Horse of Bells

an excerpt



Chapter One

"Somerled, I ask you to make me one promise for after I'm gone." Fidelma spoke quietly, but with an air of authority even from her deathbed.

The face of the man at her bedside was pale and pinched, and he gazed at her with pain in his eyes.

"I know I will not live. I also know just how much comfort my cousin Doireann has been offering you these last twelve months. I understand your need and I know how cunning and beautiful Doireann is. Therefore, I have this one request."

A flush passed swiftly across Somerled's cheeks. "Whatever it is, I will do all I can to fulfil it, Fidelma," he replied. "You are still my queen, my wife, and the mother of my two sons. If there is any wish of yours I can grant, then I will."

"Donal succeeds you after his twenty-first birthday. He is still a year and a half away from safety. Send him and Caolan away, somewhere Doireann does not know. She cannot bear children of her own, and she treats her nephew Galvin, the son of her dead sister and brother-in-law, as if he were her child. She would see him crowned over Donal." Fidelma ignored the shocked look on her husband's face.

"Although I think your fear unfounded, it is your dying wish and I will do what I can," Somerled assured her.

"Thank you. Now I know you have things to do. The physician will be here soon, and I am tiring," Fidelma said as she closed her eyes.

"I will call back later," he promised.

Somerled pressed a kiss to her cheek, and she watched her husband leave, and sighed. She was dying, and the physicians could do nothing for her. Once that fact had been known, Doireann had instantly come to offer her support to Somerled. Fidelma knew the other woman wanted to install herself as the second queen and had no doubt Somerled would announce his engagement soon after her funeral.

In the dark recesses of Fidelma's mind she feared Doireann had engineered the death of Galvin's parents to make the child her own. Galvin could be a good enough young man if he was not so easily swayed by his scheming aunt.

She could only hope and pray Somerled sent their children to safety as she'd asked. I must try and speak of my wish to Donal. If he thinks there is danger, he will act.

The door opened even as her visitor tapped on it, and Doireann entered smiling. "How do you feel, my dear cousin?"

"Not so badly. I'm surprised you're here and not with Somerled." Despite her weakness, Fidelma strove to infuse her voice with strength and derision. She took perverse pleasure from the way Doireann's smile vanished.

"Indeed?"

"Please do not insult me, cousin." Fidelma sat a little straighter and rolled her eyes before glancing at Doireann.

"Very well. Somerled has already discussed a date for our marriage. A short mourning period, and then we will have a small wedding. Just select guests in deference to your regrettable passing."

"A shame for you that Somerled's reign comes to an end so soon after you achieve your desire of becoming a queen." Fidelma smiled to herself at the black look from Doireann.

"My reign is only beginning. Somerled regards me with desire in his eyes and has for some time."

Doireann's smirk was back full force, but Fidelma didn't let the words hurt her. They only confirmed what she'd known for some time. Somerled was weak in that regard, but he'd never been unfaithful. He'd have a new queen with undue haste, and she could forgive him that. But her sons were a different matter altogether.

"Somerled regards many women at court with desire in his eyes, as you will find out for yourself, Doireann. Do not fool yourself into thinking your feminine wiles are the only reason he looks at you."

This time Doireann glared back at Fidelma with undisguised hatred. "He will not look at others when I wed him."

Fidelma didn't waste her breath with an argument. She knew Somerled too well. He liked women. Her own advantage had been that of being mother to Somerled's sons. But now Donal was a man and soon to take the crown. Her regret was not to be able to see Caolan attain manhood. As much as she wished for it, she knew her body too well. Her time was fast running out.

"Donal will take the throne from his father. He will be a good king, with the right consort at his side. Enjoy your forced retirement when it comes." Fidelma reached for a cup of water as a coughing fit caught her breath.

With an exaggerated sweep of her hands and an indulgent smile, Doireann picked up the silver decanter and poured some water into the crystal goblet. "You know, Caolan is very much your son, just as Donal is Somerled's. I could mold Donal, not as easily as I will Somerled, but eventually, I would find sufficient persuasion. Donal may have the brawn, but 'tis Caolan who has the brains."

