An Lann Gheimhridh || Winter Blade
.:. TI Pendraig
This story brought to you by Altan, Clannad, and caffeine.
In the wake of the messenger’s nervous delivery, the council sits in a stunned disquiet. Sapphire robes shift as chief adviser Réamann lowers the parchment to stare at his queen, aghast.
“It says this, truly?” Rather than angered, Queen Eibhlín is a picture of curious amusement. She hums thoughtfully, watching the messenger wring his hands. “There is spirit there, but my…” she chuckles, “it is disappointingly uncreative.”
A morning shaft of autumn sun highlights the chief adviser’s auburn beard as he leans forward at his queen’s shoulder, indignant. “Uncreative?” he barks, before softening his tone at the sharp looks from fellow council. “My lady,” he implores quietly, “Will you not say anything against this? Some common coward has disparaged your kingdom with these scurrilous accusations!”
Queen Eibhlín turns toward the adviser’s table at her left, brooch glimmering gold and silver at her breast. She eyes them shrewdly. “Has council anything to say?”
Four councilmen shift in their seats at the high table, adjusting burgundy robes or squinting at the messenger, but they remain quiet. Queen Eibhlín flashes a satisfied smirk at her adviser before addressing her guest.
“You are prepared to receive a response, message bearer?”
The messenger startles. “Yes, milady, yes of course,” he stutters. Hastily he pulls fresh parchment from the depths of a weathered satchel. He stands quite still then, quill poised.
Chief adviser Réamann shifts with dismay as his queen recites her response:
“My keen bandit of no name, your letter has arrived as quite the surprise to my court. You were attempting, I think, to undermine my sense of credibility and honour when you decried my ascension to the throne, and my blind disregard for the safety of my people. To that end it was a notable effort. And yet, I am disappointed that you would not make plain the vitriol you must surely feel in authoring such a letter. Might you try again?”
Pausing briefly, Queen Eibhlín glances at her adviser. He eyes her back, but drops his gaze when she quirks a delicate brow. Facing forward again, she smiles at the messenger whose quill has only just stilled. She continues:
“I would suggest to you, toss in a few dastardly alliterations in your next letter, some untoward mention of my décolletage or complaint of my unladylike manner. Surely there are pejorative titles you might attach to my name as you criticise my laws, some suitably clever protestations of my moral fibre? Perhaps even a token curse? The wixen of Baile Átha Cliathe, I am told, are not favourable to me – you might parley with them. Do give it another try, dear bandit, you need not worry to upset me. I shall be waiting with keen anticipation.”
Chief adviser Réamann steps down the dais to accept the completed letter, ink glittering green as it dries. With a low bow the messenger relinquishes it. The chief adviser’s face is a study in practised neutrality as he presents the letter to his queen for seal and signature. Once it has been passed along the high table in a show of tradition, the chief adviser returns it with care to the messenger, who tucks the parchment safely into his bag.
“Alastar!” calls the queen. A stocky guard steps forward from the doors behind the high table, resplendent in burgundy leather lamellar and chestnut gauntlets and greaves. He comes to a stop at the messenger’s shoulder, who stares up at his stern features. “Alastar will escort you to my treasurer, Bran. Return the letter from whence it came. Be swift and be safe, message bearer.”
“Thank you, milady.” The messenger bows lowly at Queen Eibhlín. Queen and council watch in silence as Alastar leads the way through oaken doors, etched tassets clanking at his hips with each booted step.
With an echoing thud the doors to the great hall are closed, and it is empty of smallfolk. Queen Eibhlín dismisses her council with a gesture and sweeps out into the halls behind the high table, hand resting easily on the gold-etched hilt of her sword. The chief adviser follows with haste.
“My lady,” says Réamann at the stairway, “are you certain of the wisdom of your response?”
Queen Eibhlín pivots sharply to face her chief adviser. “Réamann, who is it who has sent that letter? A noble? A maid? One of my fool brother’s loyalists?”
After a pause he admits, “I have no idea, my lady.”
“Neither have I. Whoever it might be, it is clearly someone who harbours great contempt for my kingdom, and for me. I wish to see who it is. Idiots act in anger.”
