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© Sophia Nye, 2022

Deep in the heart of the Kingdom of Mumhan, the legendary King Brian Boru has brought an ancient brotherhood back to life: The Fianna. Now entering his senescence, King Brian has all but achieved his dream of becoming High King of all of Éire. He will need the aid of the Kingdom’s best warriors to complete his vision.

When her elder brother leaves to join the ranks of the king’s new elite band of warriors, Ethlinn knows his life will be in danger. If, by some miracle, her poet brother manages to survive the challenges of the Fianna, his future will surely be short and violent. Determined to thwart his ill-conceived plan, Ethlinn sets out after her brother in order to save his life.

When Illadan’s uncle, King Brian, approaches him for help in recruiting warriors to his new Fianna, Illadan jumps at the opportunity. The least he can do is offer aid to the man who has all but raised him.

The last thing Illadan expects when the newest recruit arrives in Cenn Cora is for a troublesome woman to start sabotaging the trials of potential warriors. At first she is a mere nuisance, lurking in the shadows and disappearing into the forest. When she threatens to interfere in the trials themselves, she becomes a menace. With no recourse left to preserve the integrity of the Fianna trials, Illadan sets off to hunt down the mysterious woman before she ruins all his carefully laid plans.

Lord of Stone is a noble/commoner forced proximity romance.

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Chapter One

Ethlinn’s head felt as though she’d been hit by a stone. For that matter, her entire body felt much the same. She tried to open her eyes, only to find they wouldn’t budge.

“I’m going to kill him.” Her brother’s voice, smooth as a river rock and trembling with fury.

“Not if I find him first.” Her father’s voice, rough and loud. Too loud. Ethlinn tried to lift her hands to her ears to stop the ringing that had begun. She hadn’t bent her elbow fully before a sharp pain ran up her forearm, causing her to cry out.

She heard someone walk away, followed by the familiar creaking and clanking of a leather sword-belt being donned. She must be in her family’s cottage.

“No one is killing anyone.” Her mother’s voice, even and sure. “If you go attacking the man who owns our land, he’ll do worse than beat us.”

“We cannot let such a crime go unpunished!” Finn, her brother, shouted from the other side of the room. He must have been the one to grab the sword. “And you know he’ll get out of paying the fine.”

Ethlinn had let this go on long enough. She couldn’t do much at the moment, but she was fairly certain she could speak. She tested her jaw to ensure it wasn’t broken. “I’m alright.”

“You can’t even open your eyes, they’re so swollen!” Finn argued.

“I’ve a compress right here, a stór,” her mother said softly.

Moments later, a cold, wet cloth landed gently on her battered face.

“The swelling will go right down,” her mother reassured them all.

“She’s right,” Ethlinn agreed slowly. “You’ll only get yourselves killed going after him.”

“Aye, but if we kill him first at least we’ll have vengeance,” her father growled. “He cannot beat my daughter without consequences.”

“If you die, who will work the field? What do you think will happen to us? His son is just as cruel—we’ll be in the grave next to yours.” Her mother’s practicality often irritated Ethlinn, but today she was grateful for it. “And, in spite of Finn’s thoughts, it is possible he will pay the fine and justice will be done according to the laws.”

Though Ethlinn and her mother eventually talked her father and brother out of rash action, there was still a good deal more grumbling from both men.

                                                                                                                                                       ***

The next few days saw Ethlinn slipping in and out of sleep as her body healed. The first morn that she attempted to wash her face, she found she could scarce touch it, so tender was her torn flesh.

Finn offered to take her to the little silver stream that trickled through a yew hedge not far from their cottage so that she could wash properly. Normally, she would throw her hands to her hips and remind him that she wasn’t in need of his protection. She had more than enough skill with a bow to defend herself. But after being beaten senseless, Ethlinn wondered if her brother had known more than she all along.

“You’ll feel like yourself again once you’ve had a good soak,” he assured her as they picked their way to the stream.

Lord, she wanted to believe him. Yet even now, days later, she still shook like a leaf when she remembered the moment Ernin’s fist connected with her cheek. Absently, her hand brushed the spot where she was certain he’d cracked a bone.

The playful trickle of the stream pulled her out of her turbulent thoughts. Sitting beneath the twisting green branches, she carefully pulled off her bróga, the small leather shoes she always wore. Her feet were the least injured part of her body, but reaching them meant putting pressure on her aching ribs. The healer said she’d cracked at least two, possibly three, but they would heal and she would live. She reached just a touch too far and sucked in a breath when a sharp lash of pain struck her middle.

Finn was kneeling beside her before she realized she’d made a sound. “Can I help?” He asked, reaching to remove her left bróg without waiting for an answer. Offering her his hand, he led her to the tepid water.

Ethlinn dipped her toes in, sighing in contentment as the ripples lapped at her ankles, soothing her. “Thank you.”

Finn grinned at her. “Water is good for the body and the soul,” he intoned, repeating one of their father’s favorite sayings. “Perhaps he’s onto something.”

“Let’s not get carried away,” Ethlinn giggled. She sat on the bank of the stream to wash her face, but Finn halted her before she could lean over the water.

“You may want to wait,” he suggested.

“Why?” Hadn’t he brought her here to wash up and reclaim some small part of herself?

But her brother stood speechless, unable to explain his concern quick enough.

And before he could get a single word out, Ethlinn leaned over the stream and carefully positioned her face above the water to wash up. She realized instantly why he’d tried to stop her.

She wasn’t herself at all.

A wraithlike creature gazed up at her from the water, as though it weren’t her reflection but that of a corpse. Streaks of purple, blue, red, and every shade between bloomed from gashes on her skin. Somehow her right cheek was still swollen.

“Ethlinn,” Finn tried to intervene, “it will fade. In time, you’ll look just as you did.”

