"Damn all men to hell!"
On her knees on an Irish hillside, Eibhlin Fitzgerald jabbed the trowel into the emerald turf. In her mind, however, rather than digging up a specimen of Ladies' Mantle, the razor-edged tool was excising something more vital to the self-esteem of her lying, cheating ex-husband. Startled by the sudden urge to inflict hurt, long after she'd thought the pain and humiliation gone, she drew a deep breath and concentrated on relaxing. Then, much more tenderly than she'd begun, she scooped the specimen from the soil.
Her voice low, she chided herself in a broad imitation of her father's brogue. "After all, Evie, 'tis not the poor wee plant's fault."
Unable to speak her ex-husband's name without opening a wound only now beginning to heal, Eibhlin filled her brain with work pushing Himself aside, where he couldn't hurt her anymore. She wrapped the rootstock in cheesecloth, admiring the inconspicuous greenish flowers and the wide, flat leaves which inspired the plant's common name. Still holding the sample of Ladies' Mantle, she pulled her mini-cassette recorder out of the pouch at her side and began recording.
"Alchemilla vulgaris. June 21, 1998. Eleven forty five AM. East face of Craglea, in vicinity of Killaloe, County Clare. Elevation, approximately one hundred meters."
After clicking off the recorder and dropping it and the Ladies' Mantle into her pouch, Eibhlin sat, hugging her knees, on the hillside. Raising her eyes to the summit of Craglea, she felt a sense of unity with the land. The life that filled everything called to her, beckoning her to join in.
Maybe she did hear the call. It was the summer solstice, after all.
Maybe I'll get to see some druids lurking around the Crag, or perhaps a party of the Little People making their way to one of the sacred mounds. Four weeks in Ireland and no fairies. What a bummer, she thought with a laugh.
"Little People." Her whisper was tinged with fond dismissal.
Naturally, the ignorant primitives of a thousand or more years ago would have made up stories to explain what they couldn't understand. What was really amazing was the old superstitions still held sway, especially here in the western counties. Just this morning Eibhlin had been warned away from the Crag by the woman from whom she'd rented a room in Killaloe.
Even as she laughed, she understood. This was Ireland. If there were Little People, they'd live here.
Surrounded by surreal green, with the perfume of fresh earth and nectar scenting the air, she gazed down at the place where Kincora was said to have once stood. Where Brian Boru, the only real Irish High King -- Ard Ri, she corrected herself -- had dreamed of bringing unity and peace and the rule of law to this island.
Gazing down at the scattered remains of Boru's palace, she could almost hear the songs her Irish-born parents had taught her and, as she began to hum The Pretty Maid Milking her Cow, she wished she'd brought her little harp with her. What a waste for it to be gathering dust in her house in Oregon while she sat here with all this music crying to be played.
Closing her eyes, her mind rippled with the pipes carrying a melody high above the beat of the bodhran and a hundred memories clamored for recognition all at once. Memories of her mother's songs and the stories which had made Ireland as familiar to her as the land around her childhood home in southern California.
They were the tales of heroes, Cuchulainn, Conchobar, Finn MacCuill -- warriors and the strong women they'd fought and died for.
Ah, those were the days, she thought, a momentary swell of self-pity picking at her heart.
"Nope, no way, Evie. Don't let him do this to you."
Once more resolving to push away the failure that was her marriage, Eibhlin stretched out on the cool grass and closed her eyes.
She may have lain there for hours before a thrumming, beginning deep within the earth beneath her, roused her to wakefulness. It became a vibration, its rhythm gentle and slow. It touched her ears, her skin. She tasted it on her tongue.
Her hands moved of their own accord up her thighs... to her belly... to her breasts -- now grown unbearably sensitive. Her hips ground into the yielding grass beneath her.
An aching cry of yearning filled her ears. Seconds passed before she realized the cry had come from her own lips. Her eyes flew open and she sat up, cheeks burning.
"Oh, my God." She sprung to her feet, moving up the hillside. Eyes darting from side to side, making sure there were no witnesses to her bizarre behavior, Eibhlin searched the hill for an explanation -- a herd of elephants, a Space Shuttle take-off, something, anything, that would make the ground shake enough to bring her to the point of....