"Neither will fall for your tricks." Fidelma set down her glass.

"Oh, my poor deluded cousin." Doireann laughed aloud. "I have spent years using a variety of ways to get men to do my bidding and get me what I wanted. Donal would be no different. Leastwise without Caolan at his side. Did you truly believe my two, dearly departed husbands died naturally?"

A twisting pain in her stomach made Fidelma gasp, and she looked quickly at the glass of water Doireann had poured. "Poison?"

"In your case. In theirs, something different, but just as fatal." Doireann cackled. "Somerled is safe for now. I'm happy to help him following your death. But as to his succession, 'twill not be your bloodline but mine. No one will question your death, cousin. I will weep many tears at your passing, a useful ploy when dealing with men."

Twisting desperately, Fidelma tried to reach her bell to ring for help, but it was out of her reach as the pains increased in intensity. As blackness engulfed her, Fidelma's last thought was a prayer for the safety of her sons.





Chapter Two

"You can hunt a boar without dogs, Donal," Caolan insisted as his gaze alternated between his older brother and Turlough, their man-at-arms.

"It isn't safe, Prince Caolan. Boars are fast, strong, and deadly," Turlough cautioned.

"I know that. But if you spy it and shoot quickly, you can defeat it without the need of the dogs to bring it down."

"Take care, my brother. I can see by the look in your eye you're determined to prove our man-at-arms wrong." Donal shook his head.

"I meant no offence, my prince," Turlough said.

"I know, Turlough, and I take none. There is a world of difference between your belief and the many jibes I hear from those at court who feel I am merely a runt to be tolerated." Caolan shrugged. He'd heard the courtiers who were glib, shallow, and obsequious. But their opinions weren't important. He strove in vain for his father's approval, but since he had Donal's, he was happy.

"If I hear them, I will teach those sycophants not to hurt you with their mean-minded words. When I take the throne on my twenty-first birthday, there will be many changes at the palace." Donal spoke in a tone that made it clear that no one spoke ill of his brother, at least not within his hearing.

His brother's voice had turned low and threatening. Caolan acted quickly to defuse Donal's anger.

"Just give me a little time." He handed Donal his neckerchief. "The dogs will find me quickly enough, and I know the direction to find you. I promise I will be careful. I have my bow ready," he added, patting the weapon over his shoulder.

"Fare well." Donal squeezed Caolan's shoulder.

"You too, Donal."

Grinning at his brother, Caolan then rode to the right as Donal headed left. He was determined to prove he could kill a boar on his own without any need for dogs. Turlough followed Donal taking the dogs with him. Caolan was unconcerned. He knew his horse, knew the Great Forest, and wasn't afraid of boars.

Some time passed before Caolan recognized the sound of a boar. He charged forward, delighted to see the beast was a good-sized male. He chased it mercilessly, pulling his bow from his shoulder as the boar ran into a copse where thick foliage prevented its escape.

As he nocked the arrow and pulled back to aim at the trapped beast, the bow snapped and caused him to lose his balance. He tumbled from his mare, and the horse gave a squeal of fear as the boar charged.

"Go to Donal!" Caolan shouted as he slapped the mare's flank.

He prayed the mare would seek out Donal and not simply return to the castle. He and his brother had devoted many hours to teaching their mounts this trick, but until now they had never needed it. As the horse thundered away Caolan turned his attention to the now-charging boar. He leapt aside but not quickly enough. A cry of pain escaped him as the boar's tusk gouged his left thigh. Ignoring the blood and pain, Caolan limped as fast as he could for a tree whose branches looked low enough for him to climb even in his current state.

With another cry of pain, he leapt to catch hold of the tree's lower limbs and pulled his legs up just as the angry boar ran beneath him. Man and animal stared at one another, and Caolan waited, certain the boar would stay there until he fell from the tree in exhaustion. All he could do was hold on and hope his brother found him quickly.

