Chapter 82: A Sparrow Returns to Regrets

798 AD, Ruir, Kingdom of Galway, Outside of Declan’s House

“Why would you, the Chieftain, apologize to me? I should be arrested and put through an ordeal for the way I spoke to you all.” Saoirse shook. “Please don’t do that to me. I don’t want to die that way…”

“What? No. No! That is not why I am here. Saoirse, listen to me.” Conn motioned for Saoirse to sit on the boulders next to him. “I came here with a purpose; now show me the respect I deserve and sit down.” Saoirse sat down reluctantly, arms still crossed. She picked at the skin around her cuticles till it bled. She turned in Conn’s direction but was looking beyond him.

“I chose you for a purpose but I failed to achieve that purpose.” Conn began, and Saoirse shifted her legs from crossed to bent. She pulled them up to her chest and looked past him again. “I failed by not explaining my intent and not giving you the chance to play your part. The part Seamus and I believe you are called from the Tuatha de Danaan to have.”

Saoirse shook her head. “I am not called by the Tuatha de Danaan to do anything. This is ridiculous.”

“It is, but it is also not ridiculous. I too was skeptical but the faeries and the Gods are back. They are active again. I know how this world has looked to you as you grew up in Galway. The monks that came through in the last three centuries drove the faeries back. It has been a chaotic place. What to believe? Who to serve? But they are here. The day before the sea battle against the O’Sullibheans, the Tuatha de Danaan came to me at Innis Aran. Seamus and I went with the Head Druid, Ein, to perform a ritual at the Serpent’s Lair – something remarkable and terrifying happened, Saoirse. We stepped into the pool and the water rose up and swirled around us and a voice screamed at us. I can still hear the shrieking in my ears. The voice warned that if Riagan and Ciannait were to be married, uniting Galway, Limerick and Shannon under one house, Connacht would fall into the sea. We would all be destroyed for no such forces shall unite again.”

“Why?” Saoirse asked, looking at Conn and quickly going back to her bleeding cuticle.

“I don’t know for sure, but I have some ideas.” Conn answered.

“Like what?” Saoirse asked.

“I believe the Tuatha de Danaan sense the darkness that is brewing in Limerick from the house of MacManus. I believe they can see deeper into the soul of Cahal than we can. They know my father was thirsty for a power beyond his capability. So Cahal and my father, Aedh, brought their families together through my marriage to Tearlag, to collect every clan in Connacht. They drove Shannon into the sea where by they became Innis Aran, along with some Vikinger settlers and the outlying Island clan. There are two more clans left that have not been altered by Cahal and Aedh’s quest for power and bloodshed, Breifne and the King of Connacht at Rathcroghan. Those have been untouched by considerable intervention by myself. Tearlag and Cahal have their demolishing souls set on reaching those clans soon. Why do you think Tearlag and Riagan go on so many trips? Those aren’t trade trips. They are tactics. A strategy. Take a new kingdom, butter them up, offer Brynhildr, Seamus or Riagan up for marriage and gain a new foothold. Tearlag has wished for you to leave since the day I suggested you should marry Riagan instead.” Conn said and Saoirse grimaced.

“Believe me, that was not concealed. Why does Riagan hate me?” Saoirse asked.

“I thought it would matter more to you to ask why my Tearlag does not care for you.” Conn chuckled. “Riagan does not hate you, he hates me. He resents you. You see Tearlag and I failed again many years ago. To keep Innis Aran close to us, we befriended Eban and made amends for our fathers’ actions to drive the O’Flaherty’s out of Shannon. It was a small token, I guess, if we became friends and worked together to allow both clans to prosper again. You see, the O’Flaherty’s did not suffer as much as Aedh and Cahal expected they would. Driving them from Shannon with its rich quarries and fisheries did not deter from their wealth. On the contrary, driving them to Innis Aran increased their reach in trade. They became the place to bring goods into Connacht and they became wealthier and more powerful than Limerick and Galway. They were still a threat to Aedh and Cahal and this drove them mad. It was a glaring failure, a boil on their silken legacy. It could not stand. So, my father spent the rest of his life trying to crush Innis Aran and he died doing so. That left me as a puppet of sorts for Cahal to maneuver. Tearlag and I do his bidding. I wish the crank would die already.” Conn said and pulled at his graying beard.

He was a funny looking fellow. Not very tall, was slim, but had broad shoulders and a bald head. He was not handsome but interesting looking. With a rugged face, speckled with freckles and quizzical brows. His expressions were curious, his hands always close to a notebook. He observed the world like an examiner and not a Chieftain. For him, it seemed as though this job was a mandate and not a joy. Saoirse wondered why he did not step down. A chieftain, if he kept the favor of the clan, could rule indefinitely. Without the favor and a big enough army, he could rule for a while. But, if he lost favor, he could be defeated by a duel and the best and strongest warrior could take his place. Male or female, it did not matter. Conn did not have to stay in this position and yet here he was, two decades later, waiting for the chance to stop fighting and begin exploring. Saoirse wondered if Tearlag kept him in the Chieftainship.

“If Cahal died, my family may belong to me for once.” Conn chuckled again. “Saoirse, I am sorry from the depths of my soul for the position I have created for you. I did not give you a choice and I asked you, no ordered you, to join this mess to save my pig-headed son from a union that would destroy us all. That was a burden you did not need to take on. I believed you were the right choice based on your bravery in battle and the skill with which you saved Seamus’ life. I have faith in you, even still I do.”

