Authors: Anna Markland
DARK IRISH KNIGHT
Cover Art by Steven Novak
“When the eyes are blind, look with the heart.”
~Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
Dedicated to those who suffer from macular degeneration
Sord Colmcille, Ireland, Spring 1097AD
Ronan bellowed out his dead wife’s name in agony as the hot poker destroyed his eye. He strained in fury and despair to wrench the manacles loose from the stone ceiling.
With a derisive snort, Lorcan MacFintain thrust the rod back into the embers of the brazier. “How touching! He calls for his fair haired Mary. No point in that, MacLachlainn. She’s dead and gone, and you’ll soon be joining her. What a useless
she was anyway.”
Though a hot coal glowed in his eye socket, Ronan squinted at his grinning tormentor with his remaining eye, gathered what little saliva remained in his mouth, and spat. To his surprise, the spittle struck the cheek of the murderer who had strangled Mary after violating her.
Lorcan took off his studded leather gauntlet, wiped his face with the kerchief offered by his smirking brother, and backhanded his victim hard across the face with the glove. It was not the first time Ronan had felt the sharp sting of a broken nose, but it would be the last.
He had nothing left to live for. His estate was forfeit, his sweet Mary gone, along with the child in her belly. He seethed inwardly that he had failed to avenge her murder, failed to protect his property. His uncle, the King of Munster, would be ashamed.
Despair buckled his bruised knees, leaving him dangling by his bloodied wrists. The muscles in his shoulders screamed. His chest burned as air fled his lungs. He took a shallow breath and surrendered to the suffocating blackness.
Lorcan smirked. “Pitiful!”
Fothud retrieved the poker and slammed it against Ronan’s shin. They heard the bone crack but their victim did not cry out. “Let’s leave our wretched Cyclops. No use giving him pain if he can’t feel it. We’ll come back later and blind the other eye. I’ve a raging thirst.”
Lorcan examined his glove for blood spatters. Satisfied, he thrust his hand back into it, enjoying the feel of the leather on his skin as he flexed his fingers. “You’re right. It’s time to enjoy the fruits of this estate now it’s ours.”
Fothud spat. “Ours and our cursed allies.”
Lorcan held out both hands, admiring the workmanship of the gloves he had filched from Ronan’s chamber. “Have a care, brother. Normans hold the power in England and most of Wales. It’s only a matter of time before they turn their attention to Ireland. Better to have them as bedfellows now. We need the mercenaries the Earl provides.”
Fothud shrugged, throwing an arm around Lorcan’s shoulders. They jostled playfully on the narrow stone steps that led out of the cells beneath Túr MacLachlainn.
Fothud giggled like a girl. “We’ll have to rename this place. Too bad we don’t yet have Ronan’s body to drag before his people. That would dissuade any who might think to aid him.”
Lorcan shoved his younger brother hard as they came to the top, sending him stumbling forward. “He’s beyond help. Summon a wench. I fancy ale.”
Fothud’s grin fled his face. He glared at his brother but went to do his bidding.
Ronan felt the bite of cold water on his face. It did nothing to ease the burning in his eye. His nose was numb. He kept his good eye closed. Mayhap his tormentors would believe him still witless.
A hand patted his hip. Someone was fiddling with the manacles that had already dug bloody grooves into his wrists. What new torture had they devised?
“Wake up, Lord Ronan, wake up.”
He preferred not to awaken, but something about the voice caught his attention. It did not belong to Lorcan or his brother. He peeled open his eye, sticking out his tongue to slurp the water dripping from his bloodied hair. The blurry figure wobbling beside him atop a three-legged stool looked familiar. “Conall?’
His steward’s son put a finger to his lips. “Aye, ‘tis Conall. Best make no noise, my lord.”
Ronan tried to take a breath, but his lungs were not working. “What are you doing here, boy?”
Conall put a hand on Ronan’s shoulder. “I’m rescuing you, in case you hadn’t noticed.”
Ronan swallowed, tasting blood in his constricted throat. “How are you—”
Suddenly his hand was free of the manacle. His arm flopped to his side, pain spiralling through his bicep as the blood rushed back. “Holy Mother of God, boy. You might have warned me.”