Réamann readjusts his rings as he considers. “You have the right of it, my queen,” he says finally.
Queen Eibhlín smiles in the manner of a smirk. “I know it, Réamann. But I thank you for your approval.” She tilts her head expectantly, and with a bow, Réamann excuses himself. She continues to her chambers, trailed this time only by her honour guard in blue leathers. They take position at the doorway, wolf-etched pauldron and cuirass catching the light.
Pádraig looks up from his book as the doors close heavily. Sat indolently by a crackling fire, he is clad only in trailing gold-trimmed plum robes. “My lady, lovely to see you so soon,” he purrs.
Queen Eibhlín pauses by his side. “Pádraig, my love, what is it you are reading today?” Her tone is of fond exasperation. She tilts the dusty tome downward, looking for an inscription. “A treatise on political contracts? How staid,” she sighs.
Pádraig smiles pleasantly. “My lady love, I enjoy these courtly pursuits, far more than you do.”
“Surely,” says the queen. She joins him primly in the adjacent seat, idly tracing the gold etchings of her scabbard. “Would that I could remove their heads and be done with it.”
Pádraig chuckles lowly as he returns to his reading. The chambers are quiet for a time; Queen Eibhlín contemplates the flames as sounds from the village drift from the windows.
Eventually she speaks. “We’ve received a letter, Pádraig.”
“A letter?” echoes the man dubiously. He lowers the book, frowning at his queen. “How utterly strange, that my beautiful queen should be addressed in a letter.”
Queen Eibhlín laughs at his mockery. “It was quite the angry letter, my love.”
Curious, Pádraig shifts to sit properly in his seat. Eyes alight the queen explains the events of the morning’s audience – the caution of the guards at the gate, the insistence of the anxious messenger, the letter’s invective, Réamann’s distress and her own private delight.
Pádraig watches his queen in the firelight as he listens. Once she is quiet he smiles at her with dry amusement, eyes creasing at the corners.
In good humour he sighs, “My lady love, I do not suppose you have elected to do the sensible thing?”
His amusement is shared by the queen. “Oh Pádraig, you say such words.” Slowly she leans forward to grasp his chin, smirking as the ginger bristles tickle her palm. “You are lucky that I enjoy you so, for such cheek.” With a brief kiss she releases him to lean back into the hard frame of her seat.
Pádraig is unconcerned, and openly teasing as he responds. “I recall that dissidents are burnt at the stake in Munster,” he jests with wagging eyebrows.
Tilting her head, the queen’s long pleat shifts along her shoulder. “No,” she purrs with the curve of a smirk, “your face is far too pretty to burn.”
“I am a lucky man, then.” Pádraig sets aside the leather tome with care, standing gracefully to guide his queen to her feet.
“Luckier than my wife, surely.” Smiling wryly she turns them toward the flames; his hands clasp her arms as she wraps them around him.
“You fear an attack, my lady love?”
Queen Eibhlín is calm as she answers. “No, Pádraig. I look forward to it.”
With the coming snows the castle is frigid morning to evening. Servants and nobles alike bustle along the hallways bundled in layers and furs, cloaks decorated brightly in shades of red, green, and grey. Escorting his guest briskly toward the east wing, Alastar is protected from the chill by a white fur cloak draped over the cold metal of cuirass and pauldron, extremities kept warm in chestnut-tanned leather.
In contrast the warlock wears only a plain black cloak and knit gloves. He must be impossibly cold, but – ah, magic.
Ahead of them appear oak doors inlaid with silver knot-work, bookended by Ciaran and Saerlaith in azure-trimmed burgundy cloaks; the warlock eyes them thoughtfully as they approach. Nodding at the guards, Alastar knocks thrice before entering.
The chief adviser’s chambers are decorated lavishly in shades of blue, wolf carvings and statues present throughout. Above the crackling fire, delicate metalwork depicts a pack on the hunt; gemstone eyes peer down at them.
Alastar bows. “Chief adviser, may I present Lorcán, warlock of Baile Átha Cliathe.”
