This story contains graphic violence, including the depiction of child abuse as well as other scenes of a violent nature, the depiction of a non-graphic romantic relationship between two adult women and some adult language. This story also contains religious references - Catholicism - within a historical context that may be deemed offensive by some persons. If you are one of them, stop reading now.
For now we see through a glass, darkly,
12th Century, Anno Domini
Somewhere off the coast of Ireland
Inky darkness, black as sin, completely enveloped the Isle of Niamh; the island's sole inhabitants, the Sisters of the convent of St. Ailbe, were huddled in their stone cells, unable to sleep because of the storm. Strong gusts smelling strongly of salt lashed at the convent's stone walls, clawed and scrabbled at wooden doors and shutters, hissed through every crack, every crevice. Rain splashed down in an endless cascade; lightning sizzled and popped, providing brief flashes of pure pale illumination.
This was no ordinary storm; there was a fury behind it, a purpose that could only be from the hand of the Lord. Not the forgiving, loving Father; no, this was a manifestation of the wrathful God that had destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, slain the first born children of Egypt, flooded the world to destroy the wicked.
All of the nuns stayed on their knees in prayer, the clicking of rosary beads and softly murmured litanies soothing despite the furor outside. Candles flickered as stray puffs of air threatened to snuff them out altogether; the bobbing, golden lights cast gigantic shadows on the walls, skewing ordinary shapes into unfamiliar, grasping demons.
On such a night, all of the women prayed... except one.
In the small Hall of Novices, a girl slept peacefully beneath her coarse, woolen blanket, her dreams for once undisturbed by nightmares. As the only novice - for few girls would have been willing to submit to so much isolation and hardship as St. Ailbe's offered the potential Brides of Christ - she had the Hall to herself. Some might have been lonely, wept for the family they had left behind, wondered if they had the strength to endure so harsh a vocation.
But the one who was the youngest of the convent, she who was known as Aislinn of the Dreams, slept with a mind untroubled by doubt, if not by pain. Aislinn had been found on the rocky shore of Niamh when she was a dirty-faced child of eleven years; the nuns had taken her in despite knowing nothing of her origins, family or clan. Only three things were clear - first, the gold cloak brooch she had clutched in her fist suggested a link to nobility; second, her name given simply as Aislinn; and third, the girl was completely blind. Those marvelously wide, emerald green eyes saw nothing; could not even distinguish between darkness and light. The infirmarian, Sister Keely, had found no disease, no evidence of injury past or present that could account for such a loss.
It was as if God Himself had drawn a veil across Aislinn's eyes for some unfathomable purpose of His own.
The Abbess, Mother Bebhinn, thought that Aislinn might be some nobleman's unwanted by-blow, tossed up on Niamh by chance or purpose. The girl herself had no idea how she had come to be there or why. In fact, her early memories seemed to have been erased and privately - considering the old scars that laced Aislinn's back, buttocks and thighs - the Mother thought that might be no bad thing.
Over the years, the scrawny, green-eyed girl with red-gold hair had developed into a young woman of such heart-breaking beauty that Mother Bebhinn regularly thanked God and the Virgin Mary that the only regular contact the community had with men was the weekly visit of Father Paul from the Benedictine chapterhouse on the mainland, and he was an ancient relic of a priest whose vision was more firmly fixed on Heaven than on Earth. Aislinn was such an innocent that she would have been easy prey to unscrupulous men in the outside world... or so Bebhinn thought.
Who Aislinn was remained a mystery, but the Sisters accepted her, even to a certain extent the sour-tempered prioress, Sister Cliodna; no one who knew her could resist being drawn by her goodness, by the joy that was palpable in her soul... nor could they help but recognize the strain of melancholy and sadness that lurked just beneath the girl's happiness.
By dawn, the storm was over and the women gathered in the chapel for Prime, their voices raised in sanctified song. After the psalms and prayers, the Sisters hastily gulped a scanty breakfast and left the convent to assess the damage to their gardens, crops and animals. The catastrophe they feared didn't prove to be so terrible - Sister Keely's herbs were flattened but salvageable; the vegetable plots were fine; the chickens scattered but quickly rounded up; the sheep and cows found and brought into the barn. After this, the daily round of chores could begin.
Following Prime, Aislinn was one of the few women who remained behind. She caged a small loaf of bread and a cup of milk from Sister Enda in the kitchen and made her way to the workshop where she spent most of her days.
Despite her blindness, Aislinn was a sculptor of uncanny skill; her sensitive fingers coaxed hauntingly beautiful and graceful shapes from clay - small figurines of horses, birds, bulls, dogs, deer and especially wolves. Some, including Sister Keely, thought that Aislinn's preoccupation with wolves was a tribute to their own St. Ailbe, who had once saved a wolf's life and thus tamed the wild beast so that it ate from his table for the rest of its days. Aislinn herself did not know why she found these animals so fascinating - but it was a fascination born of dread, not of love. She could not control the compulsion; it controlled her to such an extent that her dreams were often filled with frightening images of running wolves, their hot breath scorching the backs of her heels as she fled through an eldritch forest towards the pounding of the sea.
She was known as Aislinn of the Dreams because of these nightmares and their consequences - night sweats, screaming awakenings, an aversion to dogs that made her terrified even of the convent's toothless old hound - as well as the oft-repeated visions she had of a cruel-eyed man in a wolfskin coat, sneering at her from a great height.
But last night she had slept peacefully for the first time in several sevendays - thank the Blessed Virgin.
Her workshop was nothing more than a small hut attached to the larger herbarium in Sister Keely's garden. Rows of shelves held lumps of clay wrapped in moist rags, a few shaping tools and a collection of imperfect pieces. A little wood-fueled stove was used to fire Aislinn's figurines; afterwards, they cooled on other shelves until there were enough for Father Paul to collect and take back to the mainland. The pieces were hardly larger than a thumb-length and sold well at fairs and feasts, providing a welcome income to the convent.
Not yet willing to disturb the peacefulness of the day, Aislinn tarried and took in a few breaths of air; the breeze was scented by the sweet smells of Sister Keely's crushed herbs - thyme, rosemary, lavender, beebalm. The Prioress' prize roses had blown apart beneath the onslaught of the storm and heaps of petals were scattered everywhere underfoot; each time Aislinn took a step, the cloying perfume was nearly overwhelming.
She ate as she walked the winding path through the herb garden, eating Sister Enda's good honey bread and sipping still warm milk; her feet never faltered nor did she lose her way. She might have been blind but in the eight years that she had dwelled here, Aislinn had wandered throughout the gardens, convent proper and even the island itself. She knew every inch intimately, that precious knowledge soaked down into her very bones. She no longer even used the stick that one of the Sisters had made to help her find her way and avoid falling over obstacles that she couldn't see. Niamh and the convent were as familiar to her as her own skin.
Finally, when the warmth of sunshine told her that she'd been outside long enough, Aislinn entered the workshop, depositing the kitchen cup on a shelf to be returned later. Sitting down and unwrapping a piece she had been working on yesterday, Aislinn lost herself in the enjoyment of her craft and allowed her mind to wander.
Aislinn enjoyed the feel of clay in her hands; pinching, prodding, smoothing and shaping until she could feel the figure coming alive in her fingertips. When she'd been a child and newly arrived at the convent, old Sister Ornat - she of blessed memory! - had created the convent's pots and vessels in this very room, working with clay just as Aislinn did now. But Sister Ornat hadn't had a drop of creative artistry anywhere in her ancient soul; her pieces were pedestrian and useful. When she'd given Aislinn a lump of clay one day as a way of distracting the child, the nun had been amazed when the girl had quickly shaped it into a recognizable figure of a deer. True, it was rough and childish in design, but the Sister had realized that there was talent lurking there - a God given gift that needed only a bit of encouragement to blossom full grown.
Aislinn had soaked up all the knowledge Sister Ornat had to offer and demanded more. An arrangement had been made for her to study with one of the Benedictine monks, Brother Michael Brecc, whose big freckled hands created elegant pottery from the meanest of materials. Brother Michael had been astonished at the scope of Aislinn's raw talent and had done all he could to teach her the necessary tricks of the trade. Under his tutelage, Aislinn had become a true artist whose modest fame had already spread across the mainland of Eire.
She could remember being able to see at one time; she could envision trees, plants, animals, colors, even strange faces to which she could put no name. But in spite of Sister Keely's ministrations, her eyes remained veiled and the light of the sun never dazzled her vision again.
Suddenly, Aislinn was brought out of her musing by the fact that her hands were still. It was often thus; while her fingers plucked and smoothed the clay, her mind was set to wandering, only recalled when the body rested once more.
The finished piece was in her lap; she allowed her fingertips to caress the clay, seeking to build an image in her mind by the contours and details she could feel. As the vision took shape, Aislinn's bottom lip trembled and she began to shake.
It was the same, exactly the same as others she had produced more and more frequently in the last few months. Oh, Mother of Mercy, she prayed silently, why have You allowed this to happen once more?
In her heart, Aislinn had hoped that the Virgin Mary would have granted her prayer... but proof of the Holy Mother's indifference lay in her lap, bold as brass and as comforting as a spearpoint.
A girl lay on her back, mouth open in a silent scream, ragged skirts bunched up around her waist. A wolf straddled her body, lean muzzle parted in a snarl, a ruff of fur standing out around his head. It was so real, so lifelike despite its small size, that a peasant would have been excused for thinking the figurine was an actual representation of a wolf attack victim. Someone who was more worldly would have seen the sexual suggestiveness in the wolf's dominant position and the girl's reluctant, submissive pose. It seemed to be a representation of the most bestial kind of rape imaginable and to Aislinn, this image was horribly disturbing in a way she could not consciously understand but loathed with every fiber of her being..
She was sickened to the point of wanting to vomit. As her fingers dug into the still pliable clay, crushing the terrible figurine into a shapeless mass, she felt faint; cold sweat beaded on her forehead and upper lip, her stomach churned and she tasted bitter acid on her tongue.
Her hands clenched so tightly together that clay squeezed out from between her fingers, Aislinn staggered up from her stool then dropped to her knees. Ignoring the blobs and smears of wet earth that dirtied her robes, she raised her clasped hands and silently pleaded with God the Father, Christ the Son, the Virgin Mary and all the saints to take this nightmare away from her; she would rather lose her artistic gift altogether than endure one more day of never knowing when her personal demons were going to strike.
She was frightened, feeling physically ill and trembling; she did not know why the image of the wolf and girl should so disturb her, but she was beyond rational thought, able only to react to the emotional distress.
Aislinn began to babble the first prayer that came to her head. "Per signum crucis de inimicis nostris libera nos, Deus noster. In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti..."
By the sign of the cross, deliver us from our enemies, Thou who art our God. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit...
Over and over she whispered the Latin words, her eyes tightly closed in reflex, rocking back and forth while tears streamed unchecked down her cheeks.
It was thus that Sister Fiona found her nearly two hours later.
"Merciful God, Aislinn!" Fiona clucked, helping the exhausted girl to her feet. "If you wanted to pray so much, why didn't you join us for Nones? You missed the noon meal as well, and you as scrawny as a plucked hen already! Well, that's for naught, now. Mother Bebhinn sent me to look for you."
The Sister looked at Aislinn with a critical but not unkind eye. Fiona was plump and motherly; her cap of shorn salt and pepper curls was hidden beneath the white cloth of her wimple but a few wisps had escaped to frame her round, friendly face. She surveyed the trembling, white-faced young woman and sighed. "Whatever your trouble, child, it will have to keep. The Abbess wants you to come to her study; we have a visitor!"
"W-w-what?" Aislinn stammered, wiping her wet face with the back of her hand.
"You heard me, child!" Fiona scolded gently. "I happened to get a glimpse of the stranger - such finery I haven't seen since the Bishop visited some fifteen years ago. And Prioress Cliodna, that whey-mannered, cat-footing busy-body - may God in His infinite mercy forgive me - was standing there with her ear pressed to the Mother's door. Tcha! Sister Keely caught her and gave her a tongue lashing but you know Cliodna - a more righteous individual never graced the good Lord's earth." While she spoke, she dusted off Aislinn's robes, exclaiming over the clay smears that had now dried to an unshakable stain.
"St. Brigit! Well, there's nothing for it but you'll have to be changing before you hie off to Mother Bebhinn's study. We can't have you greeting some important visitor looking like the sheep dragged you in on its tail."
Aislinn was still confused. "But why has Mother Bebhinn sent for me?"
Fiona glanced right then left but they were alone. Pulling the girl closer to her, she breathed in Aislinn's ear, "T'is that the stranger's come for you or so Cliodna thinks. All a-flutter in the kitchen with half the convent hanging on her lips, telling everyone who cares to hear it that your family's come to claim you after all this time and what's to be done without the silks and such we buy with the money you earn. Who's to make the Brother's altar cloths?, she minces. Tcha! From the way Cliodna's carrying on, you'd think she'd been stabbed in the dark with a dull needle and that's no mistake!"
Family? Come to claim... me?
On top of the emotional trauma of the morning, it was all suddenly too much. With a sigh, Aislinn slumped over in a dead faint and Fiona caught her beneath the arms before she fell to the floor.
A few moments later, Aislinn was awakened by the sharp stench of a burning feather waved beneath her nose. As soon as the girl mewled and waved her hands, Fiona took the feather away and crushed it in her palm.
"Are you ill?" the nun asked.
Aislinn coughed. "Nay," she replied faintly. "Help me up. To keep Mother Bebhinn and her visitor waiting would be a sin."
"Are you certain?" Fiona said, hauling Aislinn to her feet and holding her arm as she swayed unsteadily.
Taking a deep breath, the girl nodded. "Take me to her," she said, feeling a slight wave of strength return to her chilled limbs. Whatever awaited her, she would have to face it bravely - Christ Himself and the Blessed Martyrs had done no less.
Sister Fiona didn't know if Aislinn was referring to Mother Bebhinn... or the stranger whose presence on their quiet island was already causing an uproar. Heaving a heartfelt sigh, Fiona bustled away with the girl in tow, leading blind Aislinn to her fate.
Mother Bebhinn, Abbess of the Convent of St. Ailbe, surveyed the visitor. Her sharp brown eyes took in every detail, drawing conclusions with lightning speed.
Despite the fact that the stranger was dressed as a man in tunic and trews, "he" was obviously a woman. Or at least, obvious to those who had the wits to see, Bebhinn thought. Her name, too, was a dead giveaway - Dunlaith, which meant "brown lady." There was earth in her coloring; Dunlaith's shoulder length hair was raven black, pulled away from her face by a silver ring; her eyes were a pale and intense blue that was complemented by the sun-kissed color of her skin. But there was no trace of earth in her nature; no, this one was all fire, her passions smoldering just beneath the surface - Bebhinn thought that as well controlled as Dunlaith's flames were, it would take no more than a single breath to set them alight.
