Into The Wind – Prologue

Dashed against dauntless trees a wild wind roared scowling, into a slumbering grove. Leaves jerked. Branches clacked and nattered their reproach as near-ripened fruit spun and swayed precariously. The tempest lunged through sweeping orchards, searching; churning debris into whirlpools that crashed in waves against soil, root, and trunk. At the end of the lanes, blustery arms pushed against staunch, wicker palisades. Layered in lattice work, reinforced by firmly anchored vines, the tenacious screen pushed back – splintering squalls into sneezes.

A gust, whittled from the typhoon by an untended wicket, sailed across a small clearing towards a solitary farmhouse with shuttered eyes. The passionate flurry shredded blankets of mist and swirled overgrown grasses, swallowing an amused howl as he thought to shake the windows and rattle the doors. Over eager and reckless with spite, he did not notice the guardians lining the eaves. Sentinels fashioned from iron and steel; Cockspur and Crepe Myrtle; and the talons and bones of flightless birds, sounded the alarm.

The once wild wind circled, befuddled, lost in the chiming cacophony of of grounded things wailing under the touch of something free. Staggering, the flaccid breeze almost foundered, but sucked up his last bit of courage to escape down the side of the house. Then tripped across a blackberry bramble in the wrong direction, forcing him to double back. Barn dogs warbled a cheeky warning to the wind never to return, and a wise tree tapped on an upstairs window to tell his lady, “A storm is coming.”

“Lessons Learned”

Prologue – Alternate History Fantasy novel temporarily named “How To Be A Princess”

Pronunciations Index:
Leaghsaidh: “Lehks-ee” or Lexi – Given name for protagonist of installment.
Brigit: “Bree’et” – Goddess of healing, one of the Tuatha Dé Danann.
Brandubh: “Bræn-dooh” – Given name of an important figure in the tale.
Flidais: “Flit’us” – Goddess of the hunt, one of the Tuatha Dé Danann.
Cernunnos: “Ker noo Nohs” – Also herein named as the Green Man.
Fearghas: read it as Fergus with a touch of brogue – another character name.
spioraid: “spear’ed” or spirit – entity having no physical body.
Laoch Spioraid: “Lock spear’ed” – mythic Warrior Spirit drawn to battle.
Bean sidhe: “Byan shee” – fairy woman, harbinger of death – herein also bringer of death.
Macha: “Ma-kuh” – One of three aspects of the Morrigan, Goddess of Battle.
Nemain: “Ne-main” – One of three aspects of the Morrigan -Frenzied force on battlefield.

On a wild spring day during the Year of the Phoenix, three screams were counted by those within hearing of the enchanting castle at the top of the bluff, over-looking the sea. The first scream started with surprise; there was a sudden pain, dawning realization, overwhelming joy, then…apprehension. For this mosaic scream came from the Queen herself and t’was the first sign that her child was ready to be born.

O what a special child she would bear – the ninth generation of the royal line of the great conqueror Kenneth the First. Kenneth himself was the ninth son, of a ninth son, of a ninth son and this child would compound the blessing of those nines, for the enduring family line had strengthened its bonds with nature and magick; with Gods and Fey; and with the people who called them lords.

That first scream served to alert those who would not miss attending such an auspicious birth. In no time there was gathered such a wondrous assortment of people, creatures, elementals, fey-folk and gods that none of those who lived within the castle walls could get anything done.

All four major winds and 7 of the 8 minor ones were gathered around the castle, dipping in windows and sailing down corridors. Hair was mussed, skirts were flipped, braziers were spitting out ash and more than the usual number of carts and tables were overturned.

Swarms of curious pixies flooded the sunlit rooms and antechambers of the castle, followed by droves of conscientious brownies (for even the best of pixies cannot be trusted). Castle folk reported vases falling off tables to smash on the floor and in the blink of an eye the same vase would be back where it belonged, without crack or scratch. In the birthing suite, a nurse cried out in alarm, a heavy drape was caught fire as lit candles rolled by, opposing the floor’s gentle slope. Her cry repeated when the bowl of water tossed at the flame-licked window covering splashed onto pristine cloth. When the water stain zipped back to it’s center and poofed into the air as a fine mist she harrumphed and mumbled something about cheeky sprites before returning to her reigning patient.

To pass the time, Flidais – goddess of the hunt – and the Green Man restored a few of the finest hunting trophies in the Great Hall to full health (and body where required), leading them in procession through the bustling village to the green places outside the castle walls. A shaggy-maned lion (prize of a former king’s exploration of a savage land) was initially quite put-off by the dripping forest and dismayed not to detect his pride’s scent on the wet wind, but Cernunnos sent a wild boar stumbling into his path. All stress left the lion as he stretched out his forelegs and chased the beast to its tasty demise.

Time passed in this peculiar way until a second scream echoed from the heart of the castle. This scream was frustration, exhaustion, unimaginable pain and apprehension which had turned to fear. For the queen, recently made a widow, had never produced a living child and this dear babe was the last chance she would ever have to see her husband’s eyes mingled in the same face as her own nose and her grandfather’s chin. The child must live. For the kingdom and for the queen’s own happiness to return.

The goddess Brigit, looked with concern to the Morrigan for a sign of what was in store for Queen Leaghsaidh and her unborn. But the reaping goddess merely sprouted feathers and turned a cold crow’s eye to the panting mortal before her. Brigit had offered advice to her peers that the best outcome for all was that the child should live. This queen was a devoted favorite of the goddess. Leaghsaidh was a wise and strong sovereign who would preserve the people’s way of life better than any of her contemporaries, but the complete assemblage of the Tuatha Dé Danann at this birth indicated that there was more than one player with a stake in the game. Brigit waved her hand in annoyance freezing the pixies, the winds, and the recently reanimated fauna to better concentrate on what came next.

