© 2016 by Andrea Boyd
Psalms 26:7 That I may publish with the voice of thanksgiving, and tell of all thy wondrous works.
This novel is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either a product of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. All characters are fictional, and any similarity to people living or dead is purely coincidental.
[*Note from Author: *]At Love’s Beginning may feel like a Historical Fiction, but it is not meant to be historically accurate. Every piece of it was created from my own imagination.
At Love’s Beginning
A Short story by Andrea Boyd
“Just a little while longer, my love.”
I swiped the cloth over Deidre’s brow in an attempt to smooth away the worry, as well as to dry up the perspiration brought on by her labor. There had been many miscarriages over the eighteen years of our marriage. This was the closest we had come to producing a child so far. According to the midwife’s calculations, this babe was only a month early. Surely the good Lord would see fit to let us have this one.
I wondered not for the first time if I was being punished for an earlier transgression. If so, what had Deidre done to deserve the pain of losing so many? No one had to remind me of my greatest sin. I had to remind myself over and over that God had forgiven me, but my guilt seemed never ending.
Deidre gripped my hand as another contraction hit. I watched helplessly as she withered in pain, her blue-green eyes were hidden behind lids squeezed tight. Her light brown hair was now darkened and plastered to her head with sweat. She never looked more beautiful to me. What would I do if anything should happen to her?
I had not always loved my wife as I did in this moment. There had been another before her.
Nineteen Years Prior
“Come on, Niall, you can do better than that.”
I did not even glance in Eamon’s direction as I let another arrow loose. “Just be glad I am not wielding a sword, my friend.”
Despite the fact that I was the only heir to the throne of Aisling and he a mere warrior, that is exactly what we were—friends. Eamon was not someone you would want for an enemy. The words mere warrior was not an accurate description by any means. Despite his skill and the fact that he was three years my senior, I could still best him with a sword and shield. Barely.
We both turned at the clearing of a throat behind us. The courtyard was filled with men practicing for battle but for one woman who would have stood in contrast even among a group of women. Her long, auburn hair fell in waves down her back, and her bold green eyes scanned me from head to toe, showing a look of obvious appreciation.
“I was sent out for lessons. I have just been hired to work in the castle.”
Everyone who lived and worked within the walls surrounding the castle of Aisling were taught to fight. Should battle ever ensue here, every man, woman, and child would be able to defend.
“The women’s archery range is set up on the other side of the castle. I would be happy to show you the way.” She only glanced at my friend before resuming her staring at me.
“Eamon, I see no reason to send her away. I would be honored to offer my services here. Does the lady have a name?”
“It is Doireann. I am pleased to make your acquaintance. And you are?”
“My name is Niall.”
“He meant to say that his name is Niall Reaner, Crown Prince of Aisling.” I glared at Eamon, but the look he returned was unabashed.
“She needs to know who you are. If she should address you so casually in front of one of your parents, she would lose her job.”
I gave a barely discernable nod, but I was not happy about it. For once I would like to know what it was like to meet someone without that title hanging over my head. I expected her to dip into a curtsy while insincere words flowed from her lips, but that was not what happened.
“So, you are the prince. It is nice to finally meet you.” She held out her hand. I took it and brought it to my lips. Her skin was like silk. Whatever she had been hired to do in the castle, she could not have been at it for long.
Eamon rolled his eyes. So he did not like her, that made it all the better.
I called to one of the warriors exercising nearby. “Bring me a smaller bow—one fit for this lovely lady.”
The warrior ran to the outbuilding where the extra equipment was stored and soon returned with the requested bow in hand. Doireann took it from him and then looked expectedly back at me. Normally I would have used my own bow to demonstrate, but I saw this as an opportunity to get close to her. I placed my hands over hers to show her how to hold the bow and arrow. She leaned her shoulder into my chest. The clean scent of her soap was intoxicating.
That had been the beginning of it all. As our relationship deepened over the next months, she never hid the fact that she had far more experience in dealing with the opposite gender. There had been other flirtations for me, but I had never felt this empowered before. I was delighted in the fact that she was so unlike the girls of my usual social encounters. Her own boldness had freed me to do as I pleased.
We found reasons to be in one another’s company. We had made a nest of sorts in one of the outbuildings that was rarely used. We spent many evenings there together while Eamon kept guard outside. He let his disapproval be known. I knew I was straddling the lines between friendship and leadership. I had left him no choice but to comply.
We were there, our bodies entwined as one, when my father caught us. I could see the disappointment etched in his face as I hastily dressed, but he did not say anything at first. Doireann wrapped herself in the blanket we had used for a bed.
When Father finally spoke, it was to her. “Your employment here is at an end. You need to gather your belongings and leave here tonight. You are never to return to these premises again.”
“Father, you cannot do that.”
He glared at me. “Yes, I can, and I expect my orders to be carried out without question. I will speak with you about this in my office.”
I knew better than to confront him here. I would comply with his commands for now. Not even my father could keep me from seeing her again. If not here, then I would go out and find her. Nothing would keep us apart.
He stood by the door of the outbuilding, waiting for me to exit. He followed me out and then stopped beside Eamon. “Eamon, you are an excellent warrior, but you need to decide where your loyalties lie. If not with me, then you do not belong here. Escort that woman to the servants’ quarters to gather her things and then off of these grounds. Make sure she only takes what belongs to her. She is to never return here again. Do I make myself clear?”
“Yes, Your Highness.” He bowed before the king. He sent me a quick, apologetic look as he straightened. I at least felt shame for the fact that I had put him in this position.
I did not make a comment on Father’s command. I would have a better chance to reason with him in private. I loved Doireann. It did not matter to me that she was just a servant and I the crown prince. Our own laws even stated that I may choose whomever I wanted without regard to status. I would make Father listen to reason once we were alone.
The only noise to be heard within the shed was the sound of fabric moving as she dressed. What must Doireann feel in this moment? If she was upset at the prospect of never seeing me again, she had remained silent about it. Surely she knew this would all be straightened out.
I turned and headed toward the castle without waiting to see what happened next. After I talked with my father, I would do the right thing and marry her. I did not look back, but I could hear the tread of Father’s footsteps as he followed behind me. He did not utter a word until we were behind the closed door of his office.
“Son, what were you thinking? Besides all of the other issues that can incur when a man engages in such an act with a woman he is not married to, there is the matter of her being a servant. Surely you can see how wrong it is to pursue someone who would not refuse you for fear of losing her job.”
“It was not like that. I did not pressure her into anything.”
He sat down in one of the two armchairs facing each other in the corner of the room. “Ah, so that is the way of it. Have I neglected to explain to you well enough that women like that are only after your title and holdings here in this kingdom? She could be with child even now. It would not even have to be yours, but it would be enough for her to try and trap you into a disgraceful marriage.”
“She would not do that.”
Would she? I was all set for marriage, but the thought of entering into that union with the shame of a premature pregnancy was not something I relished. I honestly had not given thought to the possibility during the heat of the moments we had spent together.
“How do you know what she is capable of? She has not been here long enough for any of us to know what kind of person she is.” It was as if he had read the doubts running through my head.
“I know that we are in love.” Neither of us had mentioned love. Surely she felt the same way I did.
He held his hand up and looked away. “What do you know of love?”
“Father, I am no longer a child. When will you see me as the adult that I am?”
He really looked at me then, studying my features as if for the first time. “Let us refocus on what is most important. In case you have forgotten, you are a child of God. Do you think He would be pleased by your actions? Is this the kind of woman He would choose for you? For that matter, is a woman who would so easily give herself to someone who is not her husband the kind you would want to forever attach yourself to? Is she the one you would have raising your children, the one helping to run this kingdom?”
My face turned hot and then cold as shame washed over me. I had only masked my guilt before, but now it was not to be ignored. I did not even know what to say in the face of my father, let alone facing God with my sin.
“I hope I have given you something to think about before you pursue any further relationship with this woman.” He stood and left without another word.
In truth, once I had time away from her, I had given more though to what Father had said that night. I had asked for forgiveness from God for my sin, but it did little to assuage my desire to be with her. I begged Eamon to tell me where he had taken her that night, but he said he was under orders from the king not to reveal it. I made inquiries among some of the servants. No one seemed to know anything about her. It was a month before I happened upon her again.