Tears pooled in the corners of her eyes as she looked at the destruction he’d wreaked upon her body. She fought against the rising panic that accompanied every thought of the attack, her chest constricting uncomfortably.

“How long?” The words, barely audible, somehow reached her brother. “How long until it fades?”

Finn blew out a heavy breath. “I’ve taken my fair share of beatings,” he began cautiously, “but, Eth, that man tried to kill you. If the smith hadn’t turned that corner, you might never have come home. It will take some time to heal from that.”

He was right, though she’d never tell him as much. Telling your older brother he had a point, no matter how serious the topic, was as good as digging your own grave. So instead Ethlinn yanked his arm as best she could and pulled him to sit beside her.

Tension rippled through him, just as it had every time Ernin had approached her. The grim look on his face hurt her more than her broken ribs.

“I’m alright, Finn. Really.”

“You’re not,” he grumbled. “But you will be.” His eyes narrowed sharply.

She knew her brother well enough to recognize that look. He was getting riled and thinking about doing something stupid. “Look, we’ll just all stay home,” she suggested, hoping he understood. “We don’t have to go to the crannóg for supplies for a while, and it will give us time to move forward before we have to see Ernin again.”

“I have to go to the crannóg tonight.”

“No!” Didn’t he see that there was nothing to be done? “You can’t, Finn. It won’t help anything.”

He hung his head, gazing attentively at the trickling water running past their bare feet. “Trust me, Eth, I’d love to beat Ernin just as senseless as he did you. But that’s not why I have to go. Tonight is the performance.”

“It’s tonight? Already?”

He grinned at her, though the smile didn’t reach his eyes. “Yes, well, sleeping for days on end can really alter your sense of time.”

Ethlinn splashed him, but they both went quiet, captured by their own thoughts. Her brother had a rare gift, one that he had spent his entire life thus far developing further. He could coax music from a harp as easily and sweetly as flowers bloomed in the spring. Effortless, it seemed to everyone else. But Ethlinn knew it was anything but.

He worked in the fields with their father, did all his chores around the cottage, and then practiced for hours. He’d done so as long as Ethlinn could remember, the only exception when he left for several years to foster with their uncle. Then, he’d spent most of his time practicing with tutors. Aye, he’d been born with talent, but it would have amounted to naught without all the hard work he’d done. All so that one day he could become a master bard, an advisor to kings and one of the most important men in the kingdoms. Everyone, from his tutors to the local wisewoman, said he could do it.

Apparently, tonight was his chance. Once a year, the master bards of each kingdom made a circuit through their lands, so that they could find musicians worthy of studying their craft. Tonight, they gathered at the home of the local lord, who hosted the performance.

The same lord who had done his best attempt at beating Ethlinn to death several days’ past.

Ethlinn glanced at her brother out of the corner of her eye, trying to gauge his mood as he prepared to face Lord Ernin for the first time since the beast had attacked her. What if Finn loses his temper and gets himself into trouble? What if Ernin decides to attack Finn as well?

A deep, shuddering breath coursed through Ethlinn as she realized what she had to do. It was her battle with Ernin. Not her brother’s, not her father’s. Hers. Her loved ones shouldn’t pay the price for her troubles. She wouldn’t let harm come to them as it had her — not while she could stop it. The only way to ensure her family’s safety was to follow Finn to the crannóg tonight.

And to be prepared to hand herself over to protect her brother, should it come to it.

Chapter Two

By sundown that night, Ethlinn had no clue what was going on. It had all begun simply enough. She’d followed Finn to the crannóg and waited outside, keeping an ear and an eye out for trouble. And, of course, she’d brought her bow with her. To travel alone unarmed would have been foolishness, especially when heading back to the lair of Lord Ernin.

That was when things went sideways. In truth, Ethlinn had expected it to be a boring evening. Her brother would play, get accepted as an apprentice to the master, then head home victorious. If she were unlucky, Ernin would get involved somehow.

Finn had played, just as magnificently as she’d ever heard. Ethlinn knew the moment he began—an all-encompassing silence descended, broken only by the sound of his skillfully-played harp. She had no doubt in her mind that he’d impressed the master. How could he not with such a melody? Until he stormed out of the crannog.

A man that Ethlinn didn’t recognize followed him out. They spoke for several minutes before Finn came back across the bridge, furious.

What on earth had happened? Surely they hadn’t turned him down after a performance like that? Ethlinn considered coming out of her hiding place to console her brother, for he was clearly upset. Mayhap Ernin had goaded him after all. Before she set a foot on the road, another man appeared behind Finn.

Nearly as tall as her giant of a brother and of a similar age, the man pulled Finn aside and spoke with him in a hushed tone. Ethlinn strained but couldn’t make out what they said. Then they took off down the road together. Only they weren’t headed back home.

They were headed north.

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Two days. Two days she followed them, treading a careful line between minding her own safety and getting caught by the pair of them. She still hadn’t managed to get close enough to hear anything useful, and she still hadn’t the faintest idea of who this man was who had appeared out of nowhere and convinced her brother to run off.

Honestly, what was the fool thinking? Why would he leave home, without telling anyone, with a complete stranger? What a perfect way to get yourself killed.

Over the past days, Ethlinn had doubted her decision to follow Finn. Though she wanted to grumble and complain over his own clearly questionable decision-making, Ethlinn had no illusions about her own position. She was here entirely of her own doing.

Perhaps she should have returned home and sent her father after him instead. As if the good Lord sent her a sign of his thoughts on the matter, her stomach growled louder a roll of thunder, reminding her that she had yet to eat more than a few wild garlic plants and some mushrooms. She felt herself weakening as the hours passed, but it was far too late to turn back. If she were attacked by marauders or some similarly unseemly folk, she could call to Finn and his companion. If she turned around, she’d be entirely on her own.

