As the ocean breeze rustled her skirts and caressed her long unbound hair, Alainn O’Brien inhaled the salty sea air. She and her husband, Killian, had been living at his castle, Castle O’Donnel, for over two months now. During this time together they had finally begun to experience wondrous peace and contentment.
She attempted to simply embrace this long awaited happiness… and yet there was an undeniably ominous feeling that steadily grew within her, and threatened to disrupt their newfound joy. She had decided she wouldn’t dwell upon it. Instead, she had chosen to revel in this time of serenity, unwilling to consider what uncertainties or upheaval the future might hold for her and her only love.
As she gazed out upon the beauty of the wild Irish Sea, her heart fluttered, for today she would see her man again. They had been parted for well over two weeks now; he was off at a gathering of the clans and she’d missed him much. In all the years they had known each other, even long before they’d declared their love for one another, they had never been apart for that long.
Since their arrival at Castle O’Donnel, named for Killian’s mother’s clan, Alainn had attempted to calm all her unusual magical abilities; she had pushed each one of them deep, deep down inside her, hopeful she would truly be capable of leading an uncomplicated life… a normal life. Yet she was loath to admit, she suspected she was only temporarily suppressing the feeling that this time of tranquility would not last. She couldn’t say exactly what was bringing about this uneasiness, but something within her caused her to believe the winds of change would soon be upon them. She shook her head to dispel the disparaging thoughts and walked toward the seashore to sit for a time and soak her tired feet within the cool water.
She sat, staring out at the sea, feeling the frothy waves lapping rhythmically upon her feet, and the spray of the churning water against the rocks softly falling upon her face. She watched as a large seal lazily sunned itself on a nearby rock. When he noticed her, he slapped his flippers together jubilantly and barked out an invitation to join him.
“Not today, young friend,” She smiled. “Although you know how I take much delight in swimming with you and your kind, the white crests on the waves this day keep me safely bound to the land,” she said as she lovingly rubbed her belly. He nodded to her as though understanding her every word and he soon resumed his sedentary position upon the rocks.
She observed many brightly colored puffins awkwardly walking upon the shore and playfully diving beneath the water. Several vocal seagulls squawked loudly to one another as they glided gracefully against the wind. A jaunty heron scooped up a fish and dropped it so near to Alainn, she jumped, startled as the water splashed her.
“If you’re thinkin’ to share your meal with me, sure I’m grateful, but I prefer my fish well cooked, Mr. Heron.” The tall gangly bird blinked knowingly at her and gobbled down its catch before setting off once more.
As always, during times when her mind went to dismal subjects, she calmed herself with her great affinity for nature, her deep connection to animals, and most especially loving thoughts of her husband, young and valiant, Killian O’Brien. Now that they were married and shared a bond and an intimacy she’d never even dreamed two people could know, she thought these past weeks were unbearably lonely without him.
She felt the sturdy kick within her, and a warm smile crossed her lips. Their son would be born in just over two moons. She placed her hand to her swollen belly once more and chuckled to herself. Killian would surely see a noticeable change in her for the child now grew at a rapid rate, and her belly had grown considerably also.
After she’d placidly sat for a time, she placed her hand to the small of her back as she stood, and brushed the sand from her skirts. Her waist remained small for she carried the child low and entirely frontward. When she glanced down she laughed again. She thought she looked as though she’d swallowed a wee boulder so round was her belly. And her boy-child would grow inside her for nearly two more months; surely she’d be enormous by then.
The southern sun still held lovely warmth, though the September wind that blew in from the sea brought a promise of cooler days. She pulled the woolen shawl around her shoulders and sighed. As she glanced at the sun’s position, she deducted it was time she made her way back to the castle. She placed her slippers upon her feet and reluctantly turned and left the water behind her. All the years Killian had lived at Castle O’Brien, which boasted a location near the mighty River Shannon, he had spoken of how glorious it was to live near the sea, and now she knew firsthand it was truth. She adored living here.
These past weeks that he’d been away, she’d scarcely missed a day strolling along the seashore. She’d longed to explore the many intriguing caves nearby, but Killian would not be in favor of her walking near the slippery, sea-swept rocky surfaces given her advancing term, for he was fiercely protective of her and their unborn child.
