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Chapter One

Alcluith, Kingdom of the Breatann, 642AD


Clouds drifted across the summer sky, forming shapes from myth and legend.  Saraid lay and watched them beneath the spreading canopy of an ancient oak.  She was comfortably settled in a nest of cushions and her dress with its trailing sleeves was loose fitting, favouring comfort instead of fashion.  Her pale sheath of hair, bound in a single plait, fell over her shoulder and was secured with a simple clasp.  Saraid wriggled her toes comfortably in their soft deerskin slippers and smiled with deep contentment.  Nearby the ladies of her court strolled arm in arm or teased and flirted with the men-at-arms accompanying them. Her litter bearers amused themselves by rolling dice in the shade of a small stand of beech. It was an idyllic scene.  Saraid’s role as Rowallan’s wife and queen of the Breatann was one she relished, but she was now well into her term of carrying their first child. There were occasions when Saraid felt the need to dispense with the formality of court and the ostentation that formed such an integral part her existence.  Here she could be herself, appearance was immaterial and nothing untoward expected.  Resting peacefully at the edge of a wild flower meadow, perfection reigned in Saraid’s world.  Only the birth of her child remained to make the pattern of her life complete.  Fortune had indeed smiled upon her favourably.
              
Saraid turned from contemplating the sky and glanced fondly at Bridget, the only constant presence in her life since childhood.  Initially Bridget had been appointed Saraid’s nurse, later she remained a steadfast presence as both companion and maid.  Bridget had willingly travelled with her mistress to the fortress stronghold of Alcluith when Saraid became Rowallan’s bride.  She looked up and smiled broadly as she noticed Saraid’s attention was drawn to the deft movement of her quick fingers, revealing the circlet of wild flowers she was fashioning.  It was intricately woven with all the skill Bridget brought to anything she set her mind to doing. 
‘A crown for you, my lady,’ she offered, holding the confection of delicate beauty up for inspection.
Saraid reached out with obvious delight and placed the circlet on her head. 
‘A perfect fit,’ she smiled with childlike enthusiasm. ‘And it is far more comfortable than anything made of metal and stones.  I think I shall wear this one in future.  It may not be as grand, but it is certainly more beautiful.’          

Saraid settled back to resume her contemplation of the sky and instinctively placed a protective hand over her womb where Rowallan’s child grew steadily every day.  Married for just under a year and already she carried a potential heir to the throne.  The Breatann of Alcluith had adopted the Christian faith two centuries earlier when missionaries of the new religion sailed from Eirinn in the west across the Holy Sea.  Their conversion had not always progressed smoothly.  One of Rowallan’s forefathers had been roundly admonished by the great teacher Patrick for his rough treatment of the saint’s converts. Raids on fellow Christians by a monarch who professed allegiance to the Almighty were most certainly not to be tolerated.   But by Saraid’s generation faith in the One True God was firmly entrenched and every day she prayed earnestly that her child would be a boy.  Rowallan’s first born must be a son in order to secure the succession and provide security for the future. There would be time enough for daughters to dress up, spoil, and lavish attention upon later.  From birth a son would carry the weight of the kingdom on his shoulders. Saraid knew her personal involvement in his upbringing would be minimal but that was a price she was prepared to pay to ensure continuity and peace in the realm.

The union of Saraid and Rowallan was not of their choosing as a formal betrothal contact had been concluded with great pomp and ceremony soon after Saraid’s birth.  Her father was a petty king with a tenuous grip on lands bordering Alcluith to the northeast.  Recognising the need for added security in increasingly troubled and perilous times he had agreed to an arrangement with Rowallan’s kin.  Saraid’s father would retain control of the territory during his lifetime but on his death the land would pass through his daughter to her husband.  Their people would, as a result, answer directly to Dun Breatann.  They would lose their separate identity but he was pragmatic enough to realise this was preferable to eventual extinction.