She was dressed richly in a doeskin tunic, dyed dark green and embroidered all over in silver thread; the wide cuffs of her gloves sparkled with tiny jewels and the two legs of her trews were laced up the sides with silver cord. The brooch that held back the flap of her cloak was gold; the large oval bore running wolves all around the rim and a smoky cairngorm in the center. That she was a warrior in private service was in no doubt - the sword she carried on her back had seen hard use and judging from the set look on her face, Dunlaith was definitely a woman to be reckoned with.
Bebhinn smiled in what she hoped was a friendly manner and said, "I apologize for Aislinn, Dunlaith. I can only offer the excuse that when she is in a creative mood, it is sometimes difficult to rouse her."
Dunlaith nodded. "I am in no hurry. You've been kind enough to offer the convent's hospitality while I carry out my Lord's instructions."
Just as Bebhinn was casting her mind about frantically, trying to come up with some innocuous small talk to fill up the silence, there was a discreet rap on the door. Sending up a mental hallelujah, the Abbess called, "Enter."
The door opened and Aislinn was thrust inside, propelled by a friendly push from Fiona. The plump Sister lingered near the open door, hoping to be forgotten so she could be privy to these momentous events, but Bebhinn knew her charges well. "Thank you, Fiona. You may go; please shut the door behind you."
Aislinn stood there straining her ears, but her heart was pounding so hard she could hear nothing except the throbbing of her own pulse. She didn't realize Mother Bebhinn was speaking to her until the Abbess called sharply, "Child! Have you been listening to a word I've said or are you lost entire in that head of yours?"
Aislinn gulped; her mouth felt like it had been scoured out with wool and it took her a few moments of frantic working to draw up enough saliva for speech. "My sorrow, Reverend Mother. I was..."
"It's all right, Aislinn," the stranger said. Her voice was a husky purr that sent electric tingles down Aislinn's spine. "I am Dunlaith of Breanda. My sorrow if I have kept you from your art."
The name meant nothing to the girl. Instinctively, her face turned towards Dunlaith and the woman drew a breath. Aislinn was beautiful; her skin creamy and smooth, eyes like glowing emeralds set in the perfection of her face. The Abbess had told her of Aislinn's handicap; to know that those marvelous eyes were useless except as pure ornamentation made Dunlaith's heart contract in pity.
Dunlaith rose from her chair; she was as tall as a man and leanly muscular, top-filled with deadly grace and an economy of motion that spoke of hard warrior's training over many years. She walked over to the waiting girl and smiled, a gesture meant to soothe that was wasted on Aislinn's blindness. "May God watch over you, may the Virgin light your path and may the Great Good Christ lend you His strength in time of trouble," Dunlaith said formally. "I greet thee, Aislinn of the Dreams."
"And I greet thee, Dunlaith of the Burning," Aislinn replied, for the warrior woman's name meant just that in the Gaeloch. Mingled excitement, fear and apprehension made the girl's stomach churn. She held out her hand and as Dunlaith covered it with her own, Aislinn realized in horror that her palm was damp with sweat and clammy. She fervently hoped the honored visitor wouldn't notice her nervousness, much less comment on it.
Dunlaith knew Aislinn was afraid; she curled her fingers around the girl's hand and brought it up to her face, placing the slightly sticky palm on her cheek. "Since you cannot see me smile, ainnir, perhaps you will be able to feel that there is no need for fear between us."
Aislinn blushed but did not remove her hand from the other woman's face. Instead, she traced Dunlaith's face with her fingertips, smoothing her thumb over the warrior's forehead and cheekbones, allowing her palm to slide across mouth and chin, building up an image in her mind. The exercise calmed her, as Dunlaith had guessed it would.
"What color are your hair and eyes?" Aislinn whispered; the artist in her soul needed to have each detail complete. Realizing it was an inappropriate question to ask a stranger, she blushed again and lowered her hand.
"Black and blue," Dunlaith whispered back; a small smile quirked up one side of her mouth. "Which would also be the color of my skin, could the Reverend Mother's glare deliver the blows her eyes are sending in my direction."
Aislinn felt flustered and knew her cheeks were glowing like coals. "My sorrow if this foolishness of mine has kept you from your business with Mother Bebhinn," she said loudly enough for the Abbess to hear.
Bebhinn shook her head and sighed. "T'is of little moment, inion," she said, calling Aislinn 'daughter.' "As you already know, this lady is Dunlaith of Breanda; she is a laoch in service to Lord O'Ciaran. You may not know that the O'Ciaran has been blessed with a plenitude of daughters - seven, in fact. His youngest, Lady Eala, has just reached her thirteenth year and it has been decided to dedicate the girl to the Church. Dunlaith will be staying with us for a little while, to see if St. Ailbe's is an appropriate place for young Eala to retire from the world."
Aislinn was unable to reply; she was too stunned for words. So this woman was not kin come to take her away? Part of her was so relieved she wanted to sink down on her knees and sing a hymn of praise to the Merciful Jesu; another part of her felt like keening in disappointment. Still, she had not yet learned why Mother Bebhinn had sent for her, so she bit her lip and waited.
Dunlaith watched the mixed emotions cross swiftly across Aislinn's face and was quick to explain. "Since you are the only novice here at the moment, I wanted to spend a bit of time with you, ainnir. See how you spend your days, learn about the Isle of Niamh and the convent, the Sisters, the whole business of living here as you do."
She lowered her voice so the Abbess could not overhear and leaned down closer to Aislinn. "My lady Eala comes with a substantial dowry to be donated to the convent, as well as a relic of the Blessed St. Colman of Dromore. You understand why this is important to the Reverend Mother, do you not?"
Aislinn nodded. For one, the girl's dowry would enrich the convent's coffers, notwithstanding the percentage that must be sent to their motherhouse in Dalriada as well as to Rome. Furthermore, since St. Colman was a summer saint - that is, his feast day was June 7 - and male besides, it would be inappropriate to house his relic on Niamh. So Mother Bebhinn would probably "gift" the Benedictine monastery with the relic, which would endow the convent with raised status within the Church community as well as precipitate the giving of many generous favors from the Benedictines.
Oh, the moldering bones of saints was a large business - imagine the number of pilgrims who would travel to the monastery to view St. Colman's relic, bringing with them plenty of offerings in coin and other niceties. Summertime was a pleasant period to travel; the Benedictines could look forward to a brisk and profitable feast day on St. Colman's.
All of this went through her head in a flash. Aislinn said softly, "I see."
Dunlaith continued, "I would not want the Reverend Mother's wrath to fall on your head, ainnir, but neither should you feel compelled to endure my company if you cannot. My word that I will not be an unpleasant companion; if you wish to be alone you have only to raise your smallest finger and I will vanish like a windblown leaf. I can tell stories if it's amusement you're wanting or stay as silent as the grave. And I sing like an angel. What say you? Have we a bargain, we two?"
Aislinn considered a moment before answering. While it was true that she cherished the solitary moments she spent in her workshop, perhaps it would be no bad thing if she stopped working for a little while and allowed herself a brief respite. Besides, she already felt a bond with Dunlaith, the first tentative stirrings towards what might be a solid friendship.
Mother Bebhinn observed the interaction between the warrior and the foundling; it looked as if Aislinn was hesitating at something their visitor had said and the Abbess was eager to make sure Dunlaith's visit went as smoothly as possible. It had been nearly ten years since the convent had fostered a novice and the daughter of one of the richest Lords in Eire was a plum that her fingers itched to pluck. "Inion, I ask that you make Dunlaith welcome in every way. Show her our home, introduce her to the Sisters, walk her around the isle."
Aislinn knew the Abbess' politeness was more of a direct order. Still, she had already made up her mind and said without further hesitation, "Yes, Mother, I will do as you ask. Glad am I of the chance to show Dunlaith how well we live here."
Bebhinn breathed a sigh of relief and surreptitiously made the sign of the cross. Although possessing an inherently sweet nature, Aislinn could be more stubborn than a white-eared mule at times.
"Very well," the Abbess said. "I will have Sister Eodaoin prepare the guest quarters..."
"Nay, if it please you," Dunlaith interrupted. "With your permission, Reverend Mother, I think it best that I sleep in the Hall of Novices; after all, that is where my Lady will be staying if she comes to St. Ailbe's. Also, I beg you not to put yourselves out on my account; my report to Lord O'Ciaran must be as accurate as possible and he will raise his eyebrows to the clouds if I tell him I feasted on fine foods and wines every night."
"So be it," Bebhinn replied. She placed her hands flat on the table in front of her and pushed herself to her feet, reaching for the walking stick she used. A bad break in her left leg many years ago had left the woman with a permanent limp. "Do you take Dunlaith about and let the Sisters know her," the Abbess said to Aislinn. "Afterwards, show her the dairy, the infirmary, the herbarium and the gardens. To that end, I excuse you from attending Compline after supper but I expect to see both of you tomorrow morning at Prime."
"Yes, Mother," Aislinn answered diffidently.
Dunlaith knew a dismissal when she heard one. She linked her arm through Aislinn's and said cheerfully, "Shall we go then, ainnir?"
Although the long, hard length of the warrior was nearly a handsbreadth away, Aislinn still felt the other woman's body heat. Her heart fluttering in her chest, the blind girl led the way out of Mother Bebhinn's office; part of her concentrating on Dunlaith's chatter - but the other, secret part of her soul savoring her mental image of the warrior again and again.
Dunlaith proved as good as her word. She was a delightful companion, willing and eager to lend a hand to any task, no matter how mundane; she knew many stories and songs, and her beautiful singing voice could make the angels weep. When Aislinn required solitude, Dunlaith knew without being told and would slip away... but when the blind girl craved companionship, the warrior was instantly there with a comradly arm and a smile that Aislinn traced with her fingertips.
The girl felt her bond with the warrior growing day by day. She took a certain guilty pleasure in being addressed as ainnir - "maiden" - as though Dunlaith was courting her. It made Aislinn feel like a princess, with the warrior as her faithful knight-champion.
The days went as they had for so many years... but now the nights sang to a different rhythm. Just before she fell asleep, Aislinn would snuggle beneath her blanket and listen to Dunlaith's soft, slow breaths. At last, content and relaxed by the presence of the woman in the other bed, Aislinn would sink into calm darkness.
Only once had she dreamed since Dunlaith's arrival; she'd woken up drenched with sweat, panting so hard that her head was spinning, heart trying to claw its way out of her breast. The warrior had been there, her strong arms encircling Aislinn, hands gently soothing the terrified girl. Aislinn wasn't able to explain her nightmares - her tongue seemed to cleave to the roof of her mouth when the subject came up - but Dunlaith didn't demand answers. Instead, she offered silent support and understanding... and the girl was content to let it be so.
But despite Aislinn's increased regard for Dunlaith, there were those who cast a jaundiced eye on the tall, lean warrior...
Especially after the sheep started dying.
Mother Bebhinn looked at Sister Damhnait. "Could it be a wild dog?" she asked. "Though how one should come to Niamh passes my understanding. Still, through the grace of God, all things are possible."
The shepherdess shook her head. "Nay, it be not wild dog," she answered. "It be wolf, no mistake."
"That is impossible!" the Abbess exclaimed, shifting her grip on her walking staff. The pastureland for the convent's small herd of sheep lay in a protected valley almost in the center of the island; it was a far walk for Bebhinn and her leg ached unmercifully. "There are no wolves on the isle, else we should have seen proof of them before now."
Damhnait squatted and grabbed the dead sheep's head. "Look!" she said, pointing to the ragged wound in its throat. "T'was no fall that did this, nor yet a dog, besides. Were you thinking of Old Camm? He's not got a tooth in his head, Lord bless him. And we've had no visitors of late who might have lost a hunting animal." She thrust out her lower lip and repeated stubbornly, "It be wolf that done this, Mother. I cared for my father's sheep when I was a girl, before I came to St. Ailbe's, and I've seen these wounds before."
Bebhinn sighed. Old Camm was the convent's hound; a toothless beggar who spent most of his time napping beneath the table in the kitchen. He couldn't possibly have done this kind of damage. "Very well, Damhnait. If it's a wolf, where did it come from?" She waved a hand through the air. "Did it fall from the sky? Did it fly here on swan's wings? No animal can swim all the way from Eire; the sea is too rough. Are you certain there is not another explanation?"
Damhnait folded her arms across her chest. "Nay. T'is wolf and the beast'll kill again, mark my words. Got a taste for blood, now. As to where it came from... well, I've an idea on that score!" she continued darkly.
Bebhinn drew herself up to her full height and, risking her balance, raised the walking staff and poked Damhnait in the chest with it. "Not another word!" she commanded coldly. "You've no proof that this sheep's death was anything but an accident."
"But Mother! This is the third sheep we've lost since she came!"
"Not a word more, Damhnait!" The Abbess' sharp brown eyes flashed.
"Mother Bebhinn... have some of us not heard the beast's howls? Did not Sister Grainne tell you she was frighted by a wolf with red eyes that appeared from the shadows when she was visiting the jakes? Have you not seen with your own eyes the marks of the beast upon my best sheep? I tell you, that Dunlaith is cursed by God and she'll bring naught but sorrow and rue upon us if she stays!"
"Sister Grainne has been known to indulge in the sin of drunkenness. Do you not recall the time when she stole the keys to the cellar and drank nearly a full bottle of spirits-of-wine? The poor woman swore she had the Devil himself and all the sinners of Hell dancing on her brainpan," Bebhinn countered. "As to howling... that noise was naught but the wind."
"But my sheep!"
"Sheep are creatures of God, Sister, and as such are subject to His will."
Damhnait muttered sourly, "So, t'is God Himself that killed my sheep. Did the Holy Spirit give him aid, d'you think?"
"That's enough!," Bebhinn exclaimed. She poked the shepherdess with her staff again. "If I hear so much as one whisper among the Sisters, Damhnait - a single word of gossip against our guest - you'll be on cold water and stale bread until Lent. Am I understood?"
Damhnait nodded reluctantly. "Aye, Mother," she said, twisting her lips in disgust. "I'll not a word to them."
"Good!" Bebhinn began to struggle up the crooked path that led back to the convent. Halfway up, she stopped and turned around. "Clean and dress that sheep, Sister, and do you deliver it to the kitchen. I've a taste for mutton this night, I think."
Without replying, Damhnait drew the long knife she wore at her belt and began the task of gutting the carcass.
Satisfied, Bebhinn continued her journey... unaware that the entire episode had been witnessed by one who could hardly wait to impart it to her fellows.
As soon as the Abbess was out of sight, Sister Cliodna extricated herself from the thick gorse bush she'd been hiding behind and began hurrying back to St. Ailbe's, her heart pounding with excitement at the terrible news she had to deliver.
