A magazine article explaining what happened to the Davidic line after the nation of Israel scattered (1 and 2 Kings) started me on a research journey that resulted in this Brides of Alba series. Throughout the series, we learn of the Grail Church, formed specifically to preserve not just the Grail treasures, but two blessed bloodlines—the Davidic bloodline, preserved by the sixth-century BC marriage of Zedekiah’s daughter to the Milesian High King of Ireland, and the apostolic bloodline established in first-century Britain by Joseph of Arimathea and Jesus’s close circle of family and friends. Tradition holds that the lines exist through Britain’s modern royals. At the most, it’s plausible, given the numerous sources (some are listed in the Bibliography), and at the least, ’tis great fuel for fiction. I leave the rest to the reader to discern. (For more information on the Grail Church and the sacred bloodlines in Albion’s history, see Arthurian Characters on p. 361 and The Grail Palace on p. 365).
In HEALER, Book One, I introduced the O’Byrne brothers— Ronan, Caden, and Alyn. Their clan’s twenty-year feud, a result of the Grail Church’s arranged matches gone awry, is ended when a wounded, bitter heart and a lonely, forgiving one come together to heal the breach, proving all things are possible with God’s healing love.
In the second book, THIEF, I found a delightful old Scottish proverb that became the middle brother Caden’s theme: “Love of our neighbor is the only door out of the dungeon of self.” After being the villain in Book One, Caden needed a door out of his prison of exile and shame. But don’t we all have a prison of some kind? Mine is occasional dips in chemical depression. Sometimes I have to force myself out of my “cell” when I don’t feel like it. The reward is relief from my own troubles and the joy of helping someone else. In THIEF, escaping his prison sets Caden free to live and love again. Even if his heart—and purse—are stolen by his match in mischief and in love.
Now in Book Three, REBEL, Alyn O’Byrne doubts his calling into the priesthood after an alchemical accident in the East leaves the scholar riddled with guilt. He returns home, wounded and running from his destiny—and lands in the midst of court intrigue, church politics, and a marriage to a woman carrying another man’s child. While Lady Kella gets a hard-earned lesson in the difference between love stolen in shame and the wonder and forgiveness of God’s unconditional love, Alyn becomes an example of how God does not call the able but enables His called. So, like us, both are flawed, both have doubts, but a flicker of faith is enough for God to use them for His glory and good.
Behind their stories is a setting filled with little-known traditions of Britain’s early history and church that shed light on the Arthurian legends buried in the mists of time. This setting is the late sixth-century Scotland of Arthur, prince of Dalraida, the only historically documented Arthur.
Most scholarly sources point to Arthur, Merlin, and even Guinevere/Gwenhyfar as titles, so it’s easy to see why the Age of Arthur lasted over one hundred years. The Dark Ages become even darker when you consider that there was no standard for dating and even the records that exist are written in at least four different languages. Neither names, dates, place names, nor translations are completely reliable. So I quote eighth-century historian Nennius: “I have made a heap of all I could find.”
I read and reread Scripture as I worked on this project and endeavored to show how nature magic or early science, medicine, and astrology were studied and practiced by Christian priests, druids, and nonbelieving druids. It is their fruit—good or evil—and to whom they gave the glory for their knowledge and success that separates the wheat from the chaff. Imagine the fine line a priest and scholar such as Alyn walked. It’s no wonder he found himself in doubt at times.
Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits
whether they are of God: because many false prophets
are gone out into the world.
Hereby know ye the Spirit of God: Every spirit
that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is
And every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus
Christ is come in the flesh is not of God: and this is
that spirit of antichrist, whereof ye have heard that it
should come; and even now already is it in the world.
(1 John 4:1–3)
Bear in mind that druid in that time was a word for any professional—doctors, judges, poets, teachers, and protoscientists, as well as priests. Druid meant “teacher, rabbi, magi, or master,” not the dark, hooded stereotype assumed by many today. Alyn, though an ordained Christian priest, also qualified as a druid in this context. He saw beyond the parables, which he cherished and taught as a priest.
And he said, Unto you it is given to know the
mysteries of the kingdom of God: but to others in
parables; that seeing they might not see, and hearing
they might not understand. (Luke 8:10)
I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in
me,and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit:
for without me ye can do nothing. (John 15:5)
In Matthew 10, verses 1–5, Christ equips the disciples with power over disease and demons. But He goes on to tell them not to use these gifts to amass fortune and recognition for themselves. They are instructed to go in poverty and depend on the generosity of those they help for their basic needs. Instead of glory and praise, they are to expect hostility sometimes.
This series endeavors to show the Christian perspective of the mysteries of God—the science that was often considered by the uneducated as magic and its use for good and glorifying God, versus its use for self-edification and glorifying the unbelieving druidic scholars. It demonstrates that the more man understands of creation, the more reverence he should have for the Creator. Woven through all of the above is the emphasis on worshipping the Creator, not the creation.