I was walking through the village square with Father and some of our guards. She was sitting on a crate swinging her legs back and forth while talking to some man standing there beside her. She leaned in and placed her hand on his chest as she laughed dramatically at whatever he was saying. Pain shot up through my stomach and into my own chest at the sight of them.
She turned abruptly as if she had just noticed us there. She glanced at my father and then stared at me. I tried to gage her emotions, but her expression revealed nothing. Was she saddened by our parting? Had she missed me? Had she thought about me as much as I had thought of her? She gave another quick glance in my father’s direction before smiling back up at her companion.
“You know, Deidre will be here with her parents in a couple of weeks.”
“What is that you said?” I finally tore my gaze away from Doireann and tried to concentrate on Father’s words.
It was then that I noticed he had also been watching the couple across the square. He turned to study my face. “Deidre Whitmire, she will be here with her parents for Summer Session. Now there is a nice girl, and from a great family as well.”
“Yes, I suppose she is a nice enough girl.” We had walked past Doireann and her friend by this point. I had to fight the urge to look over my shoulder.
“She knows what it means to be a noble. She would make an excellent queen one day. I wish you would take her into consideration.”
I turned to look at him then. “She is but a child.”
“She is sixteen years old—two years older than your mother when we married, and the same difference in age, I might add. Four years is not a vast difference between a husband and his bride, provided she is the younger of the couple.”
I was sure that last part was a slight in reference to Doireann. She claimed to be only a couple of years older than me, but I had to admit, she did appear more mature than even that.
I tried to picture what Deidre Whitmire looked like. I could not get past the image of her as a child. Her father was a duke here in Aisling. Her family always stayed at the castle whenever the country’s bi-annual meeting was held in our kingdom. At other times throughout each year when the duke had business with the king, he would bring his only daughter with him. I had been in her presence more often than what would be considered usual, but I had never paid her any special attention.
“I am sure you are correct, Father, but I am not in the market for a wife at this time.”
“Well, it is high time you were. You will one day rule this kingdom, and you need someone stable at your side. If you keep waiting around, all of the good ones will be taken.”
Deidre was not mentioned nor thought of again until she and her family arrived late in April. I was called to stand at the entrance of the castle with my parents upon their arrival. It could not be more obvious that Mother was conspiring with my father in his hopes for my future. She took both of Deidre’s hands in hers and beamed a smile.
“You have grown into a beautiful young woman. Do you not think so, Niall?”
There was only one way to answer that question without being rude. “Yes, very beautiful.”
I do not know that I would have used the word [_beautiful _]of my own accord, but she was very pretty. Her light brown hair hung in silky waves down her back. Her blue-green eyes sparkled as she glanced my way. Probably the thing that most kept her from being labeled as beautiful was her upturned nose. It was also the thing that made her look younger than her sixteen years.
Mother still held on to both of Deidre’s hands. I wondered what the girl thought of this sudden interest. “Your mother tells me you are proficient on the harpsichord. We have one in our music room you are welcome to play. In fact, I hoped you might give a performance while here. It has been a while since I have heard music played outside of the hymns sung at church services.”
“I am afraid my mother is biased, but I would be happy to play for you, Your Highness. Then you can be the judge.”
There were a number of factors that led up to me proposing before that month-long visit was over. We seemed to be thrown together by our parents often enough. Both couples had made it obvious that they more than approved the union. The more time I spent with Deidre, the more appealing she seemed. And I could not get the image of Doireann with that man out of my head. She had obviously moved on, so why should I not do the same? Father was right—I would one day be ruler of this kingdom. I needed a wife by my side, and Deidre was perfect for this position.
She had graciously agreed to my marriage proposal as if it had been planned all along. Maybe it had. I was sure the fact that she would carry the title of Queen of Aisling had played a large part in her parents pushing us together, and for her going along with the plan.
The date was set for the middle of October. I left all of the planning to the women. My only desire was that we would travel outside of Kearnley afterward. I had been on a trip to Cordelia as a youth. My parents had not been as enthusiastic about the excursion as I had. They deemed it unsafe, and we had kept within the boundaries of our own country after that.
As I watched Deidre make her way down the aisle toward me as we were about to say our vows, I looked at her—really looked at her. She no longer looked like a child. The cream-colored dress she wore accentuated her slender curves, but it was more than that. Her face glowed with confidence. Her gaze never left mine throughout the ceremony. I may have had my doubts, but she seemed to be letting me know with just a look that she was exactly where she wanted to be.
I had not meant for it to happen, but thoughts of Doireann and what she was doing on this day swept through my mind. She must have known that I was getting married. I quickly pushed these thoughts away. Thankfully, Deidre knew nothing of this part of my past, or she would not be looking at me the way she was. I may not have had the depth of feeling toward her that she had toward me, but I wanted our marriage to work.
We never made it to Cordelia, but we did travel a bit during the month after the wedding. We collected little mementos along the way. These were just small tokens to remind us of our time together. There was no need of preparing our future home. We would be living in the castle without a care for our worldly needs.
After a month in the company of just my wife, I was ready to get back to the routine of castle life. I was out in the practice yard in time to see the sun rise, but I had not beaten Eamon there. After a bit of stretching and exercise, we started practicing with our swords.
“Your laziness over this past month has made you weak. You are out of shape, my friend.” He was right, but I would never concede the point. I thrust the blunted sword at his stomach while trying to slow down my heavy breathing.
“I will have you to know there was plenty of activity to be had.”
He laughed a little. “I do not believe that counts.”
I dodged his next thrust, but his sword scraped my side anyway. “What do you know about it. Last I heard, you were still untried by any woman.”
“That is no longer true.” I brought my sword down beside me as our signal for a pause. I studied my friend’s face expecting to see a smile that was not there.
“Since I was married last weekend.”
He took a step closer and this time it was him studying my features. “Doireann and I were married this past Saturday.”
I punched him in the face, and he fell back on the ground. Neither one of us had been expecting it. He laid there for a moment before speaking. “If you ever do that again, I will hit you back.” I knew he meant it. He rolled and stood up several feet away from me.
“How could you do that? How could you marry her knowing . . .”
“Knowing what? That you fancy yourself in love with her when you are married to another? I hate to be the one to tell you, but what the two of you had was not love.”
“And you think what you have is? How long did it take for you to pick up my seconds? I bet you were rolling around in the hay with her before that week was out.”
He took a step toward me. I tried to prepare myself for the impact of his fist, but it never came. I could tell it was all he could do to hold back. A part of me wanted to him to hit me.
“She confessed to me that she was hoping to trick you into marrying her. She knew who you were before she introduced herself to us that day. I am sorry, but it is true.”
“And this is what endeared her to you to the point that you attached yourself to her in marriage. That hardly sounds like something you would do. If you believed her words to be true, what compelled you to go through with it?”
“She has changed.”
“Sure she has.”
“It is true. I talked to her that day your father ordered her off of this property. She felt shame for what she had done. I started taking her to the church on the other side of the village. She came to know Christ, and then we fell in love. I did not mean for it to happen. I swear.”
“I have no idea what to believe. It is as if I never knew you.”
“Surely you do not believe yourself still in love with her. What about Princess Deidre?”
I had already started walking away. I did not stop to respond to his question. In my mind Deidre had nothing at all to do with my feelings toward Doireann.
I started avoiding Eamon after that. Every time I looked at him, I would picture the two of them with their bodies entwined together like it used to be with me and her, and I thought I would go mad. Even when he was not within sight, the memory of her haunted my thoughts during the day and my dreams at night.
What would it have been like if I had married her instead of Deidre? There was no fire, no passion between me and my wife. The more I became consumed with thoughts and memories of my past lover, the more distasteful was my married life.
I started out that next year in misery. I was bored with my life. Every day was the same. My work was meaningless. I trained under my father to be the next ruler but held no authority at that time. Nothing I did really benefitted the kingdom. I was nothing more than a symbol, less than that, a title—Crown Prince of Aisling.
