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                              Excerpt from The Queen's Own


    Shadows crowned the room. They rested in the corners like lingering reminders of death, cast a pall among the massive flanking columns, and clustered in the recesses of the vaulted ceiling. Indeed the gloom lent an unnatural weight to the air and seemed poised to remorselessly crush the lone figure in the great hall of Cardiff Ceallaigh.
   For Osric Murchadha, High King of Glenmara, one disaster had followed another until an avalanche of troubles threatened to overwhelm him. Since his Dukes had risen in rebellion, supported and financed by the Priesthood of Moloch, there had been little over which to rejoice. Even the hard won victories that foiled the initial plot and broke the siege of the Sceir Naid were now but bittersweet memories among a mounting list of military failures.
   In three hard-fought battles Duke Broderick Laighan had seized control of the entire western half of the kingdom. Trade from Eonacht no longer reached Glenne or Durham, and only a trickle of goods arrived from the south. When that too stopped, Osric sent Brendan Ceallaigh, the father of his beloved wife Ivrian, south to find out why. Swiftly, brutally, the answer came.
   The First Glenmaran Border Legion had seized the Cross, a strategic crossroads south of Ianfeld, and now Durham was cut off from the outside world. Amidst the snow-covered hills of southern Glenmara Baron Ceallaigh was ambushed and killed along with many of his men.
   Now, following Brendan’s funeral, the King sat alone in the great keep of Cardiff Ceallaigh and cast about for solutions to the many dilemmas he faced. 
   There was little doubt the First Legion would soon move on Ianfeld to neutralize the fortress of Arach Fiach, the Dragon’s Tooth. And though it was the strongest bastion south of Durham, if the legion moved against it, it would fall.
   The Border Legions had protected the frontiers of Glenmara since the withdrawal of the Ascalonian armies hundreds of years before. Now it appeared that the treacherous Duke Laighan controlled the First Legion, and Osric expected to be the center of attention from that skilled force when the weather moderated in spring. He had nothing to equal it. 
   There was, of course, the Second Legion, but it would be no simple matter to utilize that illustrious body. They were constantly engaged in battle with marauding Picts and pillaging Goths. If the king withdrew them for service in the interior, the entire frontier would descend into chaos.
   To the north, the primeval forests of Goth were inhabited by scores of warring tribes who often turned their attentions southward. It wasn’t uncommon for war parties of a thousand strong to cross the border in search of plunder and slaves. Still, Goth had no central leadership and more often than not the tribesmen simply fought amongst themselves.
   But east of Loch Aiden, the Picts, though also divided into dozens of individual tribes, had been known to muster ten or twenty thousand warriors under a single leader. Any shift of the Second Legion would likely result in a massive mobilization of Pictish forces with consequent dreadful results.
   Osric dared not touch the Second Legion, while the First, unencumbered by imminent conflicts, was available to serve the designs of Duke Laighan. And the High Priest. Osric pulled at his hair as though he wished to pluck it from his head in anguish and frustration. His most bitter enemy, more powerful and cunning than any other, had escaped his prison cell in Faltigern. Free again, Claranides was doubtless behind the scenes pulling strings tied to many powerful people.                
   Broderick Laighan, Claranides, the First Legion. Troubles old and new wove themselves into a complex tapestry. Osric was short of money, allies, and time. If he failed to find a solution to his problems before the warmth of spring melted the snow, he would likely be swept away in the subsequent flood.
   Now his most pressing concern was replacing Brendan Ceallaigh. He gave a hollow laugh at the thought that such a man might be replaced on any level. Only Osric’s half-brother Evan MacKeth could have matched the man in loyalty, dedication, and skill at arms, but he had been called away by the whispers of the One True God.
   “Whisper to me, Lord God,” begged Osric, “and guide my stumbling.”
   He continued the prayer but found little comfort in it. Though he owed everything to God, his life, salvation, and kingdom, it was difficult to be thankful when his beloved wife was crushed by a grief he couldn’t remove.
