READ EXCERPT - The Healer
Brides of Alba Book One
by: Linda Windsor
David C. Cook Publishing Company
June 1, 2010
Glenarden, Manau Gododdin, Britain
Although cold enough to frost one's breath, the day was as fair as the general mood of the gathering at the keep of Glenarden. The only clouds were those breaking away, fat with snow from the shrouded mountains-and the ever-present one upon the face of the bent old man who stood on the rampart of the gate tower. No longer able to ride much distance, Tarlach O'Byrne watched the procession form beyond.
Clansmen and kin, farmer and craftsman-all turned out for the annual hunt, but they were more excited over the festivities that awaited their return. In the yard about the keep, gleemen in outlandish costumes practiced entertaining antics, delighting the children and teasing the kitchen servant or warrior who happened to pass too near. Great pits had been fired. On the spits over them were enough succulent shanks of venison, boar, and beef to feed the multitude of O'Byrnes and the guests from tribes in the kingdom under the old king's protection.
Below the ramparts, Ronan O'Byrne adjusted the woolen folds of his brat over his shoulders. Woven by the women with the silver, black, and scarlet threads of the clan, it would keep the prince warm on this brisk day. A fine dappled gray snorted in eagerness as Ronan took his reins in hand and started toward the gate. Beyond, the people he would govern upon his father's death waited.
The youngest of the O'Byrne brothers rode through them, unable to contain his excitement any longer. "By father's aching bones, Ronan, what matters of great import keep you now?"
Were the pest any other but his youngest brother, Ronan might have scowled, deepening the scar that marked the indent of his cheek-the physical reminder of this travesty that began years ago. Alyn was the pride and joy of Glenarden, and Ronan was no exception to those who admired and loved the precocious youth.
"Only a raid on the mill by our neighbors," Ronan answered his youngest sibling.
His somber gaze belayed the lightness in his voice. The thieves had made off with Glenarden's reserve grain stores and the miller's quern. Ronan had already sent a replacement hand mill to the mistress. But now that the harvest was over, and the excess had been sold, replacing the reserves would be harder. It galled Ronan to buy back his own produce at a higher price than he'd received from merchants in Carmelide. This was the hard lot he faced-this farce, or hunting down the scoundrels and taking back what was rightfully his.
Every year on the anniversary of the Gowrys slaughter, Tarlach insisted that the O'Byrne clan search the hills high and low for Llas and Joanna's heir. But instead of going off on a madman's goose chase after his imagined enemy-a mountain nymph who was rumored to shape-shift into a wolf at will-the O'Byrnes' manpower spent their time ransacking and burning one of the Gowrys mountain settlements in retribution, for they were undoubtedly the culprits. It was the only reasoning the Gowrys thieves understood-burn their ramshackle hovels and take some of their meager stock in payment.
Even so, taking such actions only stalled their mischief for a little while. Then it was the same thing all over again. As it was, Ronan had sent trackers out to mark their escape route, lest the wrong camp be destroyed.
"Can I ride after them on the morrow with you?" Alyn's deep blue eyes, inherited from their Pictish mother, were alight with the idea of fighting and possible bloodshed. It was only because he'd never tasted it firsthand. "After the Witch's End?"
Disgust pulling at his mouth, Ronan mounted the broad and sturdy steed he'd acquired at last spring's fair. Witch's End. That's what Tarlach O'Byrne had dubbed the celebration of the massacre that had made him an invalid and driven him to the brink of insanity. In the old chief's demented thought, he'd brought justice to those who had betrayed him and stopped an enchantress forever.
Sometimes, as on this particular day, it pushed him beyond reason, for it was a reminder that there was one thing left undone. The heiress of Gowrys still lived to threaten Glenarden…at least in his mind.
"The mill raid is no different from any other raid and will be handled as such," Ronan answered.
"So I can go?"
"Nay, return to your studies at the university." The hunt for a nonexistent witch was one thing, but Gowrys were skilled fighters. "'Twould suit a Gowrys naught better than to send a son of Tarlach earthways with an arrow through your sixteen-year-old heart."
"So you and Caden will go after the brigands."