“I’m not going back.” Saoirse said defiantly.

“I’m not tell you to. I am asking you to consider it, as my advisor on the Brehon Court. You may serve alongside Seamus and you do not have to be Riagan’s wife. I will break the bond if you wish. You are free to love whomever you want. If you wish to live here with Declan, I will not stand in your way. I will protect you from Tearlag’s wrath.” Conn said.

“How furious is she with me?” Saoirse asked.

“Honestly, she is more furious with me. They all are for creating this mess. It has been a long fortnight, Saoirse, a very long and loud fortnight.” Conn sighed.

“I don’t have an answer.” Saoirse replied.

“I’ll come back. What a lovely place this is to think and write.” Conn opened the journal and began writing in it again. “You are dismissed.”

Saoirse looked at him quizzically. What an odd man he was. She got up off the boulder and walked back to Declan’s cottage.


Chapter 81: The Sand

798 AD, Ruir, Kingdom of Galway, Declan’s House

It was afternoon, a warmer and brighter afternoon than a normal winter’s day. The snow was melting and the coolness of the melting snow floated up and into the air like the evaporating columns of steam that rise from a kettle. Saoirse was bored. Brighid and Declan left at dawn for a long hike into the woods. Brighid begged Saoirse to tag along but she refused.

The thought of seeing Tearlag or Riagan made her feel sick and it was her army. There was no way to avoid her. Saoirse considered what she could do with herself until Brighid and Declan returned. She could sleep. She could sing. She could practice her hurling swing against the cottage. She could find a bow and sword and practice her fighting style.

She could go home…she shuddered at the idea.  No! Saoirse chuckled in a sad sort of dark fashion. She knew exactly what would happen if she went back. She would be a failure. Her brothers were impressive fisherman, what would she have to say for herself? A failed marriage? An emotional outburst? No, she was staying here.

After a lot of useless thought, pacing and general time wasting, she decided to go for a run. She would run and run until her mind was less tangled. It was very tangled at the moment. Being around Brighid did not untangle it. Brighid was a great friend, but she was not warm nor was she comforting. She was like a blacksmith’s hammer.

If she disagreed with a decision Saoirse made, Brighid lost all gumption and hammered her opinion into the ground. An unconscious eye roll made its way across Saoirse’s face. What made Brighid believe she was entitled to loudly proclaim her opinions to her friends and believe that they were to take the opinions and swallow them without choking on the harsh fibers of Brighid’s words? And Brighid had to question why Saoirse ran to Declan when she had a problem. Declan was balm to the salt of Brighid’s existence.

Saoirse ran downward to the beach. She skipped around the melting snow and mud, between boulders and the rocky crags. With many a slip, her feet landed in the dense coolness of the sand. Her feet dug in and she was home. She loved this feeling. Her feet sunk in with every step and she pushed up and off, up and down, left and right. The rhythm of her stride lulled her into a happy trance. She ran up and down the beach, from the cove to the docks in front of Galway’s market. She ran and felt no shame from the large stone fortress that looked down upon her from the rocky cliff.

She raised her fists and yelled all her anger and hate at them from the beach. With the foaming vengeance of her voice, she felt alive and dead all at the same time. She was awake and asleep. Ashamed and proud. She took a breath and stopped to calm down, her heart was racing and her stride broken. Her body was sharp and knotted. Her muscles exaggerated, taut and furious with all the disappointment of the last year. A rising career as a warrior. Her first battle in service of the O’Connors. She saved Seamus, her childhood crush, and was honored by the Chieftain. Her life was going up and then it plateaued. Stagnate in a muddy water of mediocrity. She was chosen and dragged to the oldest binding ritual – marriage.

Emotion overtook her looking up at the fortress. She thought of Riagan and all the moments they spent apart. Not one night did they spend together. He rejected every part of her yet was willing to claim her as a prize to please his father and mother. To fulfill whatever duty they believed this marriage would provide for the clan. She felt sick. The emotion welled up, the exertion of running mixed with her suppressed pain and her anger came up. She was sick all over the sand. She coughed and wiped her mouth. This would not do, so she walked back to the cottage. Trudging up the rocks and the hillside was a blur, the mud a small distraction. She walked past the cottage without realizing it. She walked around the hillside until she was frightened by a site she did not want to see.

Conn sat on a rock, not far from Declan’s cottage, bent over a journal. His hand moved quickly from paint to paper, in a frenzy of thought.

“How long have you been here?” Saoirse asked. “Why are you here, Chieftain?”

“I have been waiting here each day for a fortnight. If you had left your cottage, you would have seen me.” Conn replied. He finished what he was writing and put down his brush. Saoirse scowled and crossed her arms.

“I was busy.” Saoirse said.

“Busy sulking.” Conn said. “I’m sorry, that is beyond the point of why I came here.” Conn stood up and looked at Saoirse. “I came to apologize to you.”

“Why?” Saoirse asked, her arms still crossed. She shifted her feet. This was uncomfortable and embarrassing. For the Chieftain to be here at all was too much, but to apologize to her sounded like a prank.

Chapter 80: Woe to Who?

798 AD, Ruir, Kingdom of Galway, Declan’s House

“Good morning to you.” Brighid said. Saoirse stretched and rubbed her eyes until the thought of opening became less of a debate and as easy as breathing.