The resulting hush was palpable, allowing the laboring queen a moment of blessed calm with a cool damp cloth on her brow. She felt the embrace of the goddess Dana in the silence and took heart that all would be well. Leaghsaidh drifted on the calm, recalling her last evening with Brandubh MacCune before a senseless skirmish robbed the couple of a future and the people of their king.

Anon.
Anon.

Calm exploded into chaos as the coming child seemed to claw at Leaghsaidh’s insides and terrible hands clamped her – heart and stomach, spine and tongue. Internally she twisted and fought to be free, reassuring her child that she was loved, wanted, and even needed. Indeed she funneled every last mote of her own energy into the tiny new life. Memories of her early romance with Brandubh…the first time they met, their first conversation of hours filled with laughter and mutual passion for the people of Albion, the first time she knew true love had found her…these scenes which had carried an empty queen through grief, were charged with energy and life. Leaghsaidh found that thin line connecting her to the child and pushed through it every happy moment for as far back as her mind had recorded. It was a mental and emotion exercise — a force of will.

As she swam deeper into the past for events to fill her child with desire for life, Leaghsaidh felt…lighter…fainter…as though she were fading away! She would not die and take this child with her. Kenneth’s next heir. The child she and Brandubh had prayed for to every god who would listen. This one would not die because the mother was weak.
Leaghsaidh felt again for the tether which tied her to that glowing new life and followed it – just pushed herself through it as she had done with the memories.

The queen was a spark – lightning running through the trunk of a tree. And then she was standing beside a tree blinking in the bright sunlight of a summer’s day. The ground felt as though it were tilting up to meet her, Leaghsaidh reached for the tree to steady herself, but crumpled to the ground.
A man’s voice gasped from somewhere behind her, “My Queen, your attention is required, anon.”
Before Leaghsaidh could find her voice, another answered, “Gilly, please save your strength. It will be hours yet until we can get you to a safe bed and a physician.”
“Look,” was his only reply.
Leaghsaidh had found her knees and was struggling to turn toward the conversation; to face the man who had called for his queen. Disorientation sizzled through her limbs and head. There was no child in her womb. The grass was wet on her palms. The pungent smell of smoke and something unfamiliar clotted the air. Then the ambient sound filtered through the haze of her thoughts and she stood in alarm – instinct reaching an arm over her back to pull an arrow from a quiver that wasn’t there. Battle!
The woman who had spoken stood before her with a surprised and curious expression. She was quite tall for a woman, armored, and crowned in the circlet of braided iron, silver and gold. The ruler’s crown Leaghsaidh had made by her own hand for Brandubh to don at his coronation. Rage began in her belly at the audacity of this woman. How could she have that crown unless she was the assassin who killed him? Yet she not only wore it as though it belonged to her, she wore it without apology in front of the widow she’d made. Leaghsaidh reached out – to attack by bare hand the brazen murderess. The other’s curious expression turned to one of question and alarm.
“Mother?” The assassin cried.

Mother.

That word reached Leaghsaidh from across a great chasm and pulled her into the moment with such clarity, such substance that the dying queen felt suddenly more alive than ever she had before. Now she could mark the thick, raven hair wound through an armored net, feeding into a healthy braid that was tucked into specialized clips on the shoulders of an emblazoned cuirass. The family crest was new, doubled hounds with intertwined legs – one clutching the leg of a bear in his mouth, the other the tail of an otter. The crowned girl’s eyes were Brandubh’s – liquid amber with flecks of green and blue. The raven hair, also a trait of the MacCunes, was a lovely contrast against her delicate, porcelain-bisque skin. The chin and mouth were Leaghsaidh’s own, as well as the shape of her brow, cheek and jawline. The tall, broad-shouldered physique she got from Brandubh, but it had been tempered well with womanly attributes and curves. She was striking and commanding, lovely and terrifying.
“Daughter,” was her much delayed response, for Leaghsaidh did not know her name.

They spoke for a time, Leaghsaidh crying silently through the conversation. Her daughter’s life had been one lived without a mother and without so many of the things the queen and king had planned for their family. The girl had endured and found help offered in times of need, but there had been so much loss and too much pain. Now she was leading a militia of clansman in the manner of Kenneth himself, to take back the kingdom and return the people of Albion to their once-fruitful lives. By all accounts they were losing this battle and, by whole, the war.

Between the lines of her daughter’s story, Leaghsaidh heard another. A number of betrayals had occurred that led to the queen’s presence at her daughter’s battle. Machinations which had begun when she married Brandubh, perhaps even before. Betrayals perpetrated by a brother she had loved unconditionally. As payment for his sibling’s devotion Fearghas had killed her husband, three of their unborn children, and finally the sister herself.

The dead queen turned to her daughter, tears pouring from her eyes as water from a pitcher. “You have not had the life we wished for, but you are the child we dreamt of and you have always been loved. I filled you with all the love I had, to secure your birth. I did not know that I would die from all that I gave you, but I would do it again. Fearghas has been squatting on the throne under a borrowed crown. Today his note comes due. With divine help, we will take back Albion and the world will not lose their best queen on the day of her birth.”

Leaghsaidh was spioraid now. Spirits, as you know, cannot caress or comfort with touch, but they still hold on to what’s within. Leaghsaidh reached deep inside herself to pluck the tiny kernel of light that had bloomed upon seeing her daughter for the first time. She held it in her fist and called to the gods of her kin. She begged of them continued strength and longevity for her daughter, and a future filled with happiness, laughter and the warm embrace of her own children. Leaghsaidh petitioned them for peace to be settled on the people of Albion once more.