To make matters worse, Deidre announced that she was expecting our first child. I looked into her beaming face, and all I could think was this was just one more thing trapping me into this loveless marriage. I smiled back at her, hoping it covered my true feelings. There was still a smile on her face but not as bright as before. Her shoulders dropped as if she carried the burden of the knowledge that I did not feel the same excitement about the baby as she did. Did she suspect my true feelings toward her?
All of my future years stretched out before me, every one the same. I craved an escape. I started making trips into the village, hoping to catch a glimpse of Doireann. I told myself that just speaking to her would be enough, but a secret part of me imagined more.
These trips stretched out over a couple of weeks before I finally spotted her. The merchants were about to close shop for the day. I had just given up and was about to head back to the castle, and then there she was.
She looked so different from the carefree woman I had spent time with. Her once free-flowing red hair had been tamed into a bun at the base of her head. She looked happy but subdued and more mature. Even her clothes looked matronly.
She held on to Eamon’s arm and leaned into him as she spoke. His face was lit with pleasure as he peered down at her, speaking in a low voice. I could barely hear her laughter as she responded to what he said.
They stopped walking, and she glanced my way before averting her gaze toward the road in front of her. I had hoped to express my desire for her with just a look. I wanted her to know that I was willing to see her at another time when we could be alone, but her gaze never returned to mine.
That was when I noticed Eamon glaring right at me. I lifted my chin, hoping to convey innocence I did not possess. He pressed his lips together and gave a slight shake of his head before turning them both and heading away from me. There was shame for a moment, but it was quickly replaced with the hope for another chance. Surely I would see her again when he was nowhere around.
Eamon knew what I was up to, but I did not care. I spent more time lurking around in the village hoping to finally capture her alone. And then it happened. There she was, walking away from the market with a package in her arms. I stepped out from the shadows just as she came even with me.
“Prince Niall!” Her green eyes were wide with surprise and just as beautiful as I remembered. She had never used my title before in addressing me, even when we first met. That boldness was one of the things that had attracted me from the beginning.
“Are we not old friends? There is no need for the title.”
“What are you doing here?” Her voice was low and menacing, as if she was scolding a child.
“I just saw you walking by and thought maybe I would offer to walk you home. I thought it would be possible for us to catch up on old times. That is all. Allow me to carry your package for you.”
“I do not need your help, nor the escort home.” She turned and started walking away from me. I caught up in two steps and grabbed her elbow. She jerked around to face me, and the scowl on her face caused my heart to feel as if it had sunk into my stomach.
“Listen, I am not the same woman you knew before. I am married now. I am trying to live a Christian life, and the townspeople have just started to treat me with a bit of respect. You are trying to ruin everything I have worked for, and I would appreciate it if you would leave me alone.”
I swallowed hard, trying to dislodge my disappointment as I studied her bitter glare. I let my hand drop away from her. “As you wish.”
She turned and briskly walked away. I stood there feeling like a fool. It had never occurred to me that given the chance, she would not want to be with me. [_I am trying to live a Christian life. _]Her words had convicted me. I was a Christian, but my actions had not reflected my beliefs.
Eamon found me sitting by myself in the garden two days later. I knew he would catch up with me eventually. I had expected him to approach me in the practice yard. He could have taken his anger out on me there and make it look like an accident. Seeing him here alone caused fear to settle into my gut.
He sat down on the bench beside me and neither of us spoke for a few moments. I was blown away by his words when he finally did speak. “You know I love you like a brother, and I am worried about you. You have turned your back on God, and I fear the consequences of where it will lead you.”
“And just what consequences do you expect?”
He turned to look at me then. “If you succeed in bedding another man’s wife, it may lead to death.”
There was no doubting the threat behind his words. “You no longer have to worry on that account.”
“I do not understand what is going on with you. You have a wonderful wife with a baby on the way. Your future is set in a manner that would cause envy in the hearts of most men. What more could you ask for?”
I leaned forward, resting my elbows on my knees. “I am in a loveless marriage, with a child on the way that will be just as trapped into the future ruling of this kingdom as I am. I long for a freedom that will never be mine.”
“You cannot have true contentment as long as you fight against God’s will for your life. Turn back to Him in prayer. Focus on making the best of what you have. Make a decision to love your wife and raise your child in a way that he will be happy to take up the reigns of this kingdom when the time comes. Trust me, Deidre and this baby will be worth the effort, and it will make you a much happier man in the process.”
Eamon had placed his hand on my shoulder as he spoke. I could see the genuine concern in his eyes for me. I had thought our friendship was over when I found that he had married my former lover, but at that moment, I felt maybe our relationship could be restored or at least salvaged.
“That seems like sound advice, my friend. Please pray for me. There could be no doubt that I really need it.”
“I have never stopped, but I will double my efforts.” He slapped me a couple of times on the back before leaving. I wondered if there was not some part of him that craved a more prominent contact with his fist on my face. I deserved no less, and it maybe would have assuaged my guilt.
I spent time there in the garden then and in days to come, recommitting myself to God and Deidre. I did not deserve forgiveness from either of them. I asked it of God, and it took some time to convince myself that He truly had forgiven me, but I could never verbalize my plea to Deidre.
I hoped and prayed she had been unaware of my feelings, but by the way she blossomed under my renewed attention, maybe she had known more than she let on. At first my efforts to love my wife were false with me only going through the motions. I showed her all the kindness I could think to bestow, while I pushed away every thought of Doireann, covering them in prayer. Soon my feelings for my wife started to change.
My thoughts for our child to come were different now as well. The first time I felt the babe move within the bounds of Deidre’s body, I was overcome with an excitement I had never felt before. I started making plans for his future. I could imagine now the relationship I would have with my offspring and how it would differ from what I had with my own parents. I could almost picture what the babe would look like—a son maybe, one with Deidre’s comely features.
With an estimated three months left in the pregnancy, Deidre’s pains started. We shared the same panic as I was ushered out of the infirmary. The door that had been closed in my face did nothing to keep me from hearing her crying out in pain and agony. This went on for hours. I wanted to be there with her, but that was not the way it was supposed to go. I was regulated to nothing more than prayer as I paced the hallway. I had never felt so helpless in my entire life.
Finally, everything went quiet. I leaned against the door praying to hear the sound of the baby’s cries. There was nothing but murmuring on the other side. Suddenly it was Deidre’s voice wailing out instead. I opened the door and rushed in. Let someone try to stop me, and they would see a side of me that had never been shown before.
The midwife covered the tiny babe with toweling but not before I saw its pale, shriveled body. A boy. All of my dreams and plans for our child died in that same moment. I stepped to where Deidre was and sat on the side of the bed, taking her up in my arms and rocking her as we cried together.
There is no telling how long we sat there. The room grew quiet and so did Deidre. She pulled back, looking into my eyes, and it was at that moment that I realized I was truly in love with my wife. Silent tears still coursed down her face, and her voice was hoarse when she spoke. “I want to see him. I did not even get to hold him. Please.”
I was not sure how these things were normally handled, but judging by her plea, she expected to be denied her request. I looked around to an empty room. The healers had all left to allow us privacy. I stepped away from the bed and opened the door to find the midwife standing in the hallway speaking to my parents. They looked as devastated as I felt, but they were not my biggest concern.
“Bring us the babe. She wants to see him.”
The midwife looked flustered. “That is most unusual. He has already been taken away to be prepared for burial.”
“Is he still in the castle?”
“Then bring him here.”
She looked to my father who only nodded. I shut the door behind me as I went back to my wife, sending a message to my parents. This was a private time for us. I knew they were hurting as well, but their presence was not wanted for the moment. We could grieve with them later.
Soon the midwife returned with a small bundle held in the crook of her arm. I took my son from her and sat back down on the edge of the bed. Deidre pulled the blanket away. Other than the fact that he was unbelievably tiny and deathly pale, he was perfectly formed.
Deidre brushed her fingertips over his dark, downy hair and smiled through her tears. “He is so beautiful. Do you still want give him your name?”
I knew what she was asking. We had planned to name our first son after me. There was a chance that we could have another. Maybe if I had not held him in my arms, a different choice could be made, but looking into his precious face, I knew what had to be done.
“Of course. He was Niall Reaner, the Second from the beginning. Nothing will change that.”