   “Do not grieve for Brendan Ceallaigh, Majesty,” said a familiar voice, “He is beyond sorrow and pain.” Annoyed, Osric turned on the intruder.
   “No one summoned you! Leave me in peace!”
   Emerging from the shadows beyond the doorway, Braslav Tlapinski stumbled as he tried to arrest his forward motion. His foot caught against the leg of an iron brazier, sending it crashing violently to the floor.
   “Great blazes will you get out?” roared Osric. The unfortunate intruder abandoned his efforts to right the brazier and bolted for the door. Yet the panic in the man’s eyes moved Osric to pity.         
   “Wait! Wait! Prophet, I beg you! Come back!”
   Braslav stopped, his remarkable girth nearly blocking the light from the adjoining room. He breathed as though he had just run a great distance, and sweat damped his long, dark hair despite the chill in the room. His eyes bulged and watered, and a sickly pallor advanced across his mustachioed face.
   Osric hurried to his side and gently seized his arm. “Come! Come! Forgive my boorish behavior.” 
   “Boorish behavior?” cried Braslav as he allowed himself to be pulled back into the room. “You’re the king! Your behavior isn’t to be questioned!”
   “Nonsense, good Prophet. My behavior must be held to a greater standard. Sit down before you collapse. You’ve a distressed look about you.”
   “Distressed? Nay lord, not distressed. It’s just these robes are so foolish hot!” Osric suppressed a smile. It was uncomfortably cold in the empty hall, and if anything, it was Braslav’s three hundred pounds and not his robes that caused him to sweat so. But that was all part of what made Braslav Tlapinski who he was.
   Osric had first met the curious fellow in Gwenferew where surrounded by an army of goblins, Braslav imparted God’s word to the king. That night the frightened, desperate people fasted and prayed, and in the morning marched out to meet their foes in what even now seemed a suicidal act of faith. But faith delivered them.
   Now Braslav was known as “The Prophet,” the one who spoke to God. People everywhere sought his company and blessing. He had preached God’s message in Durham’s Cathedral, in smaller churches all over central Glenmara, and gathered the faithful to him wherever he went. Braslav had even presided over Baron Ceallaigh’s funeral, and the eloquent comfort he spoke eased the grief of those left in the uncertain future.
   But there was another side to Braslav, a side that made him as much an oddity and endeared him to as many people as the part that spoke to God. It was this part, prompted by the generous, conciliatory words of the king, that now emerged.
   “I know how difficult it is to be king,” Braslav spouted. “Don’t I just? Why, when I was in the court of King Phillip of Illyria, didn’t he confide in me and tell me his woes? Didn’t he come to me for advice and counsel? What a burden he placed on me, begging that I make all the hard decisions, matters of policy, of state for all reason! I can tell you I was glad to leave him after a few months.” He was about to elaborate when a sudden change came over his face, and his jaw snapped shut like a spring-loaded trap.
   He was doing it again, spinning yarns, telling tales. Lies, not to put too fine a point on it. Well, not complete lies, but major exaggerations and embellishments. He really had stood before King Phillip of Illyria, and the monarch truly had asked his advice, but in the form of, “What do you think I should do with you and your companions for cheating my nephew at cards?” And Braslav really had been the king’s guest for some months, though in a dungeon rather than a palace suite. And hadn’t he been glad to take his leave? Still, he was speaking to the king.
   Such things hadn’t always troubled him. Once he had been perfectly content saying whatever was necessary to secure a meal, another drink, or improve his prospects. He had made a life of it, travelling from town to town, country to country, until he landed in the little town of Gwenferew in the marches of Glenmara.
   To be honest, and that was the focus of his struggle at the moment, he hadn’t been perfectly content with his life. Until Gwenferew he had been running--running from his gift and the terror that accompanied it. For Braslav saw things, predicted events, understood hidden portents, and in this ability he sensed the spirit of evil, the shadow of death and disaster that hovered over the world. He felt it grow, saw it strike down innocent and guilty alike, and for most of his life he fled from it. Until Gwenferew.