Every trip, every stumble, every scrape reminded her that she was in no condition to be off on such a grand adventure. After all, ‘twas only three days ago that her injuries had healed enough for her to walk. Yet a small, stubborn voice within urged her onward.

Finally, just before sunset on the second eve, Ethlinn shadowed Finn and his companion as they reached a settlement along the banks of a lake. A large round hall and its outbuildings stood like guardians, perched upon a hill overlooking woodlands all the way down to the glistening lakeshore. The hillside facing her was cloaked in oak and ash, slowly giving way to fertile fields and small farms. Finn and his companion chatted and laughed as they walked the dirt road through the farmlands. Ethlinn hung back, using shadows and brush to get her from tree line to tree line.

‘Twas a quietly beautiful sort of place.

Sadly, Ethlinn knew she couldn’t possibly go walking through the center of such a sweet little town looking like she’d been run down by a boulder. Her bruises were purpling nicely, a few were even beginning to fade, yet no one would forget having seen her. Many would likely try to convince her to give up her journey until she’d healed. Ethlinn knew with certainty that it would cause problems to try walking through the farmsteads as Finn had done.

So she veered sharply to the east. Keeping a good distance between herself and the settlement, Ethlinn picked her way through prickly brush and hidden brambles. Because, really, what she needed were more bruises and scrapes. As she came round the southern base of the hill, she stopped in her tracks. It was covered in tents, looking for all the world like a small standing army camped in this sleepy little village. And she’d been just short of walking straight into one of them. Stumbling backwards, she found the nearest copse of trees and hastened towards it, ducking from lone tree to lone tree along the way.

With care she’d not normally take, Ethlinn lifted herself gently into a young oak tree. Though the rough bark aggravated her tender skin, she managed not to reopen any wounds. Her efforts paid off, and she was finally able to catch a handful of words spoken by some of the men moving among the tents. But she only needed to hear two. 

Cenn Cora.

One of King Brian’s most beloved fortresses.

Ethlinn’s breath caught. So that was what her brother planned. Word had spread across the kingdom of late that King Brian Boru searched for the most skilled warriors in his lands. That he planned to use them as his right hand, to finally bring the kingdoms of Meath and Ulla under his dominion. To subdue any more trouble with the Ostmen of Dyflin.

Either Finn had performed so well that he’d been sent straight to the High King himself, or he’d been received so poorly that he felt endangering his life to be his only option. Based upon his extreme anger that night, Ethlinn was betting on the latter. Which meant her brother was even more foolish than she’d believed.

Aye, Finn could wield a sword. Their father had made certain of that. But he had trained his entire life as a bard and a poet, not a warrior. This could only end poorly.

Before Ethlinn could begin forming a plan, movement caught her eye. Three men made their way up the hillside toward the hall, walking past her a furlong away. They stood out because all three were impressive on their own. Together, they were the stuff of the great poems her brother so loved. Mighty warriors, each tall and broad in his own right. Two dressed as nobles, the third as a guard.

One of the men hollered and waved his hands bossily, urging everyone who hadn’t yet headed to the hall to be on their way. The Bossy One, Ethlinn decided. He seemed to be in charge. The second man, the other noble, paid him no mind whatsoever. He focused entirely on his own thoughts, for it was clear he hadn’t even heard The Bossy One speak. Enjoying her little game, Ethlinn determined that he was The Serious One. The third man, the guard, grumbled at The Bossy One with a great frown. Obviously, he was The Grumpy One.

A single giggle escaped her when she thought of that, and all three men turned in her direction. She held perfectly still, just as her father had taught her, trusting the leaves to conceal her so long as she didn’t move. When they turned back toward the hall, she let out a slow breath. She’d need to be more careful than that in the future. Though she had greatly enjoyed their expressions. Already they were living up to their names.

Curiosity replaced her amusement when one of the warriors camped on the hillside approached the trio. They stood just near enough for her to catch bits and pieces of the conversation. More than enough for her to realize precisely what the encampment was about. It was just as she’d feared. All these warriors had answered King Brian’s call, gathering at Cenn Cora to prove themselves worthy of a place in his guard. This particular warrior asked about the challenges to be set to them.

The Bossy One answered. Of course. Although, she admitted grudgingly, she could see even from her perch he was the handsomest of the three. Though momentarily distracted by his charming smile, his words hurtled her back to reality.

The men would perform the trials of the Fianna, legendary warriors from the old tales. Trials which, if memory served her, included defending yourself from spear throws whilst at a disadvantage—much like an archery target with a larger projectile—and charging into a losing battle.

A familiar sinking feeling returned to Ethlinn’s gut. Now she was certain this whole business would end poorly.

Which meant she needed to ensure it never even began.

Chapter Three

The wind picked up as they ascended the hill, weaving their way through the forty-four tents that had already been set amongst the scattered trees. Forty-four was not enough, Illadan realized bleakly, doing his utmost to ignore the manner in which the tents had been laid out. It looked as though someone had taken a handful of grain, tossed it toward the sky, and pitched a tent where each had landed.

“To the hall!” Illadan shouted impatiently. They’d already been told as much. What kept them from following, he could hardly imagine. Turning backward he watched them scramble in and out of the tents, grabbing sword belts and donning cloaks. Shaking his head and grumbling in frustration, he kept walking. First thing tomorrow, they’d be resetting those tents. In rows. Such utter nonsense.

“God’s bones, Illadan,” Broccan grumbled beside him. “‘Tis not as though the world will end before they make it to the hall. Give the lads a moment to ready themselves.”

Illadan turned to regard his friend but didn’t stop walking. “Their training begins now. They will live or die by how well they train. When we command them to the hall, they go.” He took another glance at the tents, mostly behind him as he crested the hill.

Broccan followed his glare, shaking his head and frowning pointedly at Illadan. “At least they set them up in good time.”

Illadan groaned in frustration. “I thought you, of all people, would understand the importance of order in battle.” Broccan was, after all, the leader of the army of the High King of Éire. One could argue that, next to the king himself, Broccan was the most powerful man on the island for where he led, the army followed.

“Battle is not order. Battle is chaos in its purest form,” Broccan argued. “To believe otherwise is to lie to yourself.”

“The pair of you sound like wives without husbands to berate. You’d better quit your bickering before Brian hears you.”

Illadan and Broccan turned their attention in unison toward the man in front of them. Cormac, son of the King of Connacht and distant kin of King Brian, had fostered in the High King’s household alongside Illadan since they were lads. Both were the second sons of kings, kin to one another through their great-grandsire.

Illadan had already been living in Caiseal, the fortress of the king of Muan, nearly four years when Cormac had come to learn from Brian. He remembered well the excitement of greeting a new friend, kin no less, who shared his age, interests, and social standing. Several such lads all lived under Brian’s tutelage, but Cormac had always been his closest friend among them. Where Broccan brought fire wherever he went, Illadan and Cormac were as steadfast as stones in the river.

“Let the water move around you. Stand strong and still, letting the currents break around you instead of carrying you with them,” Brian had explained to them early on in their training. He had a fondness for riddles and stories which often appeared in his teachings.

When Brian had approached Illadan about overseeing the formation of his elite guard, his Fianna, Illadan insisted that Cormac must also be a part of it. Cormac was the strongest man he knew, inside and out—the perfect model of what a Fianna ought to be.

“It’s never good when he’s quiet,” Broccan mumbled to Cormac under his breath.

Illadan shoved him sideways. Broccan chuckled before his frown reclaimed him. Cormac returned to his silent contemplations. Every one of them felt the pressure of the honor they had been given as judges of the trials.

The man who had raised them from childhood as a father—who had given them his wisdom, his protection, his love—that man now relied on them more than he’d ever admit to secure the borders of his lands from further invasion. Though the King could still wield a sword and ride a steed, he was a far cry from the warrior of his youth. To protect the people of Éire from more death and destruction at the hands of the Fin Gall, the raiders from the north who carved seaside settlements from the blood of his kinsmen, to stop lesser kings from destroying the peace he had spent his life creating, Brian needed help. The warriors strewn in haphazard tents across this hillside would decide the fate of the kingdom by the strength of their deeds.

The least they could do was put their tents in order.

                                                                                                                                                       ***

The moment Illadan, Cormac, and Broccan stepped into the hall, Lowery, the steward, ushered them into the small solar where King Brian stood near an open window. “He’s been waiting,” Lowery warned in a whisper before shutting them in with the High King.

“It’s about time,” Brian’s deep, rumbling voice echoed off the walls in his solar. “Where have you been?”

Illadan stepped forward. “Apologies, lord. We were inspecting the encampment.”

Brian raised a brow. “And?”

“I find it wanting.” Illadan knew better than to hide his dissatisfaction from the King. Of all of them, Brian had the most at stake in this venture. He deserved the truth.

Brian thought on his assessment before a smile claimed the corner of his lips. “I don’t find that terribly surprising. More will come, Illadan. Give them time.”

Time, Illadan thought, keeping his morbidity to himself, was the one thing they didn’t have. Brian was old for any man, but he was especially old for a warrior king. The need to secure both his borders and his accession could not be more pressing.

“We’ll ensure everything goes as you will it,” Cormac added confidently.

“I know,” Brian replied. “‘Tis why I’ve put you three in charge. Which leads me to the next matter at hand. We have an unexpected participant. Dallan mac Murrough, prince of Lein, has come for his sister.”

Broccan swore an unholy oath behind them. Illadan laughed aloud in disbelief. Cormac stood silent, eyes wide.

Eva nic Murrough, princess of Lein, had been the agreed-upon hostage following a bloody battle several months back. All of them had fought in it, a final push to put her irritating cousin, the foreign King of Dyflin, in his place—beneath Brian’s rule. The Fin Gall were defeated and Eva given as security for the conquered king’s good behavior. ‘Twas a matter of course in peace negotiations.

“But,” Illadan searched for the words. ‘Twas truly a complicated situation. “She’s the hostage, newly given. To take her back so soon, it would negate the peace. Has he come to start a war, then?”

“He says he wishes to take her place.” Brian shrugged his shoulders, as though the ridiculousness wasn’t lost on him either.

“Did you allow it?” Broccan’s voice was rising in volume, which meant his temper wasn’t far behind.

“Not precisely. If he becomes one of the Fianna, I will accept him as a hostage in her place. He would need to take an oath of loyalty to me by then, and would have proven himself a worthy exchange.”

An entirely reasonable solution. Illadan was forever impressed with the king’s sharp mind.

“And what of Eva?” Cormac asked a moment later. “Where is she to go once freed?”

“You assume he will pass all the trials?” Broccan countered in outrage. “I’ll be impressed if he manages the poetry, let alone the combat.”

Cormac leveled him a withering look. “There’s a good chance he will fail one, aye. But if this is the plan, we must have the end in place also. What will happen if he succeeds?”

If he makes it to the last trial, summon me,” Brian replied. “We’ll deal with it then, and you’ll know the man better as well. Until then, however, he is not to speak with his sister. The last thing I need is the pair of them escaping or rebelling in the midst of the trials. Keep them separated and keep the peace. If he’s earnest in his intentions, we will honor them.”

The men left the solar for the hall, taking their seats at the king’s table. Brian sat in the middle next to his wife, directly before the fire. Cormac sat to her left, and Broccan beside Cormac. Typically, Illadan sat to the king’s right. But tonight, he had other duties to attend.

The large hall, round as was tradition, easily held the men who had come for the trials with room to spare. A great fire roared in the center, before the king’s dais. Therefore ‘twas a simple task to identify Dallan mac Murrough, seated at a table on the far right of the room. Illadan had met him several times before, the last being at the battle over Dyflin.

On the opposite side of the battlefield.

Chapter Four

“Here to be my nursemaid, are you?” Dallan looked up as Illadan took a seat on the bench opposite him.

“Do you need one?”

Dallan narrowed his eyes, as though making his assessment of Illadan. “I meant what I told Brian,” he said at last, tearing a bite of bread from his trencher. “I’m here for my sister. Not to cause trouble.”

“Does Sitric know of your plan?”

Dallan choked on the bite of bread, taking a deep drink of ale and glancing at the other men seated near them.

“They’ll figure out who you are eventually,” Illadan continued. He found it difficult not to smile at how unsettled Dallan appeared. He was rather enjoying their conversation. “But, as I was saying, does not Sitric need to approve the exchange as well, as it is his truce?”

Sitric Olafsson, King of Dyflin, had been the one to arrange for Dallan’s sister as the hostage. He had been the one defeated in battle, forced to finally submit to Brian’s sovereignty.

So, while ‘twas saintly of Dallan to offer for his sister’s place, Illadan knew that Sitric would need to approve it as well. He had, after all, chosen Eva for a reason.

“He will allow it,” Dallan asserted.

Illadan noted that though Dallan’s voice committed to the boast, his eyes did not. Sitric likely had no notion of Dallan’s plan.

The next few months would prove interesting, indeed.

                                                                                                                                                      ***

Ethlinn’s parents reminded her at every opportunity to exercise more caution in her life. No one had ever accused her of being dull or of taking too much consideration with her actions. She’d accepted long ago that her heart led, and her mind and body followed. When an idea swept her up in its current, she rode along no matter how wild the waters grew. Of course she’d tried to be mindful. It simply never stuck.

Sitting in the branches of the tree, Ethlinn regretted—for perhaps the first time ever—her rash decision-making. Aye, it had hurt like the Devil himself to climb that tree with all her myriad bruises, but she’d managed it. Broken ribs be damned. Fear of discovery and the need for swiftness gave her the strength to ignore what pain the climb had caused.

Strength that now failed her.

Tentatively swinging her legs to lower herself onto a slim branch beneath her, Ethlinn realized a moment too late that her arms no longer had the strength to hold her weight during such a maneuver. They crumbled like old mortar beneath her as she fell from the branches straight onto the hard ground.

Which is precisely how Ethlinn ended up on her back beneath the oak tree, reevaluating her life choices.

Either the hunger, the exhaustion, the injuries, or some combination thereof, rendered her immobile for far longer than she liked. Anyone could have stumbled, literally, over her, and she would be entirely at their mercy.

At that thought her breathing grew shallower and shallower, images of Ernin’s hands around her throat overtaking all other thought. Each breath brought excruciating pain, as though he kicked her sides all over again. It took all her remaining strength not to cry out, in fear and anguish, in hopes of escape.

Her breathing became so labored that faintness overtook her, even though she already lay flat on the ground. When she finally came to, the sun hovered dangerously low over the horizon. Any time now, the men would be returning from the hall to their tents.

She wiggled her fingers then tested her arms, sending a quick prayer of thanks heavenward when they obeyed. Her legs, which had taken more kicks from Ernin than her arms, pained her constantly no matter what she did. The lash of fire that struck her legs as she rolled onto her knees came as no surprise.

Stumbling like a man in his cups to the cover of the forest, Ethlinn somehow managed to make it under the trees before she heard the men’s voices rolling down the hillside toward her. Propped against a pine tree, she shivered. The night air pricked her skin like the pine needles carpeting the ground where she sat.

Perhaps, she admittedly grudgingly, she’d pushed herself too far.

 

The next fortnight proved even worse. Ethlinn learned that if you are gravely wounded, even if ‘tis only stupid bruises, and you travel overland without eating or sleeping much, and then fall out of a tree, you can, in fact, develop a fever. She also learned that ‘tis terribly difficult to harvest willow bark whilst shivering so hard your teeth clatter.

By the third night following her fall, Ethlinn knew her condition worsened. By the fifth, she struggled to track her own movements, let alone her foolish brother’s. She’d have to come back to that later. For now, she needed to get herself functioning again.

She managed to get down to the lake shore, grateful that no one witnessed her bumbling efforts to descend the wooded hillside without falling.

Several ancient willows grew along the lake. Ethlinn’s father had taught her well. She knew to take stock of her available resources when entering a new area of forest, and she always searched for willows. Taking out her hunting knife, something her father insisted she carry at all times, Ethlinn removed the outer bark from a young shoot until she found the cream-colored layer beneath.

Cutting with precision whilst shivering proved challenging. Instead of the perfectly bite-sized squares she normally produced, she cut away a rather odd-looking piece that barely fit in her mouth. The wickedly bitter flavor brought a grimace to her face as she chewed the tough bark, swallowing the healing juices.

Leaning against the willow’s strong trunk, her mouth worked the bark and her thoughts wandered. In her mind, her father’s voice berated her for a string of careless decisions. Why would you leave without telling us where you’re going? Why would you travel so far while so badly injured? Why don’t you swallow that damned pride of yours and ask your brother for aid? Do you have any idea how worried we are?

Ethlinn exhaled through her nose, taking another bitter swallow. She knew no one would understand, and there’d be hell to pay when finally she returned home. If she returned home.

Initially, she’d left to protect Finn from Ernin, thinking only of her brother’s safety. But the longer she’d traveled the more she’d come to realize that Ernin wasn’t interested in bothering Finn. He only wanted her.