She had nearly lost the child over three moons earlier and it had caused much consternation and fear for both of them. There had been an attempt on her life. She had been struck with a dart that contained a potent poison and, in truth, she had very nearly died. She absent-mindedly caressed the protective amulet that hung from the silver chain around her neck. It had been charmed by her mother, Mara, soon after Alainn was born and more recently by her grandfather, a gifted druid.
Killian had sometimes questioned the power within the amulet after she’d been purposely attacked and poisoned, and why it hadn’t prevented the mishap entirely. As with any strain of magic, there was seldom a concise answer. Perhaps the amulet had partially protected her and had been the very reason she had lived through the ordeal. Even with all the many supernatural powers and intuitive abilities she possessed, she was often left with many unanswered questions and not a few doubts.
Although Alainn was hesitant to admit it, she believed it was because of her unusual magical abilities she had drawn the attention of any number of evil beings and untoward creatures and, regrettably, she probably always would. An unwelcome shiver ran up and down her spine for even a magically charmed amulet would surely not be capable of protecting her against those types of dark enemies and that level of evil.
Once again, she pushed the unpleasant memories and fearful thoughts from her mind and lingered only on their present happiness. She steadied her uneasiness by allowing hers thoughts to drift back to her beloved, Killian.
He had sent a messenger a week earlier, alerting her to his late return and though he was not to be expected home for at least another two days, he would be here by sunset today. Often times her unusual abilities were not welcomed for she had been an apt seer all her life. There had been many instances in her seven and ten years when she would have gladly traded that ability, but not this day. Today she had awoken knowing she would be in her husband’s arms this night and she’d spent the entire day anticipating that with great pleasure. She’d alerted Cookson, their head cook who had come with them from Castle O’Brien, that Killian would be home for the evening meal and she hoped it would give him ample time to prepare a glorious feast. He had assured her it would.
As Alainn pleasantly meandered through the verdant glens that clearly resembled a patchwork quilt of varying shades of green, interrupted only by the numerous formations of winding stone walls, she stopped briefly and leaned against one of the uneven moss-covered stone structures. She listened to the soothing sound of the plentiful waterfalls tumbling down the rock face of the nearby hills.
She hesitantly glanced toward the location of the adjacent raised ground that formed a large perfect circle, a fairy ring. The local folk were most fearful and suspicious of these fairy forts. They were adamant they remain undisturbed and often were hesitant to go anywhere near them.
Alainn could distinctly hear the lovely familiar music and the many soft voices of the fairies and other mystical creatures that dwelled within. They were whispering softly to her, beckoning her to come spend time with them… and a part of her ached to do so. But, as she’d done so many times in the past weeks, she resisted. She was attempting to quiet her own magical abilities entirely, as well as terminate her association with all things supernatural. She turned away from the enchanting call of the fairies, lifted her skirts, and hurried on past the fairy ring, once more ignoring the deep desire to enter the magical realm.
As Alainn continued on homeward, she could see the familiar, distant grey outline of Castle O’Donnel. It was an undeniably grand structure. Castle O’Brien, where she had lived most of her life, had been built by the Normans and was a tall imposing castle, but not nearly as large as Castle O’Donnel, for it was magnificently massive and sprawled widely over a considerable area. There were many adjoining structures that had been erected in different eras by various kings and chieftains. The parapets were enormous and the giant turrets seemed to reach up to the clouds. She had spent many a day searching through the nearly endless chambers, alcoves and corridors within the castle’s walls. It had taken some time, but she believed she had surveyed nearly every inch of the castle she was proud to now call her home.
Alainn passed the grove of apple trees and noticed there were several still heavy with ripened fruit. An apple dessert would be a delicious addition to the banquet, and she would be most pleased to make the dish herself for it was Killian’s favorite. When she’d first arrived, the servants had been disbelieving that a woman of noble station would be compelled to spend time in the kitchen and even lend a hand when it was needed, but she dearly missed being in a kitchen where she had spent much of her life.
Alainn thought it unlikely the servants here knew much of her past history. For although she was the granddaughter of Niall O’Rorke one of Ireland’s most important and influential chieftains, that had only recently been discovered. She had lived most of her life believing she was a farrier’s daughter, a servant of lowly birth. She had been a healer, a respected and revered herbalist, but a servant to Chieftain Hugh O’Brien and his kin. Killian was Hugh’s nephew and she and Killian had fallen in love even though their love was greatly forbidden. They had secretly married much to the fury of Killian’s uncle, but that, too, was long since in the past and as always Alainn tried to keep her disagreeable thoughts of Hugh O’Brien far distanced from her mind. She seldom allowed herself to recall the many unpleasant memories involving the ill-favored man.