   In that insignificant town he found the counter to the evil, and thrust into his hands, head, and heart, the power of the Living God, and his Risen Son Iosa Christus transformed his life. He wasn’t the man he had been, but vestiges of the old Braslav remained. So he shut his mouth to keep from lying to the king.
   Amused, Osric determined to humor the poor man. “You’re quite right, Prophet. A king always needs counsel from people he can trust. Perhaps you can help me. Who replaces Brendan Ceallaigh? What say you?”
   The sweat on Braslav’s brow increased. What a nightmare this conversation had become! He had opened his incautious mouth, bragged about things he hadn’t done, and now King Osric pressed him for suggestions he hadn’t the capacity to make. How was he supposed to know whom the king could trust? If he suggested someone who proved unsuitable, he’d be beheaded, hanged, or subjected to something even less pleasant. But could he refuse to answer a king?
   “Well?” encouraged Osric, expecting nothing from the man apart from more fidgeting.
   But Braslav was saved from further torment when the chamber door swung open and the Queen and her sister Aine entered the room.
   “Your pardon, majesties,” Braslav said, and with a quick bow hurried from the room.
   “He seemed rather agitated,” observed Ivrian.
   “I was making sport with him,” admitted Osric with a dry chuckle. “The fellow is incorrigible.”
   “Incorrigible? You call him that when he just blessed my father’s grave?”
   She was a beautiful woman. Though her eyes were red and swollen from tears, they sparked with a characteristic gleam. Her hair, though wind-blown was still a golden magnificence framing her delicate face. The proud posture of her slight frame stiffened.
   “Don’t concern yourself,” groused Osric. “It was but harmless fun.”
   “You fancy being a bully is harmless fun?”
   Osric threw up his hands. He didn’t want to argue, he hadn’t the heart for it. “I’m sorry,” he offered.
   “Don’t avoid my question,” Ivrian fumed.
   “What question?”
   “The question I just asked you!”
   Aine slipped away. She went out into the central hallway and entered a small flanking room with a single shutter-covered window. Only a thin shaft of light penetrated the gloom, but she didn’t need sun or lamplight to see. This room was full of memories, of sights, sounds, and smells from a lifetime ago when Evan MacKeth had been a prisoner here.
   On that distant winter day Evan had awaited an audience with Osric Murchadha who then as now, sat in the great hall. She recalled her young hero sitting in chains on the very settee where that other dark figure sat now.
   She cried out, realizing this wasn’t part of her remembrance. “Who’s there?” she demanded.
   “Braslav,” said a voice.
   She curtseyed to the as yet indistinct figure. “Beg pardon, Lord Braslav,” she said. “You startled me.”
   “Thinking of someone dear to your gentle heart?” the Prophet asked.
   Aine hung her head, ashamed that her thoughts had not been of her father for whom she mourned with a tearful soul. But if Evan were here she wouldn’t be so sad, and she didn’t want to be sad anymore. She grieved for her lost love, and now she had lost her father too.
   “There’s no shame longing for your beloved,” Braslav offered. “He doubtless longs for you in kind.”
   “There is too much grief in this hateful world,” Aine complained.
   Braslav said, “You must find time to be happy, sweet lady. I have seen into tomorrow, and little of peace did I see.”
   Aine’s head began to pound. Her hand strayed to a rough scar beneath her hair—a lingering reminder of the desperate battle at Clon Miarth--a grim gift from a goblin blade. “Then don’t speak of it. I can’t bear the anguish.”
   “It can’t be avoided. We must prepare.”
   The edges of the room dimmed and an angry pain settled behind Aine’s right eye. She squinted. “Prepare for what? Don’t speak in riddles.”
   “It isn’t an exact science. Visions are sometimes somewhat . . . obscure?”
   “Indeed? Vision me Evan MacKeth if you must vision at all.”
   “It doesn’t work that way. I don’t choose what God reveals to me.”
