With Merlin dead, the succession undecided, and the Celtic church on the defensive from Rome, intrigue sweeps the court of the High King Arthur. But it’s battlefield news that consumes Queen Gwenhyfar’s young scribe, Kella O’Toole: her fiancé is dead and her father gone missing. Determined to find him at all costs, Kella defies the queen’s orders and sets out for Pictish territory. Her foster brother Alyn, a disillusioned priest who questions his calling, agrees to help her. The journey itself is perilous. But it’s their secrets that land Kella and Alyn in a viper’s nest of treachery that threatens both their lives and the future of Albion. Can they summon the love and faith they need to find their way not only out of danger, but into happiness? Brilliantly researched, vividly imagined, and movingly written—a memorable climax to the Brides of Alba series.
About the Author
Linda Windsor is the best-selling, award-winning author of more than thirty novels, with more than a million books in print. Her most recent work includes Healer and Thief, the first two volumes in the Brides of Alba series, and the early Irish Celtic Fires of Gleannmara trilogy.
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By Linda Windsor
David C. CookCopyright © 2012 Linda Windsor
All rights reserved.
Late sixth century AD Leafbud
One could become lost in the crowds gathering to honor the passing of Merlin Emrys of Powys. But lost was a familiar feeling for Alyn O'Byrne, no matter where he was. He'd hoped that coming home to Alba from his six-year sojourn in the East might help him find the man he'd once been and the calling he'd once embraced so fervently. But Merlin Emrys had been a vital part of that hope, encouraging Alyn to pursue his education beyond Scripture to the sciencia of the East.
"Everything mankind needs to know is in the Word," the sage had told Alyn, "but not everything there to know is written. To discern the gifts of creation, the properties of the seen and the unseen all around us, is to grow closer to the Creator of it all."
Those words had fired Alyn's natural curiosity and his soul's longing to learn the workings of creation and to grow closer to God.
"But some knowledge is dangerous, Merlin," Alyn protested beneath his breath as he was swept along with the crowd from the Solway waterfront to Arthur's Stone Castle, where the memorial service was to take place. "It drives us away from God as sure as sampling Eden's forbidden fruit."
"One cannot escape from God."
That was what Hassan ibn Yusuf ibn Matar—a prince of the Ghassãnid, the Christian Arabs sworn to protect Byzantium—had told Alyn when Alyn announced he was leaving the Baghdad School of Wisdom and the ministry after the fiery accident that had killed their teacher. It was Hassan who had pulled an unconscious Alyn from the burning workshop. Hassan who had stayed by his bedside while Alyn recovered from the terrible explosion. Only Hassan knew of the demons haunting Alyn's soul ... the voices that had driven away God's peace and presence.
Hassan and Alyn had become fast friends during their first week at the school, when Alyn had saved the womanizer from the vengeance of the local sultan. For that, Hassan pledged his everlasting friendship and loyalty. Like the sleeping monkey—a parting gift from his friend—curled in a sling beneath Alyn's cloak, sometimes Hassan's friendship was a blessing and, at others, a misadventure waiting to happen.
After much jostling, herding, and persuasion, Alyn stood with his back to one of the elaborately carved columns inside Arthur's great hall with the honored guests. Smoke from a central hearth curled toward the vaulted ceiling. Snatches of conversation regarding the great Merlin Emrys circulated through the crowd. Such a man as Merlin was thought to be beyond death's claws. Had they not seen his magic?
Grimacing, Alyn gazed at the colorful tapestries adorning the walls. Merlin was no more a magician than Alyn was. He was a man of science and a master of illusion. Some might say it was Merlin's spirit that brought to life tapestries hanging along the walls, but 'twas only the flickering of light from the torches mounted along the walls and in candelabras overhead. That and an occasional draft.
One tapestry in particular caught Alyn's eye. A new one. When he was last here, the queen's ladies had completed only its frame of Pictish art with mythological creatures and knotted lines. Now two figures rode on horseback in the center: a lady and a warrior wearing crowns—no doubt Arthur and his third wife, the ravenhaired Gwenhyfar. Alyn had observed that the queen, his maternal cousin, was as able with the needle as she was at weaponry and diplomacy. He smiled, proud of his mother's Pict heritage and his father's Irish-Scot one.