She missed his wife, Lady Siobhan, though, and their son Rory O’Brien, her cousin. Lady Siobhan was a daughter to Niall O’Rorke and Rory, his grandson. Rory had been a friend throughout her life and both he and Killian had never treated her as a girl of low station, but as an equal, long before it had proven to be true.
As she filled her frock’s apron with the juicy red apples, she heard a horse approaching and she smiled up at MacKenzie MacCarther. He was a huge burly man, a Scot who had lived in Ireland for over two decades and Captain of the Guard of Killian’s large army. He was also a valued friend to Killian and Alainn. He had once been in the employ of Hugh O’Brien, but had a falling out with the man and now served as his nephew’s captain.
“Lady O’Brien, you should not be reaching so high in your delicate condition, nor carrying such a heavy load, it can no be good for the wee bairn you carry.”
“Mac, I swear if you address me as Lady O’Brien one more time I’ll pitch the entire lot of these apples at you, and I’ve a good arm! You have known me all my life and my title is not a requirement when you speak to me.”
The large Scot smiled down at her from his position atop the huge steed.
“Aye, that may well be, but you are a lady now, Alainn. And your husband wouldna be so verra pleased to see you carrying that load.”
“Sure you’re correct about that. He’s undoubtedly protective of me, and he’s clearly enlisted you in keeping watch over me as much as the castle and his land in his stead.”
“Aye, well the lad loves ye well, lass. And he’d not be liable to loosen his grip on ye, even if you didn’t carry his bairn.”
Alainn beamed at Mac’s statement and, as she placed her hand to her belly, the unborn child issued a hearty blow. She smiled as she saw the apples tumble from their nest in her frock. The bulky man dismounted and grabbed several handfuls of the ripe fruit placing them in his saddle pouch.
“I’d offer you a ride back to the castle on my horse, but I know you’ve not ridden in these past months.”
“Aye, since the dreadful fright we had when we nearly lost the babe, I’ve not been on a horse. And I do so miss it. But, soon enough, when our son is born, I’ll be back upon a horse, and the child soon after, for sure he’ll be as able a horseman as his father one day.”
“Aye, well, his mother’s no slouch in that area either. I have a clear picture of you as a child, ridin’ bareback across the glens with your lovely golden hair flyin’ out behind you. In truth, you were probably too young to be out alone on a grown horse, but you’ve always been a spirited lass and not one to be held back or told what to do.”
“I know I must have seemed most difficult at times, though it was truly not my intention.”
“Och, ’tis not a crime to be spirited, lass, though I can’t say I’d be declaring that so readily if you were my daughter or my wife!” He chuckled. “And would you like me to take these apples to young Cookson, then?”
“No, they can be taken to the kitchen, Mac, but you may tell Cookson I’ll be makin’ a sweet dessert myself for my husband’s dinner.”
“This day?” the captain quizzed doubtfully.
“Aye, this day, Mac!” A bright smile crossed her full rosy lips. “Even as we speak, Killian is on his journey homeward, in only hours he’ll be back here with me!”
The man was one of few who knew of the young woman’s many supernatural abilities for he had witnessed them firsthand, on more than one occasion.
“Aye, well, I’ll tell the tower guards to be on watch for his return. I’ll alert you to his arrival, then.”
“There’s no need, Mac, I’ll know as soon as he’s near. My heart will know.” She smiled as she spoke and she was pleased to hear his thoughts in believing he’d never known a couple so entirely in love as Killian O’Brien and his young bride.
As Alainn continued walking she heard a familiar voice within her mind. She grinned as she listened telepathically to the soldier and druid, Danhoul Calhoun. He was a young man who was claimed many unusual abilities, many likened to her own. He had assisted Killian in protecting her back at Castle O’Brien. Her grandfather had once suggested Danhoul might come live at his castle so that he would be close by should he be needed again. It had been determined that Killian and Danhoul were to be Alainn’s guardians and protectors. However, Danhoul had reasoned she and Killian needed this time alone to begin their new life together. He had since returned to his life as a bonnacht in the Irish army.