Alyn's dejection rivaled that of Tarlach's, except the youth's would be gone with the next change of the wind. The older O'Byrne's would not leave until his last breath faded in the air.
Ronan opened his mouth to assuage the lad when a downpour of water, icy as a northern fjord, struck him, soaking him through.
"Herth's fire!" Startled, his gray gelding danced sideways, knocking into the door of the open gate. "Ho, Ballach," Ronan soothed the beast. "Easy laddie."
"Take that, you bandy-legged fodere!" a shrill voice sounded from above.
"Crom's breath, Kella, look what you've done," Alyn blustered, struggling to control his own spooked steed. "Called my brother a bandy-legged deceiver and soaked him through."
Wiping his hair away from his brow, Ronan spotted the cherub-faced perpetrator of the mischief peering over the battlement, eyes spitting fire. Lacking the ripeness of womanhood, Kella's overall appearance was unremarkable, but she surely lived up to her name with that indomitable warrior spirit, bundled in the innocence of youth. It was an innocence Ronan had never known. The daughter of Glenarden's champion, Kella O'Toole, was like a breath of fresh air. For that Ronan could forgive her more impetuous moments.
"And for what, Milady Kella, do I deserve the title of a bandy-legged deceiver, much less this chilling shower?"
Kella gaped in dismay, speechless, as she took in Ronan's drenched state. But not for long. "Faith, 'twasn'tmeant for you, sir, but for Alyn! 'Tis the likes of him that finds the company of a scullery maid more delicious than mine."
Ronan cast an amused glance at his youngest brother, who had now turned as scarlet as the banners fluttering overhead.
"Ho, lad, what foolrede have ye been about?" Caden O'Byrne shouted from the midst of the mounted assembly in wait beyond the gate. Fair as the sun with a fiery temperament to match, the second of Tarlach's sons gave the indignant maid on the rampart a devilish wink.
"'Tis no one's business but my own," Alyn protested. "And certainly not that of a demented child."
"Child, is it?"
Ronan swerved his horse out of range as Kella slung the empty bucket at Alyn. Her aim was hindered by the other girls close at her elbows, and the missile struck the ground an arm's length away from its intended target.
"I'll have you know I'm a full thirteen years."
"Then appeal to me a few years hence when, and if, your God-given sense returns," the youngest O'Byrne replied.
Ronan moved to the cover of the gatehouse and removed his drenched brat. Fortunately, the cloak had caught and shed the main of the attack. Already one of the servants approached with the plain blue one he wore about his business on the estate. Irritating as the mishap was, his lips quirked with humor as his aide helped him don the dry brat. It wasn't as princely as the O'Byrne colors but more suited to Ronan's personal taste.
It was no secret that Egan O'Toole's daughter was smitten with Alyn. With brown hair spun with threads of gold and snapping eyes almost the same incredible shade, she would indeed blossom into a beauty someday. Meanwhile, the champion of Glenarden would do well to pray for maturity to temper Kella's bellicose manner, so that his daughter might win, rather than frighten, suitors.
Then there was Alyn, who hadn't sense enough to see a prize in the making. Ronan shook his head. His brother was too involved in living the existence of the carefree youth Ronan had been robbed of the night of the Gowrys bloodfest.
"So, are you now high and dry, Brother?" Caden O'Byrne called to Ronan with impatience.
Ronan's eyes narrowed. Always coveting what wasn't his, Caden would like nothing better than to lead the hunt without Ronan. Would God that Ronan could hand over Glenarden and all its responsibilities. But Caden was too rash, a man driven more by passion than thought.
"Have a heart, beloved," a golden-haired beauty called down to him from the flock of twittering ladies on the rampart. Caden's new bride spared Ronan a glance. "Ronan's had much travail this morning already with the news of the Gowrys raid."
"Had he as fair and gentle a wife as I, I daresay his humor would be much improved." Ever the king of hearts, Caden signaled his horse to bow in Lady Rhianon's direction and blew his wife a kiss.
"No doubt it would, Brother," Ronan replied.
There was little merit in pointing out that the ambitious Lady Rhianon had first set her sights on him. No loss to Ronan, she seemed to make his more frivolous brother a happy man. The couple enjoyed the same revelry in dance and entertainment, not to mention the bower. Too often, its four walls failed to contain the merriment of their love play. Nor did either seem to care that they were the talk of the keep. If anything, they gloried in the gossip and fed it all the more.