Two days later we buried our son. In a way, I buried my past with him.
Back to Present Time
Every chance she could afford to take, the midwife would offer a scowl at me as I leaned against the head of the bed with Deidre’s back pressed against my chest. How many times had I seen that same look over the years? It was like this with every stillborn that had been delivered. The message her look conveyed was one I had heard before. It was not appropriate for me to be there, but I could not care less what anyone thought.
After that first time when Deidre had faced this ordeal alone, I had vowed it would never be that way again. Each miscarriage had damaged my wife and myself in a way that was unimaginable to anyone without the same experiences. We were in this together, and I would never leave her to face that kind of loss by herself again.
“One more push, My Lady, should do it.”
I could tell she was exhausted. The sweat from her gown had soaked through the front of my tunic long ago. I brushed back the damp hair from her face and kissed her temple. “You can do this, my love. Just one more push and this part will be over.”
She took a deep breath, and I felt her push against me as she bore down. A moan escaped through her clinched teeth. There was a release and then the babe was in the midwife’s outstretched hands. I think Deidre and I were both holding our breath and praying as we sat transfixed with our gazes glued to the scene in front of us.
Our daughter’s wet body wiggled in the hands of the midwife sending a thrill through me. This was the first sign of life that we had ever seen from one of our own. There was still not a sound coming from the babe as the midwife cleared its mouth and face with a piece of toweling.
The baby’s face began to turn blue. There was a lump in my throat keeping me from speaking words of comfort for my wife. All I could offer was a squeeze to her shoulders. She reached and patted my hand.
The midwife held the babe upside-down and popped it once on the behind, bringing the loud cry we had so longed for. I watched her tiny face turn from blue to red as she cried in earnest. Deidre laughed, and I knew it was in relief as well as pleasure at finally seeing one of her babies alive.
Later, after everything quietened down and we were alone, she held the babe while I held her. There was indescribable joy bubbling up in my chest as I listened to the two of them cooing at each other in the language that only a mother and child would understand. Deidre kept whispering her name over and over as if to truly convince us both that she was really here. Brianna Leigh Reaner.
From the Author
I hope you have enjoyed this small peek into the past lives of the former leaders of the Kingdom of Aisling.
To read Brianna’s story, check out Securing Aisling (book 1 of the Kingdoms of Kearnley series) on Amazon or Shakespir. I am adding the first three chapters to get you started.
“Queen Brianna, are you listening to me?”
I looked across the council room table directly at Reilly. “Yes, you just told me that I have until my birthday to find a husband and get married. I am aware of that. Are you aware that my birthday is almost six months away, and the Session meeting we are supposed to be discussing today is just next week? We can plan a wedding after we get back from Gilvary. In fact, I will even allow you to coordinate it if that would please you.”
No doubt my irritation showed as I took in his dark brown eyes and gray hair, more on his thin face than on his head. He had been going on about this for the last year, and I had grown weary of the subject. I had inherited Reilly Cassidy as my advisor when I gained the throne a little over a year ago. He was in charge of relations between our own kingdom of Aisling and the rest of the world. He had faithfully served my father, but I am not sure how he felt about serving me.
I had not needed nor appreciated his reminder of what was expected. My own dear father had counseled me concerning the need for an early marriage. The laws of this country had been part of my training almost from birth. I could lose the power to rule my kingdom if I did not comply. I felt more panicked over this particular rule with every passing month. I had tried in vain to have it changed. I had never been on a date, been in love, had a boyfriend, or even had a crush on a boy before. How was I supposed to find a suitable husband? The way I saw it, a woman was not meant to go searching for a husband. It should have been up to the man to find me, but this experience had been taken from me.
Reilly had not seemed the least bit daunted by my irritation. “I can assure you that this is foremost on King Coman’s mind. He has made no secret of the fact that his greatest desire is to join our kingdoms together, and you can bet he will bring this up at the meeting. I just want you to be prepared, My Queen.”
There were some who felt the small country of Kearnley should be under one rule. My father had never been of this mindset, and I fully agreed with him on this matter. I feared what could happen if one person was given so much power. Many thought the job should go to King Coman. He ruled over the neighboring kingdom of Gilvary. He was known to be ruthless and heavy-handed in dealing with his people. I would never willingly hand over my crown to anyone, especially someone like him.
“Reilly is probably right. I agree that you should expect a great amount of pressure from King Coman. Even some of your own people are restless with the idea that you should be married and soon. They are worried about an outsider usurping the throne. You can add the fact that many of them believe the kingdom would be more balanced with a married couple ruling. That is why these laws were placed to begin with. I am not telling you this to upset you, My Lady, but you do need to know what you are facing.” It had to be serious if Eamon was weighing in.
Of my three advisors, Eamon Alexander was the one I trusted and relied on most. He had been part of my father’s council since before I was born. Before becoming an advisor, he had been the General over our band of warriors, so naturally he oversaw the kingdom’s defense. But he was so much more than that to me. No one could replace my parents, but Eamon had filled part of that void after the death of my father. I had no doubt that my best interest, as well as that of the kingdom, was at the heart of his concern.
“Have you given any more thought to Dunbar’s offer?” I knew exactly what Reilly was referring to, but he was being ridiculous as far as I was concerned. Dunbar was Coman’s eldest son, heir to the throne in the kingdom of Gilvary. His father seemed especially bent on my marrying his son and had spent years attempting to push us together. The pressure had increased significantly since my own father’s death.
I raised my brows, trying for my most innocent look. “What offer would that be?”
“Why, marriage of course. We have talked about this before. I do not understand your stubbornness.”
Eamon cleared his throat. No doubt it was a warning to Reilly that he was overstepping his bounds again. I allowed for a relaxing in the rules of etiquette to make for an easier flow of communication during these meetings. That did not, however, include showing disrespect for the queen.
“I remember all of your talk about how enamored he is supposed to be and of Coman’s approval on the matter, but I can assure you that Dunbar has made no offer.” He never would if I could avoid it. Even if I had the desire for marriage, he was not my idea of a good match. Just thinking about a life spent with him sent an involuntary shudder running through me.
“But he will, and it will probably happen as soon as your very next encounter. He spoke to me at my last meeting with King Coman. The boy is besotted with the thought of you as his bride.”
I could just bet he was. Dunbar did nothing unless his father instructed him. I suspected the boy had never had an original thought in his head. I could not tolerate that in a husband. I knew I could not. His father’s prodding was without a doubt the true source of Dunbar’s interest in me. What better way for King Coman to fulfill his desire of uniting the two kingdoms?
I studied the bare walls as I mulled over ideas of how I could proceed. Looking out over the Moya Ocean always had a calming effect, helping me to slow down my thoughts. I would long for that view when one of these meetings became too intense, but there were no windows in this room. In fact, it was devoid of any adornment. There was only the small table where I sat alone on one side facing my three advisors. I suppose it was set up this way to avoid distractions. It was my least favorite room in the castle. I realized I was drumming my fingers, a nasty habit I was trying to break, so I placed my hand in my lap. Even without distractions, I had allowed my mind to wander. I reined it back in to the problem at hand.
First of all there was the law to be considered. Then, as Eamon had mentioned, some of my people were starting to lose faith in me. Their fears were to be considered more important than my own. In addition to all of this, there had been small attacks from the outside that must be addressed. Though we had no proof, it was suspected the threat was coming from King Coman. Marrying into his family would probably put a stop to this.
Even though I had never imagined wanting to do anything else, I had never asked to be queen. I had no choice in the matter. It was my duty to find a husband by my next birthday. I would not disappoint my kingdom. If I wanted to have any control whatsoever over whom I would share the rest of my life with, it was time to stop avoiding this marriage issue. I knew my responsibilities. I just needed to handle this problem more decisively.
I pulled a scrap of parchment closer to me. “I want to do what is best for Aisling, so help me work through this. I know the law states that a queen in this country may marry whomever she chooses. If I were in love, that would be enough. Since that is not the case, what choices would most impress my people?” It was Eamon that I looked to as always.