Every nightmare that woke her, every memory of his attack, every thought of being anywhere near that man or that place terrified her. Her home was an easy walk from the crannóg; she wouldn’t be any safer there than sitting in front of his house should he have a mind to go after her. And if Finn discovered her, if she went to him for help, he’d send her straight back home.

Aye, even starving and sick as she was, Ethlinn was safest out here, in the woods on her own.

Chapter Five

Ethlinn lost all track of time. She took willow bark until her fever broke, then she foraged as best she could given her weakened condition. When finally she could move up the hill again, panic set in.

How many days had passed? What if Finn had already begun his trials?

She needed a plan. She’d already wasted precious time during her illness. But first, she must learn which trial was next and when it would occur.

Though her father had trained her well in woodcraft, Ethlinn found it more difficult than usual to navigate the dense foliage on her way toward the tents. She cracked several twigs and snagged her cloak on thorns, but she did manage not to utter any curses at her clumsiness.

The gods must have been with her, for not ten paces up the hillside, Ethlinn heard someone walking parallel to her on the path leading down to the lakeshore. She had carefully avoided using the path, exploring only within the depths of the forest, so that she could evade discovery as long as possible.

She stopped walking, letting the man—she assumed, since there were dozens of them here at the moment—get ahead of her. Then, pushing her beaten body to its limits, she somehow managed to follow him all the way up the hill without arousing enough suspicion for him to come looking for her.

Stopping at the edge of the forest, she crouched in stillness, hidden in the shadows of a hazel thicket, watching.

She nearly toppled over when her brother, of all people, walked across the grassy hilltop in front of her, headed toward the tents. 

Obviously, she followed him.

When she reached the tents of the men, she noticed that they had been moved at some point during her illness. On the day she spied the three men from the tree—before falling out of the tree—the tents had been scattered like chaff in the wind. But even in the dim light of the half moon, Ethlinn noted that they sat in orderly rows. Ten rows of five tents, and one with only three. She supposed that meant fifty-three men participated in the trials.

The forest didn’t extend far enough toward the tents for her to lurk among the cover of the trees and still overhear anything useful. She had to step carefully from tent corner to tent corner until she spotted Finn walking to his tent. Another man of an age with her brother, his hair a cascade of dark, wild waves, followed Finn into his tent.

She crouched nearby, keeping watch for anyone who might be approaching, and listening closely to their conversation.

“…sure you’re alright?”

“I’m just tired,” her brother replied tightly. He was lying.

Ethlinn had known him long enough to know when he was withholding something. Though a gifted storyteller, Finn was a terrible liar.

“I’ll let you rest, then.” His friend sounded concerned. “Though you have little cause for worry at tomorrow’s trial,” he added with a laugh. “I wager you could perform all twelve books in your sleep.”

“You’ll do just fine, Dallan. You know them nearly as well as I do now.” She heard the smile in her brother’s voice when he spoke and could see in her mind’s eye the dimple that formed just on his left cheek when he gave a reassuring grin.

Ethlinn sighed in frustration. Gods, she loved her brother. If only she could save him from his own stupidity. Thankfully, the trial they spoke of was the least dangerous of the lot of them: a test of intelligence through the memorization of far too many lines of poetry.

Unfortunately, the trial was taking place the following morn, which meant she had but hours to concoct and enact some sort of plan to get Finn out of the trials. Ideally without giving herself up in the process. For, as much as she loved her brother and her family, and though she initially left home to follow Finn, Ethlinn knew she wasn’t ready to go back. Her chest ached at the very notion.

Armed with the knowledge she needed, Ethlinn took a step away from Finn’s tent, deep in contemplation over what manner of mischief she could cause to stop his trial and get him sent off.

Which meant that she wasn’t paying attention when she turned a corner around Finn’s tent. One of the men she spotted that first day stopped mid-stride. The Bossy One. Even though ‘twas night and there lay a great distance between them, he turned toward her.

A full head taller than her and twice as broad, his hair fell to his shoulders, its color indiscernible in the dim light.

Everything within her cried out a warning. Here was a man far larger than the one who’d attacked her before, and this time she was utterly alone. A sinking feeling hit her in the gut as she hastened backward, around the tent and behind the next row of them as quickly as she could manage.

He followed her.

A moment of panic welled up from her belly to her chest, threatening to burst her from within. She stopped, frozen, as she stared back at him for only a moment. When he took a step toward her, she bolted like a hare from a fox.

For some reason, The Bossy One chose not to pursue her. She counted her blessings heading straight back to the wooded hillside. As she came crashing through the edge of the forest, desperately diving for safety, two owls hooted at the bottom of the hill somewhere near the lake.

Then an idea struck her. Birds!

Or, more precisely, one bird: a lone raven.

Folk around here were generally a superstitious lot. If she could create an ill omen during Finn’s performance, that might be enough to get him sent away. Short of injuring Finn herself, it was the best she’d thought of so far. Even if it didn’t immediately disqualify her brother, it would almost certainly cause enough concern that they would delay the trials, giving her time to concoct a better plan.

Yes, a raven would be a good start. But how would she ensure it was associated with Finn? And how could she get it to be where she wanted without also being there herself? Perhaps she’d need a hare as well.

As a devious plan took shape in her mind’s eye, Ethlinn set off to catch herself a raven and a hare before dawn.

Just like her father taught her.

Chapter Six

Illadan stood at his bedroom window, watching dawn break over the eastern horizon. He could watch the sun rise the whole day. It never ceased to amaze him that the same four or five colors could appear in the same order each morn, yet each sunrise was new unto itself, looking different than all the ones past.

This morn held great potential as well as great beauty. Illadan had worked tirelessly the past six months to prepare for the Fianna trials. He had overseen all of the details of housing and feeding the men, the rules of the trials, the manner of carrying out and judging each. He had dealt with every mundane detail because he wanted more than anything to make this endeavor a success for the King.