And since the church is made up of humans with all their flaws, the story begs the reader not to throw out the sinless Christ with the dirty church water. I once had done that myself as a college student, after seeing hypocrisy in the church and learning of the church’s many dastardly historical deeds. Praise God, I came full circle.
My hope is to demonstrate the differences between Christianity, or Creator worship, and New Age thinking, which is really the Dark Age creation worship revisited. The reader will learn how much we have in common with nonbelievers and where we differ, so that we might build on our commonality a bridge to Jesus Christ. Maybe it will keep another from leaving the faith of their childhood or enable the reader to witness more effectively for Christ to those obsessed with man’s knowledge and creation.
I mentioned in my last book how my daughter had been stalked and assaulted in college, blamed God and turned against Him, and became involved in Wicca, or white witchcraft. It was through research of the Dark Ages that I learned, by God’s grace, to witness to her effectively when she would not hear anything from the Word. I continue to include this type of faith-affirming information in REBEL.
Everyone knows the story of how the disciples fished all night to no avail. Then Jesus told them to try the other side of the vessel. They did and netted a boatload. My child would not listen to Scripture, but Celtophile that she was and is, she was all ears about the history and oral traditions of that era and culture, which evolved into many of today’s New Age beliefs. These historical and oral traditions underscored or clarified what Scripture revealed and separated the sheep from the goats.
The results of my fishing for my daughter were not as instant as the results the disciples saw. Our journey took many years before my daughter was ready to jump into the boat. But the net had been cast and repeatedly mended each time I found something new to share—some common ground to draw her to Christ. Both mother and daughter have emerged stronger from that storm—stronger in faith, friendship, and love. We still love the Celtic music, history, and lore of our heritage but know now what a vital part God played in it. I share this story because maybe someone out there needs to know how to approach a beloved nonbeliever who will not hear Scripture or traditional witness but must be reached from the other side of the boat.
This is my calling. To reach out and enable others to reach out effectively to those who are swimming on the other side of the boat from the written Word—using a net that will bring them to Christ, the Living Word.
Late sixth century AD
Merlin was dead. The nightmare had begun for the Cymri—every Briton, Welshman, Scot, and Pict—be they Christian or still clinging to the old ways.
Kella O’Toole bent over her desk in the queen’s scriptorium, well aware that her countrymen’s freedom to worship a god of choice in his or her manner was at stake, not to mention that the threat of civil war loomed. This small room adjoining Gwenhyfar’s personal quar¬ters was the only place the official palace scribes and priests would not know what Kella was about.
Her heart beat with each scratch of her quill as she hurried to finish the last page of the copy of one of the most precious books in all Albion. She’d hoped to work with the original Hebrew scripts, those recorded by the hand of Joseph of Arimathea or
one of Christ’s apostolic family, to practice her translation of the language. But Merlin Emrys and Queen Gwenhyfar had hidden them away.
Kella’s pen smoothly glided over the artificially aged vellum: Arthur, Prince of Dalraida. Only untold hours of practice as the queen’s scribe and translator kept her hand from shaking. This copy had to be flawless. Kella had been working on it for the last year under Merlin Emrys’s orders. She’d known he’d been ill, yet the news of his death that morning had still come as a shock. It didn’t seem real that the man of so many faces—abbot, adviser to the king, teacher, astrologer, and man of science—had gone to the Other Side.
Only a week ago, he’d retired to his cave with none but his devoted abbess Ninian to take his final confession and give him his last rites. Now that Merlin Emrys’s last breath had expired, Ninian prepared his body to be sealed in the farthest reach of his cave for a year. Once the flesh fell away, leaving clean bones, the Grail priestess would return to transport them to Bardsley Island to rest in one of its holy caves with the bones of Albion’s greatest holy men and kings. Gwenhyfar would transport Arthur’s similarly one day.
A wave of nausea swept through Kella’s stomach. Her pen froze. Please, Lord, no. Not now. She put the quill down and relied more on a sip of now-cold tea laced with mint and elderberry than prayer for relief. God was so distant, she often wondered if He was real. Not that she’d ever mention her doubts aloud. She took another drink of the tea and flexed her stiff fingers.
In the opposite wall a peat fire in the hearth offset the damp chill of early Leafbud in the chamber. This was no time for illness, nor anything else to distract her from her duties. The heritage of Albion’s faith rested on her being able to finish this before Archbishop Cassian took total control of the church and its documents. The Davidic lineage passed on through the Milesian Irish royal families was well documented and kept in Erin, but Kella’s project protected the foundation of the British church laid by Jesus’s family and follow¬ers. Tradition had it that they’d come to Britain in the first century after the Sadducees set them adrift on an unforgiving sea, in a boat with no supplies, oars, or sails. Yet God waived the death sentence so that Joseph of Arimathea, his niece Mary—the mother of Jesus— and their company made it to the safety of Iberia, Gaul, and on to the Northern Isles, from there to spread the gospel throughout the Western world.
