" Aislinn tried to gather her scattered wits.
If he knew the truth about Dunlaith, he'd probably kill me.
The lord's lips drew away from his strong, white teeth and he shook the stirrup he held. "The Lady Elaine swore you were a virgin and untouched. Now I find you hiding a gift from your lover. Tell me his name, damn you! Tell me!"
Aislinn frantically sought some explanation that would appease her husband's wrath. Then with Cairbh's words, an idea came to her. "T'is no man's, my lord! I swear it! I have had no man as a lover!"
Cairbh did not notice the girl's evasion. He deflated a little but his cheeks were still red. "Then whose is it?" he asked gruffly.
"Her name is Dunlaith, a laoch in service to Lord O'Ciaran. Surely Lady Elaine told you we were close, as close as kin?"
"Yes," Cairbh said, stroking his chin. "I seem to recall the name."
Aislinn felt almost like fainting with relief. "She has known me since childhood, my lord. When I was to be wed, she gave this to me as a token of affection, to remember her and the love we bear one another."
"Hmph." The lord seemed satisfied by this explanation, but when Aislinn reached for the linen square, he held it out of her reach. "Well, since this is so important to you, we'd best keep it safe in your saddlebag. If you were to lose it, no doubt I'd have to endure endless begging to search for it and we'd be further delayed."
He quickly knotted the hair back into the packet and stuffed it into the leather pouch behind her.
They continued their journey shortly after that incident; as Cairbh was not a man given to much conversation while journeying, Aislinn found herself alone with her troubled thoughts.
What has happened to the man I married? Aislinn forced her weary body to accept more of the mare's punishing gait and tried to ignore the throbbing in her head. His gentleness is gone; instead of soft compliments, his tongue spits nothing but acid, when he speaks at all.
The rage in his horrible old man's eyes made her shiver. She'd never imagined such venom existed in the fascinating, feminine lord.
Sweet Mother of God! How could I have been such a blind fool, believing him unlike other men! Oh, my warrior... what have I done to choose this over you?
Before she could pursue these gloomy thoughts any further, Cairbh guided his stallion next to her. "My sorrow that I frighted you so, wife," he said warmly, a charming smile lighting up his face. "I am so eager to show you the delights of Rath Meargach that my impatience gets the better of my manners! I do hope you will forgive me."
Despite her reservations, Aislinn nodded. "Of course, my lord," she replied. "I understand."
Cairbh leaned over and pressed something into her hand. When the mare decided to take the opportunity to jerk the reins once more, he reached out his arm and thudded his fist hard between the horse's ears. This so surprised the gray mare that she almost stopped, thought the better of it, and continued on, greatly subdued.
Aislinn breathed a sigh of relief. "This mare is very headstrong, my lord," she said. "I hope she'll behave better now."
"Don't fret, wife," he said, giving her another smile. "Had you told me you were having such trouble, I'd have gladly helped you before. Now, no tears; you'll spoil your pretty green eyes. Women's eyes are so unattractive when they cry." He added something beneath his breath, a burst of gabbled words in a strangely lyrical language that flowed like water over stones.
Aislinn found herself irresistibly drawn to the object he'd given her. It was a sweetmeat of glazed oranges and spice, squeezed together into a sugared cake. They were imported from Spain and while she'd only had one once at a Midwinter celebration, she knew they tasted of concentrated sunshine and were absolutely delicious.
All at once, her troubles were forgotten. The sweetmeat glistened on her palm, a confection of jeweled orange and cinnamon, and her attention was drawn to it completely. Delighted as a child, she nibbled the little cake, savoring the taste, concentrating on the burst of flavors that showered her tongue.
As soon as she'd swallowed the last bite, a strange, languorous sensation flowed through her veins. She relaxed, eyes fluttering half-closed, and her fingers loosened on the reins. Her body, with all its aches and pains, seemed very far away, separated from her mind by a cloud of mist and fog. She could not think anymore. She could not feel. All memory of Loughnashade - and a certain dark haired warrior whom she loved - retreated behind a barrier, inaccessible and hidden from conscious recall.
Cairbh smiled to himself; his spell had struck. With Dunlaith's token put away and now forgotten, nothing protected Aislinn from his enchantments. The drug he'd given her in the sweetmeat had done its work, dropping her mental barriers and leaving her vulnerable. Cairbh briefly wondered how such an innocent girl had managed to shrug off his potent magics.
Only true love could have defeated his enchantments but she had no lover, no mate of the soul. He'd feared that the lock of hair she carried so close to her heart might have been from such a man; if that had been the case, all his careful preparations and plans would have been for naught. But Aislinn's explanation had a ring of truth and besides, he remembered the black haired warrior women from Loughnashade. Females were such silly, sentimental creatures; exchanging locks of hair with one another was a common ritual at partings.
No, he decided, Dunlaith was no real threat to him.
Cairbh shook his head and decided that Aislinn's resistance to his spell wasn't important. Perhaps he'd been in a hurry when casting it, left out a line, transposed a syllable. Such things had been known to happen even to the most careful of sorcerers.
There was no sense dwelling on the past. The problem had been taken care of and now, he had to concentrate on getting to his fortress as quickly as possible. Clucking to his stallion, he drew power from the earth to speed their way; the ground flowed past the horses' hooves as if they were flying.
Aislinn's eyes glazed over and a small smile froze upon her face.
Nothing troubled her anymore.
Nothing at all.
Dunlaith tethered her horse to a gorse bush and slipped silently through the woods, guided by the smell of smoke. Her feet made no sound on the leaves and grass. Smoothly gliding over fallen tree trunks, slick moss beneath her hands, branches catching in her hair, the laoch kept her ears cocked, alert for the smallest sound. She carried only her sword; helmet, gauntlets and shield had been left upon her mount.
At last, she heard voices and quickened her pace, though still maintaining strict silence. Soon she came to a small clearing within a circle of giant oaks; within this grassy space, three nude women sat around a fire, roasting meat on wooden spits. Dunlaith crouched down behind a tree trunk and watched, unwilling to make her presence known.
One of the women was young, a maiden who had yet to blossom. Her coppery hair was worn loose about her shoulders, a tumble of curls that rippled around her naked body like a shawl. Her arms and legs were scrawny but the flesh was smooth and white; she wore clashing bangles and rings of silver on both wrists and ankles. A small wavy tattoo, done in blue woad, arched across her face from left to right, just beneath the eyes and over the bridge of her nose. The girl's wide eyes had three irises - the colors green, gold and bright scarlet in rings around the pupil - and her features were sharp, reminding Dunlaith of a fox. When she smiled, she revealed prominent white teeth that looked almost pointed.
The next was a mature woman who resembled the girl enough to have been her mother, including the green, gold and scarlet eyes. Since the woman wore her dark auburn hair pinned up in braids, her body was revealed in all its lush glory; Dunlaith saw the marks of childbearing on the woman's rounded belly and full breasts. She was plump and ripe as a summer peach, made all the more beautiful by the evidence of her fruitfulness. Like the girl, she bore a woad mark across her face, but her jewelry was crafted of gold.
The last was an old woman, shriveled like a winter blasted apple. Her empty, wrinkled dugs flopped on her stomach and the loose flesh beneath her upper arms swayed like banners when she moved her meat away from the fire. Her face was sunken, as if she had no teeth. The crone had only one eye - but that triple irised like the rest - and the intricate jewelry she wore was made of steel. Her white hair was broadly streaked in pale red, held away from her face by combs. The tattoo on her face was nearly obscured by the lines and marks of age.
The hair on the back of Dunlaith's neck rose and she shivered with sudden chill. These were cailleach, witches, but whether white or black was unknown. The warrior wondered if she should slip away before they noticed her lurking near their ritual place.
As soon as this thought crossed her mind, the three women looked up and their eyes focused straight on her hiding spot. "A burning one comes," the youngest said.
The mother nodded. "She is on fire from within and without."
"Has she the courage to join her flame to ours?" the hag cackled.
Dunlaith swallowed and put a hand on her sword. Slowly, she stood up and moved away from the tree, stepping a few paces into the clearing.
The three women stared at her. The laoch looked from one face to the next and realized that, except for the difference in their ages, the cailleach were virtually identical. It was as if she viewed the same woman at three stages in her life - fresh virgin, fertile mother and withered crone.
"What do you seek, one who burns?" asked the maiden in her clear, fluting voice.
Dunlaith cleared her throat and replied, "I seek a man, a sorcerer known as Cairbh Gaduigh, the corpse thief. His home is the Fortress of the Green Spears."
The mother laughed and rolled her spit, sending sizzling drops of fat into the flames. "Are you sure it is a man whose trail you follow?"
"I must find him," the warrior said, gripping the hilt of her sword tightly. "Will you help me or not?"
"Oh, we can help, to be sure. We know where the thief of beauty rests his head, do we not, sisters? But will you share our meat as willingly as you wish to share our sight?" the crone countered, smacking her lips.
The three stared at her avidly while the meat charred and the fire popped.
Dunlaith was momentarily taken aback. She'd been taught to eat no meat and drink no wine offered by a cailleach, lest she lose her immortal soul to the witch's enchantments. On the other hand, the laws of hospitality so sacred to the Celts required that a guest never refuse refreshment offered by the host. This was a very serious matter; clan feuds lasting for decades had been started over such an insult.
Besides, if she rejected the women's offer and offended them, she might never find Cairbh and Aislinn would be lost to her forever.
I have given up enough of my honor for one day, she thought. I will not break the guest law, too. If the cailleach want to devour my soul along with their meat, then so be it! As long as they leave enough strength in my bones to save my ionuin.
Dunlaith let go of her sword hilt and knelt down by the fire. "I accept your hospitality and I thank you," she said formally, nodding to each woman and settling herself cross-legged with her hands on her knees.
The maiden giggled. "We do not want your soul."
"But there is a price," the mother warned.
"Whatever it is, I will pay it," the laoch answered.
"Faugh! Be not so hasty," the crone replied. Her single eye gleamed as she peered at Dunlaith. "A man once wished for all the wisdom of the world; the price was his sanity, so that he roamed a madman and none believed the profound answers he offered with every breath until he died."
"A woman begged immortality for her only son," the mother said calmly, flicking a wrist to make her golden bangles chime. "She paid for it with both their lives. At one-and-twenty, he died a hero on a blood drenched battlefield, his body hacked to bits by many swords... and his mother perished of a broken heart. But the bards sing of his bravery still and he will never be forgotten, for fame is the only eternity that never tarnishes."
The maiden turned to the frowning warrior. "Consider your words carefully, Brown Lady of the Burning. The cost of our aid may be too high to bear."
It did not surprise the laoch that the witch knew her name. "If I do not find Cairbh, the life of my love will be forfeit." Dunlaith wiped beads of sweat from her chin. "I was foolish enough to lose her once; I will not do so again. Once more I say, whatever your price, I will pay it. I swear."
"So be it!" the crone declared. She accidentally kicked her spit and the chunk of meat tumbled into the middle of the fire, where the flames burned the hottest. She stared at it mournfully then turned to Dunlaith. "Fetch me that meat," she said, pointing. "That is the price I demand."
Dunlaith couldn't believe pleasing the cailleach would be so easy. "All right," she said, reaching for a branch, intending to rake the blazing meat onto the cooler coals.
"Nay!" The old woman snatched the branch away. "Use only the tools God gave you." She indicated the warrior's right hand. "Since you are a warrior, your sword arm is the most handy."
The laoch looked at the maiden and the mother; both women nodded.
Dunlaith began to sweat in earnest. She got on her knees and scooted closer to the fire. The heat was tremendous, as if she stood in the midst of a raging bonfire instead of a modest blaze. The skin of her face felt tight; her eyes began to tear. She tentatively extended her hand and immediately jerked it back; the flesh was scorched scarlet and a blister was rising on her palm.
"Do you fear the flames so much?" the young girl whispered. "You need not perform the task. We will not force you. Just give up."
"It is easy," the hag said. "Get on your horse and ride away. Forget about your quest."
"There is no blame if you fail," the mother said, smoothing her rich auburn hair.
"Only everlasting shame and sorrow," Dunlaith replied, glancing at her burned palm. The crackling of the fire became a roar as flames soared so high they seemed to lick at the sky. A hot wind blew against her face, fluttering her black bangs, and the heat was so intense she had to flinch back.
I am a warrior, she thought. It is the essence of myself, the path I have chosen. All my life has been dedicated to the sword.