He paused and studied my face. I knew him well enough to read the love and concern in his eyes. He was weighing me, a woman with a desire to be truly loved, versus me as a queen needing to do what was best for her kingdom despite her own desires. I also knew which side would win this time. “A king, of course, would be the optimal choice, but unless you are willing to look outside of this country, there are only two and neither is available.”
“Go on.” We all knew it was unlikely that I would choose anyone whose loyalties lie outside of Kearnley.
“You could choose a prince. There are five, all belonging to Coman, as you are aware. And you could marry a duke, but that is as far down in rank as I would suggest if you really want to make an impression on your people.”
“Dunbar is the obvious choice. Think about it, he is the eldest prince and heir to the throne of Gilvary.” Reilly simply would not give up. I thought back through all of my encounters with Coman’s eldest, searching out only the positives for now. He was certainly nice to look at with his curly hair and chocolate brown eyes. He was very attentive when we were together, but it bordered on being stifling.
I shook my head and wrote his name at the top of the parchment. “Dunbar is an heir in his own right. I see no reason to add my kingdom to his. I also think his father has too much influence over him. Those are my concerns, but I will still take him under consideration. Does anyone have anything to add about Dunbar?” I could not help but think it would take a lot of consideration on my part for me to choose this one. I had to silently remind myself once again to keep an open mind.
I looked to Owen, and he shook his head. What else did I expect from my newest appointed advisor? I had no one to blame for Owen Finlay but myself since I was the one who chose him. My only defense for such a choice was one I would never use. I was sixteen at the time, my father had just died, and I had the job of picking a replacement because one of Father’s advisors had decided to retire. I suspected that he had found sitting under the rule of a teenage queen to be less than appealing. So I had picked the youngest from a list that was presented to me thinking a younger advisor would relate better with my ideas. I believe Owen’s faithfulness to this kingdom was sincere, but he never contributed unless he thought his response was a safe one. He was in charge of my relations with the people of Aisling.
“I do not believe he would make a strong military leader if needed.” Considering his position, I knew this would be Eamon’s concern.
“I do not see where that would be an issue since we have a military advisor. As for the other charges against him, I would think less of him if he had no respect for his father, and instead of seeing it as your kingdom added to his, it makes more sense to think that his kingdom will one day be added to yours.” Reilly sat back in his chair with the satisfied look of having won the battle.
It was all I could do to keep from rolling my eyes at him. “Let us move on. Who is next?”
“That would be Prince Reagan.” One safe answer from Owen, and he looked rather proud of himself for it.
Of all of the princes of Gilvary, my memories of Reagan were the most outstanding. He was easily the best looking man I had ever known, and the flirtiest. I only saw him during Session where he could usually be found in a corner somewhere, leaning way too close to any girl who would allow it. I remembered him to be an excellent dancer who always made his partner seem more graceful than she actually was. I blushed to think about how close he had held me before on the dance floor, but I never felt like he was giving me special attention.
“My concern about Reagan is, well to be quite blunt, I believe him to be a skirt chaser. I will not tolerate unfaithfulness from my husband.”
The corners of Eamon’s lips turned upward. “For some men all of that ends once they are wed, but I cannot vouch for this young man particularly as I am not a personal acquaintance of his. Perhaps you can use the upcoming meeting to get to know him better.”
“Do you think he would make a good leader?”
“It does not seem to be of great interest to him, but from what I have seen, he certainly has no lack of confidence. This is a good trait for a leader to have, I think.”
I looked to Reilly, but he seemed to be making notes of his own. Apparently he had nothing to say for or against Reagan. Owen just shook his head letting me know he had nothing to add either.
“Prince Garrett is next in line for the throne of Gilvary, Queen Brianna.” Ooh, Owen was volunteering information. This was a step forward, even if it was a baby ant step.
When was the last time I had even seen Garrett? To my memory, we were still children when I interacted with him last. He no longer traveled with his family to any of the Sessions, and when the meetings were held at Gilvary, I would only catch glimpses of him. I had often wondered what had changed. “What do we know about Garrett?”
“We know he opposes his father’s every move. I must say, the last thing we need is a rebel. I am surprised King Coman has not brought up charges of treason against him. Think of how it would be if someone such as that held the power of a king.” Reilly seemed to feel very passionately against Garrett. The fact that he opposed his father was more promising to me than anything discussed so far, but I had to take Reilly’s objection into consideration. With his dealings with the other kingdoms, he probably had a better understanding of Garrett’s character than the rest of us.
Eamon shifted his gaze toward Reilly with his lips pressed to one side. “I do not believe it is as bad as all that. A son not seeing eye-to-eye with his father is not grounds for treason. Perhaps he is rebellious, though, which may be against him.”
“I will certainly keep this in mind as I speak with him in the near future. Let us move on, shall we?” I looked directly at Owen this time. Surprisingly, he had seemed the most prepared for this discussion so far. I wondered how long ago he had compiled this list of possible suitors.
“As for the list of princes, only Terence and Rian are left, and I believe neither would be suitable. I mean no disrespect, but we all know that even though Terence is of age, with his childlike mind he will never be mentally capable of ruling a kingdom. Rian is well below the age to be considered for marriage at only nine years old.” I gave Owen two baby ant steps for that assessment.
“So now we are down to the Dukes. Does anyone know which in all of the country are unattached? This should greatly add to our list.” I looked around the table at my advisors with my quill poised above my parchment ready to continue. Reilly was still writing notes on his own parchment. Eamon was cupping his chin, obviously trying to come up with a name. Owen seemed to have been just waiting for me to look his way before giving his answer.
“Not as much as you would think, Your Highness. Actually, there are only two who are unattached, a Duke Brigid of Dermot and our own Duke Mannix. Duke Brigid has made it widely known that he has no intentions of marrying. His title and holdings are to be passed on to his nephew, an eleven-year-old named Brett Eveny. His mother, Duke Brigid’s sister, is married to a goat herder somewhere in the Kearnley Mountains. You already know Duke Mannix.”
I added both of those names to my list. “Owen, you seem to have given this a lot of forethought. I really appreciate your efforts. Duke Mannix must be in his nineties. He is a sweet man. I am sure he would make an excellent king, but I am also positive he is not the one for me. How old is Duke Brigid?”
“I believe he is in his early sixties, Your Highness.” Reilly made no effort to hide his amusement at my expense. There were others with such a gap in age compared to their spouses, but I did not find this appealing in the least.
I looked down with dismay at the short list in my hand. “I find it hard to believe that there are only five eligible men on this list and none of them very promising.”
I tossed the page down on the table in front of me. I was more discouraged than before. “I am assuming I will see all of these men at the Summer Session. I will make a point of talking with each one before I make any decisions. Who knows, maybe one of them will make a better impression than what I have in mind right now. I can only hope.”
“You only need one, and my vote goes to Dunbar.”
“There is no vote, Reilly. Ultimately, this is Queen Brianna’s decision. We are only here to give council.” Eamon then turned his gentle blue eyes toward me. “Do not lose heart, My Queen. I am sure after much thought and prayer the solution will become clear. We are behind you no matter what choice you may make.”
After the meeting, I retired to my chambers only to pace the sitting room floor like a caged animal. That is exactly what I was—caged, blocked in, my life set by forces beyond my control. You would think being queen would put everything within your power, but really the opposite was true. It seemed every choice I made was for the benefit of the kingdom with no regard for my own hopes and dreams.
What I really needed was more time. It had been just a little over a year since my reign began. I was only now becoming comfortable with my position. I wanted my marriage to happen because of my own readiness, not because the law says I should be ready. I also wanted what every other girl of seventeen wanted—to know what it was like to fall in love.
Was it too much to hope for to be swept off of my feet instead of having to choose from a short list of men who knew almost nothing about me? I wanted the kind of romance that inspired poetry. Years from now, I had wanted my great, great grandchildren to be telling their own children the story of how I fell hopelessly into love.
I was barely past the age of eleven when my mother had died and then less than five years later my father had joined her. It was sad to say that I did not remember much about the marriage my parents had shared. Had they been happy together? I wished more than anything that they were here to consult with me. But of course, if they were here, I would not be in this predicament. I could take all the time I needed.