Battling down an annoying twinge of envy, Ronan made certain his cloak was fast, then swung up into the saddle again. Alyn's problems were easier to consider, not to mention more amusing. "Is your wench disarmed, Alyn?" Ronan shouted in jest as he left the cover of the gate once again.
Beyond Lady Kella's tempestuous reach for the moment, Alyn gave him a grudging nod.
Ronan brought his horse alongside his siblings, facing the gatehouse of the outer walls, where Tarlach O'Byrne would address the gathering. Like Alyn's, Caden's countenance was one of eagerness and excitement. How Ronan envied them both for their childhood. He longed to get away from the bitterness that festered within the walls of Glenarden. His had been an apprenticeship to a haunted madness.
Tarlach straightened as much as his gnarled and creaking joints would allow. "Remember the prophecy, shons of mine," he charged them. He raised his withered left arm as high as it would go. It had never regained its former power since the night he'd tried to attack Lady Joanna of Gowrys. Nor had his speech recovered. He slurred his words from time to time, more so in fatigue.
"The Gowrys sheed shall divide your mighty house…shall divide your mighty housh and bring a peace beyond itch ken."
Ronan knew the words by heart. They were as indelibly etched in his memory as the bloody travesty he'd witnessed through a six-year-old's eyes. The quote was close, but whether Tarlach's failing mind or his guilt was accountable for leaving out "peace beyond the ken of your wicked soul," only God knew. If He cared…or even existed.
"Search every hill, every glen, every tree and shrub. Find the she-wolf and bring back her skin to hang as a trophy in the hall, and her heart to be devoured by the dogs. Take no n day repast. The future of Glenarden depends on the Gowrys whelp's death."
At the rousing cry of "O'Byrne!" rising from his fellow huntsmen and kin, Ronan turned the dapple gray with the group and cantered to his rightful place at the front as prince and heir. He didn't believe the girl child had survived these last twenty years, much less that she'd turned into a she-wolf because of her mother's sins. Nor did he wallow in hatred like his father.
A shudder ran through him, colder than the water that had drenched him earlier. Ronan looked to the west again, where thick clouds drifted away from the uplands. May he never become so obsessed with a female that his body and soul should waste away from within due to the gnawing of bitterness and fear. Superstitious fear.
On both sides of the winding, rutted road ahead lay rolling fields. Winter's breath was turning the last vestiges of harvest color to browns and grays. Low, round huts of wattle and daub, limed white and domed with honey-dark thatching, were scattered here and there. Gray smoke circled toward the sky from their peaks. Fat milk cows and chickens made themselves at home, searching for food. Beyond lay the river, teeming with fish enough for all.
Glenarden's prosperity was enough to satisfy Ronan. Nothing less would do for his clan. The tuath was already his in every manner save the last breath of Tarlach O'Byrne…though Ronan was in no hurry for that. Despite his troublesome tempers, Tarlach had been as good a father as he knew how, breaking the fosterage custom to rear his firstborn son under his own eye. A hard teacher, he'd been, yet fair-equal with praise as with criticism.
"You are the arm I lost, lad," Tarlach told him again and again, especially when the drink had its way with him. "The hope and strength of Glenarden."
* * *
Ronan humored the old man as much as followed his orders. At midday, instead of stopping as usual for the nun repast, he paused for neither rest, nor food for his men. They ate on the move- the fresh bread and cheese in the sacks provided by the keep's kitchen. The higher into the hills they went, the sharper the wind whipped through the narrow pass leading to upper lakelands. Ronan was thankful that the former stronghold of the Gowrys wasn't much farther.
"Faith, 'tis colder than witches' milk," Caden swore from the ranks behind Ronan.
"Witches' milk?" the naïve Alyn protested. "What would you know of such things?"
"A good deal more than a pup not yet dry behind the ears. 'Tis a fine drink on a hot summer day."
"Or for the fever," Egan O'Toole chimed in.
His poorly disguised snicker raised suspicion in the youth. "They play me false, don't they, Ronan?"