At the evening meal, the women were unnaturally quiet. Although some other convents strictly enforced a vow of silence, Mother Bebhinn did not, preferring the nuns under her care to be allowed to voice concerns, news or anything else that came to mind. Besides, the Abbess found the gentle, murmuring chatter of the Sisters to be very soothing after a hard day's work.
But tonight, there was no chatter. Instead, a pained and painful silence had descended over the group. Even Sister Enda, a bird-like, nervous woman who normally kept her tongue flapping non-stop throughout the meal, was quiet. Bebhinn frowned; something was wrong and she had a sneaking suspicion that she knew exactly what the problem was.
Dunlaith and Aislinn sat side by side, sharing a slab of trencher bread and a cup. The two of them had their heads together, virtually ignoring everyone else in the room. That wasn't surprising; the Abbess had noticed the warrior and the blind girl growing closer together every day, until it seemed that they were joined together at the hip and about as inseparable. It would be a great pity when Dunlaith left the convent; Aislinn would feel the warrior's loss keenly.
Still, that was in the future and Bebhinn had more pressing problems now. She opened her mouth to speak and was interrupted by Sister Teath's nasal tones resonating throughout the high-ceilinged room.
"Did you know we've a bloodthirsty great wolf on Niamh?" the Sister asked Dunlaith.
The echoes of that indiscreet mention seemed to reverberate in Mother Bebhinn's skull, leaving in its wake a headache of monumental proportions.
For a moment, Dunlaith did not respond; indeed, she hadn't even noticed that the question had been directed at her. When Aislinn murmured something, the warrior put down the strip of mutton she'd been gnawing on and leaned an elbow on the table. "Do you now?" she answered with a polite smile. "And how'd such a beast get to the isle, hmm?"
"On a boat," Sister Teath answered with a broad grin. Across the table, Sister Cliodna turned scarlet with embarrassment and wished she'd insisted that the less than intelligent Teath be taken from the room when she'd told the other Sisters about Damhnait's suspicions.
"Is that so?" Dunlaith's smile faltered; beside her, Aislinn could sense the increase of tension in the room but had no idea what could be causing it.
"Has there been trouble?" Aislinn asked loudly.
"Three sheep killed," mumbled Sister Silbhe. "And Grainne was attacked by a monster wolf."
Every eye turned to the elderly nun and Sister Grainne beamed; she was seldom the focus of so much rapt attention. Cliodna, whose mouth had opened so she could relate the incident herself, closed it with a click when Grainne interrupted.
"Oh, aye," she chortled, "blowing hot breath clean in my face, he was, all glowing and with hellfire aflame. T'was only my rosary that kept the beast from tearing out my throat; though I was near to browning my robes in fear, I placed my trust in the Blessed Jesu and thrust the crucifix between his sword-sharp fangs. I prayed; oh, Sisters! how I prayed for the armor of God to protect me!"
Most of the nuns at the table had heard the story already from Cliodna but they sucked in breath anyway at the drama of Grainne's narrative.
Encouraged, Grainne continued, "His eyes were like burning brands, full of hate. But the Lord God was with me, for I felt a rush of strength within my veins; my crucifix turned to purest gold and I heard the angels chanting hymns. He snarled and backed away, but then rushed at me again, all slavering jaws and snorting fireballs..."
Sister Cliodna snorted. "Aye," she said sourly, "perhaps this wolf of yours also belched brimstone and issued thunderbolts from out his arse?"
Some of the nuns tittered; Mother Bebhinn rose from her place at the table and fixed them all with a glare. "All right, that's enough!" she commanded. "The meal is over. You may all retire to your cells until it is time for the evening office."
Grainne looked shame-faced and blushed.
Slowly, the Sisters exited the dining hall and left Bebhinn, Aislinn and Dunlaith alone.
As soon as the room cleared, the Abbess said, "Dunlaith, I beg you to excuse the Sisters. Living here as we do, with few visitors, they sometimes dramatize trivial events all out of proportion."
"What events?" Dunlaith asked. Beneath the table, her hand grasped Aislinn's and the girl was surprised by the coldness of the warrior's palm.
Bebhinn sighed. "There is a wild dog on the isle that has killed three of our sheep. No doubt a stray escaped from a fisherman; I will ask Sister Damhnait, our shepherdess, to set out some traps."
"And the wolf that Sister Grainne spoke of?"
Bebhinn waved her hand in dismissal. "A figment of her imagination. Though it shames me to admit it, Grainne is rather fond of wine and has been known to indulge sinfully."
"Ah." Dunlaith was silent a moment, then replied, "I suppose this explains things." She did not sound sure.
Aislinn spoke up. "I'm sure there is naught to fear." She squeezed Dunlaith's hand and felt an answering pressure that caused her cheeks to color in pleasure.
Mother Bebhinn sighed. "Nay, there is no fear here. Only be watchful if you should go to the jakes in the night. In the meantime, if the dog attacks continue, I will send to our brother Benedictines for guidance."
Dunlaith's pale blue eyes narrowed and she seemed on the point of saying something, then the impulse subsided. "Very well," she replied. "We will take care, Mother. Rest assured on that score."
From the look of resolve on the warrior's face, Bebhinn felt a small shred of pity for any animal that might try to confront such a fierce woman in the midst of the night.
A hushed quiet had descended; tendrils of salt-scented wind crept through the cracks and crevices of the convent's stone walls but apart from the occasional gust that flapped the tapestries, all was still as the Sisters slept.
In the Hall of Novices, Aislinn of the Dreams lay beneath her blanket in a deep sleep. Random images floated through her mind, disconnected to any cohesive narrative - the man in the wolfskin cloak; a woman with sad green eyes; a swordblade cleaving through the air - for in her dreams, the girl was blind no more.
Abruptly, the kaleidoscope visions ended and she was in the forest. A blue-white light turned the misty landscape into a nightmare of shadow and unearthly forms. Aislinn felt cold, chilled to the bone. She glanced around but saw only the twisted shapes of leafless trees. Suddenly, she heard a sound that made her blood freeze - the howling of a wolf.
It came from behind her. Aislinn felt panic rise, a hot flush that brought with it a kind of strength; her stomach cramped and she swallowed past the enormous lump in her throat. Snatching at her skirts, she began to run, as fast as she could, ignoring the twinge of sharp stones and sticks that crackled under her bare feet.
As she ran, she could hear the animal behind her; instinctively, she knew it was a wolf. Fear engulfed her and she put on a burst of speed that left her gasping for breath, feeling as if her heart was going to shatter beneath the strain. But no matter how fast she ran, the wolf was always on her heels, so close she could feel threads of hot spittle splattering on her legs, hear his harsh, rasping pants.
Thus far, this was the same nightmare she'd had over and over again; it was frightening but familiar. She could hear the pounding of the sea just ahead, could smell the crisp tang of salt in the air. A sharp pain stabbed her side; she labored for breath as if heavy rocks weighed down her chest. But still Aislinn ran...
Until with a chilling howl, the wolf leaped, bearing her down to the ground.
Aislinn tried to scream but her voice had been snatched away by fear. She rolled over, her eyes widening as she came face to face with her worst nightmare - a silver maned wolf that stood above her, his huge paws pinning her in place. As she trembled, the wolf's muzzle gaped into an ivory fanged snarl; his eyes were an emerald green that echoed her own.
The wolf's head darted forward and his fangs fastened into the flesh of her shoulder, grinding and tearing. Blood began to flow and with it came searing pain. Aislinn found her voice and screamed Dunlaith's name...
And woke up, sobbing.
Aislinn was confused; wind whipped at her hair and she was lying naked on the cold ground. Her shoulder throbbed and burned; she could feel something wet and warm trickling over her arm. Aislinn was blind once more; the darkness that surrounded her was complete and despite her chill, she sweated with fear.
Hands grabbed her; she struggled, feeling a burst of white-hot agony from her shoulder that made her head spin. A voice said urgently, "Aislinn! It's me, Dunlaith! Shhh... softly, ainnir. You're wounded."
Dunlaith? With a shuddering sob, Aislinn clutched at the warrior, feeling warm, firm flesh beneath her questing hands. "It hurts!" she wailed. "What happened?"
Another voice came from the darkness - Mother Bebhinn's. "She's bleeding! Can you carry her to the infirmary? I'll fetch Sister Keely myself."
"Aye," Dunlaith replied. She glanced down at Aislinn; in the light of the torch she'd thrust into the ground, the girl was as pale as snow, face greasy with cold sweat. "I'll do that. Come, ainnir; this may hurt a bit but not for long, I swear."
The warrior gathered Aislinn close and stood, easily hefting the girl in her strong arms. Aislinn gasped; she felt the lacerated skin of her shoulder tear open a little more, allowing a further gush of warmth to spread down her arm, trickle from her limp fingertips. Still, despite her pain, the girl clamped her good arm around Dunlaith's throat and buried her face in the warrior's hair, inhaling the comforting scents of woodsmoke and lavender that she associated with the other woman. She whimpered and felt Dunlaith's arms tighten protectively around her.
They were in the herb garden. Dunlaith shifted her burden and then strode purposefully to the infirmary, her powerful legs making nothing of the distance. Mother Bebhinn looked after them a moment, her brows drawn together in a frown. Then she snatched the torch up from the ground and bustled away, her heart and mind troubled by questions and doubts...
For what had the warrior been doing with Aislinn alone in the herb garden in the middle of the night?
Why were both of them mother naked?
And what in God's name had attacked the girl?
The Abbess felt a chill creeping down her spine; the small hairs on the back of her neck rose in tingling waves and her skin seemed to crawl.
What had attacked Aislinn...
She hurried to Sister Keely's cell, suddenly aware that the night was fraught with dangers.
Not the least of them their honored guest - the warrior, Dunlaith of the Burning.
Sister Keely knotted off a last stitch. "There's an end to that, child," she said soothingly, laying aside the bone needle.
Aislinn had mercifully passed out when the infirmarian had begun examining her shoulder wound, but unfortunately, she'd revived in the middle of Keely's stitching. Dunlaith had held her hand and sang an old hymn to comfort her while the Sister plied her agonizing trade.
Keely grabbed a wooden bowl and began dropping items into it from a nearby tray, muttering to herself. "Dried marigold, coltsfoot root, spiderwebs, bread mold..." She quickly mashed the ingredients together, adding a drop of well water to the mixture. Then she slathered the musty smelling poultice on Aislinn's shoulder and bandaged it in clean linen rags.
"Give her something for the pain," Dunlaith said in a low tone. She had hastily donned a sleeveless vest and a pair of breeches at Keely's insistence; now she sat beside the cot on a stool, hunched protectively over the injured girl, her fingers entwined with Aislinn's.
Keely bristled; she did not like to be ordered about in her own territory. The infirmarian shot Dunlaith a scolding look but the warrior met that glare with a pair of eyes that seemed to burn with pale, fierce fires. Taken aback and sensing she was treading on thin ice, Keely dropped her gaze and mumbled an affirmative, not willing to challenge the warrior. Muttering beneath her breath, the Sister hurried to a long table that ran half the length of the infirmarium and began mixing a soothing potion with expert skill.
On the other side of the cot, Mother Bebhinn sighed. "Did you see anything?" she asked Dunlaith.
Was it her imagination, or did the warrior hesitate a split second before answering?
"Nay," Dunlaith replied slowly. "My sorrow, Reverend Mother, but I had eyes only for Aislinn. When I reached her, I saw she'd been sore wounded." The dark-haired woman tenderly smoothed a lock off Aislinn's forehead. "Did you see what happened?"
Bebhinn's sharp brown eyes narrowed; were those lines of guilt that furrowed Dunlaith's brow? "I saw only you," the Abbess answered, alert to any nuance in Dunlaith's body language. "In the dark, kneeling over Aislinn, who was bleeding. T'was no knife that caused that wound - my inion's been mauled by a dog... or a wolf."
Dunlaith stiffened. "T'would seem so," she said cautiously. "But how can a wolf come to Niamh?"
Bebhinn leaned forward slightly; her long nose seemed to twitch, as if she were a hunter who could sense her prey coming very, very near... and what the Abbess hunted was a guilty conscience. "Perhaps you will be the one to answer that question," she said. The bait had been cast; she would pray to God that Dunlaith swallowed the hook.
Dunlaith's mouth opened... then closed and she licked her lips. "What could I know of such matters?," she replied shakily. Her gaze dropped to focus on Aislinn's face. Abruptly, she ignored Bebhinn and asked the girl, "How are you feeling, ionuin?"
Bebhinn kept herself from gasping only with the strongest effort. She was sure it was but a slip of the tongue, but Dunlaith had just called Aislinn ionuin - "beloved." With a thrill of horror, she realized that her fosterling and the warrior had become closer and closer over the past two sevendays... just how close had they become?
Much to the Abbess' relief, Aislinn did not seem to notice Dunlaith's slip. "I am well enough," she answered in a tired little voice.
"Can you tell us what happened?," Dunlaith asked.
"I was dreaming," Aislinn said. Her emerald eyes stared sightlessly into space. "The dream..."
Bebhinn and Dunlaith exchanged a glance. "The dream about you being chased by a wolf in the forest?" the Abbess asked.
"Aye," Aislinn said. The hand that the warrior still grasped seemed to grow colder. "He caught me. I could feel him... his fangs, his breath. He hates me... he was trying to kill me!" She began to weep in quiet desperation and fear. Bebhinn sighed.
"This was no dream, child," the Abbess said. "You've been wounded and though my eyes are old, they are still keen. T'was a wolf that did this and it is a wolf that has been killing our sheep." She fixed her eyes on Dunlaith. "I did not - could not! - believe it but now I wonder. These things have happened since you came here, laoch. I am not the only one who has noticed the coincidence. And tonight I find you covered in Aislinn's blood with the girl in your arms."
While Dunlaith's face paled, Bebhinn stood. She had taken the time to don her robes after rousing Sister Keely; clad in the armor of her authority, she faced the warrior unafraid. One hand gripped the heavy silver crucifix of her office. "My sorrow if I offend you, Dunlaith, but I must know; for the safety of my children and especially this child here - are you the author of these troubles?"
The warrior snatched her hand away from Aislinn's grip, heedless of the girl's whimper of protest. Sweat beaded on her upper lip and she licked it away. Her eyes flickered as she searched from side to side, as if seeking escape, but the imposing figure of the Abbess remained fixed in place as firmly as if God had rooted her in the soil itself.
Dunlaith's shoulders slumped in defeat. Her head dropped down and she refused to meet Bebhinn's eyes. Aislinn, knowing only that her beloved protector was in some kind of trouble, cried out, "What is it? What's wrong? Please, Dunlaith... in God's name, tell me!"
