The sky was still dark when we were rousted from our cots, fitted with oak claymores and driven into the damp fields high above the shore. We stumbled over the soggy terrain, scattering like grouse in the salty fog and scrambling to take up our positions for this final mock battle.
As we awaited the commencement signal, a thick haze seeped from the forest, dissipating at the tree line to reveal a company of warriors such as I’d never seen. Misshapen. Discolored. Inhuman.
Stepping to the forefront came one whose form resembled that of a man. Tall, lean, clothed in black and bound about the waist with a scarlet sash, his long hair stirred in the morning breeze, white at the root and flaxen at the tips.
His mouth was a dark slash against an astonishingly pale complexion and into the startled stillness that terrifying mouth roared, “Advance!”
The company of monsters rushed us, and for a moment I thought it was part of the drill, that we were set upon by role-players. But then I saw the boy who’d slept in the bunk above me last night shaking lifelessly at the end of a spear and I realized that every aching moment was real. I wanted to run – and many of the boys did – but something about my stubborn heart wouldn’t let me.
In the span of time it took me to assimilate, half my squad was gone, tearing along the cliff edge or plunging into the sea below. The intruders were so close now I could smell them, a kind of pungent smoky tenor that stung my nostrils. I brandished the clumsy wooden sword, though the chances of protecting myself with it were slim and any hope of perpetrating harm with it was non-existent.
Shrieking like a banshee, I engaged the nearest enemy. Moments later, I smelled raspberries and lost my vision. Darkness. Stillness. Nothingness. So, this was death. A flash of nostalgia followed by absolute paralysis. Strange that the tang of berries lingered. And what was the warm unyielding weight stretched over me?
“I trust you realize what this cost me.”
That voice. So terrifying. So terrifyingly close. I concentrated, forcing my eyelids open, though I instantly regretted it.
The eyes glaring back at me were pools of fire rimmed with soot and sunk deep into a porcelain face.
But I was not a field mouse and this man – this creature – would not harass me without receiving in kind. “I have a busy day scheduled, so let’s not waste each other’s time. If you’re going to kill me, get it on with it. Otherwise, get off me and prepare to grant me satisfaction.”
His thick lashes fluttered like dusky butterfly wings in the sockets of his eyes. “Are you proposing that we spar?”
“Yes, if you’d be so kind as to remove your bulk,” I replied, scanning the area for landmarks and allies but finding none.
Keeping me pinned to the grass and increasing the pressure to my larynx, he said, “I could end this nonsense right now by crushing your throat.”
I grunted. “Suffocation is a coward’s strategy.”
He lifted up on his elbows, easing my discomfort. “I could have killed you from across the field without ever laying a hand on you.”
“That would have saved me the embarrassment of facing your troops with a toy weapon.”
“You don’t seem pleased to have been rescued.”
“Rescued?” I spat out the word. “You accosted me and I demand recompense!”
His mouth became a grim line. “You’re going to punish me for the very reason I saved you?”
No amount of binding could disguise my gender in these close quarters but how had he known I was female from across the field?
With a grace that surprised me, he rose, grasping my hand and pulling me to my feet with him.
Perhaps it was a show of good faith but I wasn’t giving up any ground. “Death or satisfaction. Those are my terms.”
“Well then,” he said, dusting off his clothes, “I have no choice but to kill you.”
I forgot how to breathe.
“But not today,” he said with an unsettling smile. “As you say, you’ve a busy schedule. Not to mention a wooden sword and deplorable swordsmanship.”
I exhaled in a torrent of temper. “How dare you! Why –”
He waved off my words. “I’m prepared to make a counter offer. Death delayed. Surely you will see the wisdom in that.”
Yes, yes I did. But I’d be damned if I’d say so.
“I’ll take your silence as compliance and move on to the particulars of your recompense. We’ll draw swords today but not as combatants. You’ll require a great deal of preparation before taking on a warrior of my caliber.”
“So, what? You’re going to teach me to fight?”
“Yes,” he said, nodding pensively, “and when you’re trained to my satisfaction, you can try to take yours.”