The Morrigan attended the queen’s summons, soaring down from the upper branches of the same oak Leaghsaidh had arrived by. Before the crow’s feet touched the grass, the form of a woman unfolded from a crouch and stood, gazing upon each of the women in turn.

The Morrigan sighed.
“This is the moment when our Queen makes the bargain our lovely Brigit will curse us for,”

Leaghsaidh bowed her thanks to the Morrigan for heeding her call. Then she knelt before the goddess of war and sovereignty, holding out her hand. A single gem of unconditional love glowed bright yellow in the center of her palm; for it was a love filled with happiness and the warmth of a summer’s day.
“Macha, this is my offering and my plea. Please allow my daughter a long and happy life and victory over those who would seek to harm her. Please grant me the body and strength to fight today, to defeat the enemy and his followers who stole my life, robbed my daughter of the kingdom I bore her to lead, and filled her childhood with strife.”
“Brigit tells us you are a wise queen,” the Morrigan sang softly as if to herself, “and here you are appealing to our Macha, the most maternal of our faces, with the gift of a mother’s swell.”
The Morrigan, leaning in close to the proffered gem to inspect its quality, cocked her head in a bird-like way and settled one eye on the living queen, “What your mother offers is a powerful gift, because it is a terrible thing to sacrifice. She offers the seed of a mother’s love for her child. The sight of your face as it touched her heart the first time and bloomed to love. If we take this, Queen Leaghsaidh, of the line of MacAlpin, of the Clan of the Hounds, once true Queen of Albion, will never know that swell. She will travel to the Summer lands without ken of her infant’s birth…without the memory of your face. Your mother has already relinquished all of her memories to you this day, as she lay abed trying not to bleed you out as another failed babe. This is the one memory she made that came after.”

The Morrigan leaned back in to inspect the gem. “We’ve never seen one this pure,” she mumbled appreciatively.
The living queen made to protest on her mother’s behalf, but the Morrigan raised a hand to silence her, “It is not your decision but our’s. And you would dishonor her by begging us to say no.”

The Morrigan nodded to herself as if in agreement, “And we would not wish to dishonor a queen of men who has been so brave, for they are quite rare.” So saying, the goddess reached into the ether and removed the gem from a mother’s hand and grasped the shoulders of a former queen.
“Leaghsaidh mac Alba, in exchange of a mother’s love I grant your enduring family line prosperity of the heart and soul and longevity. Do you accept this bargain?”
The queen held her head up and replied, “Yes, for I do what a mother would for her child.”
The Morrigan allowed Mother one last gaze to be shared with Daughter. Both of the women had eyes flowing with tears but the Morrigan was showing her gentler face. Macha granted them clarity through the tears so the eyes might say farewell. When the space of nine heartbeats had passed, the Morrigan blew gently on the queen’s eyes and they clouded into stone.
“Leaghsaidh, Queen of Albion – you have offered your life today that there might be peace in the land of your birth, safety in the homes and fields of your people and the rightful sovereign as the heart of the kingdom – installed upon the throne of your ancestors. To make this happen you will become Laoch Spioraid until the battle is won. Do you accept this debt?”
The regal monarch held her fist up and cried, “Yes! For I do what a queen would for her people!”
The Morrigan shook feathers from her hair, they fell in a torrent over the the dead queen. Crow’s feathers,colored by pure intentions, gleamed white as they touched the Warrior Spirit’s aura. They scaled the incorporeal into solidity and wove her a pair of pristine hawk’s wings that blazed with righteous fire at the tips.

Once more the Morrigan addressed the reverent figure before her, “Warrior, you have offered your soul on this day in exchange for vengeance upon those who have unscrupulously and through the dark manipulation of nature and magick exploited the helpless, ruined lives, brought about senseless death, betrayed those most dear, and brought us to this battlefield today. Once the battle is begun, you will join us,” the Morrigan touched her own breast and flashed a razor-beak in wicked smile, “as the heart of Nemain with scores of the Bean sidhe in your charge. Do you accept this charge?”
The great beast of feather and scales beat its wings once to lift itself into the air above a goddess, a queen and one very proud old man. She no longer had words or a mouth that formed them, so she opened her beak and screamed.

The third scream was for justice and retribution.

What The Trees Told Me: Part Two – “Indian Summer”

It must have happened during that odd heat wave twelve years ago. Remember the Indian summer in the middle of October? Wick and I packed up the car and headed northeast to clear our heads and rejuvenate. It had been a difficult time for us, inside and out. Not the worst of times, because by that year we had passed the worst and come out the other side. Still, there were days we couldn’t bear to be in the same room and others when I knew I would wither and die inside if we were ever parted.

We were married our senior year of college during this crazy May Day celebration…we had such dreams. Wick would take the architectural world by surprise (or force, if necessary), and I would put my gold-medalist arguing skills to good use saving the world one disenfranchised underdog at a time.

We would have two children in our mid-thirties and keep the door open into the first few years of forty for one last blessing to surprise us. There would be a dog – yellow Lab or Golden Retriever, depending on the mood of the day – at least two goldfish, and possibly a ferret if the children were responsible and the dog was well-trained.

For the early years of our careers, we would be metropolitan city-dwellers, but once there were children in the picture we’d head out to the suburbs and commute like good little yuppies.

Looking back, I can’t help thinking that marching into full-fledged adulthood with such a structured plan was a mistake…that fate saw it as hubris and decided to smack us around with a little reality. Our careers happened as we’d envisioned, but the children kept eluding us.

We spent five years actively trying, but had stopped <i>trying to prevent it</i> years before that. Of the 60 months when making a baby became our mission, we spent about 40 pursuing various fertility assistance programs. In addition to the baby-making doctors, we eventually started seeing professionals about my frame of mind and our relationship – neither were thriving.