And here Kella was, a humble warrior’s daughter with no such holy or royal connection—at least not within the relevant last nine generations of her family—taking part in such a vital task. Kella would write for the queen until her fingers fell off.
Father, help me, Kella prayed, taking another swallow. Even if I am unworthy, fallen in Your eyes, I’m trying to help Your cause.
Nothing. Kella felt no relief from the threat of her stomach— only more frightened and alone than ever. Maybe she was the only one God didn’t listen to.
Father, I know I have sinned and am unworthy, but I beg You, help me.
Kella started from her introspection as Queen Gwenhyfar, garbed in hunter-green robes with embroidered trim, entered the rooms. A band of beautifully worked gold crowned her long, braided raven hair. Her sleek, dark beauty was a contrast to Kella’s
untamable honey-kissed curls, pale complexion, and robust build. While it pleased Kella to hear her father say how like her fair-haired mother she’d become since she’d matured to womanhood, how she longed to be one of those light, willowy girls instead of small but well-rounded.
“I’m nearly done, milady. Only Arthur’s late sons to add.” She paused. “And King Modred.”
Wryness twisted the skillfully painted heart-line of Gwenhyfar’s lips. “Leave room for Urien of Rheged.” At the surprised arch of Kella’s brow, the queen added, “Cassian may yet have his way.”
“Aye, milady.” The Roman archbishop just might, but Kella didn’t have to like it. The stern, richly robed priest had joined Arthur in Rome on the High King’s return from a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Nothing had been the same since. Cassian’s presence damp¬ened the gaiety of the court, as if it were a sin to enjoy life. As for Arthur—
“Rome has found a new way to conquer,” Gwenhyfar told Kella. “Christ didn’t come to dictate, but Cassian has.”
Rumor was that he’d even convinced the High King to renounce his cousin Modred as his successor in favor of Urien of Rheged. Considering that Arthur’s queen and the territory he fought most to protect were Pictish, choosing a Briton would not be a wise move.
“Be sure Modred’s name is written in first,” Gwenhyfar warned her. “We want Cassian, should he get his hands on this, to believe he has the original. ’Twould be as good as he would want to destroy any record of the British church having been established with equal authority to Rome’s.”
“Why is the king so blind to this man’s purpose?” Kella asked. Nausea rolled over her again. She fought the urge to put her hand on her stomach, instead embracing the tea with both hands.
“Arthur has not been himself since returning from the Holy Land,” the queen lamented. “He’d hoped to reconcile his grief over losing his sons. But his spells of melancholy, outbursts of rage are worse … though he’s always had a fierce temper. A man with his responsibilities must be fierce or die.” Gwenhyfar narrowed her gaze at Kella. “Are you not well?” She leaned over and wiped a smudge of ink from Kella’s forehead. A hazard of a scribe’s work.
Kella winced a smile. “Something I ate this morning does not agree with me. A piece of cold meat and bread on my way here.”
“You must take better care of yourself. Take your meal at the board, not on your way to anywhere. No wonder your stomach protests.”
The queen mustn’t suspect. Kella herself didn’t want to suspect the reason for her missed courses. Two, unless she commenced this week.
“I will tomorrow,” she said. “Porridge, honey, and fresh cream.”
The very thought of her favorite breakfast made Kella shudder inwardly. She breathed in relief as the queen walked over to the pages Kella had finished. They were all neatly rolled and stored in a wooden rack designed for that purpose, exactly where the originals had been. Gwenhyfar pulled one out, examining the yellowed vellum. “Emrys’s genius will be sorely missed. I can’t tell these from the originals.”
“It bewilders this feeble mind how he made them look so old without destroying them,” Kella marveled. She’d once been to the merlin’s cave, which was hardly the average hole in the side of a hill. It had many chambers, and each one was a wonder.
One room was the shop of an alchemist; another an office lined with books and scrolls. Another’s roof was a funnel that opened to the sky, with a great glass disc said to bring the stars and planets down to earth for Merlin’s examination. Now his body lay in a far innermost chamber, his spirit already departed to be with his Savior.
“Never say your mind is feeble, Kella,” the queen chided, draw¬ing Kella back to the window alcove where her desk was situated to make the most of the sunlight. “Few men can boast the mastery of five languages and a fair hand to match. My cousin Aeda would be most proud of you.”
At the mention of the foster mother who’d raised Kella after her own mother died in childbirth, Kella smiled weakly. “Aye, I hope she would.”
Her foster brothers, Ronan, Caden, and Alyn, used to mercilessly tease Kella at Glenarden, where her father, Egan O’Toole, was champion. They’d called her “Babel-Lips,” because she talked end¬lessly and could pick up on any language or accent she overheard. During Kella’s schooling in Ireland, where her maternal aunt was an abbess, both her aunt and the queen had agreed that the ease with which Kella learned new languages was as much the result of a gift as it was of study.
