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