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Pages of Ireland
Daughters of Ireland Book Two
By Cindy Thomson, Laurie Tomlinson
CreateSpace Independent Publishing PlatformCopyright © 2016 Cindy Thomson
All rights reserved.
"For the test of the heart is trouble."
– Irish saying
Aine had the book under her cloak in less time than it took the scribe to light the candles in the scriptorium. Clinging to the shadows like the soot on the stone hearth, she edged slowly along the length of the outside wall. She dared not breathe as she crept outside. A rush of satisfaction hit her when the night air finally brushed her cheeks. She'd done it, and now she would escape with the book.
Using the North Star as her guide, she headed toward the Church of the Oak — Cill Dara they called it. There was a woman there she'd met long ago, a woman with the power to protect the book, and she would shelter Aine as well. The Uí Náir tribe might have mighty warriors, but no one had greater power than Brigid. Aine knew this because, as a child, she had been whisked from the clutches of a painful death. And it was Brigid, speaking to the heavens, who had saved her.
She stubbed her toe on a mass of tree roots hidden on the dark forest floor. The lonely cry of an owl sounded in the distance, but no wolves were about so far, thank the gods. Ignoring the throbbing in her foot, she continued on. They'd discover the theft soon, and then they would find her gone. Daithi himself might come after her, claiming he'd have the right to because he was her betrothed. Who did he think she was? No slave, that's for sure, and she wouldn't be treated like one.
She scrambled up one rise and then another, the early evening stars giving only faint light, and the clouds threatening to cover even that. She should have waited for a full moon, but there hadn't been time. Daithi had threatened to destroy the book. Her foster father would approve. They underestimated the wondrous magic she had learned it contained. Even though the book was the clan's sacred property, they would throw it into the bog if it meant they could control her. She couldn't wait for fear they'd do it, and soon.
Word was Brigid had built a sanctuary, a place of safekeeping where Daithi and his clan could not enter and take her back. It wasn't too far, she reasoned, judging from the condition of the traveler who had stopped by her foster father's kitchen yesterday and told all about it. "I've just come from Cill Dara," he had said, "and no finer house for God was ever built."
Aine had asked him what he meant, and he had told her that a woman named Brigid had acquired land from the king of Leinster by asking for only the territory that her cloak could cover.
"Then a miracle happened," the man had said. "The cloak was raised up by the wind, and it grew and grew, making the king fear he'd lose all his land to this lass. 'Put it down!' the king shouted, and then he granted the land. Brigid built a dwelling and a church, right there under the sacred oak."
This had to be the woman Aine had met when she was only a girl, the very one who had healed her. Who else performed such acts of wonder? And since the fellow looked as though he had not been on a long journey, Cill Dara could not be far away.
Aine pushed brambles aside and continued on. She wished for a torch, but did not want to risk being discovered. Her foot found a path, and she glanced up. The North Star was still in sight, so she followed the trail, gripping the parchment tightly underneath her long cloak. Even though she had tied it in place with her belt, she clung to the codex as though it were a valuable jewel. It was priceless, of course. Not many tribes had a book like this. It seemed alive in her grasp, a breathing entity, and she was aiding its survival. The thought was not just in her head, however. The book actually throbbed against her ribcage. At first the sensation frightened her, but soon she thought of it as affirmation of her plan.
The book needed her. She needed it.
With a flat path to follow, Aine quickened her pace, glancing backward from time to time even though she could see nothing but shadows in the darkness. With any luck, the hapless scribe would not notice the treasured book was gone. He'd push his straw broom over the dirt floor and send the mice scampering about, as was his nightly custom. He would never suspect the book was missing, at least not until he'd made his way to the north end of the room where it was kept. She had time, but still she quickened her steps.
Daithi had retired as he always did — the moment the rooks began to roost in the elm outside the window of his sleeping chamber. Always weary from work, that one, and with a fine measure of mead in his stomach, he would sleep like a dog. She had instructed his servant to see to it.
Daithi would be angry once he awoke and came to call on her, though. No one in Aine's household had ever paid attention to her whereabouts, but once she had agreed to marry the handsome Daithi, her freedom flew from her like so many doves through an open window.
May the gods protect her from his wrath and from that of the whole tribe when they discovered what she had done.
The moment she'd heard of her mother's passing, she knew she could not stay with Daithi's tribe. She would save the book from destruction by those who didn't even understand how magical it was. Her mother would have hoped for deliverance. It might be too late for her, but Aine could bring it to her people.
She glanced down the darkened path before her. She must go. There was no other place on the island that could shield her.