She was certain that if she did this, she would be badly injured, possibly lose the use of her arm. It would take her long years of training to transfer sword skills to her left hand, and even then, few lords would hire a one-armed soldier. She had already thrown away her honor, reputation and good name for the sake of love. The witches asked a heavy price; they wanted her to sacrifice of the last things that defined who she was.
Where are all my brave words now? Dunlaith thought.
She spent a long moment in thought. When she looked up, her blue eyes burned with determination and courage.
"I cannot turn away, I cannot fail," she said simply. "Aislinn is my soul. Better to lose my life than my ionuin."
Squeezing her eyes almost closed and taking a deep breath, Dunlaith thrust her hand into the very heart of the fire. As her fingers tried to close around the sizzling meat, she could feel the skin of her arm burning and flaking away, the flesh beneath crisping to black, the bones bursting into flames. The pain was excruciating; she was being burned alive and fiery threads of anguish lanced from shoulder to fingertips. Despite her effort, the meat was just out of reach. Cords stood out in her throat as the warrior howled in agony, but her will was stronger than the animal instinct to pull away.
Think of Aislinn! urged the part of her that was still capable of conscious thought. Focus on your love! You cannot fail your love!
The laoch's eyes rolled back into her head. "Aislinn!" she wailed, shoving her arm further into the fire. Her dark hair was frizzing and smoking from the heat. This time, she successfully grabbed the chunk of meat, her fingertips sinking into the charred surface and holding tight.
Dunlaith pulled the meat out of the fire and dropped it on the ground in front of the crone. Panting, she cradled her arm against her chest, unwilling to look at it and see the damage for herself. The pain was easing a bit but she wasn't fooled. She'd seen men burned before - by oil, tar and fire arrows - and was all too familiar with the numbness that comes from wounds that had been eaten by fire down to the bone. She thought she could smell the distinct sweet odor of cooked human flesh and was immediately nauseous.
The old woman poked at the smoking meat with her spit. "T'is burnt," she observed casually. The blackened crust had split open, showing the bloody red flesh beneath.
Dunlaith fought the urge to vomit. She knew that was probably what her arm looked like. "I've paid your price," she croaked. "Give me what I want."
The young girl studied Dunlaith then grinned mischievously. "Of what use is a one-armed warrior in the world?"
The laoch gritted her teeth. "I'll play no more games with you!" she snapped. "You've gotten what you wanted. I'm a cripple and I'll probably die of these wounds but before I do, by St. Brigit, I'll find my ionuin! Now tell me - where is Cairbh?"
The mother gave her a gentle smile. "Look at your arm and tell me again if you are a cripple."
Unwillingly, Dunlaith gave her arm a quick glance... then stared in disbelief. It hadn't been touched; there was not a single mark upon her flesh except the blister on her palm and a little soot. Her mouth worked but she couldn't formulate a question; she was too caught up in wonder and confusion.
"T'was a test," the crone said. "You faltered the first time and got scorched for your pains."
The mother continued, "But then you showed true courage. By entering the flames whole-heartedly and enduring the pain, you have proven yourself worthy of our aid."
"By your willingness to give up everything for love, you have earned our help," the maiden said.
Dunlaith grimaced wryly, flexing the fingers of her right hand. The pain was entirely gone now; just a slight tingling remained. "You pick a harsh way of testing," she said.
"There is always a price," the mother replied. "Many speak of sacrifice, but few are actually strong enough when the time comes."
The fire had returned to normal. Dunlaith sat back and said, "You say I've earned your help. Tell me where I can find Rath Meargach. Tell me where Cairbh has taken my ionuin. Tell me what he is and what he plans to do."
The crone shook her head, making wisps of white hair fly into her face. "Some secrets can be told only through cold lips," she said cryptically. "But there are other secrets we are permitted to reveal."
The girl and the old woman moved until they were seated on either side of the mother, then placed their hands on the woman's plump, naked shoulders and bowed their heads. The mother held her own hands in front of her face, fingers curled over to form a tube through which she peered with one eye.
This was the imbas forasnai, the Light of Foresight, a way of seeking a lost person or possession.
"Travel south until you reach the Doire Scathach, the Grove of Shadows," the three women chanted in unison, their voices blending into a weird harmony. "Then you must turn east; follow the lesser river, not the greater, until you come to Linne Guileag, the Lake of the Swan's Note. It is here, after many days travel, that you will find the thief's fortress."
The mother lowered her hands. Her eyes of green, gold and scarlet seemed to sear into Dunlaith's soul. "Beware, warrior, for he is clever and ruthless, a dangerous man who has survived beyond his woven span of years. His magic has been the death of more than one."
The maiden and the crone echoed, "More than one."
"Pay heed to the cold questioners. Should any ask your design, answer honestly."
Again, the other two repeated, "Answer honestly."
The auburn haired mother held out her hand. Dangling from her fingers was a small key laced to a leather cord. Dunlaith took it and realized the object had been carved from bone and was covered in tiny symbols, predominantly spirals and stylized waves, and the tip came to a wicked point, almost like a dart.
"This is the key to his heart," the cailleach said. "Only by breaking his heart can you reive the unnatural life from his bones. Do not fail to use it when the time comes."
"Do not fail," the maiden and the old woman murmured.
As Dunlaith watched, the figures of the three women began to grow fainter, as if they were gradually fading away from existence. "What does he want with Aislinn?" she called. "Why do you call him the thief of beauty?"
The witches answered in unison, "Remember what we have said. Above all, do not doubt that your life is knotted to the Dreamer's; your fate and hers are a single cord. Trust in that love; it is your shield and your greatest strength. Put your faith in love."
Before the laoch could reply, the women had completely disappeared, leaving behind few signs that they'd been there at all. The fire had burned down to ashes and glowing embers; the meat they had been roasting was gone. Dunlaith glanced about; the sun was rising, not setting; somehow, she'd been there all night without noticing.
She rose to her feet and walked around the remains of the fire to shake the stiffness from her muscles, and wound the leather thong around her wrist, securing it with a knot. The little bone key hung reassuringly against her palm.
Dunlaith wasn't sure of the meaning of most of the cailleach's words but she would remember them. At the moment, it was enough that she had a definite direction and a means to find her destination. Once she located Cairbh's fortress, perhaps the rest of the witches' cant would sort itself out. Or not. She was too eager to be on her way to care.
The warrior was able to find her way back to her horse without difficulty; the gelding nickered, glad to see her. She rubbed his velvety nose with her fingers before swinging up into the saddle and turning his head towards the south.
It was time to move on.
Cairbh breathed a sigh of satisfaction when he finally sighted his home. Beside him, Aislinn sat on her horse and smiled blankly, a beautiful and mindless puppet lost in a haze of enchantment.
The sorcerer glanced from the fortress to his bride and decided it was time to return some of the girl's sense. While they'd traveled, he'd needed all of his considerable concentration to maintain the spell that hastened their passage and he hadn't wanted to be distracted by the girl's complaints. But Aislinn figured largely in his plan; he had not gone to such trouble to find and claim her for nothing. There were a great many preparations he'd have to make before she could be used and he simply could not spare either of his servants to nurse her night and day. He would have to allow her to be functional and self-sufficient... within certain limits.
Murmuring a few lines beneath his breath, the pretty lord was pleased to see some animation returning to her face, although she would still be pliable and easily manipulated. The recollections of her former life with the O'Ciaran - with the exception of the fact of her marriage to him - were safely locked away within her mind and she'd accept whatever he told her without question. That was the beauty of this particular spell, which had taken him years to master. Aislinn had been bewitched into complacency, much like the folk at Loughnashade. She would never question the gaps in her memory, believe what she was told, and obey his commands without ever wondering why. These were the only changes the spell made to her psyche; Aislinn would still be capable of some independent thought and action, and her personality would, for the most part, remain intact.
There would be an unfortunate side effect, of course. Some flawed aspect of her character - whether it was a genuine vice or a hidden insignificant sin - would be intensified, gaining dominance in her thoughts and expressions until it became an almost lunatic obsession. This would happen gradually, however; he'd have plenty of time to put his plan into action before she went entirely mad.
To Aislinn, being returning to herself was like waking from a dream, startled out of a deep sleep by sounds she couldn't quite identify. She roused herself with a jerk and stared with blurred eyes at the landscape around her. "Did I fall asleep? It doesn't seem possible. This mare's gait is so terrible I would have fallen off."
"You were very tired, dear wife," Cairbh replied, smiling widely. "And you were never in danger. I was right beside you the whole time."
The girl looked around her and yawned, rubbing her eyes with a knuckle. "Are we stopping for the night?"
"Oh, yes," the pretty lord purred. "Tell me, wife, do you recall a person by the name of Lady Elaine the Lilymaid? Or O'Ciaran? Or how about..." His brow furrowed for a second in furious thought and then he snapped his fingers. "Ah! Do you know anyone by the name of Dunlaith?"
Aislinn shook her head, bewildered. "Nay, my lord. I know them not. Why? Do you expect them as guests at Rath Meargach?"
"I was but curious," Cairbh replied casually. She had passed the test and he knew his spell of oblivion was working. "They are old acquaintances. Do not concern yourself. In fact, perhaps t'is best you forget I asked altogether."
"My lord, the sunlight is failing; should we not make camp?" Her husband's strange question already forgotten, Aislinn yawned again while the mare chewed impatiently at the bit and began picking a hole in the grass with her fore hoof.
"No need for a camp. Look ahead; your new home awaits its mistress."
They had stopped at the edge of a huge lake; groves of trees and meadows dotted the circular rim. In the center of the rippling gray water was a big, irregularly shaped island; on that grassy earth was a stone building, circular like an old earth mound fortress but far more ambitious in its construction. A pair of towers, about fifty feet apart, jutted from the front, and their pointed roofs rose straight up above the crenelated outer wall. The tower on the right had been built on a spit of land but the left hand tower was anchored in the water itself. Wind driven waves lapped at the solid walls of the left tower, leaving dark stains of moisture wherever they touched, and strands of slimy water weed grew on the stones.
There were regular gaps between the blocks of stone that made up the rim of the outer wall's roof. A forest of spears sprouted between these spaces; they had once been copper, but age and exposure to the elements had turned the metal verdigris green, giving the fortress its name.
Aislinn gasped and rubbed her eyes again, this time in disbelief. Rath Meargach, the Fortress of the Green Spears, was more beautiful than she'd ever imagined.
Cairbh nodded. "My family's home for five generations," he said proudly. "The waters are called Guileag Linne, the Lake of the Swan's Note, but I will tell you more of its history later. Come, sweet wife. We are both weary from our travels and I would delay our return no longer."
She followed him around the edge of the lake until they reached a point directly opposite the front of the fortress. A large patch of gravelly rock led straight down into the water, where a log raft bobbed gently in the shallows, tethered to a stake driven into dry land. Dismounting, they led their horses and mules onto the raft; Aislinn held the mount's reins while Cairbh untied the rope tether. Immediately, the raft began to float across the lake towards the fortress isle; it was remarkably stable for such a craft and Aislinn wondered how it was driven, since there were no poles, oars, sails or rudder.
"An ingenious device of my grandfather's," Cairbh replied, patting her shoulder. "Do not ask me to explain it to you; the mechanics of his genius would be far too complicated for your poor woman's mind to comprehend."
Aislinn was not stung by this insult; instead she nodded in agreement, knowing somehow that his argument was proper and correct. "How many are in service to you, my lord? And who tills the land hereabouts? Is there a village nearby?"
The lord gazed across the lake; a fresh breeze blew the golden curls from his broad, white forehead, while his old man's weak eyes squinted in effort, trying to bring his home into clear focus. "No village, no peasants, and I have only two servants, but they do their job exceptionally well and I have no need of others. However, as I am fond of luxury and comfort, you need not fear living in a swine's pen; my men are excellent laborers, exquisite cooks and maintain the grounds and home to perfection, as you will see."
Although she knew that keeping a household properly was an enormous undertaking requiring many hours and many pairs of hands, Aislinn accepted Cairbh's outrageous statement as if it was gospel.
He continued, "We are pretty isolated here and I have few friends or guests to disturb my peace, but I do considerable business with traveling merchants. Rath Meargach boasts all the luxuries you could ever desire and you will want for nothing, I assure you."
Cairbh turned to Aislinn and placed two fingers on her chin, tilting her face up to the fading sunlight. "Sweet wife..." A wide smile crossed his beautiful face. "Did you know... in this light, your eyes are more glorious than ever? I envy you those eyes."
Aislinn shyly returned his smile, mentally thanking God that He had sent her such a thoughtful and caring husband.