The day was bright, not even the curtains could keep the sun from streaming into the small cottage on the hillside. It was a cottage identical to the one Saoirse grew up in on the other side the hill, the lower part that tumbled into rocks by the sea. Saoirse’s family came from a long line of fisherman.

The sea was their calling but it did not call her. Instead, she spent many days here, in the stone and wood cottage that stood up, away from the sea, in the quiet of a hillside. She liked to be where her vantage point was high so she could understand her landscape of existence.

“When did you get here?” Saoirse asked.

“After training was done around midnight. I heard about your spectacle in the courtyard.” Brighid said. “Everyone did.”

Saoirse swallowed with a gulp. “Did you hear any more?”

“Nope.” Brighid said. “Though I was surprised to find you here, in my brother’s bed.”

“You know it is not like that with Declan and me. I needed somewhere safe, I knew I would be here. Brighid, he’s the brother I wish I had, not the guy I want.” Saoirse said.

“Does the guy you want know you are interested?” Brighid asked.

Saoirse rolled her eyes and got out of bed. “If you want me to go, just say it.”

“I want to know why you are here.” Brighid said.

“You already know why, I needed to see Declan. But since Declan has disappeared I guess I will see him later.” Saoirse said and began to put on her shoes.

“Just stop with that, Saoirse,” Brighid said and handed her a cup of tea. “Declan is outside cutting turf. Help me make something to eat.”

“I thought you lived at the fortress now.” Saoirse said. “I didn’t think I would have to see you.”

“I don’t. Declan and I, we stick together. Always have, always will. We don’t forget who we are just because we step foot in a fortress and speak to the Chieftain.” Brighid lashed with condescension. Saoirse smacked her hand on the table in the center of the cottage. Her tea toppled over the walls of the cup holding it.

“I didn’t change. I was under extreme pressure. The Chieftainess had people watching my every move. I tried to visit but if I did, she punished me. Accuse me of stealing. Of sharing secrets with the lower clan. Of cheating on Riagan. The works.” Saoirse said. “The worst thing she accused me of was sleeping with the Chieftain to get this marriage. She said if I step out of line again she would hold a Brehon Court in my honor and, if they found me guilty, she would cut my ear off. After that I cut all ties to the world.”

“Yeah, okay.” Brighid scoffed. Saoirse frowned.

“You think I am lying?” Saoirse asked. Brighid shrugged and brought the pan from the fire. She placed a piece of green marble on the table set the pan on top of that. Porridge and eggs.

“I could see you doing that to get ahead of us all. You are ambitious—” Brighid said.

“Are you serious?” Saoirse exclaimed. “You are holding a grudge and being ridiculous. I did not do that.”

“You love Seamus, you marred Riagan, why not sleep with Conn? You could complete your collection of O’Connors.” Brighid scorned.

Saoirse picked up her cup and threw it against the wall, far to the right of Brighid. “Grow up, Saoirse.”

“No, you grow up, Brighid. How narrow is your thinking? How childish are to believe the only ambition I could have would be rooted in sex? You cheapen my affection for Seamus. You disrespect any value I have by boiling this down to a game. You should be in my place, Brighid. You would enjoy Tearlag’s games, you blithering hag. I’m done.” Saoirse said.

“Of course you are. That’s your move. ‘Life’s too hard. I’m done. Tearlag did this so I’m done. Tearlag tells me to leave my family, I’m done.’ Your mother cries her eyes out everyday—” Brighid replied.

“Is that what she tells you, Brighid? And you believe her? You know my mother doesn’t care. Maighread has never cared about anything other than success. She may be crying, but they are tears of joy that I am settled in a prominent position.” Saoirse said.

“Were.” Brighid said. “You were but you ditched it. Like everything else.” Saoirse sneered and dipped her hand into the porridge and smeared it all over Brighid’s face. Brighid looked in disbelief as porridge coated her face.

“You wretch!” Brighid screamed. “You stupid little snake. I cook for you and you do this?!” Saoirse smirked. Brighid scooped up the porridge and flung it at Saoirse, with half landing on her body. The other half landed on the face of Declan, who had just walked through the door.

“I see you guys are back to normal.” Declan said with deadpan emotion. He wiped the porridge off his face. “Saoirse, Seamus is here to see you.”

“Tell him to leave.” Saoirse said. “I’m not going back. He can take his love and his pretend devotion and shove it.” Saoirse said loud enough for Seamus to here.

“It was never pretend, Saoirse. I came here to say I’m sorry.” Seamus said from outside the door and placed a bouquet of evergreen and berry branches on the stoop. They were an unusual bouquet, like her. Seamus sighed as he walked away wondering if she would get the sentiment.

“Can you tell me why you have thrown all of our food on each other’s faces ,and mine as well?” Declan asked. “I feel like I took in two strays.”

“I live here.” Brighid corrected.

“No, you don’t.” Declan pushed his dark brown hair out of his eyes along with the porridge that was stuck to his nose. “You haven’t been here in weeks. You heard your best friend made a fool of herself at the ritual and came to lap up the blood.”

“And you, Saoirse, Seamus has been waiting out there since dawn. You could at least hear him out.” Declan turned on Saoirse.

“He’s a liar. He doesn’t stand up for me.” Saoirse crossed her arms.