Out of nowhere a black-feathered arrow struck the boar. A second and third followed in quick succession, and as the boar fell so did Caolan. He lay not far from the dead beast and groaned.

"You're hurt."

The voice was deep and gentle, and Caolan stared at the man who knelt at his side. The stranger's hair was wrapped in a black turban which also covered the lower half of his face.

"You're...you're a poacher?" Caolan asked suddenly afraid the man might kill him as well as the boar.

"You could say that." The man's tone sounded amused. "But I seem to have found a far greater prize than a boar or deer."

"Hurts," Caolan whispered as the man tore open his leggings to reveal the deep gouge. Caolan saw the man's grimace and knew the wound was bad. "Will I lose it?" he asked as cold fear gripped him. He had heard of hunters losing their limbs or even their lives from wounds such as this.

"No. I may not be able to prevent some scarring though. That seems such a tragedy with one so beautiful," the stranger said.

Unsure how to reply, Caolan lay and watched. His mysterious rescuer poured water over the wound before applying a thick layer of salve. He then used the scarf of the turban to bandage the injured leg. Raising his gaze, Caolan regarded the intense face of his saviour. The man's unbearded visage was square and strong, and his eyes were as clear blue as the nearby lake. The stranger's full lips turned up in a smile as he realized he was being regarded so intently.

"Do you like what you see?" he teased.

"Yes," Caolan replied without thought and then felt himself blush.

"That pleases me. I think if I were to steal you, I would have the greatest treasure any man could desire. And beneath here" He slipped a hand under Caolan's doublet. "--beats a heart made of pure gold, I am sure."

A gasp ripped from Caolan's throat as the man's thumb grazed his nipple and caused it to stiffen instantly. His gaze shot to his rescuer. The man no longer looked at him with amusement but with a hunger and desire met equally by his own. Although surprised by his own body's reaction, Caolan did not deny them.

"Might I steal a kiss?" the stranger asked.

"You cannot steal what I freely offer."

It was the first kiss of passion he had ever known, and it seemed to inflame his body in ways he had never dreamt. He moaned as a hot, wet invader slipped past his parted lips. The handsome stranger's tongue danced with his own. As they drew apart for breath, the stranger removed a glove and stroked Caolan's cheek with his naked hand.

"You are still but a youth," the man whispered.

"I will be eighteen in six months."

"So close and yet so far." He shook his head, regret in his eyes.

As the hand receded, Caolan clutched at it. "Give me a promise," he begged.

"If it is within my power, beautiful."

"I will come back here each month and look for you. Promise me you will also return and seek me out. Promise me."

"You are so young. There is still so much of the world for you to see and so many people for you to meet." Caolan saw the hope warring with desire in his eyes.

"I make you this vow." Caolan laid the man's hand over his heart and gazed deeply into his eyes, hoping the stranger would see his sincerity. "I will not accept courtship from any other until we have met again when I am of age. We will then see if what has happened here is reality or just a dream. I feel a connection to you. A closeness. I have only ever felt something similar for my brother, but I do not feel brotherly affection for you. Promise you will come and seek me out. I will wait for you."

"I cannot deny the connection just as I cannot deny your request." The man's head suddenly snapped up. "Rescuers come," he said, the words clipped and terse. "I give you my promise. I will seek you out."

Caolan gazed up into eyes filled with warmth, affection, and regret. Before he could speak, his rescuer pressed another kiss to his lips. Caolan tried to commit everything he could of the man to memory: his scent, the feel of his lips, tongue, and skin. He already missed the sound of his voice. Caolan gazed into the man's face as the stranger reluctantly backed away.

"Don't forget me." Caolan pleaded as the man vanished into the woods.

"Never." The reply floated back to Caolan from the safety of the trees.

The word drifted back to him, and Caolan smiled. It was only as he heard his distraught brother yelling his name that Caolan realized neither he nor the stranger had offered their names.