"Oh, my God!" She'd never gotten this worked up by anything Himself had ever done. Eibhlin pressed one hand over her heart in an effort to calm its racing pace. Her gaze combed the valley, passing along the length of the Shannon.
"What happened to Killaloe?" she breathed, disbelieving.
Killaloe was gone. Only a single stone building surrounded by a low fence of the same material marked the place where the small village had sat at the mouth of Lough Derg.
Eibhlin turned back up to the lake... and her breathing stopped. Where only a pile of stones had stood....
"Kincora," she exhaled finally, the sense of recognition overwhelming as she looked at the imposing wood and stone castle and surrounding palisade wall -- a ruin no longer.
"No." Eibhlin shut her eyes against the impossible. "I'm having a dream. I went to sleep thinking about warriors and castles and so I'm dreaming of them."
But this was a remarkably detailed dream, she thought, peeking from eyes that stubbornly refused to stay shut. People scurrying around the buildings and along the Shannon. Fishermen bringing their catch ashore and turning their coracles over on the banks for the night. Swineherds leading pigs to the pens. Farmers coming in from the fields. On the far bank of the Shannon, just ready to cross, a band of mounted riders. They were too far away for her to make out their clothing, but she knew they were warriors.
And somehow, she knew what she was seeing was real.
Self-preservation made her stoop over to reach down for her leather bag which held her collected samples.
"I've gotta get outta here," she said aloud.
"Cad e seo?"
Eibhlin stopped in mid-reach. The voice boomed around her like thunder, deep and powerful.
"Ce thu fein?"
She raised her eyes, hoping the speaker wasn't as god-like as his voice was.
And raised her eyes... and raised them... and raised....
He stood on the hillside before her, one leg cocked at an angle. Eibhlin felt her mouth drop open in astonishment.
"Ce thu fein?" he asked again. Who are you?
Her Irish was a bit rusty, but she understood a simple question like that one. However, her eyes had taken over her entire brain to process the sight before her.
A warrior, nearly seven feet tall, heavily muscled, long of arm and leg, smiled down at her, dimples creasing both broad cheeks. He wore a light pull-over garment that reached to mid-thigh. A sword hung from his belt in a leather sheath. Tucking one thumb into his belt, he bent over slightly.
"Are you lost, woman?" he asked in Irish.
"Ni hea," no, she answered before her senses snatched control of her brain again.
She began a conscious catalogue of his features. The olive tone of his skin was too dark for an Irishman, yet in every other detail he was every inch the Celt, from the thick warrior's mustache framing his full lips to the heavy golden torque he wore around his muscled neck. His heavy blue-black hair hung in a glossy fall to his shoulders, sweeping back from his high forehead, its sheen interrupted only by a streak of startling white, beginning at his hairline just to the left of center.
He strode toward her with a power that was both physical and sensual. Some part of her woman's soul shrank from him even as he attracted her.
Then she looked into his eyes. The color of jet, they sparkled with the humor that was reflected in his smile. The instinctive apprehension caused by his overwhelming masculinity dissipated like smoke and she was left with only one thought.
"Are you all right?" His smile faded and his voice took on a note of concern.
"Yes, just a little confused," she managed to answer.
"Confused? Well, you had best come with me to Kincora. Like as not you are sun-stroked out here. It is unseasonable warm. The king's physician can make certain you are not injured." He reached for her hand.
Eibhlin raised her own to take his. It was the most natural thing in the world. His warm fingers, long and strong, closed with surprising gentleness over hers. As she used his strength to stand, she pulled him closer.
"Christ's Blood!" he exclaimed and snatched his hand back. Deprived of his help with no warning, Eibhlin fell on her rear.
The warrior stepped back, his hand already on the hilt of his sword. His black eyes narrowed and he squinted at the space between them.
"What's wrong?" she asked as she got to her feet under her own steam.
"Did you not feel that?" He shook his hand, then examined it, opening and closing his fingers. Turning his head nearly sideways, he cut his gaze out of the corner of his eye. "Do you not see it?"