After the final failed in vitro attempt, I checked myself into a mental health rehab center. I felt a desperation about my inability to conceive that extended beyond concern for my marriage into an even darker place. In my nightmares and daydreams I had become convinced I could not conceive because <i>I</i> was not meant to be. I was some kind of human anomaly that should never have lived into adulthood. When I closed my eyes I felt as though I were made of ash and just the wish for a breeze could end my illusory life.

Wick agreed to a temporary separation (and to pause all fertility attempts) when I explained this vision to him and could not provide an answer when he asked if I wanted that breeze to blow through. We had lost sight of each other. I had lost sight of myself. Having a baby had eclipsed all of our other goals and our promise of “not before death will we part”.

I lingered four months in rehab before I called him and asked him to drive up for a weekend so we could talk. We spent almost eight more getting to know each other again before resuming our cohabitation. I honestly never thought our marriage would survive. But it did. The key was letting go of the dream to have children naturally and to assert that we were a family together, regardless of offspring.

On the first anniversary we celebrated, but never named, the unexpected heat and typical pressures of the city were bearing down on our relationship again. We fled for rural vistas and the hope of a little romance to bind us together for another year.

I remember driving through a particular valley, in the blaze of that Indian summer, where the red and gold leaves of trees seemed more like a forest fire than Fall in the forest. The cicadas song even resembled the crackle of flames. I repeated this sentiment aloud to Wick and he commended me on my poetic thoughts. He always calls me ‘Counselor’ when he mocks me like that.

As the sun set behind a distant mural of mountains, the tires crunched gravel on an overgrown lane. What little light had been infusing the sky for the last hour was instantly gone as two, long rows of hoary Chestnut trees drew us into darkness. Some distance later the crispy, scraping, bumpy tunnel spit us out into the clear night of a surrealist’s canvas.

In the center of the drive, what upon first look appeared as a copse of trees, was revealed by our headlights to be a single, ancient oak. Deep-seeded arboreal ambition and seclusion had allowed the oak to stretch its limbs so far from its massive trunk, gravity had pulled the lower boughs back to earth before they reached once again for the sky.

The house, a restoration project of Wick’s colleague, seemed to spiral up into the star-filled night. From the wrap-around porch with its bookend gazebos, to the peaks and turrets of the second floor, to the terraced tower extending beyond the bounds of a third story to gouge the indigo sky with its weather vane. I wondered aloud if the old Victorian had aspired to beat out the tree in size, or if everything in this rural patch grew so plenteous when abandoned.

That night we slept downstairs, on a bed that sagged like a hammock and smelled like mice feet. Despite the heat, we kept the windows and doors locked tight against the vast, unexplored space outside our retreat. There weren’t enough stars or floodlights in that pitch-black wilderness to explain the shapes and scrapes twisting and bowing an arm’s length from the porch rail.

Our rented Keep was not fortified against the sounds of all that terrifying nature. There are things in a country night that don’t have the courtesy to simply bump. They scream like tom cats being torn apart by mountain lions and caw like 50 foot crows. There are other sounds, all the more unnerving because your brain cannot classify them. No similes or metaphors spring to mind when the song of the crickets and katydids stops abruptly to allow an undulating snort-cackle-thud-rend-crack to pass over the lips of the wild.

The first hours of the first morning in our ghastly resort were spent making plans to find a Hilton or even a Howard-Johnson’s; then maybe a diner. In our haste to arrive, we had not considered this old house would not have coffee, eggs…a continental breakfast. My search of the kitchen turned up two old-fashioned milk glasses and the dim possibility of a clean towel to wipe them out with.

Luckily, the faucet was new. Water slipped out of a graceful goose-neck in a sparkling stream that danced in the light of another belated summer day. I felt myself strangely drawn to that shaft of liquid sunshine. Sliding my hands into the cool flow, a moment of pure peace whispered over me. Then a flicker of movement through the window caught my eye and broke my trance.

The morning breeze was making an apple tree dance at the edge of a grove just a dozen yards away. From where I stood, I could see at least two fat, red apples hiding in the upper branches and an odd little ladder. Calling upstairs to Wick to join me, I pushed through the backdoor and stopped short at the edge of the porch steps.

Behind the house, stretching for miles to the base of a small ridge, were thousands of trees. Some had colored completely for autumn, some were browning or shedding from the recent frost, but a few – like my apple tree – glowed green in the morning light. The delight I felt was indescribable and eclipsed all of the irrational fears that had come to me in the night. I skipped down the porch steps and sprinted to the leaning ladder, calling out again for Wick.

As I propped the ladder against the tree I’d seen from the window I noticed two beautiful apples on a lower branch, dappled with shade but otherwise unblemished. One rung up, a gentle twist and I’d just resolved our breakfast issues. In my giddiness at finding the orchard, I thanked the tree for her fruit and bobbed a curtsy. I wanted to wait for Wick, but my stomach grumbled and my mouth started to water just a bit.

It crossed my mind to polish the apple on my shirt first, but it seemed rude and my shirt wasn’t necessarily all that clean considering how the bed had smelled. The skin of the apple snapped under my teeth and the juice ran down my chin in a surprising gush. That fruit was so perfect, I actually closed my eyes to increase the input of my taste buds.

I don’t even remember taking a second bite, or the last bite, but before long I was standing there with nothing but two cores in my hand. Wick stood in front of me with a wondering look. I grinned at him like I had that May Day seventeen years before, when we had a whole life ahead of us and improvised vows of sacrifice and serendipity on our tongues.