   Aine leaned against the wall for support as nausea threatened to overwhelm her. “You’re the prophet. You’re the one who sees things,” which she could not, having gone at the moment, quite blind. Braslav’s words dimmed to an incomprehensible drone as the pulse in her head thudded out a grotesque rhythm. She took a single step and slumped insensible to the floor.
                                                                  *     *     *
    In the Great Hall, the fight between Osric and Ivrian had long since ended in tears of regret and reconciliation. The pair never quarreled for long, and now more than ever they needed the comfort of each other.
   “I must place this holding in strong hands,” Osric said after they had spoken of many other things, “yet I fear whomever I choose will curse me for it. Come spring the First Legion will march, and this fortress will fall.”
   “Cardiff Ceallaigh has never fallen to an enemy,” Ivrian proclaimed.
   It was true. Since its construction over the course of seventy-five years by Ivrian’s father, grandfather, and great-grandfather, the castle had been successfully defended a dozen times. But though Cardiff Ceallaigh was a strong, well-sited fortress, it had never faced legion siege engineers.
   Osric sighed. “My mother used to say, ‘Never doesn’t last forever.’ One shouldn’t base the whole of the future on the past. Cardiff Ceallaigh has never faced an enemy like the First Legion. But I must find someone to hold it. The list of candidates is woefully short.”
   Ivrian laid her hand on her husband’s shoulder. “The answer is plain enough.”
   Osric looked at her in wonder. It was anything but plain, but in his experience, women generally oversimplified things. “Plain? Pray share these plain solutions with your simpleton of a husband, for I’m quite vexed.”
   “Well,” laughed Ivrian, aware that men made things more difficult than necessary, “have you considered Brian Beollan? He’s served my father since boyhood and knows this fortress better than anyone.”
   It was a good suggestion. Brian had been Lord Ceallaigh’s Knight Champion since his twentieth year and was the most skilled warrior in the county. It was a splendid choice.
   “You are shrewd as well as beautiful. Brian will be grateful. But it’s no kindness. I’ve no troops to give him.”
   “Raise troops,” Ivrian offered.
   “That takes money, my love, and we’re short of that too.”
   “My jewelry must be worth something. I don’t know the cost of weapons, but surely . . . .”
   Osric shook his head. “It isn’t only that. Even if we had the funds, no levy could stand against the legion.”
   “Then raise a legion.”
   “Raise a legion.”
   “I heard you the first time. You can’t simply raise a legion.”
   “Why not? How did these other legions come to exist if someone didn’t raise them? If you can’t use the legions you have, raise another.”
   Osric ran his fingers through his hair and sighed. Ivrian was oversimplifying again. “Have you any notion what it takes to equip and maintain a legion? It isn’t like a levy you can dismiss for the harvest. It’s a standing army that must be quartered, fed, and paid throughout the year, and the next, and the one after that. Besides, it takes time to train such men. By the time your legion is ready the war will be over.”
   “We have all winter. That should be enough time to cobble together a respectable army. My jewels will defray the expense.”
   “But my dear,” Osric pleaded, “it’s simply impossible. Keep your jewels.”
   Ivrian’s eyes hardened and her voice grew less pleasant. “Don’t talk to me like I’m a backward child! Poor Queen Ivrian! She knows nothing of finance, war, or strategy. Perhaps the kingdom would be better served were I to keep to knitting and tea parties!”
   “Sweet wife, you know I value your counsel. But this idea . . . .”
   “What’s the harm trying? If we fail, what have we lost? If we do nothing we’ll lose the kingdom anyway, and do you think I’ll get to keep my jewelry then? Let me raise your legion.”
   Osric didn’t know if Ivrian could manage what she proposed, but there was no point arguing further. He knew his wife’s determination, and the task would distract her from the loss of her father. Besides, what trouble could she get into? He nodded and said, “Oh, as you wish. You may not be a strategist, but you’ve outmaneuvered me. Raise your legion. I’ll prepare documents.”
   Ivrian was in the process of showing her affectionate appreciation when Braslav hurried into the room with the news of Aine’s collapse.