Arriving on the island, Cairbh led the horses and mules up to the massive doors set into the wall between the two towers. They were taller than six men in height and wide enough to drive a team of oxen through. Made of wide oak planks decorated with hammered copper and bronze, this portal was the only way in or out of the fortress. The doors swung wide as soon as he approached; Aislinn followed him inside, eyes wide with wonder.
The fortress was built around a pretty little courtyard garden in the center, while the space between the inner and outer walls provided living quarters. As they traveled through the portal, the girl gasped when she caught sight of two men standing in the courtyard; they wore black and silver livery and held lit torches, but their appearance was so strange and shocking that Aislinn wondered if she was hallucinating.
They were so alike they might have been twins. Both had blue-black skin, so dark it seemed to absorb the light rather than reflect it, and their heads were shaven bald. Their eyes were black as well, with only the thinnest sliver of white surrounding the enormous iris, and their noses were thin and pointed as blades. Aislinn looked closer and realized their hands had only three curved, claw-tipped fingers and a thumb; the skin was drawn tight against the bone and looked hard as horn.
Cairbh chuckled at his bride's consternation. "My servants," he said. "Dubhghiolla and Bran."
"Black Servant and Raven?" Aislinn eyed the two silent men. "Where do they come from? Are they Saracens? I've never seen men that color before!"
"Few have," the lord said sardonically. "But do not fear them. They might be different but they are loyal enough in their own fashion. Do not think of their differences; consider only their virtues."
The two black men came forward and bowed. One of them, Aislinn wasn't sure which, said, "Welcome home, master."
She winced; his voice was harsh and rasping, reminding her of a crow's call.
Cairbh handed the horse's reins to his servants. "Before you take them to the stables, unload their packs. My wife's things should be taken to her rooms."
Taking Aislinn by the arm, he led her round the courtyard to an arched door. The wood was dark and stained with age; iron nails had been driven into the surface, forming a pattern. Since the heads of the nails had turned blood red with rust, the effect was somewhat like bright, swirling flames covering the surface. A gargoyle's head was bolted to the front, mouth gaping wide in a soundless leer; its out thrust tongue formed the door handle.
"Look well, wife," Cairbh commanded. "Before you stands the door of the left tower, called Stuaid-leim, Leap of the Waves. Stuaid-leim is my private place and I allow no one - neither servants, wives, guests or kin - to disturb my peace." He squeezed her arm, grinding flesh against bone until she gasped and flinched in pain. "You are never, never, to open that door. You are never, never to step within. Not so much as the thinnest and finest hair of your head will slip through any crack, and not so much as a single breath from your lips will graze the dust on the lintel."
Aislinn's eyes filled with tears. Her knees buckled but he held her upright. Thrusting his poisonously flawless face against hers, he hissed, "The freedom of the rath and its grounds is yours. Go where you will and do what you will. But this tower is mine alone. Do you understand?!!"
The girl whimpered, "Yes, my lord."
He shook her until she cried out with pain. "Say it!"
"I am never to go within Stuaid-leim! It is yours alone!" Aislinn choked.
"And you will not even lay a finger on the handle of the door?"
"Nay, my lord! Please! I understand!" Aislinn wept. "Please, my lord! You are hurting me!"
Cairbh's manner immediately changed. He helped her stand with tender care and gently wiped the tears from her cheeks. "I think you will like the rooms I've chosen for you," he said, tucking stray strands of red-gold hair behind her ears while Aislinn snuffled and eyed him warily, rubbing her throbbing arm.
He held out a hand and she shrank back. Cairbh said coaxingly, "Come, now... do you not wish to see more of your new home? I promised you delights, did I not? I think you will be well pleased." He was treating Aislinn as if she was a sulky child, offering a sweet to take away the sting of a well deserved rebuke.
When the girl didn't respond, he continued with an air of saintly patience, "Women are ignorant, shallow, selfish creatures, their souls bound to earth rather than heaven, composed more of vice than virtue. That has been the way of things since Mother Eve tempted Adam with the apple. You're a convent girl; did not the nuns and priests teach you this? A little bruising will help you remember to curb your sinful curiosity. I act only in your best interests, sweet wife; whatever I do, I do out of love."
Aislinn swallowed and composed herself. She had a vague recollection that he'd hurt her once before but couldn't remember how or when or why, and she supposed he was right - it was for her own good. She knew that the Church allowed a husband to beat his wife regularly, so long as he did not use a rod longer than his arm or thicker than his thumb. In fact, the practice was encouraged, for the word of God commanded that wives be submissive and obedient to their husbands as well as the Church.
Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves...
Likewise, ye wives, be in subjection to your own husbands...
Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as it is fit in the Lord...
Therefore, as the church is subject unto Christ, so let wives be to their own husbands in every thing...
If he loves me enough to take the trouble to correct me, Aislinn thought, does that not mean he holds me in high regard? That he cares for the state of my eternal soul? This is the teaching of the Church, drawn down from God to the lips of His priests, that the instruction may turn women away from their naturally sinful natures. Truly, I am blessed. Sweet Mary, I thank thee for a husband who takes such care of an ignorant woman!
Wiping her face, she gave him a tentative smile and was rewarded by a beaming grin.
"Come; I want you to see the rath before we eat supper," Cairbh said.
Taking his offered hand, Aislinn allowed him to lead her into the place where she would spend the rest of her days.
Every room he showed her was beautifully furnished; the high beamed ceilings were hung with colorful banners and flags, the walls lined with exquisite tapestries, the floors boasted woven carpets instead of rushes.
Her own set of rooms was near the left tower - an enormous bedroom connected to a bathing chamber and her solar by a set of doors. The walls of her bedroom had been whitewashed, then painted with bright murals that depicted a hunting scene; the ceiling was painted to resemble a sky. The huge bed was so high that a set of steps had been provided; tapestries hung on rails around the bed and could be drawn against the night's chill. The sheets were delicately woven linen, soft as a cloud, and embroidered on the hems with scrolling designs of ivy and crimson berries; the blankets were fine wool; and as an added luxury, a heavy purple silk throw with a fringe of ermine lay folded at the foot of the bed.
Delicate chairs were made comfortable with plump brocade cushions; the single arrowslit window was so deep that could also be used as a seat, and was furnished with a thick, quilted pad and a half dozen fat bolsters. There were spindly tables of pierced ivory inlaid with onyx, carnelian and amber; even an elaborately carved and gilded desk with inkpot, quills and parchment. A niche was lined with shelves that groaned beneath a load of precious books, all of them bound in soft calfskin leather and tooled with gold and silver. A dressing table, covered in cosmetics, beauty preparations and jewelry boxes, boasted a big round mirror of such quality and workmanship that Aislinn was astonished.
Everywhere she looked there was more gilt, more tassels, more riches and more delights than she'd ever imagined the world to hold.
"T'is yours, sweet wife," Cairbh drawled lazily. "All yours. I know a girl of your sensible upbringing must be overwhelmed, but I insist that you inspect everything now, to make sure you are truly pleased and there is nothing lacking."
What an excellent idea! Bruised arm forgotten, Aislinn dashed from here to there, examining this and that, opening boxes and babbling in excitement and wonder.
Cairbh's terrible old eyes narrowed as he watched his wife and he smiled to himself; there were enough distractions in this room alone to keep the girl occupied for some time. In fact, the entire fortress - except for his tower, of course - was designed to be a glittering labyrinth of rare treasures, each more fascinating and wondrous than the last. As Aislinn explored her new domain, she would find enough magical marvels to keep her happy and satisfied with her lot, a condition that had to be fulfilled in order for his plan to work.
The enchantment he'd placed her under was not powerful enough to force her to feel true joy; that had to come from within and he'd learned from painful experience that ordering someone to be happy just didn't work. Hence, this fortress of delights he'd spent so much time and money creating.
T'is not entirely for naught, Cairbh thought as Aislinn dashed about. When I am done with the curse that plagues me, I will remain here and enjoy the fruits of my labor alone.
Finally, he decided it was time to reveal more surprises. "You've seen but the smallest part," he said, guiding his bride to a series of four chests against one wall. "All of this is my wedding gift to you and there is yet more to come." He threw open the first and Aislinn sank to her knees, emerald eyes wide.
The chest held gown after gown, carefully folded and sprinkled with lavender to preserve them from moths. Aislinn reached inside and began pulling the dresses out, smoothing them across her knees. They were finely crafted cotton, light silk and satin gowns for the summer months, all of them beaded or embroidered or embellished with gold scrolling or jewels. Some had slashed sleeves to show the contrasting lining underneath; others were decorated with ribbon loveknots at shoulder, wrist and waist. Aislinn had never seen so many gowns in her life and she looked at her husband with questioning eyes.
"Aye!" Cairbh laughed. "T'is all for you, every one!" He indicated the three remaining chests. "Gowns for each season - winter, spring, summer and fall. You will be the most wonderfully dressed woman in Eire, I vow!"
He reached out and pulled a dress from the heap in Aislinn's lap. It was forest green velvet with a high waist and squared neckline; the sleeves were tight from shoulder to elbow, then flared out to the wide, hanging point usually reserved for queens. The bodice was quilted with gold thread and picked out in pearls. Cairbh helped the dazed girl pile the other gowns back into the chest and then pulled her to her feet.
He guided Aislinn over to the mirror; standing behind her, he held the green velvet dress in front of her body. "Do you not think it exquisite, sweet wife? It complements your eyes marvelously. Wear it to supper; I'm sure you will find some jewels in these boxes that will suit."
Aislinn nodded; her eyes met his in the mirror. There was a strange expression on Cairbh's pretty face as he stared at his reflection and hers; a look of almost avaricious greed crossed his features like a spasm and the girl had the fleeting impression that he was imagining the dress held against his own body.
By now, she knew enough not to ask any questions.
Aislinn gently slid the gown away from his fingertips. "Will you be sharing this room with me, my lord?" she asked shyly. "We have yet to consummate the marriage rites and according to the Church..."
Cairbh stiffened and drew back. "Certainly not! My bedchamber lies in my tower and that is where I spend every night." His horribly rheumy eyes flicked over her with obvious distaste. "Do you women think of nothing save the desires of the flesh? Faugh! I have no time for such nonsense. We are married in the eyes of God and that is enough; be grateful to have been spared the further sins of Eve. Now get dressed. I will wait for you in the hall. When you're finished, we'll have supper together."
Aislinn blew out the breath she'd been holding as the golden haired lord left the bedchamber with his usual slinky grace. She hadn't known what to expect during her first night alone with her husband, but she'd expected it to be painful, bloody and humiliating experience. Still, marriage was a duty and not a pleasure - so said the Church. She'd been afraid but had been willing to do as her husband bid; now she was grateful that the terrible event seemed to have been postponed and she'd remain a virgin.
He is so wise, such a good and considerate man! Aislinn sighed and began undoing her long, red-gold hair. He protects me from my own foul female nature so well. Truly, God has given me the best husband, a saint on Earth!
After staring at herself in the mirror for a moment, Aislinn quickly did as she'd been bidden. The velvet dress donned and adorned with emeralds and pearls, the maiden bride proudly joined her lord and master, sailing through the halls of Rath Meargach as if she were its true mistress...
Instead of its prisoner.
For Aislinn, the days seemed to rush away in a never ending blur of activity. She rarely saw her husband save at the evening meal, and while the fortress was kept immaculately clean and wonderful food was prepared on time, the two black servants were hardly ever seen or heard. But the girl was never bored and never felt the need for company; she was doing quite well enough on her own.
Although each room offered fresh delights, new treasures and toys for her to admire and play with by the hour, eventually Aislinn became utterly captivated by the chapel. It was a small, intimately cozy room; the walls were lined with stained glass windows, all in shades of crimson, deep gold and black. Although the windows did not look upon the outside - they had been placed in niches carved into the outer stone wall - candles burned perpetually behind them, casting an eerie glow into the room. How those candles remained lit and maintained, Aislinn neither knew nor cared. She was far too focused on the main feature of the room.
Four small pews of glossy black wood, elaborately carved with scenes of sinners suffering in Hell, faced an altar of such magnificence that Aislinn could hardly tear herself away. The stone altar was draped with a cloth-of-gold cover, skillfully embroidered with scarlet crosses, ravens and images of saints. Candle cups of alabaster, onyx and jeweled gold stood mingled with ornate relic caskets, goblets, crucifixes and a gorgeously illustrated missal in a pierced silver box.