The real Gwenhyfar, who sat next to her golden-maned husband on a dais at the head of the hall, stared straight ahead, as beautiful and still as the stitched one. Though her body was present, her thoughts seemed elsewhere, far from the drone of the priest presiding over the service.
Alyn's purpose in rushing to the event, besides to pay his respects, was to hear the inimitable eloquence of Rheged's bard, Taliesen, praising Emrys's royal and priestly Romano-British lineage, his genius in the arts and sciences, and his statesmanship to and stewardship of the British church. But instead, a cardinal-clad Roman bishop chirped repetitive lines in Latin. The message about the holiness of the Virgin and the suffering of her Son was hopelessly lost on most of the crowd.
Were he here, Emrys himself would draw his cloak of invisibility about his shoulders and walk out. Not that the man had such a cloak, but he could fade into a crowd as though he were invisible.
"This birdsong is best heard in a church, not in Arthur's great hall," someone called out.
"Aye, give us Taliesen," cried another.
A pang of guilt struck Alyn as he nodded in agreement with the rabble-rousers. The musical chant of Latin aimed to draw a soul close to its spiritual home and God's love, but what Alyn craved most now was the familiarity of his clan lands and family.
Let the rafters ring with how Merlin Emrys of Powys served the Son and Albion. His example spoke so much louder than this clanging liturgy.
Alyn searched the bejeweled and elegant guests of honor gathered on the dais for any sign of Merlin Emrys's old friend Taliesen. The bard's wife, Vivianne, Lady of the Lake, did not sit with her sisters—Arthur's widowed aunt Morgause and his mother, the church-robed Ygerna. Had Rheged's master bard gone to the Other Side as well in the years Alyn had spent in the East?
Perhaps when Alyn received an audience with the queen, he would find out more about the state of Cymri affairs and of his family in Gododdin. Correspondence between Alyn and his family had been scant at best. Even his native Cymric felt awkward to Alyn's tongue after his years of studying and speaking Arabic at the prestigious House of Wisdom. But 'twas welcome to his ears.
"Not a soul will be left awake by the time the bishop ceases trying to save this motley lot," a deep voice said nearby. Too close for comfort.
Alyn jerked away but broke into a grin upon seeing Daniel of Gowrys at his side. Before Alyn could reply, Daniel clapped him on the back, knocking his reply into silence. "Well, you don't look like much of a priest," his friend observed upon letting Alyn go.
"And you still look much the same ... you fey highlander," Alyn managed.
Faith, those tattooed forearms were nigh as thick as some men's thighs. Daniel's long hair was unbound and tangled, save the fraying braids bracketing his square-jawed face. Mud stained the red, green, and yellow of his plaid cloak, which was fastened with a silver brooch shaped like a roaring lion.
Alyn leaned in with an exaggerated sniff and wrinkled his nose. "And you certainly smell like one."
After living in the East for so long with its baths and exotic oils and scents, Alyn found that it was taking time for him to reacclimate to Western hygiene. Or lack thereof.
Daniel brandished a sheepish grin. "Me 'n' the lads arrived just this morning. Roads are naught but mire, but the Angus was determined to be here. Won't let the queen and her people down, like some." He cast a dubious glance at the royal dais where one bench was conspicuously empty. Modred of Lothian's.
"Are any others here from Glenarden?"
The Gowrys were a subclan of the O'Byrnes, and his friend was the only one Alyn had recognized. Not that Daniel wasn't qualified to speak for Glenarden. Despite his untamed highland demeanor, he'd had a princely education at chieftain Ronan O'Byrne's insistence. Still, Daniel had been pained by the years spent at the university at Llantwit as much as Alyn had been thrilled by his own time there. Above all, Daniel was trusted by the Glenarden.
"Times are fiercer on the border than ever," Daniel told Alyn. "Note none of the Miathi Picts have come. And the rest of the border tribes present have sent no more than a token to represent them, much as Emrys was esteemed. They need every weapon-bearing man on hand. Truth b'told, I'd rather be one of them than here listening to all this holy gum-flapping."
