Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Dahlquin Castle, Before Dawn, #4


June 8, 1224 AD

The six guests rose before the dawn, as planned. No one suspected their foul purpose. By design, they had drunk far less than it appeared. While it seemed they slept soundly, in actuality they gauged the pulse of the castle. Before light, they would execute the gatekeeper and guards then open the gate to Timothy O’Neill’s army. Aye, they were mercenaries. Why not? They could be bought; their reward might be in land grants if the invading force were successful. To take Dahlquin would be a prize indeed. Remote enough the king might not rush to its defense. What a message it would send to the rest of the Irish kings. This could be a stepping-stone eventually taking the whole kingdom, or merely a good place to start one’s own realm. Or work out the details of a truce, keep Dahlquin, and be absorbed back into the old regime. There were many possibilities if the only loyalty was self-interest.

With silence and stealth, three of the mercenaries made their way through the grounds. Approaching the gatehouse was harder than they anticipated. Lord Hubert was a careful and thorough man. More sentries to be silenced than expected, still Hubert expected the assault from without, not treachery within his very walls.

The other three assassins slunk to the residential tower. Quite a bit of wine and flattery tricked a disgruntled laundress into revealing the locations of the bedchambers of the lord, lady and their daughter. With the Dahlquin nobility murdered, taking the castle would be much easier to take. Dare they dream of a smooth takeover? Invade the castle, declare themselves the lords, and demand allegiance. Give the new subjects a chance to live by swearing their fealty to the new overlord: Timothy O’Neill. This plan had so many inherent possibilities.

Returning from the chapel, Donegal’s mind was full of doubt, should he have stayed with Eloise, sending Alexander to join Eoin? Thoroughly he checked in with all the posts through the castle on his way. All was quiet as it should be; nonsense, he chided himself, Eloise was fine. When he heard a foot fall behind him, Donegal turned half expecting to see Alexander, dice in hand, begging to trade duty. Donegal’s mouth was covered, his head yanked back. As the assailant behind cut his throat, another held his legs firmly. Eoin, his mind screamed, he could picture his cousin, alert; feel his own failure to duty, Uncle… Donegal struggled in vain as his lifeblood pumped furiously from his body. Panic overrode any pain, until weakness, darkness, cold and the final humiliation of evacuation ended his days.

The residential tower was very quiet again; Donegal’s body was left sitting as if asleep, his padded gambeson absorbing the thick, spent blood, but not the stench of filth. