READ EXCERPT - Rebel
REBEL by Linda Windsor
Brides of Alba Book Three
by: Linda Windsor
David C. Cook Publishing Company
June 1, 2012
Late sixth century AD
Merlin was dead. The nightmare had begun for the Cymri—every Briton, Welshman, Scot, and Pict—be they Christian or still clinging to the old ways.
Kella O’Toole bent over her desk in the queen’s scriptorium, well aware that her countrymen’s freedom to worship a god of choice in his or her manner was at stake, not to mention that the threat of civil war loomed. This small room adjoining Gwenhyfar’s personal quarters was the only place the official palace scribes and priests would not know what Kella was about.
Her heart beat with each scratch of her quill as she hurried to finish the last page of the copy of one of the most precious books in all Albion. She’d hoped to work with the original Hebrew scripts, those recorded by the hand of Joseph of Arimathea or one of Christ’s apostolic family, to practice her translation of the language. But Merlin Emrys and Queen Gwenhyfar had hidden them away.
Kella’s pen smoothly glided over the artificially aged vellum: Arthur, Prince of Dalraida. Only untold hours of practice as the queen’s scribe and translator kept her hand from shaking. This copy had to be flawless. Kella had been working on it for the last year under Merlin Emrys’s orders. She’d known he’d been ill, yet the news of his death that morning had still come as a shock. It didn’t seem real that the man of so many faces—abbot, adviser to the king, teacher, astrologer, and man of science—had gone to the Other Side.
Only a week ago, he’d retired to his cave with none but his devoted Abbess Ninian to take his final confession and give him his last rites. Now that Merlin Emrys’s last breath had expired, Ninian prepared his body to be sealed in the farthest reach of his cave for a year. Once the flesh fell away, leaving clean bones, the Grail priestess would return to transport them to Bardsley Island to rest in one of its holy caves with the bones of Albion’s greatest holy men and kings. Gwenhyfar would transport Arthur’s similarly one day.
A wave of nausea swept through Kella’s stomach. Her pen froze. Please, Lord, no. Not now. She put the quill down and relied more on a sip of now-cold tea laced with mint and elderberry than prayer for relief. God was so distant, she often wondered if He was real. Not that she’d ever mention her doubts aloud. She took another drink of the tea and flexed her stiff fingers.
In the opposite wall a peat fire in the hearth offset the damp chill of early Leaf Bud in the chamber. This was no time for illness, nor anything else to distract her from her duties. The heritage of Albion’s faith rested on her being able to finish this before Archbishop Cassian took total control of the church and its documents. The Davidic lineage passed on through the Milesian Irish royal families was well documented and kept in Erin, but Kella’s project protected the foundation of the British church laid by Jesus’s family and followers. Tradition had it that they’d come to Britain in the first century after the Sadducees set them adrift on an unforgiving sea, in a boat with no supplies, oars, or sails. Yet God waived the death sentence so that Joseph of Arimathea, his niece Mary—the mother of Jesus—and their company made it to the safety of Iberia, Gaul, and on to the Northern Isles, from there to spread the gospel throughout the Western world.
And here Kella was, a humble warrior’s daughter with no such holy or royal connection—at least not within the relevant last nine generations of her family—taking part in such a vital task. Kella would write for the queen until her fingers fell off.
Father, help me, Kella prayed, taking another swallow. Even if I am unworthy, fallen in Your eyes, I’m trying to help Your cause.
Nothing. Kella felt no relief from the threat of her stomach—only more frightened and alone than ever. Maybe she was the only one God didn’t listen to.
Father, I know I have sinned and am unworthy, but I beg You, help me.
Kella started from her introspection as Queen Gwenhyfar, garbed in hunter green robes with embroidered trim, entered the rooms. A band of beautifully worked gold crowned her long, braided raven hair. Her sleek, dark beauty was a contrast to Kella’s untamable honey-kissed curls, pale complexion, and robust build. While it pleased Kella to hear her father say how like her fair-haired mother she’d become since she’d matured to womanhood, how she longed to be one of those light, willowy girls, instead of slight but well-rounded.
“I’m nearly done, milady. Only Arthur’s late sons to add.” She paused. “And King Modred.”
Wryness twisted the skillfully painted heart-line of Gwenhyfar’s lips. “Leave room for Urien of Rheged.” At the surprised arch of Kella’s brow, the queen added, “Cassian may yet have his way.”
“Aye, milady.” The Roman archbishop just might, but Kella didn’t have to like it. The stern, richly robed priest had joined Arthur in Rome on the High King’s return from a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Nothing had been the same since. Cassian’s presence dampened the gaiety of the court, as if it were a sin to enjoy life. As for Arthur—
“Rome has found a new way to conquer,” Gwenhyfar told Kella. “Christ didn’t come to dictate, but Cassian has.”
Rumor was that he’d even convinced the High King to renounce his nephew Modred as his successor in favor of Urien of Rheged. Considering that Arthur’s queen and the territory he fought most to protect were Pictish, choosing a Briton would not be a wise move.
“Be sure Modred’s name is written in first,” Gwenhyfar warned her.
“We want Cassian, should he get his hands on this, to believe he has the original. ’Twould be as good as he would want to destroy any record of the British church having been established with equal authority to Rome’s.”
“Why is the king so blind to this man’s purpose?” Kella asked.
Nausea rolled over her again. She fought the urge to put her hand on her stomach, instead embracing the tea with both hands.
“Arthur has not been himself since returning from the Holy Land,” the queen lamented. “He’d hoped to reconcile his grief over losing his sons. But his spells of melancholy, outbursts of rage are worse … though he’s always had a fierce temper. A man with his responsibilities must be fierce or die.” Gwenhyfar narrowed her gaze at Kella. “Are you not well?” She leaned over and wiped a smudge of ink from Kella’s forehead. A hazard of a scribe’s work.
Kella winced a smile. “Something I ate this morning does not agree with me. A piece of cold meat and bread on my way here.”
“You must take better care of yourself. Take your meal at the board, not on your way to anywhere. No wonder your stomach protests.”
The queen mustn’t suspect. Kella herself didn’t want to suspect the reason for her missed courses. Two, unless she commenced this week.
“I will tomorrow,” she said. “Porridge, honey, and fresh cream.”
The very thought of her favorite breakfast made Kella shudder inwardly. She breathed in relief as the queen walked over to the pages Kella had finished. They were all neatly rolled and stored in a wooden rack designed for that purpose, exactly where the originals had been. Gwenhyfar pulled one out, examining the yellowed vellum.
“Emrys’ genius will be sorely missed. I can’t tell these from the originals.”
“It bewilders this feeble mind how he made them look so old without destroying them,” Kella marveled. She’d once been to the merlin’s cave, which was hardly the average hole in the side of a hill. It had many chambers, and each one was a wonder.
One room was the shop of an alchemist, another an office lined with books and scrolls. Another’s roof was a funnel that opened to the sky, with a great glass disc said to bring the stars and planets down to earth for Merlin’s examination. Now, his body lay in a far, innermost chamber, his spirit already departed to be with his Savior.
“Never say your mind is feeble, Kella,” the queen chided, drawing Kella back to the window alcove where her desk was situated to make the most of the sunlight. “Few men can boast the mastery of five languages and a fair hand to match. My cousin Aeda would be most proud of you.”
At the mention of the foster mother who’d raised Kella after her own mother died in childbirth, Kella smiled weakly. “Aye, I hope she would.”
Her foster brothers, Ronan, Caden, and Alyn, used to mercilessly tease Kella at Glenarden, where her father, Egan O’Toole, was champion. They’d called her “Babel-Lips,” because she talked endlessly and could pick up on any language or accent she overheard. During Kella’s schooling in Ireland, where her maternal aunt was an abbess, both her aunt and the queen had agreed that the ease with which Kella learned new languages was as much the result of a gift as it was of study.
“You carry a Pentecostal fire in that brain of yours,” Aunt Beda would tell her when no one else was about to witness the abbess’s pride and affection for Kella.
But if that was so, why couldn’t Kella feel God’s presence, especially now when she needed it so much? She shuddered to think of what Mam Aeda or Aunt Beda would think of her now. Her aunt had warned her time and again that a moment’s folly could ruin a maiden’s life forever. God would forgive the maid, but she and the child conceived would have to face the consequences.
“And I would have been lost without you,” the queen continued, caught up in the church’s concern, “especially since Cassian returned from Rome with Arthur.”
The new archbishop had eyes everywhere—on the queen and Merlin Emrys in particular. He considered the Grail Church even more suspect than the Irish Celtic Church, about which he had little good to say. Gwenhyfar had ceased to use the royal scribes for her communication, which led Cassian to scowl at Kella whenever they met by chance in the palace. The only things he held more in contempt than the British church were women in the church or court, except as lowly servants or brood sows.
“What sway has the man over the king that you or Merlin Emrys do not?” Kella pressed.
Emrys had long been Arthur’s adviser, although the last year or so he’d kept to his cave, where he studied the stars and his sciencia.
“Better to ask what the Roman Church offers Arthur that the Celtic Church does not.” Gwenhyfar’s slanted green eyes narrowed. At least they appeared slanted. Everything about the Pictish queen was exotic—from her accent to the perfumes she wore.
“I’ve never really understood the workings of the church,” Kella admitted truthfully. Although she knew enough to be certain she would be condemned for her mistake—for allowing love to lead her down temptation’s sweet path.
“Back when Prince Arthur was but a wet-eared youth with great contempt for our faith, Abbot Columba predicted that the prince would not survive to inherit his father Aedan’s kingdom of Dalraida,” Gwenhyfar explained. “And we all have heard of the accuracy of the abbot of Iona’s prophecies.”
Yes, Kella had heard of the curse. But now in his early forties, Arthur had changed, repented of his indifference to God.
“So now the king hopes to counter the earlier curse of Columba’s church with the blessing of Rome in his later years.” Kella frowned. “You were … are a priestess of the Grail Church, even if it has been removed from Albion.” With the increasing advance of the Saxons, the Angus of Strighlagh’s son—a saintly warrior if ever there was one—had returned the Grail treasures to the Holy Land two years prior. “Is that how God works? Allowing one arm of His church to vex the other?”
Or maybe God had left with the relics. He didn’t seem to be answering Albion’s prayers for victory over the Saxons. The enemy spread like a plague.
“Nay, child. That is how mankind works.” The queen’s green gaze glazed over. With her palm she covered the jeweled silver cross she wore, and she turned to peer out the slit of the window in the alcove. “How we must grieve the Heavenly Father.”
Kella joined the queen, guilt cloying at her chest as she stared at the misty spray of the gray-green sea hurling itself against the rocks below the tower. When she dared not look at the tumult any longer, Kella spun away to take another sip of the tea.
Surely she had grieved God as well. And if she was with child, the consequences remained to be seen. For her, and for her beloved Lorne, who, along with Kella’s father, Egan, protected the borders of Strighlagh against an uprising of Miathi north of the Clyde.
My father! Kella groaned in silence. Egan O’Toole would take off her lover’s head if he suspected. No matter that her handsome Lorne had pledged his troth to her that night as she lay in his arms. He’d sworn his life was meaningless without her.
Oh, Lorne, hurry home to me! For all our sakes.