“Don’t judge,” I implored. “You promised in your vows to me that if ever we were lost and starving and there was only one apple left, you would let me eat my fill before you took your first bite. Did you sincerely and literally pledge that oath?”
Wick stepped forward and rubbed his thumb over my sticky chin, “I do, Counselor.”
In one small movement between a stride and a lean I was standing in the circle of his arms. “You mean you did?” I corrected.
His lips hovered over mine, “Don’t lead the witness. I said, ‘I do’,” he whispered.
As his mouth brushed me, I felt a tingling elation. Inside my chest a wall broke open and I wanted to run. Not to run away like I had two years before, but to run into the unknown with Wick at my heels or at my side.

I would run with him anywhere. On that day, we ran together through grove after grove – from shade to light to shade again. And when we couldn’t run anymore, we laid down in the cool shelter of a venerable tree whose name I did not know and made love like it was the first time.

It turned out to be a first of sorts, we just didn’t know it right away. Eight months and three weeks later, Emmaliene was born. I had always thought it was a miracle; one we maybe didn’t deserve. But it would seem now that our little girl was a gift from the trees.

What The Trees Told Me: Part One – “Emmaliene”

“Emmaliene Taylor is a very sad girl.”

It was the same thing the teachers always said (followed by sober nods and regretful shakes of the head) when the waif-thin, tawny-haired girl’s name came up in conversation.

“I think it’s the father,” the math teacher stated primly. “A little too charming, you know?  Can’t trust a man with eyes that blue.  And he’s always smiling,” Mrs. Carter added in a tone of condemnation.

“No.  I believe the mother is to blame,” the French teacher objected (she was quite fond of Mr. Taylor’s marine eyes). “The woman is a cold fish – with that rigid posture and eyes like an ice storm…I’m sure the child gets no affection from that quarter,” Miss Colbert confided with a judicious nod.

 

In truth, both of Emmaliene’s parents were utterly devoted to their daughter.  They began and ended each day of her life with warm hugs and kisses and filled the time in between with thoughtful conversation, family outings and many I love yous.  The girl did not want for affection or endearments.

But Emmaliene had never smiled, not even as a toddler.  She did sigh a lot, particularly when gazing from the windows of the Taylor family penthouse.  It was a lovely and spacious apartment on the twelfth floor of an old but quaint building overlooking Central Park.  Emmaliene’s sighs were not those of contentment.  Rather, they were filled with the heavy weight of loss.

 

“Have the Taylor’s sought any kind of help for the girl?” This question was posed by the new art teacher, Miss Holly.  The latest addition to the teacher’s lounge was a youthful, (and disastrously freckled) red-head from one of those southern states none of the urbanites could be troubled to remember the name of.  Her accent alone had inspired many covert smirks from the other teachers.  And the woman’s wardrobe!  The art teacher’s flowing patchwork skirts hanging low over form-hugging body suits in bright jewel tones had earned much scorn from the fashion-minded teachers of the Upper East Side.  “She’s actually wearing pumpkin,” Miss Colbert had sneered to Mrs. Carter not ten minutes before. “Could she be a bigger cliché?  And those boots!  Is there a rodeo in town?”  “Hillbilly Chic,” the math teacher had chimed in with a derisive snort.

 

The school psychiatrist, stood between Mrs. Carter and Miss Holly now, rocking thoughtfully on his heels while contemplating his coffee.  “Emmaliene Taylor.  She does warrant some concern, yes…”

“I think she has some real potential…” Miss Holly began but Mr. Dodge cut across her words with the precision of one who listens for a living.

“Troubled girl.  I’ve seen her many times myself.  Even referred her to some of the top psychiatrists in the city.  No one can decide what to do with her.  Sadly, the latest word from a specialist of my acquaintance is autism.  A mild case, nothing too severe – there’s no denying she’s a better than average student – but socially she’ll never fit in.  I am working with the parents to find a more suitable school for the child.  She needs a different kind of attention than she will ever get here…and really, she would be more at ease with her own kind.  I’m afraid the parents are being quite stubborn about the whole thing.  Denial,” Mr. Dodge decreed.

Miss Holly beamed with delight over the sketches Emmaliene had spread across the desk, but the girl did not notice.  She was mesmerized by the ghost of a mud stain across the pointed toe of her teacher’s boot.

“Emmaliene, these are lovely drawings.  I’ve never had a student choose a woodland scene when working on a perspective assignment.  They usually choose cityscapes, perhaps because the lines are easier to follow, but your wandering tree lined path is perfectly rendered.”  Miss Holly followed the footpath to its vanishing point with a paint-flecked fingernail, “You’ve completed the perspective exercise like an expert and the setting is wonderful.”  The art teacher squeezed Emmaliene’s shoulder gently, “I do believe you are a natural artist.”

Emmaliene gazed at the drawings and sighed as if they were scenes of nuclear holocaust, “The pencil was black so I couldn’t draw any leaves.  They’re all dreaming now.”

Miss Holly nodded thoughtfully, “Do you spend much time in Central Park?  You’ve captured the organic lines of the branches beautifully.”

“I don’t like the park,” Emmaliene frowned. “It’s full of ghosts.”

The skin on Miss Holly’s arms prickled.  Arms crossing her chest, she hugged herself tightly until the chill passed.

It was a breezy spring day.  The kind of day where no child wants to stay indoors and even adults can feel the hope of new possibilities writhing just under the skin.  The chartered Coach bus pulled to a stop with a soft wheeze, exhaling twenty jubilant students, three harried teachers and one hesitant Emmaliene Taylor.  Miss Holly placed a hand on each of Emmaliene’s shoulders and called the rest of the children to order in her sugary, no-nonsense tone.

“You each have your group assignments.  Stay with your chaperon at all times.  Have fun and draw anything that grabs your attention.”

Miss Holly led the way to a set of huge wrought iron gates under an arch which read ‘Inwood Hill Park’ in ornate letters.  As the children passed through in a surprisingly orderly fashion, she felt a trembling in Emmaliene’s shoulder.