Seven months from now, Illadan would present Brian with warriors he handpicked through rigorous trials and tests of their mettle. It would be his greatest achievement to date. It would give him a way to ensure Brian’s legacy survived whenever death came for him. Most important of all, it would please Brian. Though the king was his uncle, Illadan considered Brian his father in every way that mattered. His father by blood died when he was so young, Illadan couldn’t remember him at all. There was only Brian.

Three knocks at his door abruptly ended his introspective moment.

Broccan opened the door before Illadan responded, his face pale. “You need to come quickly.”

Illadan’s jaw tightened when he noted Broccan’s tense stance and wild eyes. It took a good deal to rile the leader of the greatest army in Éire. 

“What is it?” Illadan asked, grabbing his cloak and hurrying out the door beside Broccan.

“A raven,” he grumbled.

Illadan’s step faltered. “Who has seen it? How many of the men?”

Broccan shook his head. “I don’t know, precisely. Eva found it, and some of the servants have seen it. I don’t know that any of the men have yet.”

“Where was it?”

“It was inside the hall, sitting in the rafters above the hearth.”

Illadan looked askance at him. “Were the windows open then?”

“Sealed shut. The doors as well,” he replied tightly. “And the servants swear the bird wasn’t there last night when they left.”

Illadan swore. As far as problems to have at the first trial, ‘twas a serious one. A man’s mind can be easily convinced of reason. But his heart is another matter entirely. The ill omen of a solitary raven anywhere near Cenn Cora on the morn of the first trial could destroy all his efforts in one singular moment.

Illadan could explain a hundred times and more why the raven signified naught, but the men would only see a harbinger of death to come. If any men had sighted the bird, the trials could be over before they began.

When they arrived at the hall, the bird had flown off and left a crowd of murmuring servants in its sinister wake.

Illadan spotted Cormac attempting to calm poor Moira, the keep’s cook. The manic look on her face did not bode well.

“Moira,” Illadan interrupted firmly but gently, “why don’t you and the other kitchen maids get the morning meals set out. Once we’ve full bellies, we’ll feel better over the whole affair.”

The look she gave him told him she felt strongly otherwise, but she herded the other kitchen servants toward their domain without another word.

“She’s not going to forget about it, you know,” Cormac muttered. “And she’ll be telling everyone what she saw.”

Illadan sighed. “Aye,” he agreed. “But there’s naught for it now. Order everyone here to keep it to themselves and we’ll proceed as planned. I’m not going to let one raven steal our day.”

 

The men came up from their tents and broke their fast in peace. Illadan didn’t hear a single mention of any sort of bird or ill omen. After the meal, he led the men into the courtyard just outside the great hall and signaled the official start to the first trial of the Fianna. The men formed a semicircle around a wooden stool, where the performer sat with his back to the hall.

About halfway through the first performance, movement caught his eyes along the edge of the forest. At first, Illadan thought it a small creature.

But then it moved again, the shadows shifting about an undeniably human form.

With the ill omen of the raven fresh in his mind, Illadan pushed away the unease gathering in his mind. He wasn’t one to put stock in omens, but he also wasn’t about to ignore an intruder at Cenn Cora.

At first, he tried not to stare at the shadowy figure, lurking less than a league away in the woods. But as the first trial ended and he called the next performer to the center of the men, Illadan’s eyes remained fixed on the shadowy man.

Or woman. He hadn’t considered that it might be the woman he’d caught sneaking around near Finn’s tent last night. He’d already discussed the matter with Finn, who assured him he’d not had any women visit him. Though odd, Illadan hadn’t given it much thought since then.

If it was the same woman, then perhaps she only sought to see the trials or the men. Likely she was harmless, and it would be simpler to leave her be until the performances were over. If it was someone else, Illadan may need to address it sooner rather than later.

In the midst of debating whether he should go after the interloper or wait, the decision was made for him.

The figure moved quickly from the edge of the forest toward the smithy, the building at the far edge of the settlement. 

‘Twas definitely a woman. Illadan could tell by the way she moved. Even in her long, careful strides, there was a distinctive sway to her hips, a litheness no man he knew could feign. Though her hood hid her countenance, Illadan was certain ‘twas a woman. As she rounded the smithy and crept toward the stables, Illadan noticed that she cradled something in her arms.

A babe?

He narrowed his eyes, focusing on the now-squirming object. A hare.

Another ill omen.

The dastardly woman was planting ill omens at his trial.

Anger swelled deep within his chest, threatening to break free like lightning escaping a storm cloud. Why this woman was sabotaging his plans, he couldn’t say. But Illadan knew one thing for certain:

She was in for one hell of an interrogation when he caught her.

Chapter Seven

With a nod to Broccan, a commonly used sign between the two, Illadan slipped away from the crowd of men and ran behind the great hall to intercept the woman. Each step he took only increased his anger and frustration that anyone would cause such unwarranted mischief.

He reached the stables, where he found her crouched and moving slowly closer to the crowd of men, clearly preparing to release the hare into the crowd and cause absolute chaos.

She spotted him, leaping to her feet and sprinting back toward the woods, the hare dropped and left to its own devices.

Illadan’s blood raced as he followed her. He caught her in several strides without any trouble, just as they came upon the smithy. Illadan grabbed the woman’s arm to stop her from fleeing.

She cried out in agony, tripping and not quite falling.

He dropped her arm like a hot iron, shock threading its way through his fury. He hadn’t gripped her that hard, surely not tight enough to cause her serious pain.

The woman took advantage of his momentary confusion, closing the short distance from the smithy to the forest’s edge.

Frustrated, his anger reared up once more. Illadan followed her into the trees, catching her quickly. This time he grabbed a handful of her cloak instead of her arm.

He was going to give her hell.