Conall fiddled with the other manacle. Ronan feared his racked arm was about to break. He flexed his knees, thinking to stand upright, but only one leg bore his weight. Next thing he knew he was on all fours on the cold stone floor.
Conall jumped down from the stool, chuckling. “I’ve always said there isn’t a lock in this Tower that can outwit Conall MacCathail.”
His smile faded quickly. “Jesu, what have they done to your back?”
Ronan collapsed on to his side and held out what appeared to be three trembling hands. “Help me up, boy. Where is your father?”
Conall grasped Ronan’s hand with both of his and pulled. “Dead.”
Ronan came unsteadily to his feet, leaning heavily on the lad. Two of everything danced before him and an uncontrollable tremor racked his body. His head was pounding. Something was wrong with one leg. His lacerated back was on fire. Anger added to the torment. He might have known Lorcan and Fothud would kill his trusted right hand man. He gritted his teeth. Condolences would have to wait. “Where are the MacFintains now?”
Conall spat and thrust a bundle of clothing at his chest. “They’re drinking and wenching in the Hall, terrorizing the serving maids. Fothud has passed out.”
Ronan hopped on one leg, gripping Conall’s shoulder, and managed to get the rough peasant’s tunic over his head. The coarse wool abraded the lacerations left by the lash, but he felt better with his nakedness partially covered. The
were baggy, but still Conall had to help him don them. He got the cloak around his shoulders, and the boy fastened the ties.
“Did you bring my sword?”
Conall snorted. “What do you have in mind to do with your sword, my lord? You can barely stand.”
Without thinking, Ronan touched the back of his hand to his nose. The walls closed in as pain flared to life. He tightened his grip on the lad’s shoulder. “I must avenge—”
Conall strained to hold up his Master, the top of his head level with Ronan’s chest. “This is not the time for vengeance. You will get yourself killed. I need you to help me avenge my
. Now, we must be gone from here, before those murdering sods return. I’ve a
waiting in the bay.”
The heavy cloak had brought some relief to Ronan’s shivering frame, but felt like lead on his scarred back. He was so weak he doubted he would make it far. The loss of his eye had robbed him of his ability to think.
was barely big enough for Conall, never mind a man who stood taller than six feet. Conjuring a vision of the two of them curled up in a tiny round boat like walnuts in the shell, he had an urge to laugh. But if he started, he might never stop. Madness lay that way. “A
? To take us where?”
, my lord.”
It was a ludicrous plan, conceived in the mind of a child, but better to drown crossing the waters of the Irish Sea than die a painful death at the hands of his tormentors.
Leaning heavily on Conall, he limped out of the postern door of the cells, relieved the beach was not far away.
Ellesmere Castle, Salop, England 1097AD
Rhoni de Montbryce would be the first to admit she was spoiled. The only daughter and youngest child of the powerful Earl of Ellesmere, she had learned at an early age how to cajole her brothers and parents into accommodating her every wish.
She wore the latest fashions, dined on gourmet fare served by Ellesmere’s gifted cook, Trésor, and rode the finest horseflesh, a mare descended from her father’s favourite stallion.
Ram de Montbryce had been delighted at her suggestion she name the mare Fortissima after Fortis, the horse that had helped keep him alive during the Battle of Hastings.
Her father, a member of Normandie’s elite mounted cavalry from boyhood, insisted he be the one to teach her to ride. By the age of five, she was an expert rider.
Her lady’s maid, Jacquelle, took care of her needs. The granddaughter of her mother’s long time maidservant, Giselle, the girl had been well trained. As Giselle had become Mabelle de Montbryce’s confidante, so too did Rhoni often confide in Jacquelle.
“Life is dull now my brother Robert has gone off to Normandie,” she complained as she luxuriated in the hot water hauled up from the kitchens to fill the wooden bathtub.
Jacquelle stood ready to enfold her mistress in a drying cloth. “But he is the eldest. He must learn to be the
of Montbryce when your father passes on.”
Rhoni pouted as she stepped out of the tub. “I know, and I wanted to go with him to Montbryce, but my pleas fell on deaf ears. All
could say was
‘It is out of the question, Hylda Rhonwen.’
I hate that she uses my full name for a scolding. Hylda is old fashioned.”