“It’s okay Em,” she said in a reassuring whisper.  “I’m right here with you.  If you see any ghosts you just let me know and we’ll face them together.”

 

The art teacher led her group of seven to a copse of ancient trees that seemed to brush the clouds.  All of the children were laughing and carrying on as children do when they’re not corralled in a classroom.  All the children that is, except for Emmaliene.  She was shaking visibly and wide-eyed, looking everywhere at once.  Miss Holly had not dared let go of the girl’s shoulder for the short hike into the park for fear she would bolt.  There was also Sarah Fowler and Dirk Westin to consider.  The two trouble-makers were the worst of the lot when it came to picking on Emmaliene.  The two had been whispering together since they’d exited the bus and Miss Holly wasn’t about to let them spook the girl any further.

As the students were choosing their places on the grass and pulling out their sketch books, Sarah called out boldly, “Miss Holly, Emmaliene is looking kind of green.  Maybe she should go back to the bus and wait.”

Snickers rippled through the lounging children and Emmaliene shook severely as though stifling a sob.

“One more word out of you Miss Fowler and you’ll be the one sent back to the bus,” Miss Holly threatened.

Sarah stalked away with a triumphant glance at a jeering Dirk only to trip over a thick tree root.  When the girl hit the ground face first, Miss Holly let go of Emmaliene and rushed to Sarah’s aide.  The other children were laughing at Snotty Sarah’s misfortune until they saw the blood dribbling from her mouth.

 

“She’s just bitten her tongue, but it seems in tact.  I doubt she’ll even need stitches.  Do you want to call the parents and ask if we should take her to the hospital?” the paramedic asked.

Miss Holly nodded and stepped away to redial an anxious Mrs. Fowler.

 

“Has anyone seen Emmaliene?” asked a frantic Miss Holly.  Nineteen pairs of shoulders shrugged as the eyes of two teachers widened in alarm.

 

Hours passed in a frenzy of phone calls, explanations to park rangers and police and a long fruitless search of the entire park.  The Taylors and Miss Holly alternated comforting one another and calling Emmaliene’s name.  Around dusk, a tearful Miss Holly walked back to the copse of trees where she had last seen the child.

“Em honey, if you can hear me please come out,” she sobbed. “Your parents are here and they’re so worried about you.  I am too.  I’m sorry I left you.  I know I promised we’d face the ghosts together.  Please Emmaliene,” Miss Holly pleaded in a whisper, “please be alright.”

“There aren’t any ghosts here Miss Holly,” Emmaliene sighed from somewhere in the shadows.

“Emmaliene?” the teacher spun in the direction of the child’s voice.

Standing in the space between two giant trees was Emmaliene.  She looked so different Miss Holly almost thought she was another child altogether.  It took a moment to register the biggest change – Emmaliene was smiling.  There were leaves in her hair and enough dirt on her skin that she appeared as brown as bark, but she was smiling in a way that Miss Holly could only label as beatific.

“Look what I can do,” Emmaliene whispered with a wild grin and Miss Holly gasped.

 

Dazed and bewildered, Miss Holly stumbled back to the edge of the search party staging area to pull Mr. And Mrs. Taylor aside.

“Follow me,” she breathed and turned back toward the forest.

Confused but hopeful, the Taylor’s followed the eccentric art teacher down a moonlit path to a copse of ancient trees that seemed to touch the sky.  Miss Holly stopped in front of the smallest tree in the circle and turned toward the expectant Taylor’s.

“Well, I have some good news and some weird news.  The good news is – Emmaliene is alive and safe and I’m fairly certain your daughter is not autistic.”

Mrs. Taylor looked around with concern, “If she’s safe, then where is she?”

“Well, that’s the weird news,” Miss Holly gestured to the tree. “Emmaliene is a dryad.”

From the shadows, the Taylor’s heard the sound they’d been dreaming of for eleven years  – Emmaliene giggled.

Prologue

Pronunciations –
Flidais – ‘Flid – ace’                                                         Leaghsaidh – ‘Lexi’
Cernunnos – ‘Ker noo Nohs’                                       Brandubh – ‘Bran-dooh’
Brigit – ‘Breet’                                                                   spioraid – ‘Spi – ridh’
Dana – ‘Thana’                                                                  Laoch Spioraid – ‘Lah-Oak Spi-ridh’

_________

On a wild spring day during the Year of the Phoenix three screams were counted by those within hearing of the enchanting castle at top of the bluff, over-looking the sea.  The first scream started with surprise; there was a sudden pain, dawning realization, overwhelming joy, then…apprehension. For this mosaic scream came from the Queen herself and t’was the first sign that her child was ready to be born.
O, and what a special child she would bear – the ninth generation of the royal line of the great conqueror Kenneth the First. Kenneth himself was the ninth son of a ninth son of a ninth son and this child would compound the blessing of those nines, for the enduring family line had strengthened its bonds with Nature & Magick, with Gods & Fey and with the people who called them lords.

In fact, that first scream served to alert those who would not miss attending such an auspicious birth. In no time there was gathered such a wondrous assortment of people, creatures, elementals, fey-folk and gods that none of those who lived within the castle walls could get anything done.

All four major winds and 7 of the 8 minor ones were gathered around the castle, dipping in windows and sailing down corridors. Hair was mussed, skirts were flipped, braziers were spitting out ash and more than the usual number of carts and tables were overturned.