"I lied to you!" Dunlaith almost sobbed. "May God forgive me! A curse has come to this good and holy place through me... oh, sweet Jesu! What have I done?!!"
Bebhinn quickly moved around the bed to stand at the warrior's side, looming above the stricken woman. "What have you done, laoch?" she asked. "What curse do you speak of?" When Dunlaith shook her head, the Abbess said urgently, "Speak, woman! I cannot help you if you will not speak!"
Dunlaith did not answer; instead, she whispered, "What have I done to my ionuin?"
Bebhinn sucked in an angry breath, prepared to get to the bottom of this business once and for all...
When the situation was snatched out of her control by the crashing of the infirmary door as it flew open, admitting a crowd of angry, frightened women whose hands were filled with weapons.
"Cliodna!," the Abbess shouted. "What is the meaning of this?"
"We've come to kill the barguest!" Cliodna replied through clenched teeth. She hefted the iron meat skewer she'd taken from the kitchen and shuffled forward a little, the other nuns crowded behind her. Due to the prioress' increasingly persuasive tales, the women had become convinced that Dunlaith was a demonic monster of ancient legend who took the form of a black dog in order to terrorize and murder the innocent.
Dunlaith leaped up, putting herself between Aislinn and the mob. Her sword had been given into the care of the Abbess for the duration of her stay, but she reached down and pulled a long knife out of her boot. "Stay back! I've no wish to hurt any...," she began, but was interrupted by Sister Cliodna.
"Silence, creature of hell!," the nun exclaimed dramatically. "We've come to put an end to your wicked ways and send you back to the Devil where you belong!"
The women behind her murmured their support but none were willing to make the first move. Instead, they waited for their leader... who had more righteous indignation behind her than real courage. Cliodna made a tentative swipe at Dunlaith with her meat skewer and the warrior didn't bother ducking - the half-hearted blow missed her by a good yard.
Bebhinn joined Dunlaith, putting a restraining hand on the warrior's broad shoulder. "Have you all gone mad?" she inquired mildly, but her brown eyes flashed. "Sister Teath, please tell me in God's name, what are you doing with that ax? Put it away, woman, before someone gets hurt!"
Sister Teath smiled broadly, her eyes lighting up with innocent glee. "Cliodna said we're having an adventure, Mother!" she replied happily. "I'm supposed to help get rid of the wolf!"
Sister Damhnait, the shepherdess, came forward. "I did not tell them, Mother, so I cannot be accused of breaking my oath to you. T'was Cliodna who warned the others. First our sheep slaughtered, then poor Aislinn nearly killed this very night... and the one who did it stands beside you! If you've no wish for the mortal sin of killing to be on our hands, at least allow us to lock up the monster before she kills us all!"
The other nuns murmured in agreement. Cliodna's face showed a touch of dismay; she hadn't whipped up a mob in order to be reasonable. She'd seen Dunlaith carrying Aislinn into the infirmary and listened in on Mother Bebhinn's hurried conversation with Sister Keely; it had taken very little time for her to wake the rest of the nuns and manipulate their fears until they had raided the kitchen for weapons and come to destroy the barguest. Now, her moment of triumph was threatening to turn to dust in her hands, and she was desperate to retain control.
"NO!" Cliodna shouted. "We can't allow it to live! Don't you understand?" She pointed a trembling finger at Dunlaith. "As long as that unnatural creature remains among us, we are all at risk - body and soul! It must die so that we can be saved!"
Sister Keely stepped quietly away from her work table; in her hands she carried a pottery bowl. "Cliodna," she warned, "if you even think about harming Dunlaith in my infirmary, I'll tear out your throat myself. Quit being such a cloth-headed idiot and get yourself - and these other fools - back to bed."
Aislinn could stand no more. The thought that her friend - the woman she had come to love, who was as dear to her as kin - was being threatened with death was too much to bear. She had to do something!
The blind girl sat up, wrenching her shoulder and gritting her teeth against the explosion of pain. With force of will alone she managed to swing her legs off the cot and stand up; she swayed back and forth and her hand reached out, scrabbling at the air, seeking Dunlaith.
When the warrior felt a touch on her back, she whirled around, grabbing Aislinn in time to prevent her from falling. Wrapping an arm around her waist, Dunlaith braced her feet and supported the girl, the muscles in her arms shifting and bulging beneath the skin. She still held a knife in her free hand. "What in Jesus' name are you doing out of bed?" she exclaimed.
Aislinn ignored the throbbing pain in her shoulder as well as Dunlaith's question; her face turned towards the gathered nuns and her eyes, though sightless, glittered in anger. "How dare you?" she hissed. "Stay away from her, all of you! She is goodness and kindness itself! She is no demon or monster!"
"Then what killed Sister Damhnait's sheep? What attacked you?," Cliodna asked sarcastically. She hefted the skewer again. "What will attack all of us if we give it a chance? Out of our way! You, too, Reverend Mother!" The emphasis on Bebhinn's title made it more of an insult. "We intend to kill the beast tonight, and we aren't going to let a pair of old hens and a cripple get between us and justice!"
Plump Sister Fiona had not only been listening, she had been watching Dunlaith as well as Aislinn. Now, she pushed her way to the front and confronted Cliodna. "If she's a barguest," Fiona asked reasonably, "then why hasn't she turned to her wolf shape and killed us all by now? Or do you honestly think she's afraid of a meat skewer, a dull ax and a few paring knives?"
Sister Enda waved an iron cooking pot. "I have this, too!"
Fiona gave her a disgusted glance and turned back to the prioress.
"We are clad in the armor of God's righteousness," Cliodna said tightly. "Our faith shields us from harm."
"Well, I think this is a fool's errand entire." Fiona tossed down the long bladed butcher's knife she'd carried. "I say we hear Dunlaith and Mother Bebhinn out before we make a mistake we'll regret."
The other nuns looked at one another. Their fiery mood had passed and they all felt a little foolish. Sheepishly, they allowed their makeshift weapons to clatter to the floor and huddled together like a flock of crows in their black robes.
Cliodna was furious. "What are you doing?" she demanded. "I thought we agreed!"
"No," Fiona said, confronting the prioress. "You decided and we, empty headed as we are, went along with your scheme." She stepped forward to stand in front of Bebhinn. "My sorrow," she continued. "I have faith in your judgment, Reverend Mother. If you say Dunlaith is a child of God and bears not the stain of Aislinn's blood on her soul, then by the Compassionate Virgin, I - and all these others - will be your obedient children and do heart-felt penance for this night's sinning."
Bebhinn was torn. On the one hand, she did not want to see a guest of the convent slaughtered like a Michaelmas goose; on the other, she had no proof of Dunlaith's innocence. Nor her guilt, either, her conscience insisted. Only suspicions... but unlike that thick-headed and sly Cliodna, she was willing to give the benefit of the doubt.
"My children," she said finally, speaking to all the nuns, "Dunlaith's guilt or innocence remains unproved." There were murmurs at this and Bebhinn raised a hand for silence. "However, terrible deeds have been done. Our novice, Aislinn, has been attacked without provocation by some beast. Our sheep have been killed and the wounds on Aislinn's body are similar to those on our poor animals. Clearly, something is causing these things to happen."
Cliodna's lips parted and Sister Laigen, the convent's burly blacksmith, raised a fist that resembled an oak knot, waving it beneath the prioress' nose. "Let the Mother speak," she rumbled. "I've had enough of you this night, Cliodna the Fey. Open that cesspit you have above your chin once more and I'll stuff my hammer inside." The other nuns tittered and Laigen continued hastily, "May God forgive me but I mean it!"
Cliodna subsided; she knew when she was beaten. The meat skewer fell from her nerveless hands and she pressed her lips together into a thin, tight line.
Bebhinn sent up a mental prayer of thanksgiving. Although Sister Laigen's methods were deplorable and certainly unsuitable for a Bride of Christ, nevertheless she was grateful that the blacksmith had said the very thing she'd been wishing she could say herself.
"All right, Sister Laigen," the Abbess said. "That will be all. In fact, that will be all from everyone. Take the knives, pots and whatever else you took from the kitchen and return it there. Then, you may retire to your cells and try to sleep; the cock crows soon and there are chores to be done in the morning."
Cliodna could not keep silent. "But what of Dunlaith?" she said shrilly. "What of the barguest?"
"I will investigate these matters, as is the right and prerogative of my ordained office," Bebhinn said forcefully, reminding the prioress of her position. "You, Sister Cliodna, have no business inciting these women to riot and behaving in a way that is willful, sinful and prideful. You took matters into your own hands rather than trust me to do what was right and proper."
Realizing that the immediate danger had passed, Dunlaith put away her dagger, eased Aislinn back down on the cot and crooked a finger at Sister Keely. The infirmarian hastened over to offer her potion to the sweating girl.
Bebhinn continued, "I will deal with you in the morning, Cliodna. Go to your cell and pray; pray for the salvation of your immortal soul from the sins you have committed, including the mortal sin of near murder. Ask for God's guidance and try to allow some of His forgiving goodness into your heart. In the meantime, have faith that I will get to the bottom of this business... and I will take whatever action that I believe appropriate."
Cliodna nodded dully. She had lost and she knew it; she also knew that her days of lording it over the other nuns in her position of prioress were probably over. She'd be lucky not to be transferred to a leper hospital. She shoved her way through the crowd of Sisters, and after she was out of sight, the rest of the nuns left as well. Some of them came to the Abbess to beg her forgiveness, but she told them instead to pray for God's and sent them away.
Having dealt with one problem to her satisfaction, Bebhinn squared her shoulders and prepared to tackle problem number two. She took a deep breath and turned around; Aislinn was stretched out on the cot again, with Dunlaith seated beside her. Sister Keely, observing the glint in the Abbess' eyes, made a hasty excuse and fled the infirmary.
"Well, Dunlaith of the Burning," Bebhinn said. "You are no longer in danger of being skewered by an iron jack or beaten to death by Sister Enda's pots. So, the time has come for you to answer my question."
Dunlaith looked up at the Abbess; her pale blue eyes were filled with sorrow but she did not speak.
Bebhinn pressed, "Did you do these things? Are you responsible?"
Aislinn squeezed Dunlaith's hand. The potion Sister Keely had given her was dulling the pain in her shoulder and she felt a bit more clear headed. Although she could not see the warrior's expression, she could sense that there was something wrong. Her own heart ached in empathy. "Please," she said. "I know you are a good woman; nothing can change that."
"Oh, no?" Dunlaith exclaimed. "You do not know me, Aislinn! You know nothing, none of you!"
"Then tell us," Bebhinn replied calmly. She hooked a stool with her foot and dragged it towards her, then sat down with regal dignity, spreading out the black skirts of her robes. "I will listen with an open mind and heart. You will find no judgments here; only compassion and understanding."
"How can I speak of such sin to one as holy as you?" Dunlaith whispered, distressed almost beyond bearing. She buried her face in her hands and her shoulders shook.
"We are all daughters of the world," Bebhinn said. "I was not born in a convent, you know. I lived for nearly twenty years, was married and had children of my own. But God calls and we must answer, despite our earthly ties. You cannot shock me, Dunlaith. Speak and be eased of your burdens."
Aislinn held her breath, trying to project silent support to the warrior.
At last, Dunlaith raised her head; tears glittered on her cheeks. "Very well," she said. "It is true that I am in service to Lord O'Ciaran. I did not come here for his daughter, however; I came to St. Ailbe's on a mission of my own. Eight years ago, I was a laoch in the service of Connal, Earl of Ciardha, the Faoil of the Forth..."
As the two women gasped, Dunlaith continued, "and his little daughter - Aislinn."
This bombshell burst into the stillness of the room with all the subtlety of a lightning strike.
Dunlaith stood, wiping away the wetness on her cheeks with the heel of her hand. "Aye, Reverend Mother. The child you have fostered all this time is the daughter of the wickedest man in Eire. When he was alive, he denied Aislinn's parentage, but you've only to look at her with your wit intact to realize whose blood she must be. She has his eyes, his hair - she looks more like Connal than her poor mother."
"The Earl of Ciardha?" Bebhinn hastily made the sign of the cross. "The Wolf of the Forth? Sweet Jesus protect us!"
Even Aislinn had heard of Connal the Wolf. "He... he was my father?" she asked, feeling faint. According to every tale she'd heard, the Earl was an evil beast of a man who reveled in bloodshed, rape, mutilations and torture. He'd even been accused of serving human flesh at a banquet given for his enemies. A legend in his own lifetime, Connal was part man, part animal and all demon.
"Aye," Dunlaith said. She began to pace up and down the room, hands clasped together behind her back. "Your mother was Isleen the Swan. The Earl treated her badly, as he abused everyone who had a hair less power than himself. When it was found that she was with child, Connal swore it was none of his; the blame fell upon some poor wandering minstrel named Kael. What happened to him is a tale to frighten even hardened warriors. At any rate, Isleen was locked up in the peel tower of Castle Faoiltiarna and when her time came, she gave birth to Aislinn."
Aislinn swallowed. The tale was getting too fantastic for belief but her curiosity got the better of her. "Where is my mother now?"
"My sorrow, ionuin, but Isleen the Swan died shortly after your birth." Dunlaith stopped pacing and looked down at Aislinn compassionately. "The Earl put about t'was childbed fever took her - I have my doubts. I was not in service to him at the time but I heard some of the older warriors speak of... well, they told me of terrible things endured by your mother at Connal's hands."
"What things?" the girl asked, although a large part of her did not really want to know.
"That is for another time," Dunlaith said wisely. The rest of her sorry tale had yet to be related and she did not want to cause Aislinn any more sorrow than necessary. The story that concerned the girl was terrible enough.
Mother Bebhinn began rolling her rosary beads between her fingers; she had a feeling that the warrior's revelations were about to enter the realm of nightmare.
Dunlaith continued, "I came to Connal's service nine years ago. No one knew his wife had born a child - he kept the matter a closely guarded secret, claiming Isleen's baby died with her mother. The peel tower where his wife had ended her life was believed to be haunted; strange cries and screams could sometimes be heard, and none were allowed to enter save an old woman who was in the Earl's pay. In honesty, most of us thought little of it; we obeyed our Lord's orders and that was enough. But I... I was young and curious, a woman much in the company of men; proving my bravery to them was a constant challenge.
"So, one night when the moon was high, I answered one of my fellow's dares and climbed the forbidden staircase to the tower room where Isleen the Swan was said to walk restlessly still..."
Dunlaith paused; there were no rush torches or cresset lamps in the stairway, and the stump of a candle she held wouldn't shed its light for very much longer. Above her, in the thick and musty darkness, the spirit of a woman eleven years dead haunted the dusty environs of the tower room, secured behind an iron-studded door.
The only person she'd ever seen entering the tower was the Earl's serving woman, an old hag named Mebh. Sometimes Mebh had been observed by others as she trotted up the winding stone stairs, carrying wrapped bundles that most assumed were things being stored in the unoccupied room. There were darker whispers, however... tales of human sacrifices or witch's talismans being taken to appease Isleen's restless ghost.
Dunlaith crept up the rest of the stairs, her feet making scarcely a whispered sound. At the top of the stairway there was a large wooden door of heart oak; the planks were reinforced with iron straps and nails that had turned red with rust. In the uncertain candlelight, those spots and stripes of crimson looked uncannily like bloodstains.
The door was locked but the warrior had a key. Mebh drank heavily and Dunlaith had found the old woman passed out in the vegetable pantry, sprawled amidst the turnips and snoring. It had been an easy task to cut the dirty string that tied the key to Mebh's skirts and just as silently as she had come, vanish away with prize in hand.
Outside the door, Dunlaith paused, listening. Satisfied that the room was empty - except for who knew what kind of supernatural horror - she gently inserted the key in the lock and turned it, wincing when the ancient mechanism squealed and groaned.
At last, she cautiously opened the door a crack, pressing her face to the narrow slit. Within the room, a rush torch cast ruddy light onto filth strewn floors, the haphazard arrangement of broken furniture... and the two occupants of the room.
Dunlaith's eyes widened as she recognized the Earl. He was a thin, fragile-looking man who cultivated an enormous mustache and a bushy head of red-gold hair. Despite his frail physique, he was a demon with the sword and his temper was legendary... as was his penchance for torture. Every Lord had a dungeon and most employed professional torturers - for who could say that an enemy spy might not need severe persuasion before he spoke of plots and plans? - but Connal, Earl of Ciardha, known as the Wolf of the Ford, preferred to use his own hands and imagination when it came to such sordid transactions.
She'd heard stories from the older warriors about how Connal had abused his pretty wife, Isleen the Swan. Although it was a man's right and privilege to punish his wife if matters so required, according to Church law he could do so only with a stick no longer than his arm nor thicker than his thumb. The Earl had preferred to use his fists, feet and the occasional whip to correct Isleen's faults.
Now the Earl stood beside a crook-legged table; he was naked and the rushlight turned his skin to gold, all the fine hairs on his arms, chest and thighs sparkling like pale rubies. "It's time," he said in an almost lazy tone. Only those who knew Connal well could have detected the note of genuine excitement in his voice.
Dunlaith swallowed hard. There was a nude girl on the table, a child of perhaps ten or eleven years. She was scrawny; every rib showed, her arms and legs were stick thin, her skin gray with dirt. The girl's head lolled listlessly and a mass of greasy, dark red hair spilled over the edge of the table. She wasn't bound; she lay there unresisting with a blank look on her face. As her head turned in the warrior's direction, Dunlaith saw to her shock that the child's large eyes were a brilliant emerald green... the same color as the Earl's.
Connal continued, "It's time to give me what your bitch mother cannot, Aislinn." His manhood twitched and swelled against his thigh. "I paid good money for that whore and how did she repay me? By throwing a bastard and dying without allowing me the satisfaction of revenge for the slight. You've paid for her sins, haven't you?"
When the girl didn't respond, he reached out and pinched her thigh viciously, giving a tight smile of satisfaction when she whimpered. "I've waited for this moment patiently... now its time to repay me for all the kindness I've shown you. I intend to get many year's use out of you, child... many more than your mother ever gifted me."
Dunlaith couldn't believe what she was seeing... or what she was hearing. Did the Earl mean what she thought? Did he truly intend to...? The thought was so heinous she wasn't able to finish it.
The Earl bent over and clasped the girl's wrists, drawing her hands above her head and clamping them there. With his knee, he nudged apart her thighs. His eyes glittered. "You are mine," he half whispered in a gloating tone. "I paid good money for your mother and she betrayed me. Now I'll get my gold's worth out of you, sweet Aislinn. Every coin, every drop. You belong to me so you'd best get used to your new duties; I'll be visiting more often now that you've grown."
Dunlaith was sickened to the core. This child was Isleen's daughter, the baby who'd supposedly died with her mother. It was clear that Connal had kept her concealed within the tower... and it was equally clear that he'd abused her and was intending to compound his crimes with the worst kind of rape. Supposedly, the girl was a bastard but Dunlaith doubted that story now; those eyes that stared blankly were so like the Earl's that there could be no mistake - Connal was going to rape his own daughter and continue the cycle of violence that had begun with poor Isleen.
It was the girl's choked scream that snapped Dunlaith out of her horrified trance. Connal was on top of her, his weight crushing Aislinn, mouth covering hers in a devouring kiss.
Dunlaith did not think; she reacted instinctively. Others might have weighed the security of their position against interrupting the Earl at his pleasure; still more would have crept away and tried to forget. But Dunlaith did not stop to ponder the consequences - instead, she acted.
Drawing her sword, she hit the door with her shoulder and bounded into the room. Grabbing the surprised Earl by the back of his head with her free hand, she ripped him away from the girl and heaved him halfway across the room. He staggered, roaring in anger, as she positioned herself between him and Aislinn. When he recovered, he found himself confronted with the steady point of Dunlaith's sword.
"What is the meaning of this, laoch?" he asked in a dangerously soft tone. "How dare you draw your weapon against your lord!"
"My lord no longer," Dunlaith said evenly. "I serve no animal that would so harm his own kin."
The Earl's nostrils flared. "This is no child of my flesh!" he said angrily, taking a step forward. Dunlaith's sword never wavered and with a snort of rage, he backed away again. "Her whore of a mother betrayed me. This little bastard is mine - I paid for her! She belongs to me, to do with as I wish!"
"You may lie to yourself, Connal the Wolf, but even I can see the resemblance." The warrior woman risked a glance over her shoulder; Aislinn lay so still that for a moment, Dunlaith feared she was dead. A quick, reassuring touch proved the girl's flesh was still warm.
The Earl struggled to choke down the angry words that bubbled to the surface. He was used to instant obedience from his servants, not debate or accusation. Still, he was in control of himself enough to realize that this warrior would not be moved if he lost his temper. "What is the trouble here?" he asked in a friendly voice, as if speaking to an old comrade. His hands spread apart. "Have I mistreated you in some way? Are you not satisfied with your position?"
Dunlaith moved around the table to the girl's side but kept her sword at the ready. "What you contemplate here is a sin of the most terrible kind. I will not allow you to do this."
"And what do you intend, laoch?" Connal asked, his face flushing in fury. "To hold me at bay for all eternity?"
"Nay," she answered. "I am taking my leave of your service, my lord, and the girl comes with me. Be damned if I'll let you touch her again."
It was here that Connal made his first mistake. He assumed Dunlaith to be a man; certainly, dressed as she was in warrior's leathers and armed, it was easy to overlook the subtle signs of her femininity. "Why be so hasty, laoch?" he asked with a wide, knowing smile. He thought he understood why his servant had turned on him; the warrior was greedy and wanted to keep the little whore's charms all to himself.
"I'm not adverse to sharing," Connal continued. "Surely, the baltai has enough for two men of appetite. Care for some leathair streachailt, hmmm? Give me the privilege of opening her first... you may have her when I'm finished. After, we'll toss dice for seconds. How's that sound? Surely, much better than fighting over some bit of unimportant flesh."
Dunlaith had thought she'd seen the worst, but the Earl's words made her feel like vomiting. Referring to his own daughter as a baltai - a cunt - and assuming she would want to "stretch leather"... the very idea of abusing such a young girl sexually, not to mention the insult of thinking the warrior capable of such behavior, only fueled Dunlaith's anger.
Her voice shaking, Dunlaith replied, "You are the foulest demon of hell, surely. Can you not see that Aislinn is your flesh and blood? What sort of father treats his child so?"
"It matters not if she is of my get," Connal said airily - his second mistake. "Do you not think I've sired children before? Puling, mealy-mouthed brats whose only reason for life is to serve me... in whatever capacity I desire. Aislinn is not the first... nor will she be the last. Come; put aside your sword and stop this foolishness. I will forgive your zeal if you turn about and leave now."
Dunlaith shook her head, tossing black bangs out of her eyes. "Go to hell," she spat. "I'll not stand aside while you work your ill on this child."
Deeming diplomacy a failed option, Connal rushed forward with a shout, hoping to surprise the warrior and disarm her - the final error that compounded all the rest. Dunlaith automatically brought her sword swinging down; the edge bit into his hip and dark blood spurted. He fell heavily to the floor, groaning in agony, a scarlet pool forming on the floor beneath him.
Dunlaith bit her lip; she hadn't intended to wound him but his attack had left her small choice. With a muffled exclamation, she quickly stepped over his body and scooped the child up from the table. Aislinn made no protest, only wound her arms around the warrior's neck and nestled trustingly against her.
Dunlaith hastened out of the room and made her way down the spiraling stone staircase, her sword still naked in her hand. As she half ran to the stables, a plan was already forming out of the chaos in her brain. Determination to save Aislinn dominated everything now; the warrior had made her choice and knew in her heart it was the right thing to do.
Dunlaith fled... and soon, after Mebh found her lord lying wounded on the floor and the girl vanished, the alarm was raised.
By then, the warrior and her precious burden were long gone.
" I rode that horse to death and stole another. We found refuge at Lord O'Ciaran's - he and the Earl were long time enemies." Dunlaith's pale eyes were squeezed shut in pain as she continued her tale.
"My sorrow but our sanctuary did not last long - four months, which was enough for me to understand how much Connal had hurt his daughter, and I do not only mean the scars on her body. I was determined to destroy the Earl for what he had done. The blindness of the man - denying Aislinn's parentage when the evidence of her sire stood clearly before his vision. Cleaned up and dressed properly, she was the very picture of Connal, but thank God! The resemblance went no further than the physical. I ached for her, truly, this innocent girl who had suffered at the hands of those who should have protected her. And I... well, as long as I lived, she would never suffer again."
"How did Aislinn come to Niamh?" Bebhinn asked.
"Connal sent a force after us and I fled again, taking Aislinn with me as well as a serving woman named Ean, who had grown fond of the girl and wanted to take care of her. The Earl's men were mounted on fast horses; we could not outrun them. I sent Ean and Aislinn on ahead while I stayed behind to defend them. I hoped they could reach the coast and escape, for I'd made arrangements with a local fisherman to have a boat waiting. Aislinn cried so on leaving me; my heart wept but there was small choice."
Mother Bebhinn made the sign of the cross. "Merciful God!" she exclaimed. "You against so many warriors... how did you survive?"
Dunlaith opened her eyes and gave the Abbess a rueful smile. "God was on my side, Reverend Mother," she replied simply. "Any road, I knew that if I failed, Aislinn would die. T'was incentive enough."
Aislinn's mind was a morass of confusion. Try as she might, she couldn't remember any of what Dunlaith was relating. Her childhood remained tantalizingly out of reach; it was like a ripe pear hanging just beyond the range of her hands. If only she could devour that fruit of knowledge, consume what had been forgotten, make it hers once again... then perhaps she could understand her dreams, comprehend the strange feelings she harbored for this brave and beautiful warrior. But then again, this story of Dunlaith's was difficult to swallow whole.
Dunlaith continued, "Ean managed to get to the boat and put Aislinn inside, but one of Connal's warriors slipped past the fighting and followed her. She was shot with a crossbow bolt, poor woman, but with her last, dying strength, she pushed the boat from the shore and prayed the winds would blow Aislinn to sanctuary. When I got to the beach, Ean was dead and all I could see was a tiny coracle being carried out to sea. I gave Aislinn up for dead, returned to O'Ciaran's and swore allegiance to him, vowing revenge against Connal the Wolf.
"God must have had His hand on you that night, Aislinn. You were blown to Niamh and while the boat wrecked on the rocks, you were cast up unharmed. You even had the cloak brooch I'd given you to remember me by - aye, I can still hear you crying my name as Ean ran with you into the woods towards the sea."
"How can this be?" Aislinn whispered. "How can I have suffered so much and yet lived... and living, not remember?"
Mother Bebhinn sighed. "When you were found, inion, you had with you a gold cloak brooch. It has been in my safekeeping all these years. Earlier tonight, guided by God, I brought it forth for study, wondering if I had missed some clue to your identity." She reached into the pocket of her white robe and pulled out a round disk of gold. "It is identical to the one Dunlaith wears now. She speaks the truth, Aislinn... you are the daughter of Connal, Wolf of the Forth."
Aislinn reached out a hand and Bebhinn put the brooch into it. She gently traced the upraised figures on the cool metal and at last, nodded in acceptance. She was familiar with Dunlaith's brooch and Bebhinn was right - they were identical.
"Blessed Virgin, pray for me," Aislinn whispered. Tears seeped between her closed eyelids and rolled down her cheeks, spilling into her hair. "Will my father try to claim me, now that I'm found?"
Aislinn had at last accepted Dunlaith's story as truth. The evidence was clear - she was the daughter of Eire's biggest monster. His blood ran warm in her veins; it was not surprising that God had punished her by taking away her sight. She wept and felt Dunlaith's sword callused hand clasping her own, those strong fingers caressing her palm in a reassuring way. As never before in her life, Aislinn wished she could see and cursed the blindness that kept her shrouded in darkness... she felt helpless and only the bulwark of Dunlaith kept her from utter despair.
"Ionuin, your father is dead," the warrior said. "Shortly before I came here, chasing a rumor of a beautiful artist who lived among the Sisters at St. Ailbe's, Connal the Wolf died. I may have done you more harm than good but I swear by Almighty God, I wished only to see with my own eyes if you had survived, nothing more. And now, through me, he has found you."
Bebhinn stirred. "What do you mean? Tell me plainly, laoch. Aislinn - and indeed, all of us - are in mortal danger. Speaking in riddles is no aid."
Dunlaith rubbed her forehead with her free hand. "You wish me to speak plainly? Very well, Reverend Mother. It is as simple as this - Connal has returned from Hell, seeking to destroy his daughter. He is a taibhse, a vengeful ghost, who has taken the form of a spectral wolf, the better to create fear and terror. Somehow, he must have followed me from Eire - my presence in the convent has brought this doom upon you. If the wolf is not stopped, he will succeed... and Aislinn will be dead. Have I put it plainly enough to satisfy you?," she asked angrily.
Bebhinn sucked in a breath but was interrupted by Aislinn.
"I know now," the blind girl said. "Dunlaith is all truth and there are no lies in this room tonight. What attacked me could have been no natural creature; the hate I felt can come only from a black soul such as my father possessed." She sat up, despite the warrior's protest, and swung her legs over the side of the bed. "I cannot stay here and endanger you all. Come the morrow, I will leave Niamh."
Bebhinn snorted. "And how will you accomplish this feat, inion? Fly? There is no boat..."
"Then I will swim!" Aislinn said forcefully. Her face turned in the Abbess' direction. "My sorrow, but if I remain here, he may begin attacking the other Sisters. We already know he is prepared - nay, eager to kill. What will stop him from destroying my protectors one by one until this isle is bare of life? I must go, Mother. I must!"
Dunlaith put a hand on Aislinn's shoulder. "If you run, he will find you," she said. "Even I cannot protect you for long against such a foe. At least here, you are surrounded by God's protection."
"And if he lures me out again through dreams?" Aislinn shuddered. "He has done it once... what is to stop him from doing such again?"
"Me." Dunlaith's quiet confidence made the girl pause. "I'll not close my eyes in sleep but stand over you with drawn sword if necessary."
"Can steel truly defeat such a beast?" Bebhinn asked reasonably. "Has your sword been blessed?"
"Nay," Dunlaith admitted. "But what alternative is there?"
Bebhinn rose with a rustle of white skirts. "Do you stay with Aislinn and speak to her further; I'm sure she has many questions to ask about her past. It could be that something you say triggers her memory and returns it to its place. I will spend the day in prayer and study, seeking a solution to our troubles. No one - and I mean this, children! - no one is to leave Niamh without my permission. Have I your sworn words on that?"
"Aye," Aislinn said somewhat bitterly. "Though you have me swear to your doom."
Dunlaith smoothed the girl's shoulder. "Fret not," she said to Bebhinn. "We go nowhere without your leave. I, too, will pray that you find the answer."
"The Lord will provide," Bebhinn said. She left the infirmarium; in a few moments, her footsteps ceased to echo on the stone floor and all was quiet once more.
Sister Keely poked her head out from a small room next to the main treatment area. "Is all well?" she asked.
Dunlaith sighed. "Well enough," she replied. "I will watch Aislinn, Sister. You get some rest; the cock crows all too soon."
"Aye, bless you," Keely said. "Should you need aught, merely call."
Keely bustled away to seek her bed.
Dunlaith sat down next to Aislinn and caressed the girl's red-gold hair, comforting and seeking comfort as well during the long, slow hours until morning.
Eventually, fatigue claimed Aislinn. Despite her fears and confusion, despite the swirling questions that still bedeviled her brain, she found herself slipping reluctantly into sleep, lulled by Dunlaith singing a soft, soothing lullaby.
The simple melody was like a blanket drawn over her senses. As Aislinn's eyes closed, she found herself tumbled directly into the dream; the unexplained vision that had plagued her for years. But suddenly, the forest was not so frightening; she knew this place as well as she knew Niamh. It was as if she were no longer a participant in the dream, but an invisible observer. She could clearly see a young girl standing with a middle-aged woman in the midst of the woods and willed herself to drift closer. This was new and different; oddly enough, Aislinn did not find it frightening at all.
A woman with brown hair and hazel eyes looked down at a girl with a worried frown. "Come along, child; we have quite a walk to the beach and we must hurry."
"Where is Dunlaith?" Aislinn heard a voice asking. The young girl had red-gold hair bound up in two braids and her enormous emerald eyes were darkened by unshed tears. Aislinn felt a chill; she was looking at a younger version of herself.
The woman - Ean! - bit her lip and tugged the girl's hand. "She will follow us soon. Hurry, Aislinn! We must go!"
Another voice: "Listen to Ean, hmm? Be a good girl and do as she tell you."
"Dunlaith!" The girl turned around and leaped into the warrior's arms. "Aren't you coming with us?"
Aislinn studied Dunlaith; the warrior was younger, not as hard as she was now, and her black hair had been shorn off at the shoulder. There was still a trace of puppy-fat in the lines of her face, but Aislinn knew that would disappear and leave the warrior's jawbone and cheeks as clearly cut as a knifeblade beneath the skin.
The girl snuggled closer to Dunlaith. "Why must you leave me? Can you not come with us?"
"Nay," the warrior answered, and Aislinn was taken aback by the love she saw reflected in Dunlaith's face. "There is a task that must be completed before I can join you."
The girl frowned. "I won't go without you," she said.
"Listen to me, Aislinn." Dunlaith hugged the girl close. "You must go ahead. Your father has sent warriors against us and the O'Ciaran cannot be involved in a war just yet. So you and Ean must run, as fast as you can, to the sea. A boat is there that will take you to a safe place. Understand?"
"I'm safe with you!" the girl wailed, and Aislinn's heart almost broke to see such grief. "I don't want to leave! Please, don't send me away!"
In the distance could be heard the faint call of a trumpet. Dunlaith snatched something from her cloak and pressed it into the girl's hand. "Keep this in remembrance of me," she said, kissing the girl's forehead.
To Ean, the warrior said, "Take her and go! Don't stop, no matter what you hear. And don't let Aislinn look back, either."
Ean nodded in understanding. Grabbing the girl's wrist and tugging her away from Dunlaith, the older woman began to walk rapidly away, heaving the grief stricken child along the path by main strength.
"No!" the girl screamed. "No! Dunlaith, don't leave me! Please!!"
"Blessed Jesu keep His hand over you, Aislinn." Dunlaith spent a few precious moments watching the struggling, hysterical girl being dragged away by Ean.
Then she shrugged the cloak from her shoulders and unsheathed her sword. Planting herself directly in the center of the path, the dark-haired warrior waited for the horsemen who would come.
Silver tears coursed over her cheeks as Dunlaith prepared to defend an innocent girl's life... and to die safe in the knowledge that Aislinn's father would never harm his daughter again.
Aislinn the observer was moved to tears herself. She reached out a hand and touched Dunlaith's shoulder in an unconscious gesture. As soon as her fingertips brushed the warrior's shoulder, it seemed as if she were picked up by a violent whirlwind.
Swirling winds lifted her up and tumbled her over and over. Screaming, Aislinn covered her face with her hands and shuddered as freezing tendrils of air lashed at her like stinging whips. She was raised to a great height, so high she could clearly see every detail in the face of the round moon, and then she was falling, the earth rushing back at her so quickly it was a blur.
Abruptly, Aislinn became her younger self. No longer was she separated from the events; she lived them once again, the child and the woman blending together until they were one.
Grasping Ean's hand tightly, Aislinn turned back when the clashing of swords and yelling voices sliced through the quiet of the forest. "Dunlaith?" she whimpered.
"Aislinn, come! We have no time!" Ean jerked the girl forward another step. "Come along, girl!"
Aislinn shook her head. "I'm going back," she said. "We shouldn't have left Dunlaith alone."
Ean grabbed Aislinn's shoulders in a tight grip. "Dunlaith holds off your father's men to give us a chance to escape. She sacrifices her own life so that you may live! Now, come, or it will all be for naught!"
Dunlaith dead? Aislinn was stunned; automatically, her body followed Ean for a few steps until the terrible implications hit her. She dug in her heels. "No!" she screamed in denial. "No! We have to go back! We have to!"
Ean briskly slapped Aislinn's face. "Don't be a fool!" she hissed. "That brave women is being cut to pieces by your father's warriors and all for you. Don't be ungrateful and throw that life away!" A sudden crashing in the bushes just behind them made the woman jump.
"Run!" Ean shouted. "Run!"
"But what if it's her?" Aislinn asked. She loved Dunlaith as she loved no other being in this life; the first faint stirrings of hope she'd ever felt in her breast had been at the vision of the warrior standing with drawn sword between her and Father. Following that miraculous escape, she had placed all her trust, all of her dreams, into the woman who had saved both her life and soul. Aislinn had already decided that when she was old enough, she would marry Dunlaith; the precise mechanics of this romantic dream were vague, but in her bones she knew that if she wanted it badly enough, it would come to pass.
Now her adolescent dreams were being shattered beneath the reality of steel; her knight was being slaughtered by the instruments of her father's revenge and Aislinn's world tottered on its foundations.
"Dunlaith!" Aislinn howled. "Don't leave me!"
A warrior staggered out of the brush. His face was stained with blood and he held a double headed ax in his hands. Pushed back onto his forehead was the fanged wolf's mask helm that was the signature of the Earl of Ciardha's men. "Over here!" he shouted. "Everyone! They're over here!"
Terror seized Aislinn entirely. She was unable to move, paralyzed with fear, heart pounding so hard she felt dizzy.
The warrior rushed at her, ax held high, lips peeled back from his teeth in a snarl.
Aislinn raised a hand in a futile gesture. Ean had already run a few steps; now she turned and leaped upon the girl, bearing her down to the ground, covering Aislinn's body with her own. Both of them waited for the blow that would end their lives.
Before the ax could sweep down, the warrior groaned, blood spilling from his lips, and he fell heavily to earth, missing Aislinn and Ean by mere inches.
Dunlaith stood there, panting. Her dagger protruded from between the fallen man's shoulderblades. Her tunic was rent; crimson stains bloomed on the leather. The sword in her hand was covered in blood; drops spilled off the point to splatter on leaves.
Aislinn looked up; her eyes widened and although her mouth opened, no sound came out.
"Get out of here!" Dunlaith commanded, shaking the sword in their direction. Drops of blood splashed on Aislinn's face and she flinched. "Go, damn you! Go!"
Another warrior leaped upon Dunlaith and she ran him through. Kicking his body off her blade, Dunlaith looked directly at Aislinn with eyes that burned. "Go!"
More of the Earl's men came out of the brush and met Dunlaith's sword. As skilled as she was, however, the warrior woman was quickly overwhelmed.
Aislinn's mouth opened again and still nothing emerged. Dunlaith was dying and she was helpless to stop it.
Ean scrambled up and pulled Aislinn to her feet. The girl looked desperately over her shoulder; the last sight she had of Dunlaith was the woman's face drenched in blood, teeth clenched tightly together in a grimace of effort as she fended off her attackers.
Ean and Aislinn began to run as fast as they could through the forest, the girl clutching the cloak brooch Dunlaith had given her in a grip so hard that the golden rim cut into her palm.
As they ran, they could hear the pursuit behind them, almost feel the sharp swords of the wolf-masked warriors slicing through the air at their backs. They ran towards the sound of the sea, the cool salt spray that promised sanctuary. Aislinn ran and as her footsteps pounded down the earthen path, she could hear her heart beating to a rhythm she'd never felt before...
And that compelling rhythm was the sound of a dying warrior's name.
Part of her shriveled and died; she screamed, a wild, skirling howl of purest grief and agony that shook the pillars of the world...
Aislinn ran towards her destiny with eyes that were blinded with tears.
With a gasp, Aislinn woke. As soon as her eyes opened, she immediately squeezed them tightly shut again. The light!
Dunlaith heard her whimpering in pain and immediately came to the young woman's side. "Aislinn?" she asked. "What troubles you? Is it your wound?"
"Nay," Aislinn said. "Only the brightness..."
"Brightness? It is the morning light..." Dunlaith stopped, astonished. "You can see?"
"I know not," Aislinn replied in a voice that shook with emotion. "Only that my eyes are burning."
"Sister Keely! Come quickly!" Dunlaith shouted, the joy in her voice evident. "Aislinn can see!"
"Merciful God!" the infirmarian exclaimed, hurrying over to the cot. "It's a miracle!"
For the next few hours, as the Sisters flocked to the infirmary to marvel at this new evidence of God's mercy and as Keely tested Aislinn's fragile new sight, Dunlaith found herself pushed to the background. Joyous nuns sang a spontaneous hymn of thanksgiving or dropped to their knees in prayer. The Abbess, summoned from her studies, sat on the edge of the cot and questioned Aislinn closely to determine which saint - if any - had caused this miracle to take place. Such matters were of great importance to the Church and Bebhinn would have to write a report to the Motherhouse.
Finally, when Aislinn was utterly exhausted by the emotional turmoil of at last having faces to put to familiar voices, her newfound eyesight almost strained by drinking in each tiny, insignificant detail of the infirmary, the women, even the knotted threads of the blanket on the cot, Sister Keely shooed everyone away and threatened to lock the door if they did not give the poor girl some rest.
Aislinn let her shoulders slump in relief. Although she loved the Sisters, having such a large group clucking about, shouting questions and hallelujahs, was tiring. Still, there was a profound sense of accomplishment that filled her soul, both for the restoration of her sight and the re-emergence of her memory. For the first time in so very long, Aislinn felt whole.
A voice from behind startled her: "Are you well, ionuin?"
It was Dunlaith. Aislinn smiled as she replied, "More than well, my friend. I am healed. Complete at last."
Dunlaith eased down on the cot beside the young woman. "To see you smile fills me with joy."
"I am joy," Aislinn answered. She turned to face Dunlaith and gasped; the passage of years had done nothing to dim Dunlaith's loveliness, only honed and refined it. Dark hair, black as ravens wings, spilled over muscular shoulders, framed a strong, lovely face. Mouth with full coral lips; black brows arched over eyes the color of pale seas.
"Is aught wrong?" Dunlaith asked, touching Aislinn's shoulder.
"Nay," she replied. "I had forgotten how beautiful you are."
Dunlaith flushed. "You flatter me unduly," she began, but Aislinn interrupted her. There was a question burning in the back of her throat and it could not wait to be asked.
"Why do you call me by such a name?"
"By what name?" the warrior asked, confused.
"You call me 'beloved.' Why? It has been eight years since we parted and when last we were together, I was no more than a girl." Aislinn felt her breath catch; the answer to this question was more important than Dunlaith could have guessed. With the returning of her memory, the childish love that Aislinn had once felt for the warrior had merged with her adult emotions, strengthening her bond of attachment to the point where the young woman truly felt that Dunlaith was a part of her soul.
The old, blind Aislinn was gone; in her place was a mature young woman who knew exactly what she wanted; she just wasn't sure how to get it.
"I... my sorrow, Aislinn, if I've offended you." Dunlaith scooted away a few inches, in danger of falling off the cot entirely.
"Nay, speak me no apologies," Aislinn countered, sliding closer and closing the gap between them. "Answer my question."
Dunlaith was a good enough warrior to know when to surrender. "Very well," she said. Her eyes refused to meet Aislinn's. "When you disappeared, I carried an image of you in my heart. As the years passed, so did my image age and change. I imagined how you might live, what you might be doing, the paths that your life might have taken. I thought it only a fool's dream to comfort my grief and guilt at losing you. Then, when I saw you again... well, that poor gilded vision could not compare to the purest gold of your face, the jewels of your eyes. From child to woman I had watched you grow in my imagination... t'was the reality that smote me like a thunderstroke to the soul."
"Go on," Aislinn urged. Despite the teachings of the Church and even despite her own ignorance, the young woman knew - somehow - that this was one of the most important moments of her life. She did not understand how or why but she loved Dunlaith, and her feelings were not those of a sister or solely a friend. There was no shred of doubt in her heart that Dunlaith was the one.
Many of the Sisters in St. Ailbe's had once led secular lives, including the Abbess. Although Bebhinn rarely spoke of the life she'd left behind, Aislinn had heard others reminisce about worldly pleasures and the marriage bed. Sister Laigen, the blacksmith, had left a female lover when she'd answered the Church's call; while the big woman talked in circular, euphemistic terms about her former life, it was enough to allow Aislinn to understand that two women could, indeed, enjoy one another's company in a way that was perceived as sin.
But Aislinn cared nothing for sin. There was an ache behind her breastbone that pulsed in time with the frantic beating of her heart. Her mouth was dry and she found herself fascinated by Dunlaith's face; she eagerly traced the curve of the woman's lashes as they fell on her cheek, the smoothly sculpted lines of her cheekbones, the tiny shadow beneath her bottom lip.
Dunlaith shifted, uncomfortable with the intensity of Aislinn's gaze. "I did not mean for you to know," she said plaintively. "I thought we could be as sisters..."
Aislinn waited, her eyes locked on the warrior's face.
"Mother of God!" Dunlaith exploded. She got off the cot and knelt down on the floor, taking one of Aislinn's hands between her own. "My sorrow, ionuin. My feelings for you are much stronger than is proper. I loved you when you were a child, but that was the affection of a kinsman; I saved and protected you because something within you called to me and I couldn't deny that force. Later, my love was tinged with sorrowful regret at having lost you. I was like a man who has held a great treasure within his hands, only to have it snatched away by ill fortune. Then, when I found you again... my love was again changed. I do not love you purely, Aislinn - I cannot see you as an innocent child anymore. You are a woman full grown and it is as a woman that I love you. Can you understand, Aislinn of the Dreams?"
Much to Dunlaith's astonishment - for the warrior expected tears, hysteria or perhaps even anger - Aislinn smiled and she glowed with happiness. "I love you as well, Dunlaith of the Burning," she replied breathlessly. "I loved you as a child, for you were the greatest hero in the world to me. I grieve that God chose to remove my memory, otherwise I should have cherished your image as you have mine. But from the moment I heard the sound of your voice, the very second I felt your face beneath my hands, I knew we shared a common destiny. I remember everything, Dunlaith. My life has returned to me and with it... you."
"Do you mean...?" The warrior trembled on the knife edge between tears and joy.
"Yes," Aislinn said. She leaned forward until her face nearly brushed Dunlaith's. "I love you, my champion. I have loved you always but now... now, my feelings for you fill my heart with happiness, lift my soul on wings. I love you so..."
Dunlaith bent her head and covered Aislinn's hand with kisses. The young woman buried her face in the warrior's dark hair, at last feeling some sense of completion in her life. With Dunlaith at her side, there was nothing she could not face, no fear that could not be defeated. Her past was unimportant; all that mattered was the love that blossomed between them. More practical concerns took second place to the all consuming rapture of two souls coming together, never to be parted again.
Both women jumped when someone cleared their throat close to them. Dunlaith looked up guiltily and Aislinn blushed. It was Mother Bebhinn, and from the look on the nun's face, she wasn't too happy about the scene that had confronted her in the infirmary.
"I will not ask what this display is about," the Abbess said. "Aislinn, you are a novice and have yet to take final vows; you may leave us if you wish and none will say you nay. But you, laoch... I beg to remind you that you are on holy soil and surrounded by the Brides of Christ. Even the contemplation of sin must be avoided in order to keep from harming the Sister's progress towards God. Am I understood?"
Aislinn and Dunlaith both nodded.
"Very well," Bebhinn said. "Now that the excitement has somewhat passed, I came to inform you of the results of my studies. You do remember the taibhse, I trust? Or has Aislinn forgotten that she was nearly killed by an unholy spirit last evening?"
"Oh, no, Mother!" Aislinn said hastily. She snatched her hand out of Dunlaith's slack grasp and smoothed the skirts of her robe unconsciously. "We had not forgotten. In fact, along with my sight, God has chosen to return my memory. I know who I am, where I came from... and I recall my father well," she added, curling her lip in disgust.
"Praise be to God," Bebhinn said dryly. From the glow that still remained on Aislinn's face, and from the position she'd found them in, the Abbess supposed that her novice was in love with Dunlaith, and she with her. Bebhinn could not say that she was surprised by this turn of events; she'd suspected as much for a while. Although she could not give them her blessing - the Church considered such liaisons a damnable sin - still, she was not too old to remember being in love herself. And besides, if Aislinn was happy, then she would wish them well in the privacy of her heart and pray that the benevolent God would bestow His forgiveness.
Bebhinn continued briskly, "A second miracle and it is not yet noon! I am glad that your memory has been restored, inion. You must remember to tell Sister Keely; no doubt she will pester you with medical questions until the angels weep. You may tell me about it later; this restoration must be included in my report to Dalriada."
Dunlaith got to her feet and fetched a stool for the Abbess. When all were settled down, the nun began to speak. "I have news of my own to impart, my children. The vengeful ghost will continue trying to complete his task; he can find no rest until the object of his hatred has been destroyed. Aislinn, you are safe within the convent walls, for the holiness of this place keeps him at bay. But once you remove yourself from the protection of God... well, we have already had a vivid demonstration of this taibhse's hell-wrought powers."
Aislinn nodded; her hand crept over and grasped Dunlaith's. The warrior gave her fingers a reassuring squeeze.
Mother Bebhinn's sharp eyes caught this gesture and she suppressed a sigh. "We have already seen that he can manipulate Aislinn in her dreams. I doubt even so superhuman a warrior as Dunlaith can do without sleep for very long, and her steel is yet unproved against the beast. So, we must perform an exorcism."
"An exorcism?" Dunlaith blurted. "Will it not take too long for a priest to come from Eire? Do not forget, Reverend Mother, that monster will return tonight!"
"I have forgotten nothing, laoch," Bebhinn replied calmly. "This is a very old ritual that goes back to the beginnings of the Church. It requires only twelve participants and none need have aspired to the priesthood. We three and nine others will lay the taibhse and send his soul back to judgment."
"Nay, not Aislinn!" Dunlaith said forcefully, putting a protective arm around the young woman's shoulders. "She is in the greatest danger of all. I will not allow..."
"Shhh," Aislinn interrupted. "Let me make up my own mind. Tell us what must be done, Mother."
Dunlaith made as if to protest again and Aislinn pressed a fingertip against her lips. "Let Mother Bebhinn speak."
Dunlaith subsided reluctantly and the Abbess smiled. She had a feeling that the warrior was in for quite a few surprises. Aislinn was not as biddable as some might think; there was a broad streak of stubbornness in the girl as well as a hidden font of strength that was pure cut-steel.
"Well, then, my children... here is what we must do...," Bebhinn began.
Both warrior and young woman listened to Bebhinn's words... and when she was finished, their first fight began.
"What is it you wish of me?," Dunlaith shouted. "You have my heart... would you have my heart's blood as well?"
Aislinn felt her temper beginning to fray. This woman could be so stubborn! "You heard Mother Bebhinn! If I am not there to lure the taibhse, then all will be for naught."
"Connal tried his best to kill you when you were a child! Or have you forgotten that fact?"
"I've forgotten nothing!," Aislinn retorted, stung to the quick. "But you heard what the Mother said... I am Connal's closest blood kin. I am the knot that binds him to this earth. If I'm not there, who knows what he may do in anger? Please, Dunlaith... you saved me from him once. This time, t'is my task to confront the monster."
Dunlaith grabbed a double handful of her dark hair and yanked in frustration. "I did not find you only to lose you again!"
"You have not lost me," Aislinn replied. She slipped an arm around Dunlaith's waist and laid her head on the warrior's breast. "You will never lose me. Come; let us go down and join the Sisters at dinner. The bell has rung long since and Mother Bebhinn will be angry if we tarry too long."
"I like this not," Dunlaith growled. "The taibhse will kill you given half a chance. And will this ritual really work? Twelve candles seem a poor weapon against Connal the Wolf."
"T'is not only candles but the purity of our prayers. Listen to me, Dunlaith. Even if I should perish - nay, shake not your head! - should I perish tonight, know that my love for you will live in here." She touched Dunlaith's chest. "I will always be with you... my love."
The warrior sighed and her arms came up, clasping Aislinn close. "T'was my swordstroke ruined the Earl's life," she said softly. "Half crippled, he lost control of his men and became a bitter recluse, hating the world and everything in it. Especially, he hated you. Glad am I that you prospered beneath the Sister's protection... but my sorrow forever that I brought him to this isle."
"Who's to say it was or wasn't?" Aislinn replied. "Perhaps he would have found me even without your coming. Perhaps t'was me who drew him here. Do not be so proud as to take blame where none exists."
"Must you do this thing?" Dunlaith asked. The first flash of her temper had subsided, leaving an ache behind. The thought of Aislinn dying was more than she could sanely bear.
"Aye," Aislinn said. "I must."
"I still like it not," the warrior said. "But as stubborn as I am, I can see necessity when my nose is rubbed in it. Promise that you will stay by my side; I will defend you with steel, prayers or any other weapon in my power if it keeps you safe from harm."
"Aye," Aislinn agreed. "I feel safer already."
The late afternoon sun cast its pale, golden glow into the room as the two women held one another close, murmuring promises and reassurances and declarations until the last vestiges of light slipped away entirely, leaving the convent and Niamh isolated in the diamond-starred darkness.
Mother Bebhinn looked around at the circle of faces. The nine Sisters who were participating - including Fiona, Keely and Laigen - were all dressed in immaculate black robes, their hair concealed beneath crisp wimples. The Abbess wore her most splendid white robes, the sleeves lined with heavily embroidered scarlet satin. After nodding in satisfaction at the other women's appearances, Bebhinn shot a disapproving glance at Aislinn; while her lips thinned, she did not say a word.
The young woman wore a pair of Dunlaith's trews, the long legs rolled up and secured with twine to accommodate her more petite stature. One of the warrior's linen shirts with sleeves rolled up to the elbow and a wide belt completed Aislinn's wardrobe. She finished pinning up her red-gold hair and gave Mother Bebhinn a shy little smile. "T'is the best I can do till we go to Eire," she said.
Bebhinn sighed. "Are you determined on this course, inion?" she asked.
Aislinn nodded. "Aye, Mother. My sorrow, but once the taibhse is laid, Dunlaith and I are for Eire. I'm grateful for everything you've done for me..."
"And we are equally grateful that God chose us to succor you in your time of need," Bebhinn interrupted. "Although we shall miss you when you go. Should you ever feel the need to retire from the world, child - or even if you wish to visit those who love you as kin - you know where you'll be welcomed."
"Thank you," Aislinn replied softly.
Bebhinn fiddled with the big silver cross that hung around her neck. "Well, enough standing around," she said with a sniff. "Where's that laoch?"
"Here am I," Dunlaith said, coming into the room and giving Aislinn a smile. Despite her worries, the warrior seemed calm and confident. She made a minute adjustment to the baldric that supported the scabbard at her back and then bent her head to give Aislinn a peck on the cheek.
Only Bebhinn's needle-sharp glare kept the nuns from commenting, although Laigen was heard to breathe a loud sigh at this little display of affection.
The women had gathered in the infirmarium to prepare themselves before going out into the garden to confront the taibhse. Sister Keely opened a casket of fat candles made of virgin beeswax and began distributing them. As each candle passed from person to person, Bebhinn murmured a prayer and touched the wicks with a coal she carried in a bronze box, setting the candles alight.
"Pater noster, qui es in caelis, sanctificetur nomen tuum," Bebhinn droned in Latin.
Our Father Who art in Heaven, Hallowed be Thy name...
"Adveniat regnum tuum. Fiat voluntas tua, sicut in caelo et in terra." the other eleven women chanted quietly, including Dunlaith.
Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven...
Bebhinn and the others finished the Oratio Dominica in unison. When the prayer was finished and all the steadily glowing candles held by the women, the Abbess took a deep breath.
"My children, the time has come when we must do battle against the darkest evil that threatens to destroy all that we hold dear. I urge you to search your hearts, banish any fears you may have, for this beast preys upon such graceless emotions and grows stronger. Gird yourself in the armor of God and become an instrument by which His might may work its miracles this night against the very powers of Hell."
"Amen," everyone murmured in response, making the sign of the cross.
Bebhinn continued, "This taibhse is cunning. He knows that as long as a single candle remains alight, he will be defeated. He will try and seize hold of your minds, to make you retreat from God's work, but you must remain firm in your determination. Stay within the circle of the light and he cannot harm you. Do you all remember what is to be done?"
They all nodded, eleven somber faces staring at the stern expression of the Abbess.
Surprisingly, in such a grim moment, Bebhinn smiled, her brown eyes twinkling. "Very well, my daughters. What are we waiting for?" She opened the back door of the infirmary and gestured with her candle out at the dark garden. "Let us march forth and do battle for the glory of God!"
"Amen!" came the chorus. Filled with purpose, the women marched out one by one. As she passed the Abbess, Dunlaith placed a fist to her heart in salute and grinned. Bebhinn's smile grew wider.
In the garden, all was eerily quiet and still. The only light was the frail flickering of the women's candles and a faint hint of watery moonglow that turned the landscape to a shadowy world of blues and grays. They moved together as a group, with Aislinn in the center. Directly behind the young woman was Dunlaith; now that they had left the protection of the convent's walls, the warrior was armed - candle in one hand, sword in the other.
A piercing howl came from the left. Mother Bebhinn's smile faded; she hitched at her skirts with her free hand and said, "It is time. Be not afraid, Aislinn; we will stay close by, though you see us not."
Aislinn swallowed hard. The candle in her hand trembled a little. "I know what to do."
Dunlaith squeezed the young woman's shoulder. "I will be right behind you," she said. Her eyes were magnified by the candlelight into huge pools of shadowy blue and her lips were curled downward in a worried frown. "Be careful."
Aislinn hugged the warrior close. "I swear," she replied.
With a quick kiss on the young woman's forehead, Dunlaith joined the nuns in concealment, crouched down behind the bushes. The sickly scent of rotting rose petals was nearly suffocating. The tiny points of light on their candles burned steadily, yet were hardly visible in the all encompassing blackness of the garden.
Alone, Aislinn peered around, starting at every leaf crackle, every insect drone. Hot wax spilled over the side of the candle and splashed on the skin of her hand; she gave a little scream of surprise and nearly dropped the fat taper.
Suddenly, a hot, stinking puff of wind from behind made Aislinn stiffen. Slowly, she turned around, emerald eyes widening as sheer terror made her heart stutter. Cold sweat broke out on her face; the hand that held the candle shook violently; hot wax dribbled and splattered on her arm but she didn't notice.