Barely two months old and still tightly swaddled in the wrappings of infancy, Saraid had no recollection of the event.  As a sturdy five year old, with an unruly shock of dark hair and intelligent bright blue eyes Rowallan was also too young to display any interest in the significance of the ceremony.  He spared only a few moments to examine his future bride dispassionately.  In her unformed features he found nothing of interest and he soon dismissed her as being of limited importance.  What little he could see held small appeal; a tiny crumpled face, indignant mewling cries protesting against the unwelcome attention of a gaggle of unexpected strangers, startling movement and unbearable noise.  After a mere heartbeat, Rowallan had turned away, distracted by the bustle of activity around him.
‘She can’t do very much yet,’ was all he said when pressed for a reaction.  His brow furrowed as he made a final pronouncement.   ‘And she does not even know that I am here.’  
 Rowallan spent the remainder of the occasion playing mock battles with the other boys and enjoying the unfamiliar attention of adults.  Then he returned home and promptly forgot all about her.       

The marriage was to have been celebrated when Saraid reached her twelfth summer, but turmoil within the region forced a postponement.  Rowallan’s father died unexpectedly and his full attention was drawn to safeguarding Breatann lands and consolidating his position.  Seasons passed during which Rowallan had neither the time nor inclination to court a new bride. Saraid was already approaching sixteen when the elite guard chosen from Rowallan’s war band finally arrived to accompany her to Alcluith and the wedding ceremony that would honour their betrothal.

Saraid had been grateful for the intervening years.  They had given her valuable time to prepare herself for her new role.  She was now at an age when she felt far more confident in taking on the position of wife and consort, but she still had no idea what to expect from her new husband.
‘I have heard that he is handsome, but will he be cruel or kind?’ she asked Bridget in a torrent of questions as they carefully folded and packed her possessions into ornately carved wooden chests scattered with aromatic herbs in preparation for the journey.
‘What will he expect of me?  Maybe he will ignore me altogether!  Better that,’ she laughed draping a bright plaid shawl over Bridget’s head playfully, ‘than have him pursue me with attention I find unwelcome.’
‘Child, how can you expect me to give you the answers you are looking for,’ Bridget smiled back indulgently.
‘I have been near cloistered here with you since the day you were born.  I am surely not the one to be asking an opinion on matrimony.  Be patient, you will have all the answers you are looking for soon enough.’
Bridget continued to treat the situation lightly, but in private she was concerned about the well being of her charge.  What if Rowallan treated Saraid unkindly or with ill-concealed disdain?  The girl had spent her entire existence in a quiet backwater.  Now she would find herself at the centre of a kingdom.  Saraid would be surrounded by strangers, and in the glare of the court there would be very few places she would be able to retreat to or find solace if the match was not to her liking.
‘At least he is young.  That alone is enough for me,’ was Saraid’s last opinion on the subject.
Growing up she had been aware of the terror and dread experience by other young girls at the prospect of a union with a much older husband.  Men who had already worn out a succession of previous wives, who often approached their immature brides with brutality and left them scarred physically and mentally until with no defences left they died well before their time in childbirth.
That at least Saraid assumed she would be spared, and it gave her hope for the future.

Although the distance between her childhood home and Alcluith was not great, the wedding procession took a number of days to reach its destination as Saraid and her escort slowly journeyed south.  News of the impending marriage had travelled far and wide.  Everyone wanted to catch a glimpse of Rowallan’s bride.  Children lined the route, throwing flowers in her path, scampering alongside the docile mare carefully selected by Bridget.  Surrounded by the men Rowallan had sent for her protection, Saraid still managed to remain slightly apart so that all could enjoy a clear view of the girl who was to become their queen.  She kept her head uncovered and her pale silver hair shone like a halo in the bright summer sun.  Rowallan had sent a chest of copper coins to be distributed to the crowd along the way, and the jostling to possess one remained good-humoured and joyful.  By the time they reached the fortress positioned on the summit of a great volcanic rock rising in a double peak two hundred and forty feet above the confluence of the majestic river from which it took its name, the cavalcade had taken on the aspect of a fairy procession.  Saraid’s arrival was already becoming the source of legend, a portent of prosperity and greatness to come.                                  