"How did you find me in this crowd?" Alyn asked, though he knew Daniel's gaze was sharp as an eagle's, formed by a life spent mostly in the wild.
"I spied you coming in, though I scarce believed my eyes at first. I'm used to seeing you in something more colorful than this drab gray." Daniel picked at the wool of Alyn's traveling cloak. "When did you return? Surely Ronan and Brenna weren't expecting you when I left Glenarden."
'Twas Alyn's eldest sibling, Ronan of Glenarden, and Daniel's cousin Brenna of Gowrys who, thanks be to God's grace, had finally brought peace to their troubled clan lands by their loving union.
"Are they here?" Alyn glanced past Daniel, hoping to catch sight of his brother or more of the Glenarden folk.
"Nay," Daniel told him. "Ronan asked me to speak for Glenarden."
Disappointment clouded Alyn's heart. "My ship made anchor this morning. I came here when I heard the news of Emrys's death. Would that I'd come home sooner." Or that Merlin's death is another of his tricks. Alyn still could not believe the man was gone, especially when Alyn needed his genius most.
"The main thing is that you're here, though why you're still wearing your cloak wrapped so tightly about yourself makes me wonder if you didn't leave your mind back in the East." Daniel wiped perspiration from his brow and tucked his thumbs into his kilted wrap. "Are you hiding something in the folds?"
"I am." With a smug grin, Alyn tugged a fold of the wool away to reveal a creature curled like a sleeping baby against his tunic. "A gift from a friend."
"Faith, that's the ugliest babe I've ever seen! Sired by a bear, was it?"
"Fatin is an African monkey," Alyn whispered, closing the gap in hopes that the animal would continue his nap. "Who is the new archbishop?"
Daniel cast a disdainful glance in that direction. "Cassian, he calls himself. And Arthur's made him the new merlin."
"Adviser to the king?" Alyn cut his gaze toward the dais in disbelief. What would a Roman bishop know of Alba and its people?
Yet Arthur listened solemnly to every utterance from Cassian's lips while kings and princes from the pagan and Christian noble houses of the Cymri—the Briton and Welsh brotherhood—and even the Scot and Pict nations stood proud, if not interested, behind their shields in places of honor.
When at last Cassian stopped talking and motioned for his fellow priests to help him close the service with the Eucharist, some of the warrior kings waited dutifully for the sacrament. Others grumbled and shifted from foot to foot but stayed in tolerance for an end to the ceremony. But a few, devoted to their own gods of war and bounty, simply walked out of the hall in disrespect.
"'Tis a fragile peace the Dux Bellorum is weaving here," Daniel observed. "I'd like to think all in attendance will stand by Arthur when the need arises. Most of the great houses of Alba and Albion are here."
If not for Alyn's ring—onyx inlaid with a pearl-white dove symbolizing his connection to his cousin Queen Gwenhyfar—and some smooth talk, he surely would not have been admitted among even the lesser ambassadors and scholars of such an esteemed group. While a prince himself, Alyn's status of being third in line for chieftain carried little weight in state affairs.
A small but surprisingly strong tug on his cloak drew his attention to where Fatin peeked out with large dark eyes, cautiously taking in the crowded hall.
"Time for me to leave," Alyn announced to Daniel. "You have no idea how much trouble he can get into, especially in this crowd."
Daniel chuckled. "Nay, but I'd give good silver to see it. His jacket's fine as most noblemen's here." He poked gently at the monkey's belly. "Fatin, is it?" he crooned to the animal.
Ordinarily Fatin did not take right away to strangers, but this was no ordinary stranger. Daniel of Gowrys was more at home with animals than people. The monkey gave him a toothy smile.
Daniel couldn't help but match it. "I've heard of monkeys but never seen one close up."
Fatin, now wide awake, squirmed in the constraints of his sling.