Swarms of curious pixies flooded the sunlit rooms and antechambers of the castle, followed by droves of conscientious brownies (for even the best of pixies cannot be trusted). Castle folk reported vases falling off tables to smash on the floor and in the blink of an eye the same vase would be back where it belonged without a crack or scratch. In the birthing suite, a nurse cried out in alarm as a heavy drape caught fire when lit candles rolled by (in the opposite direction of the floor’s gentle slope), then cried out again when the bowl of water she tossed at the flame licked window covering splashed onto pristine cloth. When the water stain zipped back to it’s center and poofed into the air as a fine mist she harumphed and mumbled something about cheeky sprites before returning to her patient.

To pass the time, Flidais – goddess of the hunt – and the Green Man restored a few of the finest specimens of taxidermy in the Great Hall to full health (and body where required), leading them in procession through the bustling village to the green places outside the castle walls. A shaggy-maned lion (prized trophy of a former king’s first safari), was initially quite put-off by the forests and dismayed not to detect his pride’s scent on the wet wind, but Cernunnos sent a wild boar stumbling into his path. All stress left the lion as he stretched out his forelegs and chased the beast to its tasty demise.

Time passed in this peculiar way until the second scream echoed from the heart of the castle. This scream was frustration, exhaustion, unimaginable pain and apprehension which had turned to fear. For the queen, recently made a widow, had never produced a living child and this dear babe was the last chance we she would ever have to see her husband’s eyes mingled in the same face as her nose and her grandfather’s chin. The child must live. For the kingdom and for the queen’s own happiness to return.

The goddess Brigit, looked with concern to the Morrigan for a sign of what was in store for Queen Leaghsaidh and her unborn. But the reaping goddess merely sprouted feathers and turned a cold crow’s eye to the panting mortal before her.  Brigit had offered advice to her peers that the best outcome for all was that the child should live. Not only was the queen a devoted favorite of the goddess, she was also a wise and strong sovereign who would preserve the people’s way of life better than any of her contemporaries. But the complete assemblage of the Tuatha Dé Danann at this birth indicated that there was more than one player with a stake in the game. Brigit waved her hand in annoyance freezing the pixies, the winds and the recently reanimated fauna to better concentrate on what came next.

The resulting hush was palpable, allowing the laboring queen a moment of blessed calm with a cool damp cloth on her brow. She felt the embrace of the goddess Dana in the silence and took heart that all would be well. Leaghsaidh drifted on the calm, recalling her last evening with Brandubh MacCune before a senseless skirmish took her husband from her.

The calm exploded into chaos not an hour later as the baby seemed to claw at her insides and terrible hands clamped her heart, her stomach, her spine and her tongue. Internally she twisted and fought to be free, reassuring her child that she was loved and wanted and anticipated.  Indeed she funneled every last mote of her own energy into the tiny new life. Scenes of her early romance with Brandubh…the first time they met, their first conversation of hours filled with laughter and mutual passion for the people of Albion, the first time she knew true love had found her…these scenes which had carried an empty queen through grief, were charged with energy and life. Leaghsaidh found that thin line connecting her to the child and pushed through every happy moment as far back as her memory existed.  It was a mental and emotion exercise — a force of will — but as she recalled childhood events to pass on to her child, Leaghsaidh felt…lighter…fainter…as though she were fading away! She would not die and take this child with her. Kenneth’s next heir. The child she and Brandubh had prayed for to every god who would listen.  This one would not die because the mother was week.
Leaghsaidh felt again for the tether which tied her to that glowing new life and followed it – just pushed herself through it as she had done with the memories.  The queen was a spark – lightning running through the trunk of a tree.  And then she was standing beside a tree blinking in the bright sunlight of a summer’s day.  The ground felt as though it were tilting up to meet her, Leaghsaidh reached for the tree to steady herself, but crumpled to the ground.
A man’s voice gasped from somewhere behind her, “My Queen, your attention is required, anon.”
Before Leaghsaidh could find her voice, another answered, “Gillie, please save your strength. It will be hours yet until we can get you to a safe bed and a physician.”
“Look,” was his only reply.
Leaghsaidh had found her knees and was struggling to turn toward the conversation; to face the man who had called for his queen.  Disorientation sizzled through her limbs and head.  There was no child in her womb.  The grass was wet on her palms.  The pungent smell of smoke and something unfamiliar clotted the air.  Then the ambient sound filtered through the haze of her thoughts and she stood in alarm – instinct reaching an arm over her back to pull an arrow from a quiver that wasn’t there.   Battle!
The woman who had spoken before stood before her with a surprised and curious expression.  She was quite tall for a woman, armoured, and crowned in the circlet of braided iron, silver and gold she – Leaghsaidh – had made herself for Brandubh for his coronation.  Rage began in her belly at the audacity of this woman.  How could she have that crown unless she was the assassin who killed him?  Yet she not only wore it as though it belonged to her, she wore it without apology in front of the widow she’d made.  Leaghsaidh made to reach out – to attack the murderess with her bare hands – then the curious expression turned to one of question and alarm.
“Mother?” The assassin asked.

Mother.

The word reached her from across a great chasm and pulled her into that moment with such clarity, such substance that Leaghsaidh suddenly felt more alive than ever she had before.  Now she could see the thick, raven hair wound through an armoured net, feeding into a healthy braid that was tucked into specialized clips on the shoulders of an emblazoned cuirass.  The crest was new, double greyhounds with intertwined legs – one clutching the leg of a bear in his mouth, the other the tail of an otter.  Her eyes were Brandubh’s – liquid amber with flecks of green and blue.  The raven hair, also a trait of the MacCunes, looked lovely against her delicate, porcelain-bisque skin.  The chin and mouth were Leaghsaidh’s own, as well as the shape of her brow, cheek and jawline.  The tall, broad-shouldered physique she got from Brandubh, but it had been tempered well with womanly attributes and curves.  She was striking and commanding, lovely and terrifying. “Daughter,” was her much delayed response, for Leaghsaidh did not know her name.