“You carry a Pentecostal fire in that brain of yours,” Aunt Beda would tell her when no one else was about to witness the abbess’s pride and affection for Kella.
But if that was so, why couldn’t Kella feel God’s presence, especially now when she needed it so much? She shuddered to think of what Mam Aeda or Aunt Beda would think of her now. Her aunt had warned her time and again that a moment’s folly could ruin a maiden’s life forever. God would forgive the maid, but she and the child conceived would have to face the consequences.
“And I would have been lost without you,” the queen continued, caught up in the church’s concern, “especially since Cassian returned from Rome with Arthur.”
The new archbishop had eyes everywhere—on the queen and Merlin Emrys in particular. He considered the Grail Church even more suspect than the Irish Celtic Church, about which he had little good to say. Gwenhyfar had ceased to use the royal scribes for her communication, which led Cassian to scowl at Kella whenever they met by chance in the palace. The only things he held more in contempt than the British church were women in the church or court, except as lowly servants or brood sows.
“What sway has the man over the king that you and Merlin Emrys do not?” Kella pressed.
Emrys had long been Arthur’s adviser, although the last year or so he’d kept to his cave, where he studied the stars and his sciencia.
“Better to ask what the Roman Church offers Arthur that the Celtic Church does not.” Gwenhyfar’s slanted green eyes narrowed. At least they appeared slanted. Everything about the Pictish queen was exotic—from her accent to the perfumes she wore.
“I’ve never really understood the workings of the church,” Kella admitted truthfully. Although she knew enough to be certain she would be condemned for her mistake—for allowing love to lead her down temptation’s sweet path.
“Back when Prince Arthur was but a wet-eared youth with great contempt for our faith, Abbot Columba predicted that the prince would not survive to inherit his father Aedan’s kingdom of Dalraida,”
Gwenhyfar explained. “And we all have heard of the accuracy of the abbot of Iona’s prophecies.”
Yes, Kella had heard of the curse. But now in his early forties, Arthur had changed, repented of his indifference to God.
“So now the king hopes to counter the earlier curse of Columba’s church with the blessing of Rome in his later years.” Kella frowned. “You were … are a priestess of the Grail Church, even if it has been removed from Albion.” With the increasing advance of the Saxons, the Angus of Strighlagh’s son—a saintly warrior if ever there was one—had returned the Grail treasures to the Holy Land two years prior. “Is that how God works? Allowing one arm of His church to vex the other?”
Or maybe God had left with the relics. He didn’t seem to be answering Albion’s prayers for victory over the Saxons. The enemy spread like a plague.
“Nay, child. That is how mankind works.” The queen’s green gaze glazed over. With her palm she covered the jeweled silver cross she wore, and she turned to peer out the slit of the window in the alcove. “How we must grieve the heavenly Father.”
Kella joined the queen, guilt clawing at her chest as she stared at the misty spray of the gray-green sea hurling itself against the rocks below the tower. When she dared not look at the tumult any longer, Kella spun away to take another sip of the tea.
Surely she had grieved God as well. And if she was with child, the consequences remained to be seen. For her, and for her beloved Lorne, who, along with Kella’s father, Egan, protected the borders of Strighlagh against an uprising of Miathi north of the Clyde.
My father! Kella groaned in silence. Egan O’Toole would take off her lover’s head if he suspected. No matter that her handsome Lorne had pledged his troth to her that night as she lay in his arms. He’d sworn his life was meaningless without her.
Oh, Lorne, hurry home to me! For all our sakes.
Late sixth century AD
One could become lost in the crowds gathering to honor the passing of Merlin Emrys of Powys. But lost was a familiar feeling for Alyn O’Byrne, no matter where he was. He’d hoped that coming home to Alba from his six-year sojourn in the East might help him find the man he’d once been and the calling he’d once embraced so fervently. But Merlin Emrys had been a vital part of that hope, encouraging Alyn to pursue his education beyond Scripture to the sciencia of the East.
“Everything mankind needs to know is in the Word,” the sage had told Alyn, “but not everything there to know is written. To dis¬cern the gifts of creation, the properties of the seen and the unseen all around us, is to grow closer to the Creator of it all.”
Those words had fired Alyn’s natural curiosity and his soul’s longing to learn the workings of creation and to grow closer to God.
“But some knowledge is dangerous, Merlin,” Alyn protested beneath his breath as he was swept along with the crowd from the Solway waterfront to Arthur’s Stone Castle, where the memorial service was to take place. “It drives us away from God as sure as sampling Eden’s forbidden fruit.”
“One cannot escape from God.”