This suite in which I was now pacing had once belonged to them. I had refused to move in here too soon after my father’s death. A few months ago these rooms had been cleared of all traces of my parents and completely redecorated according to my taste. It was not that I wanted to wipe away all memory of them, I just wanted it to feel like my own and not as if I were invading what once was theirs. In less than six months, I could be sharing this space with a stranger. Just thinking about it made my stomach tighten with fear.
Everything here spoke of Aisling and the sea that surrounded my home. The rugs covering most of the floors were woven from muted colors that hinted at the sandy beach seen through the large windows facing west. The teak wood used in all of the furniture had been harvested from our own coast. The fabrics mirrored the colors of the sea in soft shades of blue and green with small pops of red here and there to add interest.
These chambers once displayed a vast collection of art and mementos of my parents’ lives together. It was now decorated simply, with fresh flowers, fruit, and my own collection of seashells. There were a couple of beach-scene paintings on the walls that represented my inept attempt at watercolor, but that was it. Most of the things I had accumulated up until now had been left behind, along with my childhood. What would my future husband bring to these rooms? Would everything change again once I was married?
I walked over to the book case, flipped open the lid on the carved wooden box sitting on top and pulled out a bundle of letters. Only a few people knew what these correspondences held. The truth was I had received quite a few offers of marriage, but they were from men I did not know who resided outside of Kearnley. All were nobles who had the desire to rule a kingdom of their own. I did not feel compelled to accept any proposal that was not in the best interest of my people.
Every time I received one, I had been tempted to burn the whole stack. Something had held me back. Now that I was more aware of how few suitors Kearnley had to offer, I was glad I had kept them. Desperation may have me perusing these letters for a proper mate after all in the not so distant future. This thought added very little to my comfort. I placed the bundle back into the box and continued pacing.
I could see moonlight streaming across my bed in the darkened room adjacent to this one. There was nothing special about my bed chamber. To me its best feature was the private balcony. Sometimes I left the door leading to that balcony open just to feel the breeze and to hear the roar of the ocean sweeping through my chambers. There were plenty of places to sit out there including my favorite, a chaise lounge built for two. I loved to sit with the wind blowing my hair across my face and just think about everything or nothing in particular. I was tempted to go there now with only the moon for company.
Maybe I would take a long bath first. That would surely calm my nerves. One tug on the bell pull, and servants would come bearing hot water along with the scented soaps and oils that were made just for me. I sometimes liked to sit in my deep tub and just soak my worries away until the water was cold and I was as wrinkled as Agata.
Agata had been my nursemaid from infancy until I was too old to need a nursemaid, but she still took care of me. If Eamon was like a father to me then Agata would be like my mother, more so really since I remembered very little of my mother. She came in the middle of my pacing offering to have my dinner brought up, but I refused and sent her away. I hope I had been gentle. It was hard to say with thoughts about the council meeting still drumming in my head. Besides, Agata’s opinion had already been well established. She had been after me consistently since my coronation about my need to find a husband. I did not want to have this discussion with her again.
I swung around at the sound of the door opening again. It was Gwen this time. She had nothing at all to do with castle politics, but she always seemed to know when I needed her.
“Come, allow me to work on your hair while you talk if you need to.”
Gwendolyn Alexander was niece to Eamon, daughter to the castle’s steward, and the best friend of my life. She had come as a friend tonight and not a servant. Instead of sending me back through my bedchamber to my dressing table, she motioned for me to sit at the desk in my private little study on the opposite side of the room from my sitting area. She gently pulled the tangles free from my hair as I stared at the books on one of my shelves.
This routine was so familiar to me. She never pressured me to tell all of my cares and worries like Agata was known to do. She would just come in with her calm attitude and soothing ways, and I would spill everything. The best part was knowing that whatever I said would stay between the two of us.
Without further prompting, after a few minutes I began to reveal everything that had been said during the meeting. “My advisors were pressuring me about choosing a husband harder than ever tonight, even Eamon. We made a list of all of my suitable prospects, and guess how many made the list? Five! I have to choose from only five men. Two of them are as old as Methuselah, and the other three belong to King Coman.”
“Five you say? Well, if anything, that should make it easier.”
I folded my arms across my chest. “What if after weighing all of my options and choosing the one I believe to be the best of the few eligible men, he turns out to be unbearable? At this point I might as well spin around with my eyes closed and my finger pointed, picking whichever I land on.”
“Is this your biggest concern about finding a spouse? I am sure if he turns out to be unbearable as you say, you will figure a way to work through it.”
“If truth be told it is what happens after the ceremony that scares me the most. How do you share an intimate relationship with a complete stranger? How do you work that out?” I could feel the heat creeping up the side of my face.
Gwen was now tying off the end of my long auburn braid. “I know nothing about that subject. I admit that I have never experienced it myself, but women have gotten through arranged marriages before. This is no different. I am sure you will figure it out as you go along the same way I am guessing everyone else does. It is not as if couples are handed a book of instructions on their wedding day. Have you never thought your future husband could have the same fears when the time comes?”
I stood and started my pacing once again. “I doubt that very seriously.”
Gwen calmly opened a drawer in my desk and pulled out a spare piece of parchment, a quill, and ink. She then sat down on the end of one of the two overstuffed couches facing each other in my sitting room. “You just need to focus on finding a man for now. The rest will fall into place. I can see this situation calls for a list. Forget about what is proper, what the council wants, what is best for the people, all of that. What qualities are YOU looking for in a husband?”
“I cannot believe you of all people are suggesting I forget being proper.” This was said with an exaggerated gasp and my hand thrown over my heart. I may be the one owning the crown, but Gwen was a better fit to the expected image of a queen. She just raised her perfectly shaped blond eyebrows and jabbed the point of the quill at the parchment in front of her while making an obvious attempt not to smile at my antics.
I threw myself down on the other end of the couch and drew my knees up toward my chest. “Right. Well, let me think.” I tapped my fingers across my thick bottom lip, trying to fight back my own grin. As serious as Gwen appeared at this moment, I knew where this list making was going to take us. We had played this game many times over the years. Making up silly lists and laughing away the tension before we got down to the real business at hand. I could always count on her to lighten my foul mood.
“For one thing, he should be totally committed to me, agreeing to allow me to run things my way while he does, I have no idea, whatever it is boys like to do in their spare time.”
Gwen let the quill fly across the parchment while slowly repeating each word as she wrote. “Gives in to my every whim, much like a servant.”
I pointed a finger at her. “Exactly. And not one with too many winters behind him either. I want someone close in age to myself. Let us just say within ten years of my age.”
Gwen bounced a little in her seat at this one. “Ooh! Have you considered King Coman’s youngest? Rian is, what, maybe thirteen years old. That is well within the ten year range.”
I rolled my eyes and smiled, well aware of the fact that she had purposely exaggerated his age. “He is nine, and no. You know I meant someone older. Unless . . . maybe if I were to be allowed another ten years before being married and they allowed someone like Eamon to finish raising him. Although, I am not so sure ten years would be enough even for Eamon to straighten that child out. I am afraid he is beyond hope. I guess we will have to go with someone my age or a little older as I said. Go on, write it down.” I flicked my hand toward the parchment as if I had set her about a chore of utmost importance.
She held up one finger. “Just a moment, I am not so sure if I would give up on the idea of a much older gentleman if I were you. Just think, before long you could have the respected title of widow, allowing you time to seek out the one you really want.” Gwen’s lips were pressed together trying to suppress the giggles that wanted desperately to come out. I stuck my finger in my mouth and faked a gag.
She did giggle then. “All right, I have got it, No geezers.”[_ _]Gwen wrote and we both laughed. “What else do you seek from this perfect man you are describing?”
“Well, I think it is important for us to share some of the same ideas, interests, beliefs, and such. I do not mean everything should be just alike, that would be boring, but, you know, the basics.” I had been half joking up to this point, but this part was a true concern of mine.
There was no comment from Gwen this time. She just leaned over the parchment and said, “[_Smart like me, Not a worshiper of Baal,” _]and then looked back at me. “Anything else?”
I tapped my chin trying to imagine what else I would want in a husband.
“Bria, I cannot believe that you have yet to mention his looks. That is one of the most important parts.”
“It is not that I would want an ugly man, but looks are not the most important thing to me.”