Lorcán steps forward with a bow, but not like Alastar. His is done with a flourish, arms splayed outward as a bird and right foot crossed behind left as he leans forward, eyes unerringly on the chief adviser. It is the wixen tradition. He remains so as Réamann approaches – the height of respect.
“Warlock Lorcán, be welcome.” As the warlock straightens Réamann glances at Alastar. “Thank you. Wait outside.”
Once the doors have closed, Réamann smiles at his guest. The warlock stares back. “Your travels were easy, Lorcán?”
Lorcán hums. Plainly he says, “Travel is always easy, for a warlock.” His gaze is restless as he eyes the etchings along the walls, the shine of sharp blades showcased above plush chairs, the flickering of the flames.
Suppressing a sigh, Réamann leaves aside pleasantries. “Warlock, you have a message for Queen Eibhlín?”
The warlock’s gaze returns to his host. Without further prompting Lorcán claps his hands together – a twist, thumbs interlocking and a spell on his lips, and from within his palms a deep purple light winks briefly into existence. Releasing his hands, the warlock presents Réamann with a small crystalline sphere.
The chief adviser eyes it with equal parts fascination and fear. “This one will not curse me, will it?”
The warlock smiles blandly. “I haven’t been paid to curse you, so no.”
A wixen’s word is everything to them, as good as law. Réamann considers this as he accepts the proffered sphere. He wonders again how the bandit managed to secure the services of such a renowned warlock as Lorcán of Baile Átha Cliathe. But of course, no wixen would ever tell. Secrets are a magic of their own.
“Queen Eibhlín will surely have an answer for you by morning. Guest chambers have been prepared for you. Alastar will escort you there.”
Giving a more subdued bow, Lorcán excuses himself from the chief adviser’s chambers.
Directed by a serving girl in thick red cloak, Réamann finds the queen in the armoury, deep in discussion with Bran. He prepares himself for a wait – but to his muted surprise, Bran draws attention to his presence almost immediately. Glancing his way, Queen Eibhlín waves Bran off and strides over. Her azure cloak is trimmed in peppered white fur, billowing as she moves toward him.
“Réamann,” says the queen coolly.
“My lady,” he responds with a short bow. “Has Bran displeased you?”
The queen scowls heavily. “When does he not? He refuses me – I suppose he forgets who is queen.”
Leading them into the halls, Réamann hides a brief smile with a stroke of his beard. “My lady, were you proposing another commission of weaponry, perhaps more gold-tipped arrowheads?”
Queen Eibhlín pointedly ignores the question as she stalks ahead. “You have sought me out for something, chief adviser. What is it?”
“Yes, my lady.” Carefully Réamann detaches a cloth pouch from his belt. “The warlock Lorcán has returned with another message.”
Almost instantly the queen’s demeanour brightens. “From the bandit? Give it here.”
Réamann is cautious as he offers the pouch to his queen. “Lorcán has given me his word that this one is not cursed. However, may I suggest you view it in the safety of your own chambers this time?”
Queen Eibhlín’s amusement is clear as she glances at her adviser. “You may, yes.” Smirking, the queen pivots on her heel, striding toward her chambers. Réamann follows.
Despite the pervasive chill of the castle, the queen’s chambers are more than comfortable. In light blue robes and bare feet, Pádraig is sat by the fire with a book, as is habit. Seeing the chief adviser enter behind his queen, Pádraig raises a curious brow.
“My lady love, what is the occasion?”
Sparing only a brief smile for Pádraig, Queen Eibhlín strides to the fire and stares intently at the flames while she considers. Her fingers play idly with the pouch strings. After a moment she turns. “Réamann – if the warlock is lying, track down this bandit and kill him.” At Réamann’s cautious nod, she removes the sphere and tosses it into the flames.
Pádraig startles, and Réamann tenses, but the queen is unmoved. Red bleeds purple with a low his – and within the flames, a distorted voice echoes. The malice of this voice nearly drowns out the words, spitting with every flicker of fire.