Rowallan greeted the wedding party with a public show of ceremony, but then withdrew to give Saraid an opportunity to familiarize herself with her new surroundings and the life she would be entering.  In the few days that remained between Saraid’s arrival and their marriage vows, Rowallan studied her with interest.  She was beautiful, more beautiful than he had expected and the rapturous descriptions that preceded her arrival during the celebrated procession to Alcluith had not been exaggerated.  But she was beautiful without being vacuous and he soon realised that the quiet stillness with which she bore herself did not signify stupidity.  Instead he noticed she was studying everything around her with interest, waiting until she had absorbed this strange new environment before attempting to make any mark on her new surroundings.  By the time they stood side by side before Father Ninian who was to join them in matrimony, Rowallan was convinced that their union would prove successful.  Tall and slim, illuminated by the light of a thousand candles, Saraid commanded the court’s attention. She was dressed in a sumptuous gown of deep ruby hue, the traditional colour of marriage.  Red - the colour of life, the colour of the bloodline that would ensure the continuance of Rowallan’s kin and safeguard the future of his kingdom.

The biggest surprise of all came to them both on their wedding night. They had a luxury enjoyed by few in an era when most activities were communal and little privacy was accorded the majority of individuals.  As king Rowallan enjoyed the comfort of a well-appointed chamber above the Great Hall, and this is where they retired after the marriage festivities were complete.  The isolation for either of them might have proved as much a trial as a sanctuary.  The die that had been cast could have rolled either way.  From the outset it was impossible to tell.

Rowallan had no idea what reaction he could expect from his new bride.  She stood before him, suddenly quiet and shy, hardly daring to lift her eyes to meet his.  In the short time they had spent together she had spoken no more than a handful of words to him directly.  He had as yet no idea what impression she had formed or what her thoughts were for the future.
He was therefore as taken aback as she was when he reached out to touch her and felt the tremor of her response from the first contact.  Rowallan was experienced enough to realise that physical attraction and even mutual desire did not always guarantee a fulfilling sexual experience.  He had found his expectations dashed before by clumsy, unsatisfying couplings that made him realise youth, beauty and the promise that seemed inherent in them were not always enough.  It was obvious that Saraid had no previous knowledge and little idea of what to expect.  She was clearly relying on him to guide her, and yet from the first moment when he drew her into his embrace, he realised that he had found someone who could mould herself seamlessly into his being.  There was no fumbling, no gauche uncertainty.  She moved with him effortlessly, seemingly able to anticipate his every need in a mutually satisfying union that needed no words.

They both emerged equally surprised.  Of all the expectations they had brought to this marriage, this was something least anticipated of all.  Theirs was to prove to be a real love match, a perfect harmony of body and mind.  The chance of finding such compatibility with the whole world open to them for choice would have been remarkable.  That they were able to do so from a match that was not of their making was nothing less than a miracle.

The next morning the maids who were dispatched to their chamber emerged gleefully carrying the bedclothes that heralded the success of the wedding night.
‘The king’s bride is no longer a maid!’ they declared triumphantly, exuberantly spreading the sheets proclaiming the evidence over a hedge for all to see.
The marriage was successfully consummated.  A beautiful new wife now formally the consort of a popular king, before long an heir would surely be on the way.  Succession, permanence, security assured, that was all the good people of Alcluith hoped for.

The news, when it broke, that Saraid was expecting her first child, was greeted with a tremendous roar of approval.  The feasting in the great hall went on long into the night.  Theirs was a predominantly young court, characterised by optimism and exuberance.  They looked forward with eager anticipation to the future, to a horizon that seemed bright with promise.

‘How much greater will the celebration be if this child is born a boy,’ Saraid thought to herself as she snuggled deeper into her temporary resting place under the spreading branches of the venerable oak and luxuriated in the suspense of anticipation.