Fastened to the wall above the altar was the most beautifully carved crucifix Aislinn had ever seen. The image of the crucified Christ was almost life-sized; the lean bearded face, so eloquent in its depiction of glorious suffering, was painted with realistic streams and spatters of blood, running down from the crown of thorns that bound His forehead. The girl could kneel before this Christ forever, staring up at the convulsed features, and pray until she was hoarse, listening with all her soul for the still, small voice that would guide her towards salvation.
Aislinn knew she was evil; the Church had condemned all her sex as temptresses and weak willed wantons, fit only to bear children to the glory of God. Gradually, she thought she could make out voices, just on the edge of perception; angels, saints and the Virgin Mary, pleading with her to redeem herself, urging her to suffer in payment for her sins, mortify her flesh to save her spirit from eternal damnation.
So she ignored the aches and stiffness from kneeling on the stone floors for hours at a stretch; she kept a careful tally of each and every offense she committed against God, writing it all down in a little book that she kept concealed in her bosom. To avoid the sin of gluttony, she ate only bread and water; every minute that she wasn't sewing or reading the word of God, she spent in heartfelt prayer, to keep the sin of sloth at bay. She refused to use her luxurious bed and instead, curled up to sleep on a heap of dirty straw she'd brought into her chamber from the stables.
Aislinn had wanted to go further; she'd begged Cairbh for a hair shirt but he'd refused, ordering her to continue wearing beautiful gowns even though she felt that adorning her body was to wallow in the sin of pride. When he discovered that she was poring over her missal at night by the light of a single smoky candle until her eyes burned and refused to focus, he finally put his foot down.
"You are to bathe regularly and use the perfumes I have provided," the lord commanded one night over supper, stabbing his two-tined fork in her direction to emphasize his words. "You are to wear the dresses and jewels you have been given. You are to eat regularly and remain healthy. And above all, no more of this nonsense about reading at night! You are not to strain your eyes!"
"Aye, my lord," Aislinn replied anxiously. She'd lost weight; her face was too thin and pale, making her emerald eyes seem enormous by contrast. "But how am I to learn from God if I cannot read his words?"
Cairbh banged the table hard with his fist, making the salt cellar and goblets jump. "I will not have you ruining your sight!" he shouted. "By Christ, woman, you will obey! You belong to me, from crown to heels and everything in-between. Those eyes you are so careless with belong to me as well. Do you understand?"
"Aye," Aislinn said miserably. "I will do as you say, my lord."
"Good." Cairbh picked up a slice of meat and dipped it delicately into a bowl of sauce. "I care not what you do in the daylight hours," he said carelessly. "Read, stroll in the garden or mew yourself up in the chapel if you please; wear your knees to bloody shreds on the flagstones if it takes your fancy. But when the sun goes down, you are to put aside your study and occupy yourself with some other pastime."
Well, the side effect is stronger than I'd anticipated, the lord thought. The girl's obsession with God is becoming a nuisance and really, she is beginning to annoy me with all her whining and groveling. Still, I'll have done with wife and curse alike soon enough! I must endure just a little longer...
A sneer twisting his scarlet lips, Cairbh said aloud, "I will be leaving the fortress directly after supper and be gone for a few hours. When I return, I expect to find you sleeping, not praying." He dabbled his fingers in a dish of rosewater to cleanse them, wiped his hands on the white tablecloth and left, leaving Aislinn alone in the big, echoing dining hall with only her thoughts for company.
She picked at the food in front of her. I must obey my lord. The word of God tells me this is so. But I want... no, I need to suffer, for my soul is rotten with transgressions and offenses, filled with the work of the Devil. If I am not allowed to suffer for my sins, how can I please the Heavenly Father? How can I turn aside His wrath? How can I erase the grief and disappointment I have caused to the saints and the Virgin Mary?
There must be some sacrifice I can make, some precious offering I can rejoice in losing, knowing that it will help me turn my mind more to Heaven than Earth. But what? Not my dresses or anything my husband has given me; it must be personal, more private.
Suddenly, it struck her. The saddlebags! They had been lying forgotten in her bedchamber all this time. Aislinn didn't remember exactly what was in them but she knew those leather sacks contained relics of her previous life, the time before she'd met and wed Cairbh.
Yes, that's it! she thought, face beginning to glow with anticipation. I will look into those bags and see what they contain. Surely, I will find something to sacrifice for my salvation. Oh, sweet Jesu... truly, Thou art great and merciful!
Sliding back her chair, Aislinn hurried to her bedchamber, eager to relinquish her past and mollify the stern judgment of God.
Dunlaith walked along the side of the lake; she'd tethered the gelding some distance away in order to approach on foot. Less noise, less fuss and less chance of alerting the sorcerer to her presence.
She'd been traveling for nearly a fortnight; as each mile passed beneath her horse's hooves, the worry and anguish she'd felt about Aislinn had increased until the laoch was almost physically ill. Despite her internal turmoil, Dunlaith had continued her journey, following the cailleach's directions until she'd reached the Lake of the Swan's Note.
The body of water was truly immense; she could barely make out the opposite shore. The wooded areas that surrounded the lake were thick and dense, but the rolling meadows were filled with sweet summer flowers and high grass that rattled in the breeze. The warrior carefully picked her way through a stand of tall reeds, thick mud sucking at her shoes, flinching with each squelching step. Who knew what kind of guards Cairbh might have stationed to guard his stronghold?
It was early evening; the sun had disappeared behind distant hills but the light had not entirely faded. Dunlaith could see the fortress on its isle in the center of the water but it was still a long way off. So far, she hadn't found a way to cross the lake - no boats, docks or bridges - but she was certain it was there; she would just have to keep searching. She couldn't swim there, that was for certain; even if her mail didn't pull her down, she'd never learned to do so much as tread water.
This Cairbh is no Jesus Christ, to walk on water as if it were dry land! she thought. There must be a way!
Suddenly, she heard a strange, melancholy sound close at hand. It was like the belling of a trumpet but much more melodic and haunting. She pushed aside some reeds and found herself face to face with a black swan.
The bird was bigger than any she'd ever seen before, at least twice the normal size; its eyes were the fiery red of burning coals and its ebony feathers had a gleaming, oily sheen with hints of poisonous green along the edges. It flapped its wings and hissed, then drew back its head and trumpeted again. Glancing up, Dunlaith saw black dots on the surface of the lake coming rapidly her way; these vague dark blurs soon came into focus and she realized they were at least a dozen more swans.
The one beside her hissed again and struck out with its beak. Its neck was as long and flexible as a snake's body and just as quick; it scored on the woman's leg, surprising her completely. The laoch yelped and leaped back, drawing her sword. The bird's beak had felt sharp as a dagger, piercing through her tough leather trousers as if they were fragile linen. She could feel blood trickling down from the wound in her thigh; what were these hellish creatures?
Dunlaith scrambled out of the reeds, followed by the original swan. It trumpeted in triumph, wings flapping as it pursued the warrior. The other birds waddled out of the lake and joined the attack.
To the warrior, it seemed as if the twilight had turned into a nightmare of shadowy feathers, razored beaks and flaming eyes. Silently she fought off the birds, sweeping her sword from side to side in a figure eight pattern to keep them at bay and protecting her throat with her small shield. She was bleeding from a half dozen wounds below the waist before she killed the first one, allowing a swan to cut her so she could lop off the head of another. The dying bird's head rolled to the edge of the lake, beak still clacking, but to Dunlaith's profound relief, it didn't rise to fight again.
Good! she thought. They can be killed. I have a chance... if reinforcements are not summoned.
The idea of having hundreds or even thousands of these monsters to contend with made her blood run cold.
She quickly decided on a tactic, ignoring the rest of the hissing, deadly mob, concentrating solely on one swan at a time and moving, always moving, to avoid presenting too easy of a target. The birds followed, trumpeting and slashing, weaving their heads in a hypnotic rhythm. By putting her shield to good use as a distraction, luring the birds into extending their necks then striking swiftly with her sword, Dunlaith managed to kill the rest but not without cost. Her legs, buttocks and back were covered with bleeding cuts and she had no time to assess her injuries.
So, there is an end to one set of guardians, she thought, eyeing the feathered corpses heaped on the ground, and now I understand how the lake got its name. I wonder what other traps the sorcerer has set for the unwary?
The laoch made sure the little ivory key was still fastened to her wrist. Her arms and shoulders ached from the battle, and lancing pains shot up and down her legs, but her ordeal had just begun. Snatching up a handful of grass, Dunlaith used it to clean her sword, sliding the weapon back into the scabbard on her back when she'd finished. There was no time to rest; the ensorcelled birds may have alerted Cairbh to an intruder's presence.
Blood running into her boots, the laoch continued her journey around the Lake of the Swan's Note, praying she wouldn't arrive at the fortress too late to save the woman she loved.
Aislinn sat on the floor, the leather saddlebag over her knees. She was so excited that her hands shook; she'd asked one of the silently efficient servants to have a roaring fire built in her bedchamber, and she fully intended to send her offerings smoking straight into the lap of God.
Oh, ye ministers of grace! she thought, casting her eyes heavenward and clasping her hands together beneath her chin. Heavenly Father! Sweet Mary, Mother of the Blesséd Christ! This is all that is left of my old life, my last connection to the world outside these walls. I freely sacrifice these precious reminders, these memories, to thy purifying flames. Make me holy, I beg you! Let me suffer in thy name so that I, a poor and sinful woman, might be saved from damnation eternal. I pray that you release me from the curse of Eve. Please, God! Make me worthy of my husband's care and love.
The heat from the fire made her face feel hot and flushed. Without looking, she dipped her hand inside the bag and came up with a cheap wool undershift. Solemnly, she cast it into the flames and watched as the shift was consumed. Ashes and flaky embers flew up, swirling around her head, and she narrowed her eyes.
The next item to be burned was a little clay figurine in the shape of an armed warrior. Aislinn had a vague recollection that she was responsible for its creation but couldn't remember who it was supposed to represent. She consigned it to the flames without a qualm.
The bits and pieces of her life, from clean menstrual rags to a small bronze handmirror, were all cast into the fireplace. At last, Aislinn's fingertips touched the final thing - a square linen packet, the ends tied into a knot, crumpled into a corner of the saddlebag.
She drew it forth, brows furrowing in thought, rubbing the package to determine what was inside. This was a complete mystery to her and she couldn't begin to guess what the linen concealed. She almost tossed it onto the fire but something made her stay her hand, some strange and sudden premonition that this packet contained something too important to be sacrificed unexplored.
Wondering if she was committing the mortal sin of covetousness or the venial sin of curiosity, Aislinn slowly undid the knot. As soon as it was released, the four corners fell open, revealing a lock of straight, black hair nestled in the linen.
She reluctantly touched the hair...
And her entire world exploded.
It was like a rushing wave passing straight through her body, changing everything it touched; she was filled with a cleansing light that grew brighter and brighter until it shone from her skin, radiating like a sun. She was blinded, deafened and made dumb; her soul was burnished like steel and from the ashes of the spell that had caged and confined her, she was reborn.
She was Aislinn of the Dreams; her heart and soul belonged to a laoch named Dunlaith, the woman she had never stopped loving.
Aislinn gripped the lock of hair in her fist, panting. She remembered everything now; all her memories had been returned and those that had been altered or confused were now crystal clear.
"Dunlaith!" she moaned. "Oh, God... what have I done?"
And then... "Sweet Jesus! What manner of monster have I married?"
The girl scrambled to her feet, heart fluttering in her chest like a caged bird. She quickly reviewed Cairbh's conduct; now that she was herself again, she realized that he'd placed her under some kind of enchantment. He was a cruel, selfish and uncaring man, perhaps even the Devil himself, who had access to foul and eldrich powers. She found it hard to believe that she'd actually agreed to wed him and was horrified that she'd allowed herself to be manipulated, her judgment clouded by his superficial charm.
She shuddered when she remembered the way she'd acted, obeying her husband without question, agreeing with his views, willing to supplant her will with his. Her fanatic obsession with God and the Church, even to the point of harming herself in His name, made her want to vomit. She'd always been devout but this had been madness! Even living at St. Ailbe's with the nuns, she'd never subscribed to the excesses of the overly zealous.
What was I thinking? How did my mind become so twisted that I actually believed the poison Cairbh was spouting about women? Why was I convinced that I was so low a creature?
But Aislinn had no time to consider these perplexing problems; for now, it was enough to be certain that she'd been bewitched. She didn't know why Cairbh had married her on such false pretenses or what the warlock wanted with her but she didn't want to wait around and find out.