"Aye, ask our elder brother, lad," Caden remarked in a dry voice. "He has no sense of humor."
Somber, Ronan turned in his saddle. "I have one, Brother, but my duties do not afford me much use of it. As for your question, lad," he said to their younger brother, who rode next to Caden, "there's no such thing as witches, so there can be no witches' milk."
"What about the Lady Joanna?" Alyn asked. "She was a witch."
"Think, lad," Ronan replied. "If she'd truly possessed magic, would she or her kin have died? It was love and jealousy that addled Father."
"But love is magic, little brother," Caden put in. "Make no mistake."
"'Tis also loud enough to set tongues wagging all over the keep," Alyn piped up. He grinned at the round of raucous laughter that rippled around them at Caden's expense.
But Caden showed no shame. "That's the rejoicing, lad." He turned to the others. "Methinks our Lady Kella has little to fret over as yet." With a loud laugh, he clapped their red-faced little brother on the back.
Rather than allow the banter to prick or lift an already sore humor, Ronan focused on the first few flakes of snow already whirling in and about the pass ahead of them and the nightmare that already had begun. Twenty years before, this very pass had been just as cold and inhospitable. With possible flurries blowing up, Ronan had no inclination to prolong the outing.
The crannog, or stockaded peninsula, was now little more than a pile of rubble rising out of the lake water's edge. Cradled by overgrown fields and thick forest on three quarters of its periphery, the lake itself was as gray as the winter sky. On the fourth was the jut of land upon which Llas of Gowrys had restored an ancient broch, bracing it against the rise of the steep crag at its back. With no regard for what had been, yellow spots of gorse had taken root here and there in the tumble of blackened stone.
Ronan could still smell the blaze, hear the shrieks of the dying. Ignoring the curdling in the pit of his stomach, a remnant of the fear and horror a six-year-old dared not show, Ronan dispersed the group. "Egan, you and Alyn take your men and search north of the lake. Caden, take the others and search the south. When I sound the horn, everyone should make haste back here. The sooner we return to warm hearths and full noggins of ale, the better."
"I want to go with you," Alyn declared, sidling his brown pony next to Ronan's gray.
"I intend to stay here in the cover of yon ledge and build a fire," Ronan informed him, "but you are welcome to join me."
"I think not."
Alyn's expression of disdain almost made Ronan laugh.
"What if a raiding party of Gowrys happens upon you?" Caden spoke up. A rare concern knit his bushy golden brows.
"Then I shall invite them to the fire for a draught of witch's milk."
Caden laughed out loud. His square-jawed face, bristling with the golden shadow of his great mane of hair, was handsome by even a man's standard. "I misjudged you, Brother. I stand corrected on the account of humor but would still hold that you act too old for your twenty-six years."
"The Gowrys aren't given to visiting the place where they were so soundly trounced…and I'm no more than a horn's blow from help, should my sword not suffice."
Ronan had no taste for this nonsense. What he craved most at the moment was the peace that followed after the others rode off, whooping and beating their shields lest the spirits of the slain accost them. The hush of the falling snow and the still testimony of the ruins were at least a welcome change from the ribald and oft querulous babble of the hall. Time alone, without demand, was to be savored, even in this ungodly cold and desolate place. All he had to do was keep the memories at bay.
A movement from just above a hawthorn thicket near the base of the cliff caught Ronan's eye, raising the hackles on the back of his neck. With feigned nonchalance, he brushed away the snow accumulating on his leather-clad thigh and scanned the gray slope of rock as it donned the thickening winter white veil. Nothing.
At least, he'd thought he'd seen something. A flash of white, with a tail-mayhaps a large dog. Beneath him, the gelding shivered. With a whinny, it sidestepped, tossing its black mane as if to confirm that it sensed danger as well. A wolf?
Drawing his sword in one hand, Ronan brought the horse under control with a steadying tone. "Easy, Ballach, easy."
The speckled horse quieted, its muscles as tense as Ronan's clenched jaw. The scene before him was still, like that of a tapestry. At his gentle nudge, the horse started around shore toward the high stone cliff. Dog, wolf, or man, Ronan was certain the steel of his blade was all the protection he'd need.