“Well, maybe not the most important, but physical attraction is usually one of the first things that draw two people together. So, what kind of physical attributes does Brianna Reaner, Queen of Aisling, find appealing in the male species?”
Gwen had her pick of men, but I had truly never given boys in general much thought up until now. I suppose all of the talk starting early in my life about marrying for the sake of the kingdom had sent me in the opposite direction. “You know, the usual, nice teeth, kind eyes, and good hair. What else is there to say?”
“Bria, we are not talking about buying a horse.”
“I wish we were. That would be much easier, and I would prefer that to trying to find a husband.”
She laughed and then studied the parchment in front of her for a moment. I wondered what features she found attractive in a man. Judging by her list of suitors, she did not seem to have a preference where looks were concerned. “Try this. Close your eyes and think. In all the land, of every man you have ever met, who have you found to be the most attractive? And it is no matter if he is unavailable or unsuitable. We are just trying to come up with features.”
I closed my eyes and a very unexpected image immediately popped into my head, but I pushed it aside just as quickly. “There is no one. What do we have on the list so far?”
“Let me see.
Gives in to my every whim, much like a servant.
Smart like me.
Not a worshiper of Baal.
And I am adding, Horse-like features.
Is there anything else you would like to add?”
“Nothing comes to mind.”
She handed the list to me. “Does any of this help?”
“No. Yes. Well, the [_no geezers _]does eliminate two from my list. That just leaves King Coman’s offspring. I would not take any of them for worshipers of Baal, at least I hope they are not.”
Gwen gave me a huge grin. “And we both know that all of the princes of Gilvary are blessed with good looks.”
“I have not noticed.” Okay, that was a lie. Even a monk could not help but notice. The good looks of the Barnali princes were famed throughout Kearnley and beyond.
Gwen gave me a skeptical look before going on. “Now all you have to do is figure out if any of them have any smarts to go with those looks and is also pliable to your thoughts and wishes, and you will have found your match.”
“Unless my thoughts and wishes ever begin to line up with King Coman’s, that leaves Dunbar out.”
“Good, you have narrowed it down to two then.”
“Actually, I cannot rule Dunbar out just yet. I have promised myself that I will clear every one of them of any former charges, giving them all the same chance to impress me at Summer Session before making any decisions. Dunbar is not his father’s puppet, Reagan is not the biggest flirt in Kearnley, and I will not allow Garrett to go into hiding even if I have to hunt him down myself. With so few choices, I cannot afford to be closed-minded.”
“What will you do if none of these work out?”
“Then I will have to marry someone else. I have no choice.” We both glanced over at the box of letters on my bookshelf at the same time. Gwen knew this would be my last resort.
I turned back to my friend. “I already know that King Coman would love to rule over the whole country, but I will not relinquish power over my kingdom to him or anyone else. As you know, I do not have to marry a prince, but it would be the best choice for Aisling, and I would think it would get him off my back if I were to marry one of his sons. Do you not think so?”
“I am so glad that no kingdom is depending on me. I do not know if I should ever marry, but if I do, I hope it is only because I have fallen madly in love.”
“Hmm, if only I could be so fortunate.”
“I am sorry. It was insensitive of me to speak of love considering your dilemma.”
“I would wish nothing less for you, my friend. I know I complain too much and some of the aspects of ruling this kingdom are rather unpleasant, but I could not imagine doing anything else. ”
She leaned over and kissed me on the cheek. “Then it is a good thing this lot fell to you. It is late, and I am off to bed. We have a long trip ahead of us, and you should get as much rest as possible before it begins.”
After Gwen left, I took one last look at the list before placing it in the drawer of the end table beside the couch. It was a silly little list, but it had served a purpose. I was more at ease now and ready for sleep.
I extinguished all of the candles and headed into my bedchamber with only the light of the moon to show me the way. I undressed and slipped on the nightgown that was waiting there for me. I always savored the feel of the cool sheets on my skin. I was asleep before my prayers were finished. That night I dreamed of walking along the shore with a nameless, faceless husband. We were each holding the hands of a toddler between us. I awoke the next morning feeling blissfully and unexplainably happy.
Sunday was a day of rest at Castle Aisling with the servants doing the bare minimum to see us through, so I dressed and arranged my hair without Agata’s help that morning. I hurried through breakfast. If not for the conversations from the day before weighing heavily on my mind, I would have waited to eat with Gwen. I wanted to arrive at church early enough to speak with Parson Nevan before services began.
There was a small chapel inside the castle, but just before Father died a much larger church had been erected just outside the castle gates to accommodate a larger crowd. People were already headed in that direction, all dressed in their Sunday best. I skirted around and entered through the back door so I could come in right at the parson’s study where he would likely be preparing to deliver the morning message. I peeked in through the open door, and he looked up from thumbing through his well-worn Bible.
He was dressed from head to toe in black as always but somehow his red hair and bright blue twinkling eyes kept him from looking as solemn as his garb indicated. Parson Nevan’s joy had a way of bubbling from his round smiling face and spilling out on everyone he came in contact with. It somehow made me feel comfortable and loved.
“Queen Brianna, welcome, do come in.” He stood and indicated a chair across from him.
“I do not wish to interrupt your studies, but I had hoped I might have a little of your time before the service begins.”
“It is no interruption at all. I was just reading a bit while I wait for time to pass. What can I help you with this fine morning?”
I stared into his smiling face. Now that I was here, I was struggling to come up with the right words. “I have to get married.” Well, that explained everything.
He gave a barely discernable smile and a nod of his head. “I have heard about that. Have you figured out who our next king shall be?”
I let out a long breath. “No, that is the issue at hand. I have yet to pick someone, and I do not want it to be just anyone. I want it to be the right one. I would like for you to help me pray that I will make the right decision.”
“I think consulting with the Lord is a very good idea. So many times we only consult with Him after we’ve made a mess of things on our own. It shows great leadership on your part and also great maturity. Queen Brianna, you should know that I have already been praying for you daily, but I’ll certainly pray for you right now.”
His words had already been a balm to my jumbled nerves even before the prayer began. Coming here had been the right decision.
Reaching across the desk, he took hold of my hands and closed his eyes. “Father, we thank you that we have the advantage of your help as we live our daily lives, if we would but ask. You already know the situation, and you have a plan for Queen Brianna and the kingdom of Aisling. We pray that your plan will be revealed, for it is your holy will in our lives that we must seek. We also pray that you will work in the heart of Queen Brianna’s future spouse, that he will seek your presence. In everything we give thanks, in Jesus’ holy name, amen.” I felt lighter after hearing his words, as if the burden had been physically lifted from my shoulders.
I loved that the parson’s prayers were always simple and to the point, as were his sermons. The fact that he had prayed for my future spouse opened up a new idea. It was not enough that I had to find a husband. Someone out there had to have the desire to be married to me. “Thank you so much, Parson Nevan.”
“It’s my pleasure. I truly believe that when you seek God’s will, you’ll find your choices narrowed down to the point that the right one becomes obvious. Just be patient, and open yourself up to God’s plan. It’ll all work out, you’ll see.”
Patience seemed like a luxury in this matter. I thought about my list of prospects that held only five names. Well, three actually since the two Dukes had already been stricken in my mind. It seemed God was indeed narrowing my choices for me.
After a little more discussion, we made our way to the sanctuary. It was already more than half filled with people fellowshipping with one another while the organist softly played. Gwen came in from the back and made her way to our usual pew. We typically walked here together. I felt guilty for not letting her know I was leaving the castle early, but she assured me that someone had informed her.
It was a lively service with singing before and after the parson’s enlightening message. I came away feeling refreshed and more prepared for the challenges ahead. I hoped the feeling would continue. This trip to Gilvary could be life-altering for me and my kingdom.
Everyone was allowed to go to Session if they chose. Only the elite would be staying in the castle at Gilvary and attending the meetings, but it was a time of celebration for all. There would be vendor booths set up near the castle. It was a real boost for the economy of the hosting kingdom. Having such a variety of people there was also the fastest way to get the latest news out to the towns and villages.