Alyn hadn't had the heart to leave him in his cage at the docks with the other goods to be delivered to a nearby inn. He tightened Fatin's leash and looked for the fastest way out. Except perhaps in a circus, few Cymri had ever seen a monkey, much less one dressed in princely garb. Alyn could hear the cry "Demon!" ringing in his ears just at the thought of Fatin scampering across the sea of heads and shoulders.
Although Emrys would have enjoyed such a distraction, Alyn knew.
Smothering a pained smile, Alyn asked silent forgiveness for avoiding the Holy Communion. "Follow me," he said to Daniel, pressing his hand against the fidgeting Fatin.
Exasperation fanning his footsteps, Alyn took the closest exit from the hall. The door led to a columned Roman portico that connected the plain lime-washed stone of the Queen's Tower and Arthur's Hall.
The moment Alyn released the leash, Fatin wrestled free from his grasp and took to the vine-covered passage as naturally as his ancestors had their jungle trees. In no time at all, the small monkey found the right spot and relieved himself, chattering in bliss.
Daniel laughed out loud. "I'm sure the queen's garden needed water."
"All he does is eat, chatter, and—"
A splash announced Fatin's dive into a fishpond.
"Play in water," Alyn finished wryly as the black animal emerged with a shriek of horror at the icy temperature so different from his native waters. "He's yet to learn the chill of Alba's waters."
Daniel laughed out loud as the wet monkey shook himself and gave them an earful of his opinion. Alyn took off his cloak and held it out to the shivering creature, but Fatin eyed him warily. Like a babe, he'd had his nap and was ready for a romp.
"Come on, you furry excuse for breath," Alyn ground out, shaking his cloak. He didn't have the patience Hassan had with the creature. Not for the first time, he wondered why he'd even accepted the gift. "I didn't have the heart to tell my friend Hassan to keep the little beast after he'd purchased it for me to remember him by," he told Daniel. "But right now ..."
Fatin scampered up a large arched trellis, swinging down under one side and up on the other, using his long, thin limbs and versatile tail.
"The East must produce some strange friends," Daniel observed, "if you remember him like that." The highlander reached up to the trellis and mimicked Fatin's chatter, all the while coaxing him to the edge.
The thick door from which they'd just emerged opened without warning. Startled, Fatin fled straight into Daniel's arms, soaking his tunic in the process. So as not to call attention to their presence in the garden, which was usually reserved for the leisure of the court ladies, Alyn and Daniel hastily stepped into the cover of the thick-vined arbor. Alyn had spent hours in this very spot, talking with his late mother's cousin, and he was certain Gwenhyfar would be delighted to hear he'd returned from the East—but it was awkward to be found here without invitation.
A woman rushed out of the hall, her hair a wild tumble of curls the color of summer wheat. Head down, the lower half of her face covered with her hand as if to conceal her identity, she marched straight for the arbor and smack into Alyn's chest.
Her shriek withered behind the press of her palm against her mouth.
Alyn placed his own hand over hers to make certain it stayed there. "You've nothing to fear. We're only two guests who sought relief from the closeness of the assembly in the fresh air of the queen's garden."
Recognition rippled across the hazel eyes that possessed a chameleonlike quality to favor blue, green, or amber, depending on her humor and the color she wore. Today they were rimmed in blue. "Alyn O'Byrne!" Kella O'Toole gasped as he released her. "B-but when? How?"
Alyn thought he'd have known his younger foster sister anywhere. He'd watched her grow into womanhood. But when Kella backed away to collect herself, he was no longer certain. When he'd last seen her, she was pretty and ripe of figure, but today she was so stunning that his tongue turned upon itself, leaving him utterly speechless.
As if she distrusted her own eyes, Kella reached up and touched his natural hairline, where once he'd shaved it in the druidic and priestly tonsure of his station. But that seemed a lifetime ago. Now he wore his long, straight hair pulled tightly off his face with a leather thong, the rest falling down his back to his shoulders.
Excerpted from REBEL by Linda Windsor. Copyright © 2012 Linda Windsor. Excerpted by permission of David C. Cook.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsNote to the Reader,
Genealogies of Britain and Ireland's Historical Traditions,
The Grail Palace,
About the Author,