As she approached the territorial crosses, she spotted dark figures scampering along the walkway toward the watchtower. Some slowed and turned her direction. They had spotted her and would soon open the iron gates — at least she hoped they would. Running now, she soon arrived within earshot of the watchman.
"A visitor approaches," he called out.
The sound of hurried footsteps, like a doe scampering along a stone path, came from within the gate. With a metal-against-metal wailing, the gates flung open. Aine propelled herself inside Cill Dara's welcoming arms. She had made it. Another creaking groan, then a heavy thunk, and the gate closed behind her.
Hooded people — she wasn't sure if they were men or women — gathered around her like menacing vultures.
"Male or female?"
"Friend or foe?"
"News? Bad or ill?"
She wasn't sure who to answer first.
A white-cloaked figure approached her.
Aine tightened her arms around the concealed book.
"I am Brigid, Abbess of Cill Dara. We welcome you, traveler. You come without a torch, so we assume you seek sanctuary here. You have found it."
Aine hadn't realized she had been holding her breath until that moment.
Lowering the cowl from her head, the woman's hair flowed freely in the night air.
"'Tis you, Brigid! I knew it!"
Brigid clutched the arm of the woman standing next to her as she spoke to Aine. "God be with you, child. There is welcome here for you." She narrowed her eyes in the dim light. "Do I know you?"
"I do not blame you for not remembering. I was just a girl when you healed me on the road to Aghade. We learned to read together, remember? My Uncle Cillian taught us."
Brigid brought a hand to her mouth. By the light of the torch held by one of Cill Dara's sisters, Aine detected tears forming at the corners of Brigid's eyes.
"Aine? You are so grown up now." Brigid reached for the girl and gave her a tight squeeze.
Too late Aine remembered the book. The abbess must have felt it beneath her clothing.
Brigid stepped back. "Come to the refectory. We will give you something to eat, and you can tell me stories about that uncle of yours. Although he and I exchange manuscripts every fourth moon, 'tis done by couriers. I haven't seen him in years."
The woman closest to Brigid cleared her throat. "I'll take care of the sisters' beds, darlin'."
Aine recognized the distant look in the woman's eyes. She was blind, and because of the endearing way she spoke to the abbess, Aine realized this was Brocca, Brigid's blind mother.
The abbess steered Aine in the direction of the refectory where a fire sent smoke through a hole in the roof. "It will be warm there," Brigid assured.
The broth she was given was thin but flavorful. When Aine finished, Brigid dismissed the cook, and the two of them sat alone in a building so cavernous it could have held at least a hundred cattle.
A lone tallow candle smoked and sputtered atop the refectory table where they sat staring at each other. After a moment, Brigid's sea green eyes sparked. "What's Cillian up to these days?"
Aine smiled and shook her head. "I'm afraid I have no news from Aghade. I have not been there myself since Samhain last."
Brigid tilted her head but did not ask Aine to explain. The abbess was an extraordinary woman and never judgmental, just as Aine remembered her. Perhaps it was the policy at Cill Dara not to ask folks why they sought sanctuary. Aine would not tell. Not yet.
But the silence was as uncomfortable as a stray pebble in a shoe. She had to remedy it somehow. "I have never forgotten, Brigid, what you did for me when I was young."
"You mean what God did for you, child."
Aine drew a hand through her hair and caught her fingers in the tangles created by her exigent travel. "All I know is that my very own father was going to throw me to the wolves and you saved me. You are a mighty force, escaping even the evil druid, Ardan. So my uncle told me."
Brigid took Aine's hand. "Jesu worked wonders. Tell me, child. Would you have done the same for another?"
Aine hung her head. Brigid's condemning question pierced corners of her soul she hadn't explored. "I don't know, Brigid. 'Tis hard. 'Tis quite hard."
Life truly was. Hadn't the abbess had friends to help her through tough times? Tales had been told of a royal poet who was Brigid's aide. Aine wondered if he was among the community now. No one had been on Aine's side back in Daithi's tribe. Thankfully, she now had Brigid and her powers to protect her.
The abbess didn't ask what was troubling Aine. She just kept patting her hand while the fire burned low. Aine did not wish to endure the silent questioning another moment. "Do you have a sleeping spot for me, Maither Brigid? I will not take up much room."
"Oh, child. We believe that by showing travelers hospitality, we are opening our home to Jesu himself, so indeed we do. We've an entire guesthouse for women. I'm afraid you'll not find much company there right now. People come and go, and there aren't many visitors at Cill Dara at the moment."
Aine sighed much louder than she meant to, but at least this gesture would tell Brigid she wished to be left alone. "That is very kind of you, Maither Brigid."
"'Tis kind Jesu we seek to emulate."