She forced down panic. I must think clearly if I am to get out of this! she admonished herself. By St. Brigit, girl! Get hold of yourself and make a plan! Remember what Dunlaith always told her trainees - while there is life, there is hope. But God also helps those who help themselves, so think!
The walls surrounding the fortress were of stone and perhaps rough enough to climb, but a fall from such a height would almost certainly prove incapacitating, if not fatal. The massive doors were too heavy for her to move alone and she'd never seen any apparatus used to open or close them. Cairbh had left a few times since she'd been there, but he'd always just stood and waited for them to open of their own accord. More evidence of his sorcery, she thought.
Then again, she'd also seen Bran and Dubhghiolla going out to gather wild berries or vegetables from the nearby forest almost every day. They hadn't laid so much as a finger on the doors either. It was as if the portal was responding to some unspoken command. Once or twice in the days since she'd been here, she'd gone to the doors and waited in anticipation but they hadn't moved so much as an inch. When her husband had caught her at this game, he'd laughed and told her that the rath only obeyed its master's will.
So there would be no escape from that quarter. She would have to think of something else.
Although it gave her a pang, once again she considered Dunlaith and the woman's instruction to the soldier trainees. The warrior's words came to her, as strong and sure as if the dark haired laoch was speaking into her ear.
"Consider the lowly rat... when cornered, he does not roll onto his back and submit meekly to his enemy. No! He fights until there is neither breath nor blood nor life in his body. He claws, he bites, he seizes every opportunity; he never gives in, for the rat knows to submit is to die. So, if you are disarmed on the battlefield, facing adversaries from every quarter, seek another weapon; even a handful of sand can overcome an enemy if cast in the right direction. If you are injured, get up and fight some more. Never surrender and never give in to despair; where there is life, there is hope."
Just thinking about Dunlaith made Aislinn feel a little bit better. She knew there was time before her husband returned from his outing, so she would try and obey the laoch's instructions.
All right... I must find a weapon. Where am I likely to find something effective against a sorcerer?
She snapped her fingers. Of course! Stuaid-leim, the warlock's tower!
Tucking the packet of hair into her bodice so it would be close to her heart, Aislinn left her bedchamber and fairly flew through the halls of the fortress, determined to escape her terrible husband...
Or die in the attempt.
Dunlaith limped along the edge of the lake. It was full dark now; the only light came from the bars of milky moonlight reflecting on the waters.
The ground underfoot began to change, from grass and dirt to small pebbles that crunched loudly with every step. The laoch saw something floating in the water near the shore; for a bare second, she thought it might be another of those God-cursed swans. Then she realized what it was and her heart lurched with relief; it was a raft! At last, she'd found a way to cross the lake!
Dunlaith splashed through the water, wading towards the bobbing craft. The raft floated away, keeping just out of reach, and she was forced to pursue. She didn't notice that the depth of the lake was increasing until she was submerged to her chest; even then, she took another step forward, straining her arms and cursing beneath her breath. Suddenly, the bottom fell away sharply and she was ducked under the waves, cold water rushing into her mouth and nose, making her choke and splutter.
Thrashing about and kicking, the iron weight of the heavy mail shirt she wore beneath her jerkin pulling her down, down into the dark waters, Dunlaith struggled, trying to pull herself up towards air and freedom. At last, just when the darkness before her eyes was shot through with thready sparks of bright color and her lungs were bursting, her head broke the surface and she sucked in great gulps of air.
Her feet found the edge of the underwater shelf and she stumbled back towards the shallows, heaving and retching. Shaking wet strands of hair out of her face, Dunlaith glared evilly at the raft. It had floated innocently back to its original position, keeping a tempting distance just a hair beyond arm's reach. The laoch ground out a few horrific curses while she considered what to do.
She began casually walking along the shore; the raft followed, keeping pace with her movements even while it stayed beyond her grasp. She made a sudden lunge and it hastily backed away, moving so swiftly it churned the water into foam. Dunlaith frowned. This damned craft acted as if it were alive and was proving harder to catch than a panicked hare.
Turning her back, she trudged back onto the gravel beach and made as if to leave. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the raft bobbing just a bit closer to shore. Although it was an inanimate object, the laoch could somehow sense a sort of smugness projected from the thing, as if it thought she'd given up and was savoring its victory. Her lips stretched in an unfriendly grin. Hah!
She whirled around and pounded through the pebbles, then coiled her powerful legs beneath her and leaped, pushing off with every ounce of strength, body flying through the air in a flat trajectory, arms outstretched and face contorted into a grimace of effort.
Dunlaith landed on the raft with a thud that blew all the breath out of her lungs. Her fingers gripped the logs convulsively and she spread her legs wide apart to secure her position. For a long moment she lay there, muscles knotted in anticipation of the raft's resistance to her boarding, her body braced for the struggle. Every sense were heightened; she could feel the rough splintered wood beneath her cheek, smell the slightly fishy odor of the water, hear little wavelets slapping against the underside of the craft.
She waited for several heartbeats but nothing happened.
Cautiously, Dunlaith raised her head. Still nothing.
Looking around, she saw no sail, oars or pole, not even so much as a length of rope. She could probably paddle with her hands but that would take all night and she'd be exhausted when she finally made it to the fortress.
Well, no doubt Cairbh's sorcery makes this thing go where he wills, she thought. P'raps it can be made to work for me as well.
She got to her knees and recited the Lord's Prayer, making the sign of the cross. The raft shuddered slightly.
The warrior got to her feet. "I know not what foul magics command you," she said, "but t'is my wish to be carried to that island."
The raft didn't move.
Dunlaith drew her sword; the steel blade shimmered eerily in the moonlight.
"Either you do as I bid or by St. Brigit, I'll chop you into kindling!" She dug the point of her sword into the logs and felt the raft shudder once again.
She plowed up a few more gouges until she felt her point had been made. "Well? What is it to be? I'm mortal chilled after my ducking and a good fire's much to my taste."
In answer, the raft twitched slightly, almost like a hiccup, and began moving smoothly in the direction of Rath Meargach.
Dunlaith sheathed her sword and sat down with a weary sigh.
There was still much to be done before she could rest.
Aislinn, she thought, lifting her head to stare at the dark turreted silhouette looming before her. Endure, my ionuin. I swear I will redeem you... or revenge you. Either way, we will be rejoined soon enough.
The raft continued speeding towards the fortress, carrying the laoch
to her destiny.
Aislinn stood outside the door of her husband's tower, heart pounding, palms sweaty with fear and apprehension. Putting a hand on the gargoyle's protruding tongue, she felt gooseflesh rise along her arms and breasts; the metal was cold and clammy with a strange rubbery texture that reminded her of toad's skin.
Taking a deep breath, Aislinn pushed the latch and quickly opened the door before she lost her nerve. Stepping within the forbidden tower, she shut the door behind her and stood with her back against the wood, glancing nervously around.
Sconces in the shape of human arms protruded from the wall, following the curved line of the stone staircase on the right; the carved hands held rush torches that were already alight. Flames flickered and danced, creating strange shadows and patches of light, reflecting off the rough hewn surfaces of the stones.
Aislinn gathered her skirt in both hands and began mounting the steps. There was no sound except the rasping of her slippers on the stairs and her own ragged breathing. The girl expected horrors to leap out of every corner, demons to come bellowing up from the floor, fierce dragons and yellow-eyed monsters to scream an alarm to their sorcerous master at any moment.
Sweet Jesus protect me! Aislinn thought. As frightened as she was, she kept walking; her only hope of escape and life lay in discovering some weapon to use against her husband.
She paused on the first landing. There was something strange about the wall here; a big patch of exceptionally dark shadow, possibly a hole. Fear swallowed mostly by curiosity, Aislinn crept closer, trying not to make a sound, and soon reached the area without incident.
It was as she'd thought; a niche had been carved into the stone itself, so deeply that the rushlights on either side were unable to penetrate the blackness. Spiders had been at work here, weaving powdery webs across the opening so thickly that strings of dust and cobwebs hung down to the top of the step. Aislinn grabbed a torch and made as if to clear away the filth; at that moment, she heard a woman's plaintive voice, so thin and hollow it was like a breath of wind.
"Are you the one?" the voice moaned. "The one I have awaited?"
Aislinn began to shake. "Who are you?" she whispered fearfully, eyes darting here and there as she tried to discover the author of her fright.
"Are you the one?" the unseen woman repeated. "The one I have awaited?"
The girl spun around and the flames of the torch caught the cobwebs; they burned in an instant, leaving the opening of the niche clear. Almost despite herself, Aislinn leaned forward and peered inside. What she saw made her scream hoarsely, dropping the rushlight and ignoring the shower of sparks as it rolled down from stair to stair, scattering glowing embers everywhere.
Aislinn backed away, hand to her mouth. Her emerald eyes were wide with terror. "Oh my dear sweet Lord," she gasped, fighting down nausea. She kept backing away until she bumped into something solid and warm. Tilting her head back, she beheld the beautiful face of her husband, Cairbh.
He grinned and said, "Good evening to you as well, sweet wife."
Aislinn screamed again as his hands gripped her shoulders, holding her into place.
She knew now what her wanted from her...
And that knowledge made her wish that she hadn't regained her sanity.
Dunlaith contemplated the massive doors in front of her. She'd trotted all the way around the fortress and this was the only exit or entrance. There was no door handle or winch; she assumed that like most castles, the opening mechanism was only accessible from the inside, making it a difficult and back-breaking task for invaders to breach the outer defenses.
She hadn't come with an army, rams or siege engines, though; her sword, wits and determination were her only weapons. The laoch took a few steps backwards and looked up, mentally estimating the height of the rough hewn stone walls. Not impossible to climb but very difficult; she'd have to cling like a limpet with fingertips and toes, haul herself up by main strength, and pray she didn't fall.
The laoch sat down and quickly stripped off her boots. After a moment's hesitation, she peeled off her leather jerkin and chain mail shirt as well, leaving her clad in trousers and padded cotton gambeson. She'd have a hard enough time without bearing the extra weight of armor; Dunlaith could only hope that Cairbh didn't have a contingent of well-armed soldiers waiting behind the walls, slavering for a fight.
Adjusting the baldric across her chest, Dunlaith made sure her sword was secure. Finished with her preparations, she stepped up to the base of the wall, flexing her fingers and rolling her shoulders. She reached out... and hesitated. Moonlight gleamed on the stones, picking out glinting highlights and washing the crevices with silver gilt. Something was not quite right; the warrior could see a slightly rounded depression just at the level of her eyes, the smooth surface a little lighter than the stone surrounding it.
The hair on the back of her neck prickled in warning. The cailleach had said that Cairbh was a clever and dangerous man; could this be another trap?
Backing away, Dunlaith picked up a rock and cast it at the wall. The pebble struck the spot she'd seen with a dull clink... and an iron spike suddenly shot out of the wall in a shower of dust and thin flakes of rock, making her jump in surprise. Before approaching, she flung another pebble at the spike itself but there was no further reaction. Satisfied, the laoch examined this unusual defense.
The spike was two hands in length and as thick as her first. It had been embedded into the wall and covered with a thin layer of limestone slurry; some pressure sensitive trigger would send it flying from confinement at a touch, to impale a climbing invader or splinter ladders to shreds. Whether magic or mechanics, Dunlaith didn't know, but it looked like the entire wall was another trap laid to catch the unwary.
All at once, the warrior's lips stretched in an evil grin.
One man's deathtrap can be a clever man's advantage, she thought. Cairbh's been a little too creative this time.
Now that she knew what to look for, Dunlaith began picking out the spots that concealed the spikes, blessing the brightness of the moon. Digging into the waistband of her trousers, she came up with the soft leather sling she kept always to hand. While useful in killing small animals for the cooking pot, right now the laoch had an entirely different prey in mind.
There were many rounded pebbles scattered in front of the fortress. Dunlaith grabbed a handful, slipped one into the well worn pocket of the sling, and let the long lines slide through her fingers. With practiced snap of her wrist, she whirled the sling around her head, gathering momentum, aimed and let fly. The pebble smacked into another depression in the wall, triggering the spike. The warrior kept this up until she'd released a zig-zagging line of spikes all the way to the top of the fortress, creating a ladder of iron.
Shoving the sling back into her trousers, Dunlaith began to climb, careful not to touch any other part of the wall. Her ascent was rapid and easy; as she pulled herself up rung by rung, she smiled wickedly to herself, heart swelling with unholy glee and triumph.
I'm coming, Cairbh. By Christ, you cocky motherless bastard, I've got you now!!