He was there, standing wide-legged behind her, his green eyes luminescent as pools of poison and just as deadly.
The taibhse, the ghost of the man who had in life been called Connal, Faoil of the Forth, had taken the form of an enormous platinum-furred wolf. His back was curved like a crescent moon and bristled with hair; his face was malformed, with a long, lean snout that seemed mostly razor sharp fangs. Those fangs dripped with strings of saliva; his breath steamed in the air until it seemed the beast blew clouds of brimstone-scented smoke. His emerald green eyes held a terrifying, gloating intelligence... and a bottomless pit of hate.
Oh, Aislinn could feel the hate that emanated from the creature; it was like a red-hot mist that engulfed her from head to toe, making her skin tingle and crawl. The spectral wolf panted and growled, muscles coiling and uncoiling in shuddering waves.
Aislinn was beyond terror, her mouth wide open in an O of utter dismay. She shrank back a step, cowering. To her horror, it seemed that the wolf's form shifted and wavered, becoming a vision of her father as he had been all those years ago. Her perspective shrank and dwindled until he loomed hugely over her, a hungry light in his eyes that she found all too familiar. She was no longer in the garden; instead, the damp, moldy smell of the tower room seeped into her nostrils.
"Come here, bitch," he said. A thin strip of leather in his hand whistled and cracked as he flicked it towards her, almost but not quite brushing her cringing flesh. "I think you need another lesson."
Instinct screamed at her to scuttle away, out of his reach, but fear kept her locked in place. Her mouth dry, stomach flip-flopping and filling the back of her throat with thin acid, Aislinn could only stare up at the figure of the Earl in a fascination born of dread.
The whip cracked again. "I said come here!" he commanded. "Don't defy me, girl, or t'will be the worse for you, I swear."
Aislinn crawled forward, one tiny step at a time. He was a dreadful giant, a god who must be obeyed. Her flesh remembered pain; her skin sizzled with the ghostly remnants of agony past. A smile of satisfaction crossed the Earl's handsome face. She quivered as light glittered and sparked on the whip he held high - the knotted leather strip had been wound with iron wire.
"On your belly," the Earl said, licking his lips. "Get down and put your face in the floor, baltai. Just like your whore of a mother."
Aislinn doubled over, whimpering, trying to present as small a target as possible. She felt the cold, wire-wound leather caress her back lightly.
"When I'm through with you, do you know what I'll be doing next?," the Earl asked. His tone was casual, almost pleasant. Then it changed to a hate-filled hiss. "I'll strip that unfaithful harpy of a warrior of mine down to the bones! Aye, and I'll enjoy every drop of blood she sheds almost as much as I enjoy yours."
She looked up at him. She'd felt so helpless, so weak... ties of fear and childish obedience had kept her bound, like chains around her heart and soul. But now a tiny crack broke through the terror. The Earl was threatening Dunlaith, her hero, her love...
"Does that not please you?" the Earl said, thrusting out his lip in a pretend pout. He twitched the whip against her side. "I think I'll let you watch and listen to Dunlaith's screams while I work. T'would be interesting, hmm? To hear your lover beg for her life... and beg for death, eventually."
Aislinn panted; that tiny crack was growing wider, splintering apart as raw rage bubbled up. The thought of Dunlaith being tortured by this monster was threatening to shred her sanity.
The Earl didn't notice. He kept flipping the whip idly as he continued, "Perhaps I should bind you two together face to face. That way, you'll get the full benefit of watching your lover die. Two little whores... just wait until I'm finished with the whip." He looked down at her and leered, rubbing his crotch with his free hand. "Then you'll get a real treat."
Aislinn shook, but not with fear; a white-hot fury engulfed her entirely. She leaped up with a shout and shoved the astonished Earl away. "You'll not touch her!" Aislinn screamed.
The Earl seemed to shrink a little but he rallied. "Don't you dare strike me!" he said angrily. "Get back down on your belly, bitch!"
"Never!" Aislinn shrieked, rushing at him. Her fists rained blows upon the giant; with each strike, he grew smaller and smaller. "Never!" she screamed. "Never again!"
The Earl howled in wrath and flapped his hands at her. "Get away from me, you little whore!" He blustered and swore but his emerald eyes were filled with fear.
"Never! Never! Never!" Aislinn cried. Tears streamed down her face but her teeth were clenched in a grimace of rage. "I hate you, Father! I hate you! I loved you but you hurt me. Why couldn't you love me back, Father? Why? Why?!!"
Under the barrage of punishing blows, the man had shrunk in size until he was nothing more than a tiny mannikin that piped and whistled. The giant who had punished Aislinn so cruelly was revealed for what he truly was - a small-souled bully of a man whose pleasure in other's pain was the only way to make himself feel big.
Aislinn stopped raging, although she still trembled. Taking a deep breath, she swiped a hand across her cheeks and stood with her foot poised over the little image of her Father. "I loved you once," she said mournfully. "Why couldn't you have just loved me instead of hurting me?"
The little figure sank to its knees, hands upraised in a beseeching gesture. A flash of insight came to the young woman - her Father was a coward at heart, concealing his fear behind a mask of cruelty. Like all bullies, if confronted with an opponent stronger than himself, he cowered and groveled. He'd used her terribly, but only because she'd been a child, weaker and unable to defend against his punishments.
This realization was the final, fatal blow against her childhood terror. All her fears evaporated in that instant.
Aislinn stared down at the mannikin; she could crush him like a bug and it would be no more or less than he deserved. Her foot hovered for several heartbeats... and then drew away.
"You've ruled me long enough," Aislinn said hoarsely. "I stopped loving you a long time ago, but I won't let hatred sour me as it did you. You cannot - will not - harm me anymore. Never again, Father. Never again."
The mannikin screamed in unendurable agony as the fragile threads that bound it to Aislinn were irrevocably severed by the young woman's resolution.
He could never hurt her again.
She turned away...
And the dream was ended. Aislinn catapulted back into the garden, snapping into herself and the present with astonishing speed.
She and the other women were in a circle, the taibhse in the center. Twelve points of golden candlelight seemed to enlarge and weave together into a brilliant net as they chanted the prayer of Perpetual Light.
"Domine, da mihi, rogo te, in nomine Iesu Christi Fili tui, Dei mei, illam quae nescit cadere caritatem, ut mea lucerna accendi sciat, exstingui nesciat; mihi ardeat, aliis luceat..."
O Lord, in the name of Jesus Christ, Thy Son and my God, I ask Thee to give me that love that never fails so that my lantern may always be lighted, never failing, burning within me and giving light to others...
In desperation, the wolf began to huff, attempting to blow out the candles. Sister Laigen's was the first to be extinguished; although she flinched, she remained steady and kept chanting.
One by one, the taibhse managed to extinguish all of the candles - except one. Encouraged by his success and eyes shining with confidence, the wolf turned to confront the last obstacle between itself and freedom. The women closed ranks and continued to chant the Latin prayer.
Aislinn stood there, the candle held in front of her like a shining sword. The golden, twisting flame exploded upward as she sang, becoming a pillar of shimmering fire. Her eyes held no triumph; instead, she looked almost sad... but did not waver. She was a bulwark of strength, a righteous instrument filled with the glorious might of God.
Chanting, "Et aquae multae non potuerunt extinguere caritatem," Aislinn swept the fiery sword down, straight across the taibhse's back.
Many waters have not been able to extinguish love...
The wolf's platinum hair was set ablaze; as the fire burned, consuming it entirely, it howled and struggled but could not break free. The other women calmly re-lit their candles from the conflagration in Aislinn's hands and continued the ritual; it was as though they were moving through the formula of an antique dance, each motion fraught with meaning and controlled with grace. Even Dunlaith felt caught up in the moment; she felt as if she were a puppet being guided gently by a higher power. As her gaze was drawn skywards, she could have sworn she saw a blue-white glow that was suggestive of vast wings, sweeping across the horizon and brushing the sea.
The wolf tottered in Aislinn's direction, snarling. His head emerged from the fireball and he snapped at her, missing by inches. The young woman did not notice... but another did. With a shout, Dunlaith flipped her sword into the air and caught it by the blade. Interposing her own body between Aislinn and the taibhse, Dunlaith flourished the makeshift crucifix and said loudly, "Fillean meal ar an meallaire!"
Evil returns to the evil doer...
The wolf screamed in anguish, flinching away as the warrior's sword burst into flames.
Dunlaith's pale eyes widened; flames licked around her hand but she could feel no heat. She continued to drive the beast back step by step until it shuddered and shrieked in the center of the circle once more. Shafts of light sparkled down and the warrior stepped adroitly aside. As the light thinned into strands and wove together into a net that settled over and around the blazing monster, the flames on Dunlaith's sword died as abruptly as they had appeared. She returned to her place among the women and her strong, beautiful voice added to the melody as they sang.
Other voices seemed to join the chorus in delicate harmony. An invisible orchestra played, though that otherworldly music had been rarely heard upon this earth. A sweet scent wafted down, enveloping the women in a celestial incense that stiffened their spines with martial resolve - the odor of sanctity perfumed the night breeze.
The taibhse's outline was a mere silhouette in the midst of flames and was crumbling rapidly. He scrabbled weakly at the ground and for a second, his emerald green eyes met Aislinn's. The young woman did not falter at the expression of unrepentant hate and agony in those luminescent orbs; instead, she firmed her resolve to adamantine and said, "Rest in peace, Father."
The wolf screamed, knowing his hold on Aislinn had been dissolved forever.
The women's song gained power and strength until the earth trembled beneath their feet.
"Gloria Patri, et Filio, et Spiritui Sancto. Sicut erat in principio, et nune, et semper, et in saecula saeculorum. Amen!"
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit. As it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever. Amen!
That final word echoed and re-echoed, reverberating higher and higher as it spiraled into the night. With one last, choking cry, the taibhse's flaming form shivered and collapsed. The fire whirled upward, golden flickering flames separating into ruby slivers that glowed like embers, sparkling and dancing as they were carried upon the wind. The shimmering net of light faded bit by bit until there was nothing left save the memory of brilliance in the women's eyes.
Then all was silent and still again. The women blinked, looking around at one another. The brilliant conflagration shrank until it was but a small, glowing flame that stuttered on the wick of Aislinn's candle. Darkness descended once more but it was a peaceful, comforting blackness that held no fears or tribulations. The world turned as it should and Hell was the richer by one more wicked soul.
All eyes stared at the little pile of smoking ashes and bone that was heaped in the center of their circle. Thrusting her candle at Sister Fiona, the Abbess knelt down and carefully brushed the remains of Connal, Earl of Ciardha and Faoil of the Forth, into a small brass-bound box.
As Bebhinn scooped up the Earl's ashes, Aislinn said softly, "I will pray and light candles for the salvation of your soul, Father."
Dunlaith stepped to her side and put an arm around her waist. "Are you well, ionuin?" she asked.
"Aye," Aislinn replied wearily. She allowed the taper she held to drop to the ground. It rolled on the grass and came to rest against Bebhinn's foot. "It's over." She laid her head against Dunlaith's breast. "Take me home, my laoch, my love."
Dunlaith led her away but they only took a few steps together before fatigue overcame Aislinn, turning her muscles to water.
The warrior scooped Aislinn up into her strong arms. "Is it truly finished?" she asked, her pale eyes searching the young woman's face.
There were layers of meaning in that question and Aislinn was too tired to explain fully. Instead, she nodded. "He is at peace... and so am I."
Arms tightening around her beloved, heart near to bursting with the fullness of love, Dunlaith strode away...
Everyone was too consumed with emotion to notice the glitter of relieved tears in the warrior's eyes.
"Where will you go?," Bebhinn asked quietly.
Aislinn watched Dunlaith negotiating with the boat captain. "I know not," she replied. "Perhaps to Lord O'Ciaran's castle; she has a place there, after all."
"The taibhse is laid to rest," Bebhinn said. "I have placed the box in a niche in the altar; perhaps our prayers and hymns will comfort your father's soul."
"He can harm no one any longer, least of all me," Aislinn said. "I'm free of him and his evil. When we reach Eire, I will pay to have Masses said in his name. T'is the least I can do in Christian charity."
"Speaking of charity..." The Abbess sighed, thrusting her hands into the wide sleeves of her robe. "The Church does not approve of your union with Dunlaith," she said bluntly.
Aislinn's eyes slid over to Bebhinn's face. "I know," she said. "I do not take that lightly, believe me. T'was here at St. Ailbe's that I found a sense of peace for the first time in my life. I was content with my lot... until Dunlaith came and my world was changed."
"Torn apart?" Bebhinn suggested.
"Nay, rebuilt in a new image," Aislinn answered with a defiant tilt to her chin. "I am changed, Mother. I am no longer what I was. And I love Dunlaith with all my heart. If the Church deems such as sin and says I am damned for it, then I will gladly risk Hell. I would rather dwell in Dunlaith's arms for a single moment than enjoy the pleasures of Heaven for eternity."
"Strong words from one so young." The Abbess' sharp brown eyes gazed at Aislinn compassionately; she was not a judgmental woman and was inclined to let God do His job while she was occupied with her own responsibilities. "Well... I've spoken my piece, inion. I wish you and the laoch well. The Church may not give you her blessing but I'm a sentimental old woman."
She reached out her arms and drew Aislinn into an embrace. "Be well, child," Bebhinn said, a hand caressing the young woman's red-gold hair. "I hope you find happiness."
Aislinn answered, "I already have."
Dunlaith was waving; Aislinn tore herself out of the Abbess' arms and pressed something into her hand. Bestowing an impulsive kiss on the nun's cheek, she ran lightly down to the beach and joined her lover.
Bebhinn watched them settle down into the boat together. The oarsmen pulled away from the shore, bending their strong backs against the current. Sunlight shone on two heads closely together; one dark as the feathers on a raven's breast, the other bright as newly kindled flames.
The Abbess opened her hand and stared down at the object in her palm.
It was clay, molded into the shape of a wolf. But this wolf, far from the menacing creatures that Aislinn had crafted before, bore a crooked smile on his muzzle and a chapel of ribboned flowers on his head. A child sat upon his back, laughing with glee, a chubby fist entangled in the wolf's rough coat.
Bebhinn felt a stinging in her eyes that might have been tears.
She lifted a hand in a gesture of farewell as Aislinn and Dunlaith sailed away from Niamh...
And towards their joined destiny across the sparkling
green waters, to a land that beckoned with hope, love and happiness forever,
and ever, and aye.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: While there is no such ritual of exorcism in the the Catholic Church, I have borrowed this technique of ''laying'' evil spirits from Irish folklore. I have also borrowed Latin prayers and used them where I deemed appropriate, rather than in their proper context.