Quest for Three Kingdoms
Ireland 1652: In the desperate, final days of the English invasion of Ireland . . .
A fey young woman, Áine Callaghan, is the sole survivor of an attack by English marauders. When Irish soldier Niall O’Coneill discovers his own kin slaughtered in the same massacre, he vows to hunt down the men responsible. He takes Áine under his protection and together they reach the safety of an encampment held by the Irish forces in Tipperary.
Hardly a safe haven, the camp is rife with danger and intrigue. Áine is a stranger with the old stories stirring on her tongue and rumours follow her everywhere. The English cut off support to the brigade, and a traitor undermines the Irish cause, turning Niall from hunter to hunted.
When someone from Áine’s past arrives, her secrets boil to the surface—and she must slay her demons once and for all.
As the web of violence and treachery grows, Áine and Niall find solace in each other’s arms—but can their love survive long-buried secrets and the darkness of vengeance?
Cormac lowered himself to his seat, propping his elbows on his knees as he leaned in. “Tell us a story. Go on.”
Áine heard the challenge, and her heart sank. She could either accept or be laughed back to the cottage and into next week. Either way, she’d be ridiculed.
“Not easy, is it?” Cormac said with a satisfied smirk.
“Leave it, Cormac,” Niall said in a warning tone.
Fionn sat up and left Niall’s side to plant himself in front of Áine, giving no concern that his back was facing the others. Grateful, Áine cupped the hound’s muzzle before scratching behind his ears.
“Well?” Cormac asked.
“Sit down and mind your tongue,” Niall called out. The campfire company was threatening to splinter, with many arguing for Cormac.
Could she dare? The hound seemed to be speaking to her, his liquid eyes warm and encouraging. Were these men not very like the Fianna, outlaw warriors of yore?
Áine started her tale. “Attend the Fenian cycle of heroes and giants and mighty foes.” Voices lowered, even Cormac’s.
The terror nearly overwhelmed her, and she found it hard to breathe. Her voice wobbled, and she almost gave up and buried her face in Fionn’s fur. The hound gave her hand an encouraging lick, and she breathed deeply. She could do this—she had been telling the Mulriane herd her tales for years. So as not to falter, Áine focused on Fionn—she didn’t dare lift her eyes to see his master.
“Fionn mac Cumhaill was one of Ireland’s greatest heroes, a giant amongst men, and there has never been his like before or since. There have been so many songs of his daring, but this is the tale of how he saved Tara from invasion by battling Aillen of the Tuatha Dé Danann on a faerie mound.”
Áine rose to her feet and imagined the misty forests of years ago, greener than new leaves and bewitched with silvery moonlight. “A long time ago, when the world of man and the Otherworld were not sealed off to each other, the Tuatha Dé Danann made Éire their home. Brightly enchanted kings and queens, they kindled the wonders of sword, spear, stone and cauldron. But with the light, there is also the dark, and not all of the Tuatha Dé Danann had men’s best interests at heart.”
She threw herself into the story, tasting every word on her tongue. “Every Samhain, Aillen of the Tuatha Dé Danann would rise from the underworld to lull the men of Tara into an enchanted sleep before burning that blessed place with his hellfire. ‘Who will defend Tara from this scourge? ’the high king demanded.” Her voice rang with the authority of the ruler of Tara, and she held up her hand as though she were invoking the gods.
As though he had sprung up before her, Áine saw the hero Fionn standing before the High King of Éire, vowing to defend Tara with his very lifeblood. Only now he bore the face of Niall O’Coneill. Inspiration carried her, giving flavour to her tale.
All were silent around her. And then Áine lifted her eyes and met Niall’s intense gaze. A bolt of energy, as enchanted as Aillen’s fire, shot through her. He leaned slightly forward, hanging on every word. Her words.
Áine’s mind froze, and her tongue stumbled on the narrative. She mentally tried to snatch at the words, but they dispersed like will-o’-the wisps. Panic bubbled up until Niall nodded at her as though to say he believed in her.
She refocused her story and now directed the rest of her narrative to Niall. Everyone else faded into the shadows. With Niall as her inspiration, she took her audience through every dramatic setback and twist. By the time she reached the dramatic battle, the only other sound was the crackling of the fire.
“Fionn mac Cumhaill faced Aillen with his enchanted spear, the Birga, in one hand and in the other, his great shield that was three times the size of the largest shield ever constructed.” Her words took on shape; even her fingers tingled when Aillen shot the fury of hellfire down on Fionn, who deflected it with his shield. Then the great warrior delivered the killing blow. “With Aillen’s defeat, Fionn was allowed to claim his father’s lordship of the Fianna and take his place, a leader amongst them.”
Áine bowed her head with the last line. Silence. Swallowing nervously, she kept her head down, terrified to look up and see their scorn. Her face burned hot.