Her attention was suddenly drawn to a dishevelled figure, running as fast as small thin legs were able to carry her across the open plain towards them.  Saraid raised a hand to shield her eyes from the glare of the late afternoon sun.  The girl appeared to be a kitchen maid, rapidly covering the ground between them and the fortress.  The guard closest to the perimeter of the group broke ranks and strode out to meet her.  A rapid conversation followed, the young urchin gesticulating in the direction of the fort, her agitation plain.  Before long the man was making his way to Saraid’s side.  He approached with deference but his manner was decisive.
‘My Lady, the king has returned to Alcluith.  We are summoned to back to Dun Breatann with all haste.’    

With a sigh of resignation Saraid allowed herself to be helped into the litter that would carry her back to the fort.  She endured its stately pace with ill concealed impatience.  By good fortune, due to Saraid’s condition they had not ventured far this day.  On previous occasions it had been possible to follow the course of the majestic Cluith all the way to great Loch Laomainn whose furthest shores defined the outer boundary of Alcluith.  Or they had explored the smaller but faster flowing River Leven whose rapids provided a bountiful harvest of fish for all the populace to enjoy.  But those were now adventures for another time.  Soon, Saraid promised herself, she would be able to ride on her own again instead of being treated as if she was either ancient or infirm.  Rowallan’s concern was justifiably focused on the safety of the child, but there were times when Saraid grumbled to herself that he was increasingly overprotective.  She was not allowed to ride in case she fell and put the babe at risk, soon she would not be allowed to walk so obsessive was he that no harm should come to his heir.          

While they made their steady progress across the open plain Saraid pondered the new challenge facing her husband’s kingdom.  When she was a child the threat of danger had always come from the north.  Fierce painted tribesmen who attacked with lightning speed and terrified all who were unfortunate enough to stray into their path.  Youngsters who misbehaved were threatened with exaggerated accounts of the fearsome appearance of these warriors, men told tales of superhuman strength and deceptive cunning.  But despite this fearful reputation one truth remained.  The raids were transient.  Control of territory was not the objective.  Moveable booty was the target – herds of cattle or disposable wealth that could be carried back across the mountainous divide.  The painted warriors swept into the Lowlands, took what they could and then returned to the mysterious depths of their wild, untamed domain.  The scars were traumatic but they were not permanent.  People picked themselves up, attempted to put things aright and went on again with their lives.               

This threat was different.  A new people had come from across the Eastern Sea.  Their sights were set on land.  They came to conquer and to stay.  The Breatann were being swept before the new usurpers who collectively became known as the Sais.  They pushed the original holders of the land ever north or west, forcing them to either submit to foreign rule or retreat.

The painted tribes were not part of Saraid’s direct kin but at a very deep and fundamental level they shared a common bond.  Despite their differences both were Keltoi.  There were vague similarities in language and certain shared traditions.  The newcomers were completely different.  They might present a more civilized face but as such they were far more terrifying. 

The stronghold of Alcluith was bustling with frenzied activity when the royal litter passed through the gatehouse and entered the central courtyard.  After the peace and tranquility of the woodland, Saraid found the noise and commotion disorientating.   People seemed to be milling around everywhere.  The returning war-band bellowed orders while harassed grooms scurried to lead mounts to be stabled, and servants hurriedly carried baggage and excess armour to the barracks.  Despite the seeming chaos there was an air or suppressed excitement, of purpose and intent that was at once frightening and exhilarating.

Saraid felt a moment of panic as she was helped from the litter, but her feet had no sooner touched the ground when Rowallan appeared at her side.  Placing a steadying arm about her, he protectively guided her to a small alcove, away from the milling throng.
‘Saraid – here you are at last.  I have been watching for you this last hour!’
She turned to face him and allowed herself to be caught in his quick embrace.
‘We go to war, my love,‘  he blurted the words out, unable to contain himself any longer.
Saraid looked up at him in surprise.  Rowallan’s eyes shone with an intensity she found unnerving.  She had never seen him quite as animated.  He all but picked her up and whirled her around in his excitement.  War was something she had grown up learning to fear, but Rowallan was behaving like a small child eager to set off on a great adventure.  He gave her no time to assimilate the information and began to lead the way as quickly as possible through the continuing melee towards the Great Hall.
‘Come, I must address the court.  I did not want to do so without you by my side, but now you are here there is much to prepare.’     