He was going to demand an explanation for her behavior.

He was going to tell her she’d better leave Cenn Cora or there’d be real trouble.

Illadan couldn’t remember the last time he’d been so furious. But then again, he couldn’t remember the last time months of planning were nearly laid low by one insidious woman.

When the cloak tugged, preventing her from running further, the woman spun around.

And all that fury, all that anger and frustration that had been building in Illadan crumbled to pieces. Bruises covered every visible inch of her. Eyes the color of a cloudless sky stared at him in fear.

She was afraid of him. No, not afraid—terrified.

Because of what some bastard had done to her. In mere moments, Illadan’s anger shifted from the woman to whatever man had beaten her. He took several deep breaths to calm his temper before speaking so as not to frighten her further.

“You need not fear me,” he assured her softly. “Please, let me help you.”

She neither moved nor spoke, holding as still as a hare trying to hide in the brush, her eyes wide with fear.

Illadan took in the woman before him. She was young, perhaps near his sister’s age. That thought only further inflamed his temper. God’s bones, if anyone raised a hand to Orla, it would be the last mistake they made. Perhaps this lady had no one to champion her against her abuser.

“Who did this to you?” he demanded, louder than he intended.

The woman took half a step back, testing his hold on her cloak.

“If it was one of my men it will be the last thing he’s done. I do not tolerate violence toward women.”

“It wasn’t,” she whispered, her voice barely audible.

He calmed slightly at that. “What can I do to help you?”

She hesitated, her eyes flitting back and forth nervously. “I need my brother.”

“Who is your brother?” Illadan couldn’t tell if she withheld information or fidgeted from nerves, making it difficult to guess at her motives. Because, though she clearly required aid, she also had tried to undermine the trials.

“Finn Ulfsson.”

Ah, that made sense at least. ‘Twas his sister who’d been sneaking around his tent looking for him. But why would she not simply speak with him? Why not enter the hall and ask for help? Why try to interrupt the trials instead of seeking her brother out directly? Whatever her reasoning, Illadan doubted in her current state of agitation that she’d tell him anything.

“You stay right here. I’ll go fetch your brother.”

“No!” she cried, stumbling forward. “You can’t!”

He moved to help her, and she again gasped as he caught her by the arm to stop her from falling. In that moment, Illadan understood the seriousness of her condition, why she had cried out when he grabbed her earlier. His anger returned, but this time it was wrath. He could not abide anyone having been treated thusly. “If you were my sister, I’d want to see you,” he argued, trying to keep his voice calm as he silently took stock of all the various ways this woman required medical treatment.

She was bruised from top to bottom. For all he knew she had broken bones as well.

Her clothes hung from a gaunt frame, telling him she hadn’t had a proper meal in some time.

The glassy sheen in her eyes spoke of recent illness.

Not to mention that she traveled alone, and from the looks of it unarmed.

“He can’t see me like this,” she protested. “He’ll be furious.”

“And rightly so.” Illadan certainly was, and he didn’t even know her. ‘Twas likely her brother didn’t know of her injuries yet as well, else he’d be tending to her.

“If you go get him, I’ll be gone before you get back,” she threatened. “I cannot see him.”

Illadan crossed his arms. “You came here for your brother, yet you refuse to let me retrieve him for you. You clearly need healing, yet you insist on living upon the brink of death alone in the forest. I’m afraid I don’t quite understand your plan.”

Her blue eyes hardened, a glint of defeat flickering over the lingering fear.

Whatever her plan had been, it appeared to be falling apart. “What is it that you want?” he pressed. “Why are you here?”

“Finn needs to leave the trials,” she offered. “But not with me.”

“Why must he leave?” Illadan pressed. “And why not with you? Should you not, too, be returning home?”

Illadan expected many things. He thought she’d argue, perhaps say naught at all. Maybe she’d even grant him a real explanation of her motives. Instead, she did the one thing he hadn’t expected.

She collapsed onto the forest floor in tears. Her hands hurried to cover her face as she fought to hide her weeping.

Illadan’s heart cracked. He’d not meant to drive her to tears; only to help her. He rushed to her side, careful not to touch her. “I propose a compromise,” he whispered. “I swear to you I will not let your brother see you, but he must know you are here. I would wish the same were I in his place. In exchange, you will allow me to help you. Get you food, a healer, and some rest.”

She looked up and swallowed hard, clearly considering his offer. “I can’t go home,” she choked out. “And I’d rather travel alone.”

Lord but this woman was difficult. Normally, Illadan would have ordered her about by now, but given her state he thought that wouldn’t help matters. He decided he could ask questions later. Now, he needed to get her cooperation.

“I will take you wherever you wish to go,” he promised.

She narrowed her eyes at him. “Aren’t you needed here?”

Illadan didn’t miss the suspicion in her tone. She didn’t trust him, and he could hardly blame her. “Would you prefer to travel with me or with a group of my most trusted guards?”

The corner of her mouth lifted into the hint of a smile. “You, alone, can defend me as well as a group of your guards?”

“Of course,” he replied with a grin, hoping he might gain more ground with her if her spirits lifted a bit. “So which will it be?”

When she didn’t answer, Illadan hazarded a guess at what may be causing trouble. “If it helps,” he began, “as one of the Fianna, I swore an oath of chivalry. I offer aid to any in need, regardless of their circumstances, with no desire for recompense. I will see you safely to any place you choose. You have my word.”

“You’re one of the Fianna already?” she asked, distracted for the first time since they began their conversation. “I thought the trials only just began.”

“They have,” Illadan replied, “for the rest of the Fianna. All three men judging the trials have already performed them adequately. How else would I be worthy of testing others?”

Hope rose within him as he saw her mind working.

“Prove it,” she challenged, “and I will go with you.”

Maybe he could win her cooperation after all.

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