Then a burst of applause erupted, and she lifted her head in surprise. They weren’t mocking her—they were cheering. Even Cormac clapped, with a look of grudging respect. But it was Niall that made her heart overflow. He had risen to his feet and clapped the loudest, his eyes shining for her.
“Well done, Áine.” He handed her his own cup, and his fingers brushed hers when she took it. Áine smiled and couldn’t look away.
Someone stood up and began to play their bagpipes, the drone of them stretching across the camp like an otherworldly lament. Áine shivered. She was aware of Niall’s nearness, and the song of the pipes stirred too many emotions. Rising, she intended to slip quietly away, but Niall stood up as well.
“Where are you going?” he asked her.
“The hour is late,” she replied. “I need to rise before the sun.”
“As do I,” Niall said. “I’ll walk you back to Eireen’s.” He stepped aside, allowing Áine to proceed. His hand touched the small of her back before dropping away.
Slowly, they walked in silence away from the campfires, Fionn melting into the shadows. A full moon soared in a cloudless midnight-blue sky. Eireen’s tent was not far.
“You astonish me, Áine,” he said.
The use of her name brought a thrill to her, not the least because his tone decidedly softened over it, as though he were savouring the taste.
Don’t overreact, Áine. “I do?”
“You’re different than anyone else I’ve met.”
Her heart lurched, and she struggled with whether to ask what he meant or remain quiet and allow herself to remain ignorant. But she was still lifted with the euphoria of the story and so braved, “How so?”
“You have the soul of a poet,” he answered. “The light of a bard shone on your face when you spoke. You bewitched us all.”
The soul of a poet. A golden compliment, an unexpected treasure. “Thank you.” For the first time, she had a desire to unburden herself. “Not everyone cares for different. It makes for misunderstandings.”
“And you care to please those people? They are sheep and not worthy of your trouble. We all have different gifts, and there is no shame in that. The only shame would be to not follow the courage of our gift. Had Fionn mac Cumhaill wanted an easy life, he would have become a blacksmith. Look up, never down, Áine Callaghan.”
She was overwhelmed by this man, and all she could say was, “Thank you.”
“I must tell you that I anticipated another story instead of the one you gave us.”
They reached Eireen’s shelter. Niall stopped and canted his head. Even though his face was half in shadows, she could see a smile playing across his lips. “The tale of how Fionn mac Cumhaill found an enchanted maiden in the depths of a forest.”
Áine flushed, her cheeks growing hot. Again, he had read her thoughts. There was a moment when she had considered that very story but had quickly discounted it—wishful thinking on her part, and she didn’t want to expose herself to ridicule.
“The group preferred the taste of battles, not fanciful tales.”
Niall smiled and tipped his head back, studying the stars in the night sky. “Not all tales are fanciful. There’s truth if you know where to look for it.” He stopped and faced her. Áine’s breath hitched in her throat. “What would you say if I told you I want to kiss you?”
Her eyes widened, and she felt her cheeks flooding with heat. Áine’s sense fled and she was incapable of forming a coherent thought. Instead of replying with a witty phrase, she blurted, “Why?”
Niall stepped closer. “Because you are the fairest maid I’ve seen, Áine Callaghan.”
“That can’t be true.”
“You would call me a liar?” He lifted her chin with his finger and bent closer to her, his lips hovering inches away from hers. “May I?”
Áine was certain he would be able to hear her heart pounding violently in her throat. This was madness, but she found herself wondering what his touch would be like. She gave a small nod.
She wasn’t sure what to expect, never having been truly kissed before, but when his lips touched hers, a tumble of emotions assailed her. She felt herself unfurl like a new bud, shyly at first. Their breaths merged. Áine’s world constricted to his taste, scent and touch. Niall’s mouth slanted across hers, gently probing, and her lips parted tentatively. It was an intimate moment, and Áine felt herself especially shattered.
When Niall lifted his head, his expression mirrored how she felt. For a moment, she thought he might kiss her again, but instead his thumb passed gently over her parted lips. A simple touch and yet one that she felt to her toes and parts in between.
“Goodnight, Áine Callaghan.” His throaty voice sent shivers rippling through her.
He stepped away from her, his expression unfathomable. With a sharp whistle to Fionn, he headed down the lane.
Áine watched him go, watched the darkness close in around him. She grazed her lips with her fingertips. “Good night.”
Thank you, Cryssa Bazos and The Coffee Pot Book Club
About the Author
Cryssa Bazos is an award-winning historical fiction author and a seventeenth century enthusi-ast. Her debut novel, Traitor’s Knot is the Medalist winner of the 2017 New Apple Award for Historical Fiction, a finalist for the 2018 EPIC eBook Awards for Historical Romance. Her second novel, Severed Knot, is a B.R.A.G Medallion Honoree and a finalist for the 2019 Chaucer Award. A forthcoming third book in the standalone series, Rebel’s Knot, will be re-leased November 2021.
Amazon Author Page: https://www.amazon.com/-/e/B072871QB3
Universal Link: https://books2read.com/RebelsKnot