That was what Hassan ibn Yūsuf ibn Matar—a prince of the Ghassãnid, the Christian Arabs sworn to protect Byzantium—had told Alyn when Alyn announced he was leaving the Baghdad School of Wisdom and the ministry after the fiery accident that had killed their teacher. It was Hassan who had pulled an unconscious Alyn from the burning workshop. Hassan who had stayed by his bedside while Alyn recovered from the terrible explosion. Only Hassan knew of the demons haunting Alyn’s soul … the voices that had driven away God’s peace and presence.
Hassan and Alyn had become fast friends during their first week at the school, when Alyn had saved the womanizer from the vengeance of the local sultan. For that, Hassan pledged his everlast¬ing friendship and loyalty. Like the sleeping monkey—a parting gift from his friend—curled in a sling beneath Alyn’s cloak, sometimes Hassan’s friendship was a blessing and, at others, a misadventure waiting to happen.
After much jostling, herding, and persuasion, Alyn stood with his back to one of the elaborately carved columns inside Arthur’s great hall with the honored guests. Smoke from a central hearth curled toward the vaulted ceiling. Snatches of conversation regarding the great Merlin Emrys circulated through the crowd. Such a man as Merlin was thought to be beyond death’s claws. Had they not seen his magic?
Grimacing, Alyn gazed at the colorful tapestries adorning the walls. Merlin was no more a magician than Alyn was. He was a man of science and a master of illusion. Some might say it was Merlin’s spirit that brought to life tapestries hanging along the walls, but ’twas only the flickering of light from the torches mounted along the walls and in candelabras overhead. That and an occasional draft.
One tapestry in particular caught Alyn’s eye. A new one. When he was last here, the queen’s ladies had completed only its frame of Pictish art with mythological creatures and knotted lines. Now two figures rode on horseback in the center: a lady and a warrior wear¬ing crowns—no doubt Arthur and his third wife, the raven-haired Gwenhyfar. Alyn had observed that the queen, his maternal cousin, was as able with the needle as she was at weaponry and diplomacy. He smiled, proud of his mother’s Pict heritage and his father’s Irish-Scot one.
The real Gwenhyfar, who sat next to her golden-maned husband on a dais at the head of the hall, stared straight ahead, as beauti¬ful and still as the stitched one. Though her body was present, her thoughts seemed elsewhere, far from the drone of the priest presiding over the service.
Alyn’s purpose in rushing to the event, besides to pay his respects, was to hear the inimitable eloquence of Rheged’s bard, Taliesen, praising Emrys’s royal and priestly Romano-British lin¬eage, his genius in the arts and sciences, and his statesmanship to and stewardship of the British church. But instead, a cardinal-clad Roman bishop chirped repetitive lines in Latin. The message about the holiness of the Virgin and the suffering of her Son was hope¬lessly lost on most of the crowd.
Were he here, Emrys himself would draw his cloak of invisibility about his shoulders and walk out. Not that the man had such a cloak, but he could fade into a crowd as though he were invisible.
“This birdsong is best heard in a church, not in Arthur’s great hall,” someone called out.
“Aye, give us Taliesen,” cried another.
A pang of guilt struck Alyn as he nodded in agreement with the rabble-rousers. The musical chant of Latin aimed to draw a soul close to its spiritual home and God’s love, but what Alyn craved most now was the familiarity of his clan lands and family.
Let the rafters ring with how Merlin Emrys of Powys served the Son and Albion. His example spoke so much louder than this clang¬ing liturgy.
Alyn searched the bejeweled and elegant guests of honor gathered on the dais for any sign of Merlin Emrys’s old friend Taliesen. The bard’s wife, Vivianne, Lady of the Lake, did not sit with her sisters— Arthur’s widowed aunt Morgause and his mother, the church-robed Ygerna. Had Rheged’s master bard gone to the Other Side as well in the years Alyn had spent in the East?
Perhaps when Alyn received an audience with the queen, he would find out more about the state of Cymri affairs and of his fam¬ily in Gododdin. Correspondence between Alyn and his family had been scant at best. Even his native Cymric felt awkward to Alyn’s tongue after his years of studying and speaking Arabic at the presti¬gious House of Wisdom. But ’twas welcome to his ears.
“Not a soul will be left awake by the time the bishop ceases trying to save this motley lot,” a deep voice said nearby. Too close for comfort.
Alyn jerked away but broke into a grin upon seeing Daniel of Gowrys at his side. Before Alyn could reply, Daniel clapped him on the back, knocking his reply into silence. “Well, you don’t look like much of a priest,” his friend observed upon letting Alyn go.
“And you still look much the same … you fey highlander,” Alyn managed.
Faith, those tattooed forearms were nigh as thick as some men’s thighs. Daniel’s long hair was unbound and tangled, save the fraying braids bracketing his square-jawed face. Mud stained the red, green, and yellow of his plaid cloak, which was fastened with a silver brooch shaped like a roaring lion.
Alyn leaned in with an exaggerated sniff and wrinkled his nose. “And you certainly smell like one.”