On occasion Danhoul’s voice would come to her and she always welcomed his telepathic thoughts for he seemed to understand her perhaps more than anyone else. He evidently was aware she was keeping her magical abilities at bay so it had been some time since he had sent his thoughts to her.
“Are you well, Alainn?” Danhoul asked straightaway.
“Aye, I feel well enough. Sure I tire more easily than I might if I wasn’t carrying a large, strong babe within me, but I am well.”
Something in his tone had made Alainn wary.
“What is it Danhoul? What causes you to be fretful?”
“Nothin’ really… nothin’ I can actually put my finger on, but maybe that’s what troubles me the most!” he admitted.
“Have you had a foreboding premonition, then?” she queried.
“No… well, aye, I have foreseen a small battle involving your husband and his kin.”
“You what… where… when… is Killian well? Has he been harmed?”
She could detect the regretful tone in his words that came to her and he attempted to quell her fears.
“No, truly all is well with your husband! I simply thought I would put your mind at ease lest you had a fearful presentiment of your own regarding the event.” He assured her.
“Perhaps I should not have distanced my abilities as I have. How will I be capable of alerting those dear to me of oncoming peril if I do not allow myself to use my gifts? Yet my magical powers have caused much discord as well. Sure, it is a conundrum for me, Danhoul. It has been an encumbrance to me for so long, for I know not what to do.
Morag, the old healer who raised me, always insisted I keep my powers hidden lest I be persecuted because of them. Yet, Mara, the woman I have discovered is my mother was of opposing beliefs in that regard. Now, my paternal grandfather who is a powerful druid believes I should become much accomplished in the use of my magic. But I want my wee child to know a life of normalcy. Sure, I know not what to do. Might you advise me, Danhoul!
His voice came to her again and she welcomed his thoughts on the perplexing topic.
“Nay, ’tis not a simple decision, and often our abilities are not actually within our control. I believe they were gifted to us for a purpose and that perhaps your grandfather is correct, it would be wise to both develop and harness them. Yet, I do understand with the use of these powers comes great responsibility and often dire consequences, as well.”
She nodded her head to the emptiness beside her as though her were actually there conversing with her. Her eyes narrowed and her brow creased with concern.
“I continue to have the reoccurring vision regarding Killian, and my cousins Rory and Riley’s death; it frightens me to the core each time. I fear for all of them every time they are away, that it may actually come to pass. It is why I have insisted they must never travel together or be together at one location at any time!”
“Aye, and I am aware that Riley doesn’t take kindly to your suggestions!”
“No, he does not welcome my abilities, nor have faith in their accuracy. He never has.”
As the wind grew stronger against her face, Alainn turned her head and lifted her nose to the air. There was something amiss, most certainly an ill omen blowing on the breeze and she shivered to calm the dread she felt.
“Aye, I feel it as well!” He did not try to keep his growing concern from her any longer.
“Do you sense what it is, Danhoul? Is it a restless spirit or a being associated with the dark demon that once pursued me?”
“Sure, I can’t say for certain but, at the moment, I believe it may actually be a person simply intent on causing much havoc. I will see what I can find out by way of my powers and you, Lady O’Brien, must do what you can to ensure you and the wee babe continue to remain well. So wipe those unpleasant thoughts from your mind and put a broad smile on your face for when your husband arrives this night.”
That certainly brought a bright smile to her face when Danhoul confirmed her premonition of Killian’s early arrival.
“You know he’ll be distressed if he senses a hint of melancholia or learns you’re fretting about anything at all, so be happy, elegant and noble Lady O’Brien!”
She turned up her nose at his insistence at referring to her by her title and she laughed out loud.
“Aye, my guardian, wise druid master and brave bonnacht!” She giggled.
“Oh, be off with you, Alainn!” He jested at her sarcasm and she heard his laughter, too, as she turned and headed down the stone path that led to the massive castle.
When she was a safe distance away, Danhoul allowed himself to appear in physical form. He lowered his head, kicked at the ground, and cussed out loud. His abilities were telling him he would be needed here most assuredly, that Alainn and Killian would soon be plagued with many troubling times and harrowing unpleasantness. Something or someone appeared to be blocking him from being able to determine where the vexation was coming from.
End of Excerpt