Once she'd gained the top, squeezing through the standing copper spears, she surveyed her surroundings. The walkway here was very wide and she guessed that the living quarters must lie between the outer and inner walls. She'd brought no rope, so rappelling her way down into the courtyard wasn't an option. Still, this was where defenders would repel invaders, dropping hot oil, flames and excrement on their heads, so there had to be a way in and out. Those towers were probably the answer.
The left tower had no entrance up here. Dunlaith quickly sprinted to the opposite side; the right tower did have a door and it wasn't even locked. Easing it open, the laoch entered the fortress like a thief, gliding on soundless feet through the shadows, every sense alert to sudden danger. As she picked her way through winter stores - sacks of grain, vegetables, hanging herbs - he found it odd that there were no people; no servants, guards or trace of any other human being.
Where is everyone? Is the place entirely deserted?
The thought that Aislinn might already be dead and the fortress abandoned sent a shudder through Dunlaith's frame. She knew it was a possibility but continued to hope that she wasn't too late.
The right tower was used for food storage and cooking; when the laoch reached the bottom floor, she found a kitchen and outdoor bakery with brick kiln. The next day's baking was rising in wooden bowls and a cauldron of thick pottage stew simmered on the coals.
Poking the dough with a finger, Dunlaith estimated that the bread had been left not too long ago. So they aren't all fled! she thought with relief. Now, to find my ionuin and put a good yard of steel into the guts of that foul husband of hers!
The warrior crept out of a side door and found herself in the courtyard. The garden was crowded with flowers and shrubs; the scent of overblown roses was heavy and sweet.
Dunlaith could make out many doors in the circular inner wall facing the courtyard, all of them probably leading to various rooms and who knew what sort of traps. Which was the right one? Which should she choose?
Suddenly, the laoch's choice was made for her. A scream of pure desperation and fright split the night air, ringing and echoing off the stones. Dunlaith spat out an oath; that was Aislinn's voice, she was sure of it. Drawing her sword with a steely rasp, she made haste to the spot she thought the scream had come from.
The left-hand tower.
Aislinn stood rooted to the spot. Cairbh had dragged her to the topmost room of Stuaid-leim; as she'd been manhandled up the stairs, the girl had noticed seven of those niches carved into the curved walls and her husband had proudly shown her the contents of each. Six of them had contained things so horrifying that her mind shuddered back from remembrance, but she had a feeling that she'd see those grisly images in her mind's eye for the rest of her life... however short that might be.
Cairbh rubbed his perfect hands together and smiled, showing his perfect teeth. "Well, sweet wife. How disobedient you've proven! Did I not specifically forbid you this place? But no matter now." He drew a finger across her cheek and she closed her eyes, biting her lip hard enough to draw blood.
"What's done is done and just as well," he continued in his sweet, fluting voice. "I was growing tired of you anyway. And since I was able to obtain everything I need tonight, I really see no need for further delay." He seemed inordinately pleased. "And I really don't mind that you managed to break my enchantment; your impetuousness saved me the trouble of having to do it myself."
He'd searched her once they'd reached the room and discovered the precious packet of Dunlaith's hair. Knowing it was a woman's, his only comment had been, "Females form such strong attachments to one another. Quite disgusting, really."
Aislinn opened her eyes; those emerald orbs were dazzling with hatred. "Do you plan to do to me what you did to the others?"
"Oh, yes... the others." Cairbh paced the room with languid grace. "I did not lie when I said I was a widower."
"Six times over?"
"You don't understand, do you? None of those selfish bitches ever understood!" The sorcerer turned to glare at Aislinn. "Do you think I deserved my curse? I was blighted by that whore my father married after Mother died! I had to do something... I couldn't let Caoine win!"
The girl glanced casually around the room. There were work tables and benches; wheeled tripods blazed with fire; strange crucibles and alembics bubbled with poisonously colored fluids. Laying on a nearby table was a stout iron poker, stained and pitted with acids; Aislinn began edging towards this weapon, trying to keep Cairbh distracted by talking. "What do you mean?"
His rheumy violet eyes glazed over. "Caoine cursed me," he almost sobbed. "She was my father's second wife and a witch; she wanted her daughters to inherit. I was such a pretty child! Everyone admired me, doted on me, called me 'angel' and 'honeycomb', gave me everything I wanted. Every day I grew prettier and prettier - my mirror told me so! I spent hours having my hair combed, my skin oiled, my teeth polished; I was taught to sing by the finest teachers in Eire and was famed throughout the land for the sweetness of my voice. I had no equal in beauty and loveliness... until Caoine worked her ill."
"What did she do to you?" Aislinn drew a little bit closer to the poker.
"Caoine hated me, hated the fact that I was my father's heir, and wanted to destroy me. So she took away my beauty, blighted my promise, made me into a monster! My face was twisted and spotted like a leper's; my hair like wind-blown straw; my voice cracked and broken. Do you see my eyes, Aislinn? I once had eyes like yours - sparkling emeralds set into the perfection of my face. Caoine took that away from me... but I figured out a way to restore what was taken from me."
"I found a teacher in the east who instructed me in certain ways of magic. It was a long and painful process but in the end, I knew it was worth every drop of sweat, tears and blood. I was gone for thirteen years; when I returned, my father was newly dead, Caoine and her twelve daughters despoiling my inheritance. For them, I reserved a special punishment - I changed them all into black swans and forced them to guard this fortress. To restore my beauty, though, I had to steal it from others."
"What did you do to those poor women in the stairwell? I saw the bodies you've displayed there, my lord. Could you not have granted them a Christian burial?" Aislinn turned so she was facing Cairbh, keeping her body between him and the poker. Slowly, she stretched out her arm until her fingertips touched the iron bar.
"I found out a way to thwart Caoine's curse but there are very specific conditions. I can take only a woman's chief beauty; she must be my wife; she must be happy, content and free of enchantments until she comes to Stuaid-leim; she must be a virgin, her heart untouched by any man; and her body must never leave this tower. It has taken the lives of six wives to bring me to this happy condition; as you can see, bit by bit and piece by piece, one feature at a time, I have worked to restore what is rightfully mine."
Aislinn curled her fingers around the poker, sliding it soundlessly off the table and allowing it to hang concealed behind her skirts. "Rightfully yours?" she snorted. "My lord, I think your features were being used by someone else before you stole them!"
"Those bitches couldn't appreciate their beauty!" He smoothed his long golden tresses. "No woman can. Women use their faces and bodies to ensnare men's lust and destroy them. I deserve to be beautiful far more than they!"
Aislinn gripped the poker tightly. "And what will you have of me, my lord? You have always made much of my eyes..."
"Exactly." Cairbh tilted his head and gazed at her, licking his lips. "With you, sweet wife, my century-long quest is at an end. I will take those perfect eyes of yours and make them mine. I admit, when rumor reached me of a pretty girl with eyes like emeralds living at Loughnashade, I was not inclined to make much of it. I have searched many decades to find irises that possessed the color and clarity of the ones I lost. Imagine my surprise when I discovered my prize, wasted on a lowly peasant, a servant of no name, no clan! You were easy enough to dazzle, girl. And no one will regret your passing, I assure you."
"What do you mean?" Aislinn began coiling her muscles in preparation for the blow.
"Magic has its price and its power is not inexhaustible, but I've learned to make the most of what I have. As soon as we left Loughnashade, a powerful enchantment made the folk forget you ever existed. No one will mourn you, Aislinn of the Dreams, Aislinn of the Glorious Eyes. No one will remember you at all."
He threw back his head and laughed; the girl swung the poker at his head with all her strength behind it, screaming, "Heartless bastard!"
To her shock, the iron bar clanged off his head as if his skull were stone. The poker flew from her numbed hands and clattered to the ground. Cairbh chuckled at the expression of surprise on her face.
"Do you think me foolish?" he chided good-naturedly. "Why, sweet wife, what use is eternal life and youth and beauty without invulnerability to go with it? My eastern mage taught me that secret as well. You had the right of it, you know." He unlaced the cords of his tunic, revealing pearly skin without flaw... and a gaping, empty hole bored into the center of his chest.
Aislinn gasped, horrified.
"I have no heart," he said simply. "None at all."
Cairbh reached out and grabbed a handful of Aislinn's hair, pulling the girl towards him. She cried out, twisting in his grasp. "I cannot be killed!" he hissed. "My heart is safely hidden and as long as it remains so, none can harm me. None!" He licked her closed eyelids while she whimpered. "Now... where did I put that arrow?"
Aislinn choked and hung from his hand. Finally, she worked up enough saliva to spit directly into his face.
Cairbh wiped away the spittle and smiled. "I am going to enjoy this, sweet wife. I'm going to enjoy this a great deal."
Struggling and clawing, Aislinn was pulled over a table and fastened there with leather thongs, one binding her wrists and the other her ankles.
The sorcerer sprinkled black powder into a tripod and twisting lavender flames billowed up to the ceiling. With a feminine gesture, Cairbh flicked strands of golden hair away from his lovely face and looked at Aislinn through the smoke.
"It won't be long now."
Aislinn caught her lip between her teeth and kept struggling against the knots that held her fast.
Time - and hope - were rapidly running out.
Dunlaith yanked open the door of the left tower. Torches glowed from sconces on the walls and a stone staircase spiraled upward. Seeing nothing on the ground floor, the laoch began sprinting up the stairs.
When she reached the first landing, she was startled by a whispery voice speaking directly into her ear, "Are you the one? The one I have awaited?"
Dunlaith glanced around and saw no one. "Who are you?"
The voice did not reply, merely repeated, "Are you the one? The one I have awaited?"
"I have no time for this!" Dunlaith muttered impatiently. "Show yourself or go to the Devil!"
Probably another of Cairbh's traps, she thought, shifting her sword from hand to hand.
The breathy voice moaned, "Are you the one?"
The warrior snorted and was about to continue her way to the top of the tower when she was stopped in her tracks, remembering the cailleach's instructions:
Pay heed to the cold questioners. Should any ask your design, answer honestly.
Dunlaith turned around. Thus far, the witches had spoken true and the laoch had learned to trust their counsel. "I am Dunlaith Breanda," she said defiantly, addressing the air. "I doubt my coming is celebrated, uathach, for I come to kill the corpse thief and save my love."
She gripped her sword tightly and waited
"The one!" The voice now seemed to issue from a nearby niche carved into the wall. "The one who seeks the sorcerer's death is come! Free us! Free us!"
The phrase "free us!" was taken up by a chorus of different voices, floating down the staircase and reverberating off the stones until Dunlaith was well nigh deafened. "Enough!" she cried. "Who are you? What do you want?"
A blue-white glow, like a firefly's light, began dancing in the dark niche. It grew, spiraling and coruscating, until it resolved into the form of a young woman, an uathach. The specter was composed entirely of swirling mist with splashes of brilliance here and there; her colorless face was incredibly lovely - all finely sculpted bones, voluptuous mouth and large sad eyes.
"I was once Grian of the Sunny Countenance," the ghost said; invisible winds stirred her garments, made her long hair billow and curl around her shoulders. "First wife of Cairbh the thief, first of the murdered six. He enchanted me with glamours, seduced me with magics, slew me with a sword and stole my face to replace his own. I cannot go to the lap of God until what was taken is returned."
A longsword, the blade stained heavily with rust, floated out of the niche. Dunlaith hastily sheathed her own blade and caught the ghost's weapon. Thin threads of energy crawled around her wrist but beyond a slight tingling, she felt no ill.
"With this sword he took my life," the ghost of Grian breathed. "T'is my blood, unlawfully shed, that you see upon the steel. Use this on the thief and what was stolen will be returned."
"Will it kill him?" Dunlaith asked.
"Nay but t'will weaken him. To kill him, you must destroy his heart."
"How do I do that?"
"I know not," Grian replied regretfully, "but another might. Seek your answers further on." Her figure began to fade but the sword in Dunlaith's hand remained solidly real. "Free me! I have waited so long! For mercy's sake, free me!"
The laoch hefted the blood rusted sword. "If I can, I will do it. I swear upon my soul."
The ghost disappeared, shrinking to a single pinpoint of light that winked out like a snuffed candleflame. Dunlaith peered around the corner; another niche awaited on the next landing and blue-white light was gathering there already, as if in anticipation of her coming.
The warrior shoved a stray lock of hair out of her eyes with her free hand and started up the stairs. There were five more ghosts to meet before she could face Cairbh...
And the thought of Aislinn ending up like these poor trapped creatures made a cold righteous fury burn within her breast.
By the time she reached the top of the stairs and stood before the closed door to the sorcerer's workroom, Dunlaith had collected six weapons from the ghosts of Cairbh's murdered wives, including the sword of Grian.