We would ride for two and a half days before traveling through the isthmus to get to Fort Bevan. The land of Aisling stretched a short distance beyond the fort before crossing the invisible line into Gilvary, but no one crossed the isthmus without going through the fort. We would stay at designated inns until reaching the fort. After spending the rest of the third day there, we would make camp each night in the sparsely populated, arid land leading up to Castle Gilvary.
Whenever I traveled any great distance from the castle, I always dressed for battle. It was not that I expected to have to fight, but I would be prepared if it should happen. I was rather proud of the fact that I had designed most of my battle wear myself, even if Agata did shake her head and mumble as she assisted in dressing me that morning.
“I do not know how you ever expect to catch yourself a man while you are practically dressed like one.”
“Now, Agata, do you truly believe a man would step out in this outfit?”
“Well, no, but in my day we knew what was attractive to a man and what was not. That is why I was married at sixteen and you’ve never even been close enough to a man to smell his breath. God gave you all the right equipment, girl. You just need to dress it up to your advantage.”
Even at sixty-eight years of age, you could still tell that Agata had once been that beauty she had always claimed to be. She was still beautiful. She had married young and had also been left a widow with three small children at an early age. She certainly could have married again, but she had chosen to come to work at the castle instead. She claimed that after the love she had shared with her Frank, any other love would pale in comparison. I had grown up knowing more about her marriage than I had my own parents.
Just after my mother’s death, Agata changed from the proper nursemaid with lady like manners that my parents had chosen to care for their child into an uncouth woman who said whatever was on her mind. I would say this was a more honest version of herself. She told me that the one sitting on the throne needed someone they could trust to be honest rather than always bowing down and agreeing with everything that came out of their mouth. I suppose she had a point.
“Any man who comes after me on the way to Gilvary will not be looking for marriage. If he makes it past my guards, he can only mean to harm me. You know I will send him to his maker if necessary. That is, unless he gets to me first.”
“Do not talk like that. Have some mercy for this old soul. I will have nightmares for sure if you keep it up. Now hold still so I can finish with these hooks.”
One of mine and Gwen’s great passions was the designing of some of our clothes and accessories. We would make detailed sketches and go over the plans carefully with the castle crafters so they could bring our dreams to life. It was not unusual to see our designs later imitated by the women of Aisling.
I had ordered my brown leather boots to be made with built-in knife sheaths hidden on the inside of my calves. I wore a pair of tan trousers under my striped russet and green skirt. The skirt was split in the front and was attached with hooks so that if a battle ensued, it was completely detachable making it easier for me to maneuver. Leather over metal armor covered the torso and upper arms of my white blouse, and leather cuffs covered my wrist to protect against the sting of the bow string.
The cuffs had been my mother’s, and each was embossed with the Aisling Dragon as was the double bladed sword and scabbard hanging at my side. A quiver of arrows completed my arsenal. A brown hat embellished with a sash that matched my skirt finished the ensemble. Its only purpose was to keep the sun off of my head and to make me look good, but I loved it.
Agata put her arms around me, giving me an extra squeeze. She kissed me on the cheek and left without saying another word. She did not like farewells. It would probably be at least a month before I was back under her care, and I would miss her. She insisted that she was too old to make the trip anymore, so Gwen usually posed as my handmaid while we were away.
Wearing some of my mother’s things had me thinking about her again. I wish I could remember more details. It is like she was lurking at the edge of my vision and no matter how hard I tried, I could not get a clear image.
Everyone who mentioned Deidre Reaner remembered her beauty above all else, but with my thick auburn hair, hazel eyes, and pouty lips, I look just like my father. Except for my upturned nose. Father always said that feature came from my mother. I have tried to love it for her sake and for his, but as far as I was concerned, it was my worst feature.
I stepped out on the balcony for a few minutes just to view my favorite scene. It was one of my rituals before heading out on a long trip. I looked out over the calm Moya Ocean. The tide was out, revealing the jagged rocks that made this part of the coast unfit for ships to drop anchor. It was a perfect defense for three sides of the Aisling castle. The front of the castle was defendable by a wall that rounded out from one shore to the other.
I could tell by the angle of the sun that it was well past time for leaving, but I still took a few minutes to watch sea birds dive in between the rocks catching up small sea life that was suddenly exposed. At this time of day the cries from the birds could finally overcome the usual roar from the ocean. I inhaled one last breath of salt-misted air before making my way through my bedchamber and then my sitting room to leave.
When I opened the door to head out to the stables, Gwen was there with her hand poised to knock. She wore leather covered armor and cuffs that mirrored mine but instead of trousers, she had on a mint green split riding skirt. She also wore a wide-brimmed hat to protect her pale face and neck from the sun. Even with the quiver on her back and a scabbard at her side, Gwen was always the picture of grace.
The castle was quiet as we made our way through. It was not unusual for us to be the last ones to arrive at the gates that were probably already opened in anticipation of our departure.
“So, are you ready to go find us a king now?”
I gave my friend a look from the corner of my eyes that brought on her laughter. There was no need to respond. After our talk last night, I wondered how many times I would be teased about this subject before this trip was over.
Our horses were saddled with our bows, shields, and supplies already attached when we got to the stables. My bay colored gelding, Torin, had been a gift from my father. I had fallen in love from the moment I had first laid eyes on him. Gwen always used one of the castle mares named Ghost, a gray Arabian who was as pale and gentle as its rider.
I opened a bin on the stable wall and pulled out a couple of carrots, handing one to Gwen. I pressed my face next to Torin’s and ran my hand through his dark mane as he munched on the offered treat. Gwen would have every stray animal in the kingdom eating from her palm but this was the only sort of pet I had. Taking them by the reins, we led our horses toward the castle gate.
A crowd had already gathered there to send our party off. This ritual happened every time I traveled. I used to enjoy this part, but it was different now that my father was no longer here to share the experience with me.
Gwen’s father, Einri, was near the outside of the group with his arm across Eamon’s shoulders. They represented the youngest and the eldest of seven brothers. Every Alexander I had ever met had the same pale blond hair and blue eyes. I suspected Eamon chose to keep his head and face shaved as a means of distinguishing himself. He only allowed it to grow out when traveling. People were usually surprised to find that he had a full head of hair. Einri motioned for Gwen to join them.
Owen was leaning against the wall next to the gate also dressed for battle. His shoulder-length brown hair was tied at the back. He was tall and well-built, and without a doubt a lot of women considered him to be quite good looking. I had traveled with him enough to know that he was faithful to his pretty wife, Cait. He held her in one arm and their two year old daughter, Aine, in the other. He may not be a strong advisor, but when I looked on as he gave his wife a tender kiss, I was filled with envy and a high respect for the dedication he showed to his family. I longed to find such devotion from my own future spouse.
As I looked around me, it was easy to detect the warriors who would be traveling with us. Every one of them had family or friends there to wish them well. There was no special someone to see me off. I was surrounded by a crowd of people, and I had never felt more alone. I knew I was feeling a bit sorry for myself, so I tried to shake it off.
Parson Nevan was there to deliver his usual prayer for traveling mercy. As soon as the amens were said, we all mounted our horses and set out to the smiles and cheers of onlookers. Besides me and Gwen, our party consisted of a couple of servants, a dozen warriors, Owen, and Eamon. Reilly always left ahead of us to prepare the way when we traveled to Session meetings. Others would surely join us along the trail. It was considered an honor to travel in the queen’s company.
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Bio: Andrea Boyd has always been a dreamer. Once her most awesome job of raising her wonderful children was over, she decided to take up the challenge of putting these dreams into words and sharing them with the rest of the world.
Besides writing, she loves spending time with her family, quilting, going to car shows, and driving around in her 1968 Barracuda convertible.
Andrea lives with her husband, Tommy, and at least a couple of cats in York County, SC.
Is love a feeling or a decision? Niall Reaner chooses Deidre Whitmire as his wife and the future queen of Aisling, but it could be the biggest mistake of his life considering he is in love with another. Is he willing to destroying two marriages and a lifelong friendship in order to be with this woman from his past, or will true contentment only be found in choosing to love his wife? At Loveâ€™s Beginning is a short story portraying a glimpse of life before Securing Aisling, book 1 in The Kingdomâ€™s of Kearnley series.