After living in the East for so long with its baths and exotic oils and scents, Alyn found that it was taking time for him to reacclimate to Western hygiene. Or lack thereof.
Daniel brandished a sheepish grin. “Me ’n’ the lads arrived just this morning. Roads are naught but mire, but the Angus was determined to be here. Won’t let the queen and her people down, like some.” He cast a dubious glance at the royal dais where one bench was conspicuously empty. Modred of Lothian’s.
“Are any others here from Glenarden?”
The Gowrys were a subclan of the O’Byrnes, and his friend was the only one Alyn had recognized. Not that Daniel wasn’t qualified to speak for Glenarden. Despite his untamed highland demeanor, he’d had a princely education at chieftain Ronan O’Byrne’s insistence. Still, Daniel had been pained by the years spent at the university at Llantwit as much as Alyn had been
thrilled by his own time there. Above all, Daniel was trusted by the Glenarden.
“Times are fiercer on the border than ever,” Daniel told Alyn. “Note none of the Miathi Picts have come. And the rest of the border tribes present have sent no more than a token to represent them, much as Emrys was esteemed. They need every weapon-bearing man on hand. Truth b’told, I’d rather be one of them than here listening to all this holy gum-flapping.”
“How did you find me in this crowd?” Alyn asked, though he knew Daniel’s gaze was sharp as an eagle’s, formed by a life spent mostly in the wild.
“I spied you coming in, though I scarce believed my eyes at first. I’m used to seeing you in something more colorful than this drab gray.” Daniel picked at the wool of Alyn’s traveling cloak. “When did you return? Surely Ronan and Brenna weren’t expecting you when I left Glenarden.”
’Twas Alyn’s eldest sibling, Ronan of Glenarden, and Daniel’s cousin Brenna of Gowrys who, thanks be to God’s grace, had finally brought peace to their troubled clan lands by their loving union.
“Are they here?” Alyn glanced past Daniel, hoping to catch sight of his brother or more of the Glenarden folk.
“Nay,” Daniel told him. “Ronan asked me to speak for Glenarden.”
Disappointment clouded Alyn’s heart. “My ship made anchor this morning. I came here when I heard the news of Emrys’s death. Would that I’d come home sooner.” Or that Merlin’s death is another of his tricks. Alyn still could not believe the man was gone, especially when Alyn needed his genius most.
“The main thing is that you’re here, though why you’re still wearing your cloak wrapped so tightly about yourself makes me wonder if you didn’t leave your mind back in the East.” Daniel wiped perspiration from his brow and tucked his thumbs into his kilted wrap. “Are you hiding something in the folds?”
“I am.” With a smug grin, Alyn tugged a fold of the wool away to reveal a creature curled like a sleeping baby against his tunic. “A gift from a friend.”
“Faith, that’s the ugliest babe I’ve ever seen! Sired by a bear, was it?”
“Fatin is an African monkey,” Alyn whispered, closing the gap in hopes that the animal would continue his nap. “Who is the new archbishop?”
Daniel cast a disdainful glance in that direction. “Cassian, he calls himself. And Arthur’s made him the new merlin.”
“Adviser to the king?” Alyn cut his gaze toward the dais in disbelief. What would a Roman bishop know of Alba and its people?
Yet Arthur listened solemnly to every utterance from Cassian’s lips while kings and princes from the pagan and Christian noble houses of the Cymri—the Briton and Welsh brotherhood—and even the Scot and Pict nations stood proud, if not interested, behind their shields in places of honor.
When at last Cassian stopped talking and motioned for his fellow priests to help him close the service with the Eucharist, some of the warrior kings waited dutifully for the sacrament. Others grumbled and shifted from foot to foot but stayed in tolerance for an end to the ceremony. But a few, devoted to their own gods of war and bounty, simply walked out of the hall in disrespect.
“’Tis a fragile peace the Dux Bellorum is weaving here,” Daniel observed. “I’d like to think all in attendance will stand by Arthur when the need arises. Most of the great houses of Alba and Albion are here.”
If not for Alyn’s ring—onyx inlaid with a pearl-white dove symbolizing his connection to his cousin Queen Gwenhyfar—and some smooth talk, he surely would not have been admitted among even the lesser ambassadors and scholars of such an esteemed group. While a prince himself, Alyn’s status of being third in line for chief¬tain carried little weight in state affairs.
A small but surprisingly strong tug on his cloak drew his atten¬tion to where Fatin peeked out with large dark eyes, cautiously taking in the crowded hall.
“Time for me to leave,” Alyn announced to Daniel. “You have no idea how much trouble he can get into, especially in this crowd.”
Daniel chuckled. “Nay, but I’d give good silver to see it. His jacket’s fine as most noblemen’s here.” He poked gently at the mon¬key’s belly. “Fatin, is it?” he crooned to the animal.