“Eibhlín, Queen of Airgíalla,” echoes the voice. “How arrogant you are. You claim your rule is just and prosperous – you lie! The smallfolk call you Badb, Nemain, and Macha – they call you Queen of the Bánánach as they bury their dead! Where were you, craven, when Fomorians slaughtered the healers of Linns? You say I amuse you – does it amuse you that your people die in their travels? Does it please you to deny aid for the lesser kingdoms when they come begging?”
Queen Eibhlín begins to laugh. Hers is sudden and unrestrained, louder than the words from the fire as they spit their last. The queen turns to her chief adviser, ignoring Pádraig’s presence at her shoulder.
“Réamann, bring the warlock here!” Her command brooks no argument; without a word, he leaves.
“Eibhlín?” Pádraig is quiet as he asks, “What is it you intend to do?”
Queen Eibhlín eyes his bare chest, smirking. “Pádraig, you have such little faith in your queen. I shall not get blood on your new robes.”
They wait in silence until Réamann returns, the warlock in tow. In contrast to the chief adviser’s poorly masked concern, Lorcán’s expression is placid as he bows with a flourish. He straightens immediately.
“Warlock Lorcán of Baile Átha Cliathe,” intones the queen, “will you parley with me, Queen Eibhlín of Airgíalla?”
Honouring tradition, the warlock bows his head and responds, “Queen Eibhlín of Airgíalla, ask what you will.”
Queen Eibhlín tilts her head in acknowledgement, pleased with the agreement.
“I ask for your aid, warlock. They who have sent me this message through you – I ask you, bring this person here before me, that we may converse honestly.”
Lorcán eyes the queen shrewdly, considering. Behind him the chief adviser shifts in a tense quiet, while at the queen’s side, Pádraig is again at ease.
“Your payment, Queen of Airgíalla?”
“Twenty gems, and a dragon egg,” offers the queen. The ghost of a smile creeps on her face as the warlock’s eyes light up.
“Your request is agreeable, Queen.” With another elaborate bow the warlock excuses himself to the far end of the queen’s chambers, all eyes on his retreat.
Stepping closer, Réamann is first to speak. “My lady – the bandit, here?” Receiving only a smirk in return, the chief adviser turns toward Pádraig.
“I would not worry, adviser,” chuckles Pádraig. He watches his queen as she begins to pace before the fire, blue gown shimmering with gold thread under her cloak as she moves. “My lady love will either seduce this bandit or run him through – or both.”
The chief adviser is not particularly soothed by this response. He eyes Pádraig with something like dismay.
“Would you clothe yourself properly at the least, if we are to entertain this bandit?”
Pádraig smiles. “If my queen wishes it,” he answers easily.
“The queen does not wish it,” says Queen Eibhlín idly. Despite her cavalier tone she does not pause in her pacing.
Réamann persists. “My queen,” he says with cultivated patience, “have you some idea of who this bandit is? What if he intends to bring you to harm, in your own chambers?”
At this the queen stills her movement, cloak swaying at her sudden stop. Instead she focuses on the warlock, watching as he mixes powders into a speckled quartz mortar from pouches along his waist. “Réamann,” she says, eyes not leaving the warlock, “the healers of Linns. You recall what happened?”
Stiffly he nods. “I remember, my queen.” For Pádraig’s benefit he clarifies, “We were expecting an entourage from Linns, to assist with the wounded during the Winter’s War. Queen Eibhlín had just been crowned–”
Wryly the queen injects, “And by crowned he means I publicly relieved my fool brother of his fool head.”
“–yes, my lady, but with full support from Clann Cholmáin of Mide and Ua Ruairc of Bréifne. You were within your rights.”
Behind them the fire crackles as the queen shifts her focus to Pádraig. “The law of blades was always meant to prevent bloodshed for the sake of the smallfolk. Of course intentions mean little in the heat of battle.” With a small sigh the queen unclasps her cloak, tossing it casually on the nearest chair before continuing, “The Dál Fiatach have long refused to recognise the law of blades, and so they call us, and the Uí Néill, bloodthirsty spectres of death.”
“Queen of the Bánánach,” murmurs Pádraig thoughtfully.