“You married his brother all the while you two are infatuated with each other. I think he is going through a hard time too.” Declan said. “Now, I’m going to clean up myself and you two are going to clean this mess up while I go to the market. Make your peace or get out, that goes for you too, Brighid.”

“But you’re my brother, can’t you take my side in this?” Brighid whined.

“You called her a whore. I don’t agree with you. Why you two are fighting in the first place I don’t understand. Saoirse didn’t win some contest and Brighid isn’t living a dream life. We are just here, existing. Isn’t that good enough?” Declan grabbed his coat and slammed the door. The cottage rattled.

“Why does he like you better?” Brighid asked and sat down.

“He doesn’t.” Saoirse said and grabbed a cloth from the kitchen. She dipped it in the water jug and handed it to Brighid. Brighid nodded in gratitude and began to wipe the porridge from her face.

“He always has.” Brighid answered.

“No, you are being paranoid.” Saoirse found a wet cloth for herself and wiped the porridge from her black hair. “And insecure.” Brighid shrugged. “Where do you live if you don’t live here?” Saoirse asked.

“There’s a cottage out by the fortress. I, along with some of the other shieldmaidens, were asked to move there after you left. All the warriors live by the fortress now. It’s part of Tearlag’s new plan. She and her father, Chieftain Cahal, have their sights on a new project and they want us at their disposal.” Brighid answered. “And it’s lonely.”

“How does Declan get to stay out here?” Saoirse asked.

“Special permission from Chieftain Conn.” Brighid answered. “I’m assuming Seamus has something to do with it.” Brighid said. “Maybe he knew you would need a place to run to?”

“Heh, right.” Saoirse said.

“What are you going to do?” Brighid asked.

“I have no idea. I’m a disgrace. I can’t go home. I don’t want to go back to the fortress. I’m in a rut.” Saoirse said.

“You should talk to Seamus.” Brighid said.

“Maybe.” Saoirse answered.

“No. You should. And I’m always here for you and so is Declan. Don’t turn your back on us again.” Brighid answered. “This stuff with the O’Connors, it is not more important than us. They are our Chieftain family, but they serve us. You don’t turn your back on your people, Saoirse. You need people in your life.” Brighid said. Saoirse pondered this in silence. She knew Brighid was right, but how could this be possible if she went back to that house?

“Do you think we could both crash here?” Saoirse asked.

Brighid shrugged. “It’s not up to me.”

Chapter 79: Even Branches Break in a Breeze

798 AD, Uarain, Kingdom of Galway

Saoirse searched through the manuscripts. The table was covered in papers. Harvest charts, grain stocks, livestock tallies, garden inventory, weapons stores, trade income, etc. This was the only good thing to come of her marriage to Riagan. It was like a promotion from field soldier to strategist. She had deadlines now and responsibilities to her clan. Conn scooped her up out of the depression that had crept over her as she lived as an unwanted guest in Galway’s fortress.

It had been a slow process. Not days, but weeks, she lived in a shell of solitude, not a part of Tearlag’s family. Saoirse no longer a normal member of the O’Connor clan. She was stuck in a bubble. She and Riagan slept in separate rooms for the first six months. Tearlag took every cheap shot she could think of; Saoirse’s room became a revolving storage room – for barrels of Mead and poitin, a place for meat to dry age, an overflow room for servants to sleep. It was a place for the sheep to be sheared and a drying room for laundry. Saoirse took to sleeping where she could find a quiet place, sometimes in Brynhildr’s room and sometimes in Seamus’ bed. She clung to any friendship she could until she realized she was being watched. Tearlag had her followed to her family’s house and Brighid’s cottage where Saoirse was caught and dragged back to the fortress. Tearlag cut her meals in half. Saoirse was made to stand for hours in the Brehon court all day without food or water. Tearlag took away the firewood for Saoirse’s room and gave her flea infested blankets. Anything to make her break. Saoirse wasn’t sure why Tearlag hated her with such gusto, but it was aggressive. She was hated with every cell in Tearlag’s body without cause. Tearlag belittled her, in front of Riagan, Brynhildr, the court, and the servants. After 6 months Saoirse could take no more.


798 AD, Riur, Kingdom of Galway

It happened after a particularly long festival, where Tearlag ordered her to stand in a snowstorm with no cloak and no gloves, holding a bronze disk to the sun. She was ordered to stand in the center of the circle for the entire Winter Solstice in respect for the Gods. But Saoirse knew better. It was another way to inflict psychological warfare. Another boundary to cross until Saoirse had nothing left. No food, no water, no sleep and no human connection. She had nothing and she began to sob and shake, her spirit could take no more of this pointless game. Forget the Gods if they wanted to destroy Galway and Ireland. Let them do it. They were wrong, she did not belong here. Her whole life was ahead of her and she did not have to stay here and be a toy waiting to be smashed in the childish rage of a grown woman who did not get her way. A woman who did not get the next piece in her quest to grab all the puzzle pieces needed for total domination. On that day, Saoirse grew a backbone and so did Conn.

Conn, in the first time Seamus heard his father raise his voice, lost his temper. He walked to the center of the courtyard and into the center of the circle carved in the snow. He took the frozen disk from Saoirse’s hands and threw it at Tearlag.