Ordinarily Fatin did not take right away to strangers, but this was no ordinary stranger. Daniel of Gowrys was more at home with animals than people. The monkey gave him a toothy smile.
Daniel couldn’t help but match it. “I’ve heard of monkeys but never seen one close up.”
Fatin, now wide awake, squirmed in the constraints of his sling.
Alyn hadn’t had the heart to leave him in his cage at the docks with the other goods to be delivered to a nearby inn. He tightened Fatin’s leash and looked for the fastest way out. Except perhaps in a circus, few Cymri had ever seen a monkey, much less one dressed in princely garb. Alyn could hear the cry “Demon!” ringing in his ears just at the thought of Fatin scampering across the sea of heads and shoulders.
Although Emrys would have enjoyed such a distraction, Alyn knew.
Smothering a pained smile, Alyn asked silent forgiveness for avoiding the Holy Communion. “Follow me,” he said to Daniel, pressing his hand against the fidgeting Fatin.
Exasperation fanning his footsteps, Alyn took the closest exit from the hall. The door led to a columned Roman portico that connected the plain lime-washed stone of the Queen’s Tower and Arthur’s Hall.
The moment Alyn released the leash, Fatin wrestled free from his grasp and took to the vine-covered passage as naturally as his ancestors had their jungle trees. In no time at all, the small monkey found the right spot and relieved himself, chattering in bliss.
Daniel laughed out loud. “I’m sure the queen’s garden needed water.”
“All he does is eat, chatter, and—”
A splash announced Fatin’s dive into a fishpond.
“Play in water,” Alyn finished wryly as the black animal emerged with a shriek of horror at the icy temperature so different from his native waters. “He’s yet to learn the chill of Alba’s waters.”
Daniel laughed out loud as the wet monkey shook himself and gave them an earful of his opinion. Alyn took off his cloak and held it out to the shivering creature, but Fatin eyed him warily. Like a babe, he’d had his nap and was ready for a romp.
“Come on, you furry excuse for breath,” Alyn ground out, shaking his cloak. He didn’t have the patience Hassan had with the creature. Not for the first time, he wondered why he’d even accepted the gift. “I didn’t have the heart to tell my friend Hassan to keep the little beast after he’d purchased it for me to remember him by,” he told Daniel. “But right now …”
Fatin scampered up a large arched trellis, swinging down under one side and up on the other, using his long, thin limbs and versatile tail.
“The East must produce some strange friends,” Daniel observed, “if you remember him like that.” The highlander reached up to the trellis and mimicked Fatin’s chatter, all the while coaxing him to the edge.
The thick door from which they’d just emerged opened without warning. Startled, Fatin fled straight into Daniel’s arms, soaking his tunic in the process. So as not to call attention to their presence in the garden, which was usually reserved for the leisure of the court ladies, Alyn and Daniel hastily stepped into the cover of the thickvined arbor. Alyn had spent hours in this very spot, talking with his late mother’s cousin, and he was certain Gwenhyfar would be delighted to hear he’d returned from the East—but it was awkward to be found here without invitation.
A woman rushed out of the hall, her hair a wild tumble of curls the color of summer wheat. Head down, the lower half of her face covered with her hand as if to conceal her identity, she marched straight for the arbor and smack into Alyn’s chest.
Her shriek withered behind the press of her palm against her mouth.
Alyn placed his own hand over hers to make certain it stayed there. “You’ve nothing to fear. We’re only two guests who sought relief from the closeness of the assembly in the fresh air of the queen’s garden.”
Recognition rippled across the hazel eyes that possessed a cha¬meleonlike quality to favor blue, green, or amber, depending on her humor and the color she wore. Today they were rimmed in blue. “Alyn O’Byrne!” Kella O’Toole gasped as he released her. “B-but when? How?”
Alyn thought he’d have known his younger foster sister anywhere. He’d watched her grow into womanhood. But when Kella backed away to collect herself, he was no longer certain. When he’d last seen her, she was pretty and ripe of figure, but today she was so stunning that his tongue turned upon itself, leaving him utterly speechless.
As if she distrusted her own eyes, Kella reached up and touched his natural hairline, where once he’d shaved it in the druidic and priestly tonsure of his station. But that seemed a lifetime ago. Now he wore his long, straight hair pulled tightly off his face with a leather thong, the rest falling down his back to his shoulders.
“You’ve got hair,” she marveled. Her lips formed the perfect rosy O he remembered.
Alyn strove to analyze what exactly was different, but the scent of her perfume assailing his nostrils dulled his thought processes, enhancing his senses and leaving them hungry for more. How could senses make no sense?
“Welcome home!” Kella threw both arms about his neck and pressed a heavenly sculpted body against his with a more familiar childlike gusto.
Her lips were intended for his fresh-shaven cheek, Alyn’s for her rosy one, but somehow his claimed hers as if following some primal order given and executed faster than his brain could process. Heat flushed through his body with an urgency he hadn’t known existed until a moment ago.