They spoke for a time, Leaghsaidh crying silently through the conversation.  Her daughter’s life had been one lived without a mother and without so many of the thing she and Brandubh had planned for their family.  The girl had endured and always found help when she needed it, but there had been too much loss and too much pain.  Now she was leading a militia of clansman in the manner of Kenneth himself, to take back the kingdom and return the people of Albion to their once-fruitful lives.  By all accounts, they were losing the battle and the war.
Inside her daughter’s story, Leaghsaidh heard another.  A number of betrayals had occurred which led to the queen’s presence at her daughter’s battle.  Machinations that had begun when she married Brandubh, perhaps even before.  Betrayals perpetrated by someone she had loved unconditionally and trusted completely.  And he had killed her for it.  He had killed Leaghsaidh, her husband and three of their unborn children.
The dead queen turned to her daughter, tears pouring from her eyes as water from a pitcher. “You have not had the life we wished for, but you are the child we dreamt of and you have always been loved.  I filled you with all the love I had, to secure your birth.  I did not know that I would die from all that I gave you, but I would do it again.  You will take back Albion today and the world will not lose their best queen on the day of her birth.”

Leaghsaidh was spioraid now, and could not caress or comfort her daughter with touch, but she reached deep inside herself to pluck the tiny kernel of light that had blossomed at seeing her daughter for the first time. She held it in her fist and called to the gods of her kin.  She begged of them continued strength and longevity for her daughter, and a future filled with happiness, laughter and the warm embrace of her own children.  Leaghsaidh petitioned them for peace to be settled on the people of Albion once more.

The Morrigan attended the queen’s summons, soaring down from the upper branches of the same oak  Leaghsaidh had arrived by. Before the crow’s feet touched the grass, the form of a woman unfolded from a crouch and stood nodding to each of the women in turn.
“This is the moment when our Queen makes the bargain our goddess Brigit will curse us for,” The Morrigan sighed.

Leaghsaidh nodded her thanks to the Morrigan for heeding her call. Then she knelt before the goddess of war and sovereignty, holding out her hand.  A single gem of unconditional love glowed bright yellow in the center of her palm; for it was a love filled with happiness and the warmth of a summer’s day.
“Macha, this is my offering and my plea. Please allow my daughter a long and happy life and victory over those who would seek to harm her. Please grant me the body and strength to fight today, to defeat the enemy and his followers who stole my life, robbed my daughter of the kingdom I bore her to lead, and filled her childhood with strife.”
“Brigit tells us you are a wise queen,” the Morrigan sang softly as if to herself, “and here you are appealing to our Macha, the most maternal of our faces, with the gift of a mother’s swell.”
The Morrigan, leaning in close to the proffered gem to inspect its quality, cocked her head in a bird-like way and settled one eye on the living queen, “What your mother offers is a powerful gift, because it is a terrible thing to sacrifice. She offers the seed of a mother’s love for her child.  The sight of your face as it touched her heart the first time and bloomed to love.  If we take this, Queen Leaghsaidh, of the line of MacAlpin, of the Clan of the Hounds, once true Queen of Albion, will never know that swell.  She will travel to the Summerlands without ken of her infant’s birth…without the memory of your face.  Your mother has already relinquished all of her memories to you this day, as she lay abed trying not to bleed you out as another failed babe.  This is the one memory she made that came after.”
The Morrigan leaned back in to inspect the gem. “We’ve never seen one this pure,” she mumbled appreciatively.

The living queen made to protest on her mother’s behalf, but the Morrigan raised a hand to silence her, “It is not your decision but our’s. And you would dishonor her by begging us to say no.”
The Morrigan nodded to herself as if in agreement, “And we would not wish to dishonor a queen of men who has been so brave, for they are quite rare.” So saying, the goddess reached into the ether and removed the gem from a mother’s hand and grasped the shoulders of a former queen.
“Leaghsaidh mac Alba, in exchange of a mother’s love I grant your enduring family line prosperity of the heart and soul and longevity.  Do you accept this bargain?”

The queen held her head up and replied, “Yes, for I do what a mother would for her child.”
The Morrigan allowed Mother one last gaze to be shared with Daughter. Both of the women had eyes flowing with tears but the Morrigan was using her gentler face, Macha granted them clarity through the tears so the eyes might say farewell. When the space of nine heartbeats had passed, the Morrigan blew gently on the queen’s eyes and they clouded into stone.
“Leaghsaidh, Queen of Albion – you have offered your life today that there might be peace in the land of your birth, safety in the homes and fields of your people and the rightful sovereign as the heart of the kingdom – installed upon the throne of your ancestors.  To make this happen you will become Laoch Spioraid until the battle is won.  Do you accept this bargain?”

The regal monarch held her fist up and cried, “Yes! For I do what a queen would for her people!”
The Morrigan shook feathers from her hair that fell onto the Warrior Spirit. The black crow’s feathers turned white as they touched the Warrior Spirit’s aura. Colored by pure intentions, they scaled the incorporeal queen into solidity and wove her a pair of pristine hawk’s wings that blazed with righteous fire at the tips.

Once more the Morrigan addressed the reverent figure before her, “Warrior, you have offered your soul on this day in exchange for vengeance upon those who have unscrupulously and through the dark manipulation of nature and magick exploited the helpless, ruined lives, brought about senseless death, betrayed those most dear and brought us to this battlefield today.  Once the battle is begun, you will join us as the heart of Nemain with scores of the Beansidhe in your charge. Do you accept this bargain?”
The great beast of feather and scales beat its wings once to lift itself into the air above, goddess, queen and one very proud old man. She no longer had words or a mouth that formed them, so she opened her beak and screamed – for justice and retribution.