As they walked together down the lonely monastery path, Brigid held a torch against the wind. She shouted to be heard over the sharp gale that continued to blow as it had when Aine entered Cill Dara.
"The bell will ring for prayers, but you are not obligated to attend, at least not at night. We would be happy for you to join us in the morning."
Aine raised her voice as well. "I have never understood why you all wake yourselves at night."
"If it makes us uncomfortable, we turn our thoughts to Jesu's suffering and the fact that He does not call us to a comfortable journey in life, Aine."
Aine shrugged. She would not wake for prayers, but she might rise for something else. With everyone engaged at the church, she would be free to find a hiding place for the book. Brigid likely knew she hid something and would probably find out what when Daithi or someone in the tribe inevitably came demanding its return.
Shadows shimmied through the shutters and under the door like spindly dark fingers summoning her. She shivered. The tribe might come for her as well, as though she were a rare heifer stolen from within their rampart boundaries. She sucked in a breath. The laws punished cattle theft more readily than runaways. And besides, she was now under Brigid's protection. Aine need never go back to a place where she held no significance.
The book, though. Ah, the book. Brigid might send it back, if she knew of it. Aine would not let that happen. She would protect it in secret.CHAPTER 2
"A troublemaker plants seeds of strife; gossip separates the best of friends."
(Proverbs 16:28 NLT)
Aine couldn't sleep. She tossed the lambswool cover from her legs and rose from her cot. The guesthouse was vacant, save for her, and the quiet left her alone with her thoughts — thoughts of Daithi, angry, his red face accentuating bulging eyes. She covered her face with her hands and wept. Why were men always angry with her?
Before long, the call to prayer rang out its jagged, tinny beckoning. With her cloak wrapped tightly around her and the book lodged safely under it, Aine crept out into the cold air. This might be only night she had before Daithi tracked her down, her only chance to use the cover of the night, so she dared not hesitate. She had to deposit the book somewhere, temporarily, of course. As soon as she was able, she would bring the book safely to her mother's people, Aine's people, relations she had yet to meet. But since her mother had come from them, Aine was certain life would be better for her there.
Although she had never been to the village of her birth, Cillian had talked of it when she was growing up. He'd said that her mother had raised her in the vicinity of their people, but they had not been allowed too close after she married Aine's father. They despised him, as of course they would. He was an evil man, like most husbands.
"They're a desperate lot," Cillian had said, speaking of his own clan. "Living up there in those mountains with no more than a sheep or two. My sister was wise to get away, though not wise enough to choose a decent man to marry."
Daithi's tribe had many cattle, strong and healthy, reproducing much each season. The book had brought them good fortune, and now Aine would bring it to her people.
Aine knew this because, after she mischievously took the book from the clan's library, Nessa, the cattleman's wife, plunged the book into the animals' drinking trough. She could still picture the old scribe's face — she didn't know his name. He came barreling out of the scriptorium, calling out that someone had stolen a sacred book. How was Aine to know the woman would do such a thing? Aine had supposed she would stow it in the dresser in her wee cottage. But instead, she had thrown it to the cattle.
"What are you doing, Nessa?" Aine had said at the time. "You'll ruin it."
The old woman shook a finger at her. Aine could still see the mud under her fingernails, evidence of a life of labor. "A bit of water will not harm it. It will dry. But enough of its magic will swim into the water where my animals will drink it. Fertile, they'll be, don't you know. Just wait and see."
About that time the scribe arrived, nearly tumbling down the hill toward the pasture. He had obviously spotted the book under the clear water because he started gasping for air and holding his chest with one hand while trying to steady himself, waving his free arm in the air.
Nessa indeed was correct about the book's power. The following spring, Nessa's cows bore twice as many young as anyone else's. And did she ever tell about it. There was scarcely anyone in the land who did not hear the legend of the book. A lucky charm, of sorts. Later Aine later learned that the book also possessed the capacity to warm, vibrate, and shiver — whatever was needed to indicate its will. She did not fear it. She knew in her heart the book was not evil, just incredibly powerful like Brigid.
What she was about to do, take prosperity from one clan and give it to another, did give Aine cause to ponder. Guilt flowed like a muddy gusher. She told herself she would borrow the book's magic for a wee while. She must. For her mother. She would not let Daithi and his people starve, if taking the book came to that. She could return the book to them in due time, after it had brought wealth to her mother's clan. But when — and if — she did return, she would not become Daithi's wife.
The well-tended path encircled the monastery buildings with no stones to trip her up. She had no torch but she was growing accustomed to strolling about in the dark. A woman on the run had no other choice.
Excerpted from Pages of Ireland by Cindy Thomson, Laurie Tomlinson. Copyright © 2016 Cindy Thomson. Excerpted by permission of CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.
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