He spread his fingers and leaned toward her. At a point right in front of her, his fingers stopped in mid-air. Then his balled fist headed straight for her head. Eibhlin ducked as the resounding thud of flesh and bone on some solid object echoed across the valley. Her warrior didn't even flinch, but dropped to one knee, eyes fixed. Eibhlin followed suit and they knelt there on the hillside, staring at nothing.
"It glitters like gossamer, yet I can not see it looking straight on." Once more he reached forward and touched the air.
A shimmer, like the ripples in a pond after a rock has been thrown in, spread out from the place where he touched. But he could pass no farther. Extending her hand, Eibhlin passed through the shimmering air with no trouble.
His eyes flew to hers and he stared at her. "Are you a fairy?"
Eibhlin choked out a laugh. "A fairy? Are you kidding?"
A frown creased his forehead and thinned his full lips. "What tongue is this?"
"Oh, sorry," she said as she switched back to Irish, "No, I'm not a fairy."
"Why do you laugh?" His frown had deepened as though he were personally affronted.
"Because the idea that I'm a fairy is ridiculous. Fairies were sprites, tiny things that lived under plants. Even if I believed in fairies, which I don't, I'm too big."
The warrior's eyes moved over her, lingering on her breasts that were pressed fully into the low neckline of her light cotton pullover. "You are but a mite of a thing."
Eibhlin bolted up and back, away from the heat of his gaze, trying not to be affected by his words, afraid to believe the obvious admiration she saw in his eyes. She supposed she would seem like a mite to him. He had to be at least a foot taller than she. But nevertheless, his assessment left her breathless. She'd always felt something of a cow -- big and full-figured, as the bra commercial delicately put it. A fairy? At five-foot-eleven, she was hardly within the height requirements for the job.
He drew his sword and poked delicately at the air. His blade came toward her face. Instinctively, she stepped back, but the tip of the sword stopped. He pushed, but it would go no farther.
"It would seem that you can pass, but I cannot," he said with a smile. "Fitting, that. The lady should always have the choice." Offering his palm, he said, "Will you come with me?"
Eibhlin heard a voice in her soul urging her to reach for that huge, yet elegant, hand.
"Wait a minute," she said aloud in English, good sense returning. "This isn't happening. It's just a dream brought on by excessive heat. I'll have a drink and cool down a bit." She closed her eyes, blocking out the warrior who now looked at her like she was indeed one of the Little People, and reached for her bag and the little water bottle she kept inside. Even with her eyes tightly shut, she could feel his gaze on her.
She sipped her water. "At least I have good taste in hallucinations. He is gorgeous. Take that, you lying son-of-a-bitch. My fantasies are better than reality was with you."
"What are you saying? What tongue is this? I've never heard it, though it seems to resemble the Saxons' speech."
Eibhlin peeked at him. He was on his knees beside her, examining her like a bug under a jar. She noticed he was careful to stay away from the shimmering haze.
"With an imagination like this, maybe I should take up writing," she said aloud. In Irish she asked him, "Why aren't you gone? I don't believe in you."
Her warrior sat back on his heels, one raven-black eyebrow raised in amusement. "And I suppose this means I do not exist, then?"
She had to smile at his reaction. A body like that and a sense of humor. What a find.
"Oh, well, I might as well play along as long as it lasts. Mama will get a charge out of my Celtic he-man." She sipped again from her water bottle and slipped easily back into Irish. "So, warrior, what is your name?"
One corner of his full, delicious mouth raised in a smile. "My name is Brandubh mac Dougal. Kinsman to Brian mac Cennedi, Ard Ri."
A laugh bubbled from her. She looked at the plastic bottle in her hand and wondered if her landlady had slipped some Irish whiskey into it.
"Brandubh, huh?" Amusing little bit of fantasy scriptwriting. Brandubh meant black raven. Well, he was that -- dark, sleek, beautiful.
"Well, Brandubh mac Dougal, I am Eibhlin ni Seamus." She carefully used the old form patronymic.
He rose and again extended his hand to her. "Come with me, Eibhlin?"
She knew from her mother's stories that in the Celtic tradition, the woman had the right to refuse any suit. Pretty enlightened for primitives, she thought.
"Okay, let's go." She looked away just for the two seconds it took to replace her bottle in her bag, but when she reached for his hand, she encountered only the empty air.
Brandubh had disappeared.