“This is not how we honor our Gods. You will honor the sacrifice of our clansmen’s daughter! She is saving us all!” Conn ordered with a thundering voice. “And you, get your head out of your ass and live as a husband with your wife. Stop being a slug drowning in your own slime.” Conn said and shoved Riagan backward. “Be an adult! So you didn’t get your way. So what that is life! Do you think she wants to be married to you?! Do you think I want to be married to a woman who only loves me if I give in to her way? Do you think I wanted to be a Chieftain who runs his kingdom in the shadow of two other men? Grow up, Riagan, or leave and be with your precious Ciannait and watch us all be swallowed into the sea from your adulterous bed. See if you will be satisfied after a thousand lives end to make your dreams come true. Will you feel like a man then? Will you, Tearlag, finally feel like you have won your father’s approval? Will you feel loved and validated for once in your life? You are free, Saoirse. Leave us to our destruction. I am sorry for the scars I have added to your heart. I only meant the best for our clan.”

Seamus took off his cloak and gave it to Saoirse. He took her place in the circle and held out the disk, raising it to the sun. Brynhildr walked with Saoirse back into the fortress. “I will tell the servants to move your things into Riagan’s room.” Brynhildr said.

Saoirse heard what she said but shook her head. “I will not live with him. I’m leaving. I want to go back to my home. I need to see my family.” Saoirse cried. Her cottage was only an hour’s walk, yet it felt like it was on the other side of the world. “I don’t need your help! Just step back unless you really care. I’m done with all of you. Tearlag, shoot me down now, but you are the most pathetic ruler my people have ever had. You curse the ground we have cultivated and the Gods will take it back.” Saoirse spat at Tearlag’s feet and ran from the courtyard.

“You are a speck and you will always be a speck. Never will you have success. You are a mite. You have no value to our clan. You are dismissed permanently from my army. Get out. Get out!” Tearlag unsheathed her sword and held it out, ready to strike as Saoirse moved past her. Saoirse looked back at Seamus just once and her heart ached.

Seamus was not bad at all. He was spineless, but she never doubted the care in his eyes. She never would. She walked out and ran off. Lost in her depression, she wandered to Declan’s cottage. She let herself in and made herself at home. She bathed and washed away the stench of six months wasted. She clothed herself in Declan’s clothes and collapsed onto her friend’s bed and fell into a restful, deep sleep.

She spent many weeks stuck in a tangle of unbridled disgust and without cause. A petty mess of anger unleashed on her as Tearlag’s target. No torture had been inflicted, no physical harm done, but her insides felt broken. Her mind was hurt. Her heart lonely and brittle. She felt all the love her parents instilled in her had leaked out of her pores and now she was empty. She was not okay and she couldn’t go home. She couldn’t face her parents as a failure. Her Da and Mum had been so happy – she, their eldest daughter, was chosen to marry the Chieftain’s son. She was honored above all the eligible girls of the clan. She was special and would save them all from destruction. It was all a lie. She had been an edifice to be burned. Her time was wasted and so she would hide until she had answers.

How would she explain all the moments she didn’t understand? Would Declan let her stay? She gave it all up to the Gods and her dreams. Her body floated away as her breath became steady. Sleep wrapped her in a balm of comfort. In this world, she made sense. She could hide away.

Many hours later, Declan came home to find Saoirse asleep. He crawled in beside her and slept above the blankets, laying next to her as she slept. He didn’t wake her up. He didn’t get too close, but just stayed. He didn’t ask any questions. He knew why she was here. His sister, Brighid, told him all. She shared most of her secrets with him and he had anticipated this day. He knew Saoirse was under attack and needed a family more than ever. She needed someone to be on her side. She needed freedom again.

Chapter 78: Burning to Ashes Unknown

Day 493,  Riur, Kingdom of Innis Aran (823 AD)

Aoibheann laid her head on Kinvara’s shoulder and looked out on the horizon, the sun had dipped below the water, the earth, from where they sat, was covered in dusk. Fiachra sat next to them. In a line they sat above the serpent’s lair. Aoibheann yawned.

“This is what Conn’s journal said. ‘Here at the Serpent’s Lair, the faeries have a portal…’ So, where are they? It’s sunset, the most active time of the day-” Fiachra said.

“Aside from dawn.” Kinvara interjected. Fiachra frowned. She always did that. Why did she speak without regard for his thoughts, his full, complete thoughts?

“Yes, aside from dawn.” Fiachra repeated. “Do you want to come back at dawn?”

“No.” Aoibheann answered before Kinvara could agree. “We are not coming back at dawn. Guys, these faeries are not coming back. They used you to imprison our parents. Your part is done, can we please get on with life?”

“You don’t have to wait with us. Go back to the fortress. Eat dinner. Find Aonghus, Biorn and Murtagh.” Fiachra said and waved her off. Aoibheann sat up and looked at Fiachra with a bitter cold focus.

“I am not spending time with a murderer!” Aoibheann exclaimed.

“Lower you voice!” Fiachra ordered, he looked to see if they were alone. “You don’t know that your parents are dead. You only know they aren’t here and in a dungeon like my parents. The people who were Biorn’s parents until a month ago. Now he doesn’t care if they live or die! He doesn’t have to leave me alone to deal with this.”

“You’re not alone, Fiachra.” Kinvara said.

“We are all facing something dark,” Aoibheann said “Biorn is in denial of his soul. He wants something that is not human, to live without consequence and pain. Pain shows us what matters.”