Inconceivable. “How long will this training take?”
“I couldn’t begin to guess,” he said with an elegant shrug. “I’m an accomplished instructor but you’re an exceptionally lamentable fighter. It could take weeks – or months. Years, perhaps.”
Intolerable. “No way am I giving you that much time. My oath to the army -”
“If you want to live, you’ll make the time. And we both know that the army will rescind your induction the moment they learn the truth about you.”
Infuriating. “Who are you to interfere in my life?”
“Heir to the throne of Clan Bethmoora,” he said, the air around him crackling as he dropped the glamour and exposed the royal facial scar that gave proof to his claim.
I began shaking from the inside out. He was entirely capable of killing me from across the field this morning. He could just as easily have killed me without ever leaving his hearth.
Fixing me with those startling amber eyes, he said, “And you are?”
Me? I was a nameless, faceless, powerless nobody whose death had just been prevented by the man my regiment was sworn to hunt down and put to death.
“Human. Female. Spirited. These things I know about you. What I’m asking for is your name.”
I was too astonished to answer.
He sighed. “If you won’t give me your name, I’ll choose one for you. Toadflax will do.”
“Why you arrogant …” I sputtered, so irritated I couldn’t verbalize it.
That deadly smile lit his face again. “Your waspishness is much more charming than your silence.”
“My name is Aideen, of the House of Ceallachan,” I said quickly, before he could utter that horrible nickname again.
“Let’s see if you can channel some of that fire into the blade.”
I stared at him, more furious than fearful. “We’re going to engage now?”
“Death or satisfaction. Those were your terms. We fight or you die.”
“I don’t stand a chance without a proper weapon.”
His mouth twitched. “Your unfortunate looks are as sharp-edged as any blade.”
“You know what I think?” I said, my temper getting the better of me. “I think you’re an impotent figurehead who doesn’t know the first thing about sword fighting.”
He tore his shirt top to bottom and let it slide off his arms so that he stood bare to the waist. His shoulders, upper arms, and torso were a gallery of muscles and scars. “I am more familiar with steel than silver cutlery.”
I stepped back as the land around us came to life, buzzing with frenetic energy.
His eyes flickered like fire in his skull. “More accustomed to blood and gore than silks and linen.”
I struggled to keep from being overwhelmed by the weight of his power but he continued to reveal himself, so that the hills rolled beneath us like the sea and the trees bowed around us like a sheltering ring.
Clasping my wrist, he drew me so close that his next words caressed my ear. “More intimate with hunger and hatred and humiliation than the lowliest bastard in all the Western Isles.”
Overcome, I lay my cheek against his. “Maith dom. Forgive me, Your Grace.”
He stepped back and held my gaze several long moments before bowing at my feet and saying, “Aideen, of House Ceallachan, I give you possession of Dubhlainn, the Black Sword of Eire.”
As I watched, a sword appeared, balanced across his upturned palms, its pommel seated with runes and the steel etched with its name in the old language.
The forest fell silent while he stayed where he was, head bent, blade proffered.
Was I quick enough to grasp the hilt, heft the sword and sever his head? I’ll never know. The Dubhlainn must have enchanted me. “Beautiful.”
He cocked his head and looked at me from under the veil of his hair. “Indeed. My greatest regret in life will be killing you. But come, let’s not spoil the day with melancholy when we can be matching barbs and blades.”
I watched him rise and pluck his own sword out of nowhere. “As mortal enemies go, you’re not living up to my expectations.”
“As humans go,” he said with an unpracticed chuckle, “you’re particularly revolting, but you wield a magic all your own and training you to be my greatest adversary will truly be a pleasure.”
As we began circling each other, seeking suitable purchase for that first parry, I found myself hoping that I was indeed as deplorable a fighter as he’d implied because The Scourge of Clan Bethmoora was more magnificent than his legend credited him, and it would take no small amount of time – years, perhaps – to convince myself to kill him.
Cruinniú = Meeting / Aideen = Fire / Maith Dom = Forgive Me / Dubhlainn = Black Sword