From Sadhbh the Sweet Voiced, a stout oaken spear with a point that glittered like ice.
From Faitbe the Mouth of Pearls, a hempen noose twisted into a hangman's knot.
From Fionnchaomh the Golden Haired, an razor sharp obsidian dagger with a hilt of bone.
From Damhnait the Clever Fingered, a short hafted, double headed ax.
And from Aiobheann of the Moon-Kissed Skin, a small glass vial sheathed in pierced copper, bearing the remnants of some foul poison.
As each weapon was used on the sorcerer, the spells he'd used to steal his wives' beauty would be shattered. Feature by stolen feature he would be reduced and weakened... but not killed.
Although all of the ghosts had repeated that she must destroy Cairbh's heart in order to end his foul existence, none of them had known precisely how she was supposed to do it. Dunlaith fingered the little ivory key, still attached to the leather cord wound around her wrist.
The cailleach said this was the key to his heart, she thought grimly. But I have no more time to answer riddles. My Aislinn is behind this door; by Christ Almighty, I swear I will save her though my own life be forfeit!
Grasping Grian's sword tightly in both hands, with the other weapons hung about her person, Dunlaith drew three quick, deep breaths, drew back her leg, and smashed her foot into the door with all her strength behind it.
The wooden door split apart under the force of her blow and swung wide...
The laoch screamed, "Aislinn!" and leaped inside the room...
Only to find a scene from her worst nightmare swimming before her eyes.
Cairbh approached the bound girl, flourishing an arrow with a wickedly barbed point as long as his hand. "Unfortunately, the spell requires each of my wives to be sacrificed with a different weapon, so this will not be completely painless. My sorrow that you will suffer but t'is for a good cause."
Aislinn panted, still struggling against the tight leather knots. When she'd been tossed onto the table, a glass jar had broken and a large shard lay conveniently near her head. While the sorcerer had been busy making his preparations, she'd been sawing at the thong around her wrists with the ragged edges of the fragment. She'd missed more than once and blood slicked her hands from numerous cuts, but she was nearly free; the shadows here were thick enough to conceal her work from Cairbh's eyes.
To buy herself more time, the girl said scornfully, "A good cause? You have murdered, my lord, and practiced black magic to steal your pretty looks, but you are a monster, as hideous and horrible within as you are beautiful without. You have no heart and no matter what you do, you will never be anything more than miserable."
"Of course I have no heart, sweet wife," Cairbh said with a white-toothed smile. "Nothing - not even your pitiful barbs - can harm me at all. I keep it safe and close by, tucked away like a miser's treasure. The key I threw away years ago, traded it to an old hag in exchange for an hour's tumble with her daughter. All safely lost and forgotten... as you will be, Aislinn of the Dreams."
He drew a step closer and she desperately tried to think of something to distract him. "My lord, spare me a bit longer so that I may pray! Surely you would not deny me the comfort of prayer, to commend my soul to God!" she cried, squirming slightly and thinking, Almost there. Just a moment longer...
His filmy violet eyes narrowed. "God cannot help you now, girl." The arrow twitched like a live thing in his hands, aimed directly at her defenseless breast. He moved closer, looming over her, his thighs pressed against hers. She could smell the nauseatingly sweet scent of his skin, the cool perfume of his breath.
"My lord Cairbh!" The tough leather parted soundlessly and Aislinn wrapped both hands around the jagged chunk of glass, ignoring the sharp sting as her palms were lacerated deeply. "If you care not for the state of your own soul," she said shakily, "then at least do not condemn me to eternal damnation. You have waited this long... what matters a heartbeat or two more? I beg you, my lord... let me confess my sins before God and go to Him cleanly. Allow me that comfort at least!"
Cairbh chuckled. He took the arrow and drew the point lightly from her chin to the heaving mounds of her breasts, bulging over the top of her bodice. "Prayer cannot help you, Aislinn. God has abandoned you. The O'Ciaran and his wife have abandoned you. Even your precious warrior friend has left you to your fate. Accept it, wife. Your time has come... and you are utterly, completely alone."
He was so close and Aislinn could feel the sharp point of the arrow pressing into her breast, drawing a pinprick of blood. Sucking in a deep breath, she let it out in a howl as she shot up, driving the thick shard of glass into his face with all the strength she possessed.
At that precise moment, Cairbh thrust the arrow into her chest, driving the barbed head deep into the soft tissue...
And Dunlaith burst through the door in time to see Aislinn with splotches of bright blood spreading and staining her gown and arms, the fletching of an arrow just visible, jutting from what looked like the front of her gown.
"Aislinn!" the warrior screamed in anguish.
The glass hadn't cut Cairbh but the force of the girl's stunning blow made him stagger back several paces. Aislinn immediately doubled over and began tearing at the thongs on her ankles; adrenaline surged through her veins, blotting out the pain of her wounds. Surprised at her attack, the sorcerer had missed his goal; instead of skewering her heart, the arrow had slipped and plowed through the flesh above her breast and a little to the side, almost in the pit of her arm.
When the laoch burst into the room, Aislinn looked up, emerald eyes wide with shock. "Dunlaith!"
"Bitch!" Cairbh spat at the pretty red-head. His pretty face twisted into a malevolent mask and a vein throbbed in his forehead. "Look what you've done! Didn't I tell you I was invulnerable? Now I'll have to fetch another arrow!"
Dunlaith's gaze flitted from Aislinn to Cairbh and back again. She hefted her sword to shoulder height, holding it as if it were a javelin. "Are you...?" she asked the girl, unable to finish the question.
Aislinn answered, "T'is not mortal." She didn't know how the laoch had found her but questions could wait. Her feet were numb and she could barely walk but she lurched a few paces towards the door. "Now run before he kills you, stupid woman!"
Dunlaith shook her head. The sword in her hand was excellently balanced. When Cairbh turned to face her, the warrior cried, "I bring a wedding gift for you, lord... in remembrance of Grian and the rest!"
Uncoiling the powerful muscles in her arms and back, Dunlaith cast the sword straight at the sorcerer. It seemed to catch fire as it flew across the room, drawing bright sparks from the air, and it struck the center of Cairbh's chest with a meaty thunk. He fell backwards, hands clutching the hilt, a look of complete surprise on his face, and lay there unmoving.
Aislinn almost sobbed, "He has no heart! He cannot be killed that way! Flee before he awakens!" The girl was in an agony of terror; while the prospect of her own death had been bad enough, the thought of watching Dunlaith die made her belly clench with pain far sharper than that which was beginning to gnaw her breast. "Get out now! T'is me he wants!"
The laoch drew the ax from her belt. "I know," she replied calmly. Dunlaith unwound the thong around her wrist and tossed the tiny ivory key to Aislinn. "This will open whatever secret place holds his heart, ionuin. Find it."
Cairbh rose slowly from the floor, drawing the sword from his torso with a dull sucking sound... and both women recoiled. Framed by lovely golden curls was a face to frighten the bravest into fits. The skin was reddish in patches, flaking and puckered, the rest a sickly, leprous white. Weeping sores ate into his drooping cheeks, dotted the broad forehead; his chin sagged like molten wax, dangling almost to his collarbone. He lifted his hands and felt his face with trembling fingers.
"You bitch!" he fluted; that sweet voice coming from such a vile countenance was almost obscene. "What have you done with my beautiful face?!!"
For answer, Dunlaith hurled the ax at his head, splitting his skull almost in half; his horrible eyes glared at the laoch from either side of the broad iron head and he wrenched the weapon out with clawed and twisted fingers. The tight flesh of his knuckles bulged, threatening to burst open; the skin of his hands was purple spotted and wealed. "I'm going to kill you, whore!"
He tossed the ax to the floor and his cloven skull drew back together seamlessly. The laoch yanked the spear out of her baldric and made ready to cast.
Aislinn looked wildly around the room. Tucked away like a miser's treasure, he'd said. The tables that lined the walls of the room were covered in strange instruments of glass and iron, jars and pouches and bundles, heaps of dried herbs, powders and grinding stones. She scanned the bewildering array of objects and her heart began to sink; she'd never find Cairbh's hiding place in time.
Suddenly, her eye lit on a small, brass-bound chest that lay nearby. While most of the room's contents were coated in a thin layer of dust, this coffer was clean, the metal polished lovingly to a muted shine. Someone had spent a great deal of time and care with that small coffer and the girl thought she knew why.
Yes... miser's lock their treasure away, Aislinn thought, but keep it close at hand; their greatest joy is to gloat over their possessions in secret, spending hours caressing their hidden gold.
Praying she was right, Aislinn scrabbled at the brass-bound coffer. The key was so tiny yet bristled with points, and it had to be inserted into the lock with hair-fine precision to work at all. Sweat ran into her eyes, making them sting, and her bloody hands shook; she felt weak and sick, wanting to collapse but knowing if she did, all would be lost. Aislinn cursed beneath her breath and bit her lip hard, trying to concentrate on the task at hand and ignore the sounds of combat behind her; precious seconds would be lost if she turned around but she was still dying to know if her warrior was all right.
Blessed Virgin Mary, keep Dunlaith safe, Aislinn sent silently. Sweet Jesu, hear my prayer!
Dunlaith hurled the spear into the sorcerer's shoulder, then drew the dagger and threw it in one smooth underhand motion, burying it to the hilt in his throat. With a choked roar, Cairbh snatched the weapons out of his flesh. The glowing, golden curls were gone, replaced by straggling hanks of limp white hair, scattered at random over a shiny, liver spotted skull. The melodious voice had turned into a rasping, harsh and cracked baritone.
"You will suffer for this, I swear." He took a shambling step towards the waiting warrior. "I will use my arts to keep you alive, make your every waking moment a torment until you beg for release into Hell!"
"Then come, old man!" Dunlaith taunted, keeping him distracted, forcing him to focus his attention on her instead of Aislinn. "Do your worst!"
Still sweating heavily, Aislinn fumbled with the key and felt like weeping in relief when it slid into the lock with a faint click. Throwing back the lid of the chest, she was horrified at what she saw there and started back with a thin scream.
Resting on faded red velvet was a blackish, dried lump of flesh that continually oozed a foul smelling pus. Aislinn choked, retched, and covered her mouth with a hand.
In the meantime, Dunlaith gestured to the furious sorcerer. "Why do you not use those much vaunted powers on me, old man? What holds back your hand?" Her pale blue eyes snapped with malice. "Oh, my sorrow but I've forgotten. You haven't proper hands anymore, have you... cripple!"
Cairbh screeched, his face turning bright scarlet with ire. He drew back his fist then thrust it forward, crying words in an unknown sibilant tongue. Crackling purple light crawled around his clenched fingers, gathering momentum and speed until it shot towards the laoch like a crossbow bolt.
Dunlaith confronted this threat with perfect calm. The cailleach had told her that love was her greatest shield and strength, and she held those words within her mind like a shining beacon. The sorcerer's magic struck the silver pendant around her neck, drawn to that symbol of Aislinn's love as if pulled there by a lodestone... and exploded in a shower of harmless lavender sparks.
Cairbh's rheumy eyes went wide. "How...?"
The laoch gave him a fierce grin, pulling a coil of hempen rope off her shoulder. "Powerful as you are, old man... even you cannot defeat true love."
The sorcerer bared his still brilliant teeth at her in a snarl. "You speak in riddles, bitch. But I'll kill you yet!"
He rushed towards her with outstretched arms... and as soon as he got within range, Dunlaith tossed the noose over his head and darted behind him, pulling the rope strangling tight. He clawed at the heavy knot behind his ear, mouth gaping wide in a soundless scream, tongue protruding between the now blackened and rotting stubs of his teeth. The laoch planted a knee into his back and heaved with all her might while he choked and struggled, tearing his own tunic into shreds in an effort to reach the woman who tormented him..
Dunlaith wrapped a length of rope around her forearm and kept it taut. She dug the other hand under the tied waist of her trousers, coming up with the vial of poison. Working off the glass and copper plug with her teeth, she reached around and rammed the vial into the sorcerer's open mouth, tilting it to tip the poison down his gullet. He wheezed, spraying a cloud of spittle and vile green droplets that speckled the warrior's arm and face. She kept her lips pressed tightly together and hung on grimly.
His body shape began to change, slumping into a hunched rack of bones barely held together by dangling ropes of sore-riddled skin and warped tendons. The pale and perfect complexion of his torso darkened to a greenish-violet hue, as if he was covered with bruises. All of the beauty he had stolen was gone, vanished entirely... leaving him to wear his real shape, a true reflection of his nature - that of a monster who had traded his heart for superficial loveliness and immortality.