Inside the hall was packed to capacity.  Freshly laid rushes were already crushed and trampled underfoot.  The great central hearth remained unlit due to the warm summer weather, but even so the atmosphere in the closely packed space was quickly becoming stifling.  Rowallan guided Saraid to the raised dais from which the tables had been removed and only their two carved thrones remained.  Bridget hurried ahead of them and she solicitously helped Saraid to be seated before Rowallan turned to address the crowd.  The noise rapidly subsided, and his clear strong voice carried to every corner of the room.

‘The news I bring back from the East is of war! Oswiu, newly crowned king of Bernicia is marching on our land.  Yesterday his men crossed the boundary of our realm, before long they will be hammering at our door.’
Rowallan took a step forward to give added impetus to his next words, although in the sudden hush that had descended no further emphasis was needed.
‘We will not wait here at his whim to be trapped into a corner.  At first light we ride out to meet his force where they are camped at St Aidan’s Field.  Tomorrow the destiny of Alcluith and the Breatann will be decided!’

There was a mixed response to Rowallan’s words.  Some of those congregated began an instinctive cheer of approval.  Others raised doubting voices in confusion.
‘Why do we risk our hand at open combat?  Alcluith is one of the most easily defensible strongholds in the land.  Oswiu’s men will be powerless to take the kingdom if he cannot penetrate these walls.  We could withstand a prolonged siege and leave Oswiu frustrated if he cannot capture the Rock.’
Rowallan shook his head in disagreement.
‘That is exactly what I want to avoid.  Winter is approaching.  If the siege outlasts our supplies we will starve and face the risk of being cowered into submission.  That is something we must guard against happening.’
He turned slightly in a gesture that drew attention to Saraid as she sat still and silent behind him.
‘My wife has almost reached full term.  In a fortnight or possibly even less my child will be born.  In all likelihood a child that will come into the world as my heir, a future king who will carry our people forward to greater glory once I am gone.  I will not have my son born into a fortress that has become a prison.  He will not come into this world like a cur that has been trapped in a cage with the wolves baying at his heels.’
Rowallan spread his arms wide, carried away by his own rhetoric.
‘My son will be born the custodian of all he surveys, ruler of Alcluith and more.  How can those of you who doubt me have so little faith?’
His penetrating blue gaze took in all those who had been faltering.
‘We are a well-honed force.  We have right and valour on our side.  We will march out and face this enemy with conviction and we will destroy them.  Alcluith will be freed from the threat of invasion.  No one will dare to attempt a similar advance once we have made our mark on Oswiu’s men.’
As the rumbling noise that started to build once his argument took hold became louder, Rowallan was forced to raise his voice and his confidence soared.  He felt invincible, compelled to drive his kin on to even greater heights.
‘And we will not stop there.  Once Alcluith and our lands are secure we will become the aggressors.  We will drive these foreign usurpers off this island altogether and regain all the territory once held by the Breatann peoples.  Once again we will control territory even the Romans were not able to wrest from us, lands that were taken from us with stealth by those who were invited here to be our allies.  We can prevail.  We have the strength.  We have the determination.  Who can gainsay what we have set our hearts and minds to achieving?’

No more words were possible.  The hall erupted in a cacophony of noise, a tumult of exultation and emotion.  A great roar of ‘Victory to Rowallan!’ quickly followed by a chanting litany of ‘Alcluith!’ made urther argument impossible.                              
                
Seated on her ornately carved throne, Saraid felt an increasing sense of dislocation from the scene in front of her.  She reached a tentative hand to her brow and realised she was still wearing the floral coronet that had been placed there so frivolously earlier in the day.  It seemed suddenly incongruous, an action belonging to another place and another time.  Lowering her arm her fingers started to unconsciously follow the grooves in the wooden armrests as though she was trying to anchor herself in the here and now.  She felt increasingly remote from the action unfolding before her, as if she had been drawn forcibly backwards into a void and was viewing the hall from a great distance through a long narrow tunnel.  It was taking an intense effort of will to remain focussed, to concentrate on Rowallan’s words and the reaction of those assembled before him.  It would, she realised, be so much easier to stop trying, to allow her aching mind to rest.