Amused, Queen Eibhlín makes to respond, but the warlock finishes his preparations at that moment – with a sudden flash of purple smoke from his mortar, he approaches, fingers cradling the bowl with care.
“Queen Eibhlín of Airgíalla,” says Lorcán as he stops a dozen paces away. “I am prepared.”
Réamann steps closer to his queen, to flank her other shoulder. Wordlessly the queen nods.
The incantation is short, too quiet to hear – and with another brief flash of smoke, there is a body before them.
Queen Eibhlín smiles, all teeth.
The bandit, as it must be, whirls in place. “What is this!?” The bandit pivots to stare at Queen Eibhlín as she speaks.
“Welcome to Clougher, Ultach,” purrs the queen.
Rather than a scraggly peasant, or a conniving nobleman, the smoke disperses to reveal a moss green gown, a deep red pleat, and furious grey eyes.
“What cruel words for such a beautiful creature,” chuckles Pádraig. He shifts on his bare feet, glancing at his queen, before gliding his way back to the seat for his abandoned book.
The bandit spares his underdressed form a harsh scowl before returning her focus to Queen Eibhlín. She straightens her spine. “You are Queen Eibhlín of Airgíalla,” says the woman in low tones. She is nearly a full head shorter than the queen, but she stands her ground as the queen steps forward, gaze keen.
“I am, Ultach. And you – I know your face, Princess of Ulaidh.”
With an air of realisation Réamann supplies, “Princess Moira, daughter of King Eoin mac Mael.”
The queen hums. “Quite the shy little bird when last I saw you.”
Raising her chin in defiance Princess Moira returns sharply, “I was only a child.”
Queen Eibhlín stops in front of her guest, smirking. “You were. Terribly shy as you clung to your father’s robes, but I think you did not like me even then. A woman, commanding men? Your father hated me so. And now, princess…” The queen is nothing if not amused as she says, “Betrothed to a prince of little standing, courting war with your harsh words and subterfuge.”
Princess Moira’s face twists at the mention of her imminent marriage, thick gown shifting as she strides away, toward the fire. Pointedly she ignores Pádraig’s idle page turning, instead gaze settling on the warlock, who has hidden himself beside the fireplace. Her expression darkens. “Warlock Lorcán,” she hisses.
The warlock stares back, impassive.
“Oh you need not blame the warlock, princess of kings.”
“Do not call me that,” snaps the princess. Her tone is coldly furious as she pivots back toward the queen.
Queen Eibhlín smiles. “You craved my attention, princess, when you sent your missives. You called me craven, and savage, and unsuited to rule.” Hand idly on her hilt, the queen prowls forward to stand directly before the princess, tipping her chin upward with the other hand. Her expression is darkly amused. “Now, princess, you have my attention. What will you do with it?”
The fire crackles loudly as they lock gazes. Not a soul moves.
Finally, Princess Moira drops her gaze.
Almost immediately Queen Eibhlín taps her cheek, expression intense. “None of that, princess,” she intones sharply. As the princess returns her gaze in surprise she adds, “You live in a kingdom of men – bound by their rules and their foolishness. If you are to thrive, princess, you stand your ground – never submit first.”
The chief adviser’s puzzlement is countered by Pádraig’s smug amusement. But it is matched, precisely, by Princess Moira’s. She aborts a step backward, brows furrowed.
“I – do not understand,” she says lowly, parsing the words as she speaks them. Her pleated hair shimmers in the torchlight as she shakes her head. “You are advising me? I have sent wixen to kill you. I have insulted your crown.”
“And when we met the first time, you spilt wine all over my gown and stammered your way through an apology.” Smirking as the princess flushes in remembrance, Queen Eibhlín gestures the warlock to approach. “Princess Moira of Ulaidh, do you intend to rule or to be ruled?”
Her gaze shifts between the queen and the warlock, hands clenching reflexively. “I will not be ruled,” she answers hotly.
“Well then,” returns the queen with smirk, “I shall expect more messages from you. You have much to learn, princess. We can start, I think, with our shared history.” As the warlock prepares a bowl for the return spell, Queen Eibhlín asks softly, “Tell me, what have you been told of the winter blade of lore?”