“And where we need to heal.” Kinvara said. “I don’t believe Murtagh will kill Saoirse and Riagan, they are too valuable to Tearlag and Murtagh to be tossed out with the trash. I hope the same is true for our parents.” Kinvara choked back a tear. “I’ve spent a year burning in anger at my Mum and Da, but now I think it’s burning me from the inside. This anger is making me sick. How do I stop the fire in my heart before it burns me to ashes and I’m unrecognizable?”

“Should we go to Limerick?” Fiachra asked. His words, to which no one answered, hung in the air.


797 AD, Aodhain, Interior of Ireland

Riagan followed his mother on horseback through the mud covered forest road. Brynhildr rode beside him, along with a pack of warriors from Limerick. They rode away from the sun, eastward into kingdoms Riagan and Brynhildr had never seen before. It was a crisp Spring morning, with tiny flowers peeking out of the grasses, trees and bushes. Green overflowed in a spectrum of verdant grandeur over hills and fields. Nothing was bare, all the land Riagan could see was alive and mystical with a story unknown to the world of the mortals. The presence of faeries could be felt in the air, not by any logical consideration could you know why an effervescent magic floated through the forest groves.

“Take the fork in the road left, we will pass through Rathcroghan by high noon. Be prepared to pay your respects to the High King of Connacht.” Tearlag ordered. “Brynhildr, keep up.” Tearlag looked at her daughter smiling at Hrokr.

Tearlag sighed. This was not the match she hoped for Brynhildr. A daughter was a priced commodity, she would bridge the gap of their larger enemies. The O’Suillebhean’s. The Briefne’s clan. Maybe even the Roscommon’s of Rathcroghan. Anything but her father’s viking subject, a warrior with no claim to land or an army of his own. If Brynhildr did not land a big fortune, this would be futile! All Tearlag’s future would then rest on Seamus, and he had no interest in any of the matches she found him.

He was secretive, stubborn. A spoiled brat! The vast amount of Seamus’ failings cut him out of all her expeditions, like this one. He could not be trusted! Conn was the only solution to her biggest failure. Conn could contain Seamus and his ire to destroy. Tearlag washed her hands of Seamus when he was but ten years old. He would never be who she wanted him to be and therefore he was of no use to her. But Riagan and Brynhildr, they were the malleable clay she prayed for. They were the pawns she needed to further her father’s kingdom and they would help her on this expedition to visit the powerful beings she needed on her side – Rathcroghan, all the power of Tara, and the Vikings that waited in the shadows of the east.

Tearlag lost her train of thought and sighed with earth quaking frustration. It was Brynhildr again, laughing and flirting with the young warriors of Limerick. “Why do you place every obstacle in my path?” Tearlag whispered to the horizon.

Tearlag was not content. She was unable to be happy. Ciannait and the promise of the Morrigan had whet her appetite for power – her appetite would be satisfied! Each day since Conn demolished the perfectly planned marriage Tearlag built from the ground up. From the days of Riagan’s childhood, Tearlag began to lay the foundation for this love. She remembered those early trips, Ciannait had always been a beauty, a child that drew you in with her wonder at the world. Ciannait was intelligent. As a seven year old girl, she understood why her father, Eban, and mother, Maighread, moved the chess pieces across the board. Or how a kingdom should be managed. It was magnificent, no other child in Tearlag’s kingdom was as intelligent as this little girl. Ciannait led Riagan, she pushed him to be better. Ciannait gave Riagan something to work towards, a standard to reach for, a friend who made him a better son.

Alas, with Ciannait sent far away on the morning of Riagan’s wedding, all hope for Riagan was gone. Now he was a disappointed and dilapidated shell of his former glory. Saoirse could never please nor could she ever make him the prized son he once was. Tearlag’s only hope for Riagan’s redemption in value was to keep him as far away from Saoirse as possible. To distract him with the possibility of more. She would find him a new wife on one of these trips, she would do this until she died. To see Riagan achieve what Tearlag needed him to. His life was created to finish what she started and fix Cahal’s legacy among the greatest Chieftains of the west. The High King of Connacht must write ballads about them. The mighty O’Connors and the mighty MacManus forged in fire and burned until gold melted from their veins.

“Mum–” Riagan said.

“Chieftainness.” Tearlag corrected.

“Chieftainness. Where are we going?” Riagan asked.

“To find a better future and bring it back. You must never be satisfied with what you have, Riagan. Chase the power you hunger for. Only then can I be proud of you, and only then will you have the blessing of your grandfather Cahal and the mighty ancestors before you.” Tearlag said.

Riagan nodded and focused on the road ahead. He was never satisfied unless he was with Ciannait. What could this journey to the middle of the island give him but the joy of time passing? He thought of Saoirse and felt a small pang of guilt. She wasn’t so bad. Although she was not Ciannait, Saoirse had this warming care that radiated from her face when she spoke to him. She was not as clever as Ciannait but she was somehow wise. Saoirse noticed the smallest cracks in his world and it was terrifying. Every crack opened up the possibility that his life was not his own but chosen for him. The only piece of his life he owned for himself was the love he felt for Ciannait. If he let that go, what freedom would he have? It was impossible to consider, even after five shots of poitin. He rode on and did not ask another question, for he did not want to know where he was going. At least Brynhildr was happy, he thought. One of them deserved to be for a moment.

Chapter 77: No Ties to Bind

797 AD, Eacha, Kingdom of Galway

Saoirse woke up to an abrupt sigh next to her. It was Riagan. Dawn light streamed in from the corner of the windows. “Riagan, what’s going on?” Saoirse said, barely awake from her deep dreaming sleep. Riagan ignored her and changed his clothes. He stripped off the guise of the night and wrapped himself in a new shirt and pants, items for the road. “Riagan?”

“I’ve got to hurry, Saoirse.” Riagan said, “We leave at sunrise.” Riagan threw more clothes in his pack. He was distracted, whether by the heaviness of sleep or by something else, Saoirse couldn’t figure out what was up with him.

“Fine.” Saoirse said and rolled over, away from him. She listened to the sounds of his hands packing clothing into a bag. His feet walking from the bed, to the table, to the trunk. Her mind began to connect the dots to what was going on, that this was not a dream but she was awake and he was leaving…again.

“Did you come to bed last night?” Saoirse asked. She sat up and actively watched him.

“No, I fell asleep in front of the fire in the Great Hall. Declan, Carrick, Seamus and I got into a game of hurling and lost all time until we won. I’ll make sure I come to bed when I get back.” Riagan told her with little enthusiasm.

“Or you could find your own room at this rate.” Saoirse said.

“If only I could.” Riagan said. “See you later.” Riagan said with a smirk. Saoirse glared and threw her pillow at his head as he walked through the threshold and out the door.

Saoirse walked around the courtyard and watched the sunrise turn from a golden light to full day break. Her mind never went back to rest after Riagan left that morning. She followed her urges, her need to burn off the building anger bubbling up and out of her pores and spilling out of her ears, and left the fortress. She needed fresh air. Some quiet far away from the echoing halls of the fortress. It was not going well, her first months as an O’Connor was less than fulfilling. She felt like a gnat looking for a place to fly and swatted down for existing.

“Saoirse!” A female voice called to her. Saoirse readied herself for an attack. Her heart rate rose, her breath a little shallow, her hands balled into fists and her arms became taut.

“What!” Saoirse replied. “Oh, hi Brighid. What are you doing here?”

“We were out training in the courtyard now, at sunrise. Would you like to join us for old times’ sake?” Brighid offered to her old friend.

“Why would I do that?” Saoirse scoffed, “I’m not a warrior anymore.”

“You will always be one of us.” Brighid said, “I’m still here for you. Is it going any better with Riagan?”

“No, no it’s not. He won’t even sleep in our bed. He won’t kiss me. He despises me for not being her.” Saoirse complained.

“Well you knew what you were getting into that night. You knew he was with her the night before the wedding. He told you he was in love with Ciannait and always would be. Why did you go through with it?” Brighid asked.

“Are you seriously standing here, with your whole life ahead of you, asking me why I listened to the command of my Chieftain? You serve in his army and I serve in his family. And if you want to stay in his good graces as a warrior of rank, you will never interrogate me again. We may have grown up together, but we are not equals now. You are not there for me, you serve me.” Saoirse said and took Brighid’s sword.

She walked from the middle of the courtyard to the wall that overlooked the ocean below. Saoirse raised the sword over her hand and dropped it into the blue below and smiled at Brighid’s bewildered and embarrassed face. “I think I will join you, after you retrieve your sword. Take care, dear.” Saoirse sneered and walked away, filled with a venom of bitterness. Of all people, she believed Brighid would understand and would show her sympathy.

“Don’t tell me to take care when you threw my most expensive possession in the sea!” Brighid yelled. “Who are you?”

“I am the unwanted scraps. The crumbs of despair. I am wanted by no one and unable to be loved the way I wish I could be. I am stuck in a cage of expectation and failure. I am not Saoirse, I am sadness in a body. My old self died when my hands were bound to Riagan’s.” Saoirse moped.

“Be loved then. Find your way to happiness. Run away. Leave him!” Brighid yelled.

“I can’t.” Saoirse cried. “I have to go.” Saoirse shuttered and ran away. Brighid was confused, she turned around and saw a silhouette standing in a window above them – the Chieftainness was watching.

Brighid walked slowly back to the lines of warriors training with swords, carrying huge jugs of water on their shoulders, lifting large stones. Running, jumping, it was chaotic to her heavy heart. She walked over to the familiar group of friends, the people she and Saoirse used to flock to. Brighid was lonely too without her best friend. Saoirse could only think of herself and what she lost – but what about Brighid? She was alone now, left to figure out her place in the world among strangers. The clan was huge and they brought representatives from all the regions to serve in this army. No one else she knew as deeply or could trust as easily with her life, like she could with Saoirse. Brighid, only seventeen, was standing among twenty and thirty year old men and women. She was adrift at sea in a current moving quickly in a direction. She wanted Saoirse to come back and do this together, to travel together. But they were separated now. Brighid exhaled, it was time she accepted it and moved on with her life.

Chapter 76: Wolves Feast on the Shattered Bones

797 AD, Beltaine Festival during Geamhain, Kingdom of Galway

Riagan had his back against a wall, a cold stone wall. It was an exterior wall, cut of rocks quarried from the hesitant tumbling cliffs that easily slipped into the sea. The coolness permeated his shirt, soaked into his skin. He was sweating, his skin felt clammy like the walls of his heart. All the happiness of his soul was slipping out of him, evaporating and not leaving a trace. He stayed against the wall, in the spot where he had been pushed with a fury that he did not realize his father had. Conn was on a tirade. For twenty minutes his father had erupted like a fissure in the earth, his lava of anger poured down the sides of his room, trapping Riagan to a prison of his father’s making.

“But I love her, Da. Why can’t I be with her? I don’t want to be with Saoirse.” Riagan protested.

“The Gods have spoken, you will never be with Ciannait! And your little tryst with Ciannait may have done untold danger to us. We have just entered the light season, all the crops are in the earth, all the livestock out to pasture and unprotected. The Gods may be taking stock already, plucking away our good fortune before it can even be grown.”

“Bad harvest!” Riagan yelled to the ceiling. “Bad harvest!”

“Shut your irresponsible mouth! I know what you are doing, how stupid do you believe the faeries to be? They saw what you did tonight, just like I did. They know your heart and mind. You are the heir to this kingdom, you don’t have the choice to follow your heart wherever it leads. You are called to do what is right for our people.” Conn said.

“What are the Gods going to do to me for spending the night with Ciannait?” Riagan asked flippantly, it was an hour before dawn. He was exhausted and tired of fearing the Gods without cause. “Seriously Da, you tell me to act like an adult, then tell me what I should be afraid of?”

Conn looked at his son and sneered, he had his mother’s eyes and her cutting lack of tact, her abandon to be superior no matter who she hurt. “You and Ciannait, your marriage will make the rocks fall into the sea. The land of Galway will open into a chasm and everything you see will disappear. That is what you should fear. Galway, Shannon, Limerick, beyond it will all be swallowed up into the sea and so will every single person who walks the land. Think of that next time you believe your love is worth the destruction of tens of thousands of lives.”

Riagan scoffed.

“Out with it,” Conn demanded.

“I’m having a hard time understanding why, if you knew this is how the Gods feel, do you let us live our whole lives believing that we were fated to be together? Just to take it away at the last second. Why are you forcing Saoirse and I together? She has a good life as it is, have you even asked her if she wants to marry me? Because she wants nothing to do with me.” Riagan said.

“What we want we cannot always have.” Conn said. “Ciannait will leave tomorrow and will not be welcome in this harbor again unless you are not here. You will marry Saoirse and you will protect us all.”

“But I will never love her.” Riagan argued back.

“Then you, my son, will never live to know happiness if you let your emotions decide your future.” Conn said.

“It seems to suit Mum well enough. I think I’ll be okay.” Riagan replied.

“Get out.” Conn ordered. He crossed his arms and glared as Riagan left the room. Riagan slammed the door. A tapestry that decorated the door cascaded to the floor. It was an image of the O’Connors – his father, his mother and Conn when he was a child. Conn cursed the door and walked over to the tapestry. He carefully picked it up and looked at a large gash splitting the fabric from the top of Aedh’s head to the feet of Conn.

Saoirse sat by the fire, curled up in Declan’s arms. He was breathing in the heavy and steady rhythm of a soul that is far off in the world of dreams. One lost to the world of the insomniac. Brynhildr slept in a heap of cloaks, curled up in a ball next to her friends. Seamus was awake, poking the fire with a stick, sending coals and little sparks into the air. Saoirse grabbed a stick and dragged her stick through the gray dusty sand in the remnants of the burned logs that were. Just like excitement that had drowned out all her worry, it was a moment in time, and now there was nothing left to keep her fears from screaming out. Back and forth, swirling the sand, she dragged her stick into the ashes.

“How are you doing?” Seamus asked.

“My future is gone. My life is over. I’m doing great.” Saoirse said sarcastically.

“My brother is a cliospairneach.” Seamus said.

“Then tell him that, Seamus.” Saoirse replied. “Or better yet, help me out. Tell him to run away with her. Let me run away. Marry me, something better than making me pledge my life to someone who is so in love with another girl he can’t even remember my name. Whose mother looks at me like she wants to squash me like a bug when I walk into a room. Help me, Seamus, don’t stand by and watch me walk to my death.” Saoirse cried.

“You are not walking to your death. The Gods have called you to this position, it is your fate, you will save us all from destruction.” Seamus urged her.

“What about my own?” Saoirse began to sob.

“Come here,” Seamus reached out to her and Saoirse sat down next to him. He rubbed her back and she wallowed in the despair of the loveless existence of a caged oppression of spirit, a future disappearing before her as light pushed its way back in the dawn.

“Say you want to marry me, I could at least live with a friend instead of a ghost.” Saoirse said.

“I can’t do that. But I will protect you from her, from him. I will keep you safe and get you out when the time is right. You will have a future just as bright as you wanted.” Seamus said and looked at Saoirse’s weepy eyes. He wiped away her tears with his thumb and she kissed the back of his hand. He tucked her dark hair behind her ear and kissed her gently.

“I will never love him, I am incapable of it.” Saoirse said.

“I know. You don’t have to.” Seamus said. “But you can’t talk like that, your life is not over. I will love you for him, I will care for you as he should. I will wipe away your tears and share your joys. I will give you the best life I can.” Seamus whispered in her ear.

“I will wipe away your tears and share your joys. I will give you the best life I can.” Riagan’s voice echoed in the great hall. His hands bound together with Saoirse’s. He looked at her and she returned his gaze.