Suddenly Saraid became aware of Rowallan kneeling at her side, the concern etched on his face as disconcerting as his earlier exuberance and enthusiasm had been.
‘Saraid, sweetheart, are you ill?  You have become so terribly pale.’
‘It is just the baby making me tired,’ she lied as she smiled wanly up at him.
‘That and the heat and noise in the hall have made me feel weaker than usual.’
She took his arm as he helped her rise from the throne, but then gently disentangled herself as Rowallan made to accompany her from the room.
‘Bridget can take me upstairs and see to my needs.  I think I will lie down and rest for a while.  For someone in my condition it has been an eventful day.’
Suddenly all Saraid wanted to do was escape the hall, and inextricably Rowallan’s presence as well.  She recognised the relief that was mirrored in his eyes at her decision.  He was eager to return to his men and the battle plans they needed to finalise before morning.  Saraid glanced over her shoulder as she left the hall, but Rowallan had already stepped down from the dais and was in deep conversation with a group of his war-band. The tactics of battle now uppermost in his mind, all thought of her forgotten.

It was late when Rowallan finally joined her in their chamber where she had shut herself away for the rest of the day.  Saraid had managed to sleep for a short while after Bridget left her comfortably settled in bed, but once she woke, unsure of what had disturbed her she found herself unable to relax again.  The tray of food that had been brought for her evening meal lay largely untouched.  She had candles lit against the dark and lay wide-eyed and staring, unable to find the rest she craved.

Rowallan seemed surprised when he climbed into bed beside her and realised she was still awake.  He was even more taken aback when she suddenly turned in his direction and clung to him with an unexpected fierceness he had never known before.  Even more to his amazement dry, gulping sobs alerted him to the fact that she was shedding the tears she had been holding back since first hearing the news that Alcluith was at war. 
He reacted with consternation.
‘Saraid my heart, please don’t cry.’
Rowallan was at a loss as to how he could reassure her that all would be well, that he would return to her victorious the following evening.  Placing a kiss on her forehead he sought the words to comfort her.
‘Have you so little faith in my ability to protect you and the realm?’ he chided gently.
‘Now more than ever I have reason to fight with all my being, for your sake, and that of our unborn child.’
He gently ran his hands over her swollen stomach, and then tried to loosen the grip of her fingers, raising each in turn to his lips.  Saraid blinked away the tears and tried to smile at his words.
‘It is our child I fear for most of all,’ she finally managed in a low whisper.
‘Can’t you see Rowallan. He is not yet born and already his life is threatened.  I would die if anything happened to him - or to you.  After tasting such happiness as I have I could just not bear it.’
Her voice trailed off in a tremor as tears threatened to overcome her once more and she swallowed hard to hold them at bay.  
Rowallan smiled fondly at her words.
‘So you are sure already that we are to have a son?’
He gently stroked her hair and cradled her closer to him.
‘Try not to think so far ahead my love.  Take every moment as it comes.  Right now you and the child are both safe in my arms and that is the memory I want to carry with me into battle tomorrow.  Now try to sleep.  We have enough to concern ourselves come morning.’

Before long Saraid was aware from his measured even breathing that Rowallan had fallen asleep.  She was amazed at the ability of men to view life in such a single-minded fashion.  Rowallan possessed none of the doubts and worries that plagued her.  He expected events to follow his greater plan and met each day head on with confidence.  She tried to lie quietly so as not to disturb him, but hours passed before she finally drifted into unconsciousness.       