The maid secured the linen cloth around Rhoni’s body, then used another one to rub her mistress dry. “Your brother Baudoin is back from Constantinople now.”
“You’re right, and at first the incredible tales he and Papa told of their journey to rescue my newly discovered half brother from the Crusade were entertaining. But Baudoin seems older and wiser than before he left. He no longer has time for his little sister. It’s as though he has suddenly become aware he’s destined to be the Second Earl of Ellesmere.”
Jacquelle pointed to the edge of the bed and Rhoni sat while her maid dried her feet. “For a while you enjoyed the company of your half brother’s wife, Agneta, and her baby twins.”
Rhoni sighed as Jacquelle helped her don a linen chemise. “
, Aidan and Blythe are adorable, but now that Caedmon has returned safely, they’ve gone off to their own hall in Ruyton. I am bored. I’m going to approach my mother with the idea of accompanying her to the Anointing of Myfanwy Mabelle as the new Prioress of Llansanfraid. The route will take us through Chester where
plans to stay overnight. Chester is an enormous castle with many interesting things to see and do.”
Jacquelle smiled as she gently tugged a bone comb through her mistress’s wet hair. “I recall your mother’s delight at being invited.”
Rhoni chuckled. “
, she convinced my less than enthusiastic father by reminding him Myfanwy Mabelle was named for her, so she felt it her duty to go. Eventually he capitulated.”
Rhoni doubted her father could deny her mother anything. “I hope one day to meet a handsome Norman nobleman to love as my parents love each other.”
Jacquelle put her hands on Rhoni’s shoulders. “The perfect man will come along,
Rhoni shrugged impatiently. “But time is passing. I will soon celebrate twenty years—too old for some to consider taking as a wife.”
Eligible young men flocked to Ellesmere, encouraged, she suspected, by her father. None had appealed, and she was thankful her parents would never force her into marriage. “I refuse to sit here bored to death at Ellesmere. Perhaps if I go to Llansanfraid with my mother, I might meet this elusive man. I was born in Wales. Mayhap that is where he awaits me!”
Jacquelle gasped in horror. “A Welshman,
Rhoni giggled. “Of course not, silly!”
Mabelle and Ram de Montbryce were discussing the journey to the Priory when Rhoni came upon them in the gallery. The Earl had reopened the discussion and was having second thoughts. The Countess broke from her husband’s embrace as Rhoni entered.
Mabelle pouted. “But Ram, we have already decided I will go. Myfanwy Mabelle is the youngest Prioress they have ever had at Llansanfraid. It’s an enormous achievement for the girl. Rhonwen is proud of her daughter. I have to go.”
The Earl gazed into the embers of the hearth, rubbing his rheumatic knees. “Have we not endured enough separation? It seems I have just come back from Constantinople and now you are going off to Wales.”
Rhoni hoped this was the right moment to ask. “Llansanfraid is not that far, Papa. Perhaps if I accompanied
Both parents turned to her, mouths agape.
“Absolutely not, Hylda Rhonwen!” her mother blurted out.
!” her father confirmed.
Rhoni rolled her eyes. “But you are going because Myfanwy Mabelle is named for you. I am named for her mother, Rhonwen. It is my duty to go as well. I am the only person in this family born in Wales!”
She regretted mentioning the painful memory, though over the years she had sensed her mother’s stoic acceptance that the terrifying kidnapping had turned out to be a good thing in many ways.
Her parents exchanged a glance. Taking it as a good omen, she soldiered on. “We will be well protected by our personal bodyguards. Rhodri has guaranteed our safe passage in Wales.”
Her mother glared. “Our safe passage?”
Her father scowled, but he tended to do so whenever Rhodri’s name was mentioned.
Rhoni sidled up to him, linked her arm in his, and rested her head on his shoulder. “Please, Papa. There is no danger. We will be back before you know it. I too want to honour Myfanwy Mabelle. She is a year younger than I, and look at what she has accomplished.”
The tension left his arm. He glanced again at her mother. “Very well. You may go.”
She threw her arms around his neck, jumping up and down like a child of ten rather than a proper young Norman noblewoman.
Her mother was shaking her head. Rhoni ran over and hugged her. “Come,
, help me advise Jacquelle what to pack.”