“I, too, have hair, my lady,” Daniel of Gowrys drawled. His wryness penetrated the heady cloud cover of Alyn’s brain.
Reluctant, Alyn released the delicious Kella from his embrace. Delicious? Bards used such words to describe women, as if the human species could be compared to food. Emotions were mercurial things, not to be trusted. They made great literature for poets but left a man of sciencia unimpressed with their instability.
“I … I gave up the tonsure,” Alyn stammered.
If Kella required more detail, he’d stand as if upon his tongue. Right now, she was enough reason for his doubts regarding his calling to the priesthood.
Her face as red as Alyn’s felt, Kella opened her mouth to speak, but the whatever-was-that-about? in her eyes thankfully did not find voice. Instead, she turned her attention to Daniel, who puckered his lips in sheer devilment.
She stepped back, gathering a proper huff of indignation. “Daniel of Gowrys, the High King’s dogs would think twice before kissing that bristly face.” A tug at the corner of her lips betrayed her humor. “Though it is good to see you as well,” she admitted.
“You always favored him,” Daniel chided, “over me.”
“I’ve known him—” Her gaze fell from Daniel’s face to the wet Fatin. “What is that?” she exclaimed in horror. “Are rats mated with humans to produce such creatures?”
“That,” Daniel announced, dislodging Fatin from his shirt and handing him over to Alyn, “is Alyn’s new pet monkey.”
“It’s wearing clothes.” She looked to Alyn for some kind of explanation.
Sure, her eyes could not be more round or filled with confusion. Perhaps Alyn was not the only one taken aback by the unexpected reaction resulting from their meeting.
“Fatin is a prince,” he explained. The jab of Daniel’s elbow brought home the foolishness of his reply. “That is, Fatin is a gift from an Arab prince,” Alyn added hastily. “He has a royal wardrobe.”
“He dresses better than most people I know,” Daniel put in.
Kella cut him a sidewise glance. “You might learn from the little mite.”
Alyn chuckled, relieved that his inexplicable behavior had been dismissed and the interaction of this threesome had returned to normal. “I see you two still love each other.”
“Forever and always.” Kella gave Daniel a wicked grin. “But I’d have him bathe before I greet him with a proper hug.”
Kella had always been drawn to the glamour and customs of court life—to the point that it used to irritate Alyn no end. He’d done his best to warn her that glitter did not mean gold, nor perfume cleanliness of the body or soul.
Though she shone like the purest gold right now. And her cheeks were the first of this year’s roses to bloom in the queen’s gar—
Alyn reined in his rambling thoughts, heat scorching his cheeks. First, he’d regressed to a behavior more suited to Fatin’s ancestors. Now ’twas as if Hassan’s poetic brain had overtaken his.
It wasn’t as if he’d given Kella much thought beyond that of a concerned older brother since he’d set off for the East to further his education. He’d left behind a sweet but sometimes shallow maiden who had an ear for languages and dreams of making a noble marriage.
As Kella peered at the monkey, now balled into the folds of Alyn’s cloak, Alyn grasped for words. “His name means ‘clever,’ but I fear my friend Hassan gave it with too high a hope. The monkey just leapt into a barely thawed goldfish pond.”
Kella cautiously touched the pet. Fatin hesitantly wrapped his tiny fingers about hers. “Does he bite?” she whispered, caught between alarm and the little monkey’s charm.
“Not often,” Alyn teased.
“I’ve only heard of one death resulting from monkey bites,” Daniel chimed in.
Kella’s eyes slashed them with disdain, but her even teeth wor¬ried her bottom lip as she stroked Fatin. “The poor thing is trembling with cold.”
How could those lips taste like honeyed wine? Perhaps it lin¬gered from the Eucharist. Alyn pulled his senses in line once again. Poetic fantasy, and annoying at that.
“Bring him into the Queen’s Tower,” Kella instructed them. “He can dry by the fire while I find out what brings home my wandering foster brother.” She grinned at Daniel. “You can come too, if you wish.”
Daniel declined. “If I’m to represent Glenarden in Arthur’s court, I’d best return.” He cut a glance at Alyn. “That is, if you two think you can control your joy at seeing each other again.”
Kella gently withdrew her finger from Fatin’s grasp. “We both turned our heads at the same time, silly,” she explained, avoiding eye contact with Alyn. “’Twas a mis-kiss, nothing more,” she added with a careless wave of her hand.
“Precisely,” Alyn chimed in. Heaven knew, he’d not intended such a reunion.
Pivoting on beaded silk slippers, Kella gathered up the blue brocade of her skirts and led the way toward the Queen’s Tower entrance. Her unmistakable air of authority was reinforced when the guard at the door immediately opened it and stood aside with a respectful “G’day, milady.”
It was Kella, and yet it wasn’t. Until Alyn could fathom the difference, distance was the best course of action.