At daybreak Saraid awoke still tired and fretful, feeling as though she had benefited from no rest at all.  Her head ached, her eyes felt dry and sore as though a handful of grit had been rubbed across her face.  She found she was forced to make an extreme effort to stop her fingers from trembling as she helped her husband make his preparations for the morning.  Rowallan’s words from the previous night played endlessly through her mind.  She did not want his last sight of her to be distraught, helpless and in tears, so she put her full concentration into the task in hand and spoke as little as possible.  Despite her fears and the temptation to hold him close and physically restrain him from leaving, Saraid let out a sigh of relief once all was complete and the host rode out into the rapidly dissipating morning mist.

The clatter of hooves was still ringing in her ears as Saraid made her way up to the fortress parapet and stood watching silently until the last movement faded from view.  She made it clear her wish was to spend the duration of the day without interference and fell into a pattern of mindless activity wandering Alcluith like a pale wraith, unable to find solace anywhere.  Even Bridget, usually her shadow, let her alone, although she watched Saraid constantly from a distance and made sympathetic clucking noises as she followed her mistress’s aimless progress.  Gentle Father Ninian hovered uncomfortably nearby, unsure whether he should uphold his pastoral duty and administer to one of his flock or keep his own council.  Bridget was quick to put an end to his hesitation.
‘Leave her be,’ she instructed with quiet determination.
‘There will be time enough later that she may seek out your ministry.   Now my mistress needs to be left in peace.’             

Initially Saraid sought relief in the tiny chapel, built on an outcrop of rock, set slightly apart from the main network of buildings.  She knelt in prayer, a lonely isolated figure, trying to still her mind and entreat God’s mercy on all she held dear.  Saraid tried to focus on the battle, but her thoughts were a jumble and her mind kept wandering.  Inexplicitly, despite the urgency of the situation her pleas kept reverting to the child in her womb.
‘Oh Lord please don’t let anything happen to my child - not now when my time is so near and he is mere days from entering this world…. This child is my whole life, my reason for being… please watch over him, protect him and keep him from harm.’

Wearily she rested her forehead on her hands, folded steadfastly on the altar rail.  The chapel absorbed her words in silence.  The peace she sought remained elusive.  Soon she left the tiny stone building and made her way back to the central fortress once more.  She found she had retraced her steps to the highest parapet, looking out over the eternal flow of the converging rivers and endless sweep of the plains.

Dusk was approaching before Saraid became aware of movement, at first just a speck of dust that slowly revealed itself to be a man on horseback, galloping towards her.
‘Rowallan,’ she breathed.  ‘At last.’
She remained on the parapet as the horseman closed the ground between them.  He was still dressed for battle, his leather armour scuffed and bloodied, his weapons dulled from the rigours of combat.  It was not possible for her to tell as yet with any sense of certainty if he was friend or foe.    

What was unmistakable though was an air of triumph as the man thundered towards her, holding a talisman of some sort aloft in one hand.  Saraid strained to see what he was carrying, but at first the distance between them was too great.  It was only as the horseman was nearing the foot of the great rock that she was able to see what it was that he held so firmly in his grasp - Rowallan’s newly severed head, still fresh with his own blood and gore.

Light was snuffed out in an instant.  With an inhuman cry and a piercing sensation of pain, Saraid felt the cold stone floor rush towards her.  She was engulfed by a dark tidal wave of oblivion and fell in a limp bundle onto the ground.

4 comments:

CraveCute said...

Sharon, you are a wonderful writer! This should be an e-book! What an incredible gift you have given us readers. I am hooked! ~~Diane

Barbara said...

I’m not a writer, but I do read a lot (an awful lot!) and I can tell you from a reader's point of view – this is good! Diane is right – you do have a gift – grab it with both hands!

Roger Lawrence said...

Don't you dare let this go. I loved it and my usual faire is space stations and zombie aliens.
Your passion for, and in, this is obvious.
Keep at it.

earthenmagic said...

..superb! ~ i stand with bated breath!... ...in thine own time ~ the unfolding of this epic shalt for to all be revealed!... ...may endless muses inspire thee! ~ thee hath the magic`ness of the true bard`ess within thee! ~ blessed be!...(O:

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