Dunlaith could barely hang on any longer; Cairbh had been weakened but his unnatural life continued, fueled by the blackest of magics. "Destroy his heart!" she called to Aislinn. "Do it now!"
Aislinn reached for the horrible, stinking thing... and hesitated. She could almost feel the rotting flesh squelching between her fingers and the very thought made her gorge rise.
Hope dawned in the rheumy violet eyes of the monstrous sorcerer. He shook himself like a dog, sending Dunlaith flying; the laoch's body hit the wall with a crack and she slumped down to the floor, dazed. Viscous strings of drool hung from his jaws, spilled down his flabby chin. He turned to regard Aislinn. "Sweet wife," he growled. "Come away from there. You don't want to touch such a nasty thing, do you?"
The girl's mouth flooded with saliva and she gulped, fighting the urge to vomit. As she gazed into the casket, she saw white maggots squirming through the blackened flesh of Cairbh's heart. It cracked open, yawning wide with corruption, and the putrid smell increased tenfold.
"Come away," Cairbh crooned in his rough voice. "Am I not your husband?" He tore the noose off his neck and cast it contemptuously in the stunned warrior's direction. "Have I not given you everything you've desired? Come away, Aislinn of the Dreams. Come away and I will gift you with delights beyond measure, shower you with the treasures of the earth, share the secrets of my power."
Aislinn reached into the brass-bound chest but couldn't bring herself to touch the sorcerer's heart. A fresh horde of maggots burst from the soft center of the corruption and she shuddered.
"Come away, come away, sweet wife." Cairbh took a few steps towards the hesitating girl. "My form may not be pleasing but that can change; oh yes, that will change."
Aislinn stood stock still.
Then the sorcerer made his fatal mistake; assuming he had already won, he said just a little too much.
"Sweetest of wives, I ask you..." He spread his hands wide apart and sneered. "Why continue this foolishness? Why not join me in killing Dunlaith? Murder is the sweetest joy of all and I am eager to teach you. Besides, what can that poor, penniless warrior woman give you that I cannot?"
Aislinn's head rose and she speared Cairbh with her glittering emerald gaze; he was stunned by the fierce hatred he saw there, as well as the equally fierce protectiveness that was reflected beneath. Her lip curled in scorn and she spat, "What can Dunlaith give me that you cannot? Love, my lord. Love!"
She grasped the rotting heart in her hand, drawing it out of the box and flinging it to the floor. Cairbh shouted, "No! Wait!" but there was not an ounce of mercy left in her soul.
Determination radiating from the eyes that Cairbh had coveted, Aislinn raised her foot and brought it down upon the heart, grinding the corrupted organ into dust beneath her heel.
The sorcerer screamed...
And began to collapse inward upon himself, flesh slowly crumbling into powder and grayish ash. Aislinn continued to twist her foot upon the ruins of the heart while Cairbh shrieked and babbled, disintegrating like a child's mud toy left in the rain. The last to dissolve was his head; his lips moved soundlessly for a moment, eyes swiveling wildly... and then his skull fragmented piece by piece, each bit joining the dust of his body until there was nothing left save a pile of powdery rubble stirred softly by the evening breeze.
Aislinn watched Cairbh's destruction impassively, as if it touched her not at all. When it was done, she turned to Dunlaith.
The laoch got to her feet, rubbing the side of her head. "Are you well, ionuin?" Dunlaith asked anxiously, then wanted to kick herself for the sheer stupidity of the question.
The girl shook her head, sending red-gold locks cascading down her shoulders. "Nay," she answered breathlessly, "I think t'will never be well again."
With that, Aislinn collapsed into the warrior's strong arms, happy to embrace the peaceful darkness of oblivion... and half wishing that she'd never wake up again.
Dunlaith tossed another length of wood into the fire and sighed. T'is three days since Cairbh was sent to a deserving hell and she's not spoken two words to me yet.
The sorcerer's death had wrought some changes in Rath Meargach. To her delight, she'd discovered that the massive entrance doors were so well balanced that even though they were no longer enchanted, they could be opened with a fingertip. And she'd found the skeletal remains of thirteen women in the place where she'd destroyed the vicious black swans; Dunlaith had buried these unfortunates together with the bodies of Cairbh's wives, hoping that their poor souls would be at rest and finally find the blessed peace of God.
Aislinn had told her the story of the swans - one of the few pieces of information the girl had volunteered. She'd also mentioned two weird black servants but Dunlaith hadn't been able to find a trace of them; the two women were alone on the island with only a pair of oversized ravens for company.
And those ill omened birds are far more talkative than my ionuin, the warrior thought moodily.
Dunlaith poked at the fire with a long stick. She wants to stay here, make her home in the fortress; she said she's earned this inheritance and I cannot but agree. Bad memories aside, t'is easily defensible, well built and uncommon luxurious . And if Aislinn carries out her plan and sells a few of Cairbh's treasures, t'will be enough to found a convent and monastery, especially if she donates the grounds as well. Where the Church is, the people will come; in a few years, all the land hereabouts may be under the peasant's plow, and Aislinn will make a better landlord than most.
As for me... well, not a word has she spoken in invitation but she has offered me gold to pay my honor debt to the O'Ciaran. Aye, t'will clear my name but even so, if Aislinn believes I will meekly take her payment and retire from the field like a bought lackey, she knows me not at all!
Just then, Aislinn entered the room. She was still pale; her arms and hands wrapped in linen strips, dark violet bruises bloomed beneath her eyes. Catching sight of Dunlaith, the girl turned around and made as if to leave.
Dunlaith rose, dusting off the back of her trousers. "Nay," she called. "Stay, please, and evade me no longer. There is much we need to talk about, Aislinn, and I'm determined to have my say even if I must shout it after you as we run about the fortress."
The girl came slowly into the room. Her left arm was in a sling and the laoch had to suppress a shudder at the sight. Getting that barbed arrowhead out of Aislinn's flesh had been a messy, bloody and painful experience; although the girl hadn't even whimpered much, the agony on her face had made Dunlaith feel weak and faint. In fact, as soon as the operation had been completed, the warrior had been noisily and shamefully sick in a nearby close-stool.
T'is far easier to physick a man under your command than the women you love, Dunlaith thought. I'd rather chop off my own right hand than go through that again soon.
Aislinn waited, her emerald eyes hooded.
The warrior cleared her throat. "First," she said, "there has been much ill between us... even before Cairbh."
A tiny spot of color began to burn in Aislinn's cheeks but she said nothing.
Dunlaith continued, "Now, busy as I might have been at the time, I heard what you told the sorcerer before you crushed his heart."
What can Dunlaith give me that you cannot? Love, my lord. Love!
Both of them vividly recalled those words.
"T'was but the moment's heat," Aislinn began to say softly but was interrupted by the laoch.
"Deny it if it gives you comfort," Dunlaith said. "But hear what answer I would give before you speak." She walked towards the girl and stopped a hands breadth away, so close that Aislinn could measure the taller woman's heartbeat by the rapid pulse in her throat.
"Aislinn of the Dreams," the dark haired warrior said, "I love you. Nothing can or ever will alter my feelings for you; my soul is not my own for I gave it to your care long ago, nor will I ask its return while I have breath or life."
Aislinn opened her mouth to reply but Dunlaith stopped it with a finger to her lips. "Let me finish," the laoch said. "My profoundest sorrow for the pain I caused you in the past; if t'was within my power to wipe it clean away as if it never existed, I would. Believe me when I say I would rather die than hurt you again, ionuin; I swear by my sword that if you wish to take retribution, I will submit myself to any punishment you name... as long as you do not drive me away entire. Wherever we go in this world, I want us to go together. You see, I cannot live without you, my beloved, my heart."
Dunlaith took Aislinn's hand, clasping it gently in her own. "I desire you, t'is true; I will not deny that I wish us to be lovers. But I should have had more patience and I curse myself for a thick-headed fool; you were frighted and I did nothing but add to that hurt. I understand..." The laoch swallowed and continued thickly, "If t'is your wish that we live as sisters, close as kin but no closer, then I will respect your decision... as long as you allow me to stay by your side."
"So..." Aislinn shot the sweating warrior a glance from beneath her lashes. "You wish to stay with me. What if I say thee nay? How then, Dunlaith? Will you force me to endure your presence if I do not wish it?"
Dunlaith swallowed again. Pressing a fervent kiss to the girl's knuckles, she choked, "Nay... if t'is your true desire for me to go, I will do it, though it breaks my heart. Ionuin, I am nothing but your servant; do with me as you will."
Aislinn turned away, taking her hand out of Dunlaith's grasp, and the laoch almost cried out. But the girl didn't leave the room; instead, she moved closer to the fireplace but kept her back to the tall woman. "For a while, I forgot you," Aislinn said quietly, "but then I remembered you again. I never loved Cairbh; he never touched me, never roused in me the strength of feeling that you did. I married him because I both loved you and feared you. I understand that now, and other things besides."
Moving to face the still, silent warrior, Aislinn continued, "I love you still, Dunlaith of the Burning, and I will be forever shamed of the way I treated you. My fear was no fault of yours. Nay, listen!" she said when the laoch protested. "This touches both of us and before decisions are made, you must hear what I have learned."
Dunlaith subsided and kept her pale eyes locked on the slight figure before her.
"I have spent much time in thought," Aislinn said, clasping her bandaged fingers before her, "and realized why your touch, once so delightful, came to be such a source of pain. You see, the nuns taught me too well; they raised me to be devout, to serve God and to fear Him, to eschew sin in all its forms and turn my face solely to the light of Jesus. Despite my words or brave intentions, despite even the longings of my heart, when we came together flesh to flesh I knew, deep within, that we sinned. That God would turn His face away from me, condemning me for all time because I loved unnaturally... and you would be condemned as well."
"Christ Almighty," Dunlaith breathed, taking a step forward. "You carried that within you all this time? Why did you not speak to me of this before?"
"Because I could not put in words what was hidden so secretly in my soul! It is only recently that my understanding has increased and what was once my inner shame can now be spoken openly." Aislinn sighed. "All sinners fear Hell... but t'was my worst fear that I had seduced you, as Eve tempted Adam, and caused you to fall. I was so ashamed and terrified that when we tried to be lovers, I pushed you away... and I have been pushing you ever since. My marriage to Cairbh was intended to free you from my woman's wiles, allow you to find your way back to the favor of God."
"There is no shame in loving," Dunlaith said, coming another step closer. "The Church may say otherwise but I do not put my belief in a God so terrible and top-filled with malice that He would so condemn two people's love, no matter they be man and wife, wife and wife, or husband and husband. My God is made entirely of love for His children and no priest may convince me otherwise."
"You and I are not the same," Aislinn said passionately. "Do you understand why I felt I must release you? Do you understand why I left? Do you understand why I acted as I did? Why I denied our love? Why I hurt you and broke both our hearts?"
The girl's emerald eyes filled with tears. She took a deep breath and said in a very small voice, "Can you ever forgive me?"
The laoch swept Aislinn into her strong arms, hugging her fiercely. "There is nothing to forgive." She pressed a kiss on the top of the girl's head. "T'is both our faults that we were separated from each other, mine no more than yours. I struck you, you struck back and we blindly wallowed in regret and pity and tears enough to drown the world."
"We wanted to hurt ourselves as much as we had hurt each other," Aislinn murmured.
"Well, that is past now." Dunlaith pulled away, holding the smaller woman at arm's length. "What I wish to know is this: what is our future, ionuin? Do you still feel our love is mortal sin?"
Aislinn shook her head. "T'is like I had some great wound in the depths of my soul, an injury that festered and bled and I nurtured it all unknowing. But now I feel... well, almost cleansed, in a way. I want you - by Jesu! how I want you, woman! - and I am willing to try. All I ask is patience..."
"You need have no fear of losing me," Dunlaith interrupted, "even if we are never lovers. Whatever your wishes, I will respect them and I swear by my sword, my honor and my life that I will never again cause you regret or pain. As long as I am at your side, I am content... it is enough."
The look of relief on Aislinn's face made the warrior's throat swell under the weight of unshed tears.
"I can promise nothing," the girl said, "but that I will always love you."
"As I said, it is enough."
They kissed, dark hair falling and mingling with red-gold; a long, sweet meeting of two souls that had been parted, but now came together again in utter joy and complete understanding.
Whatever the future held, no matter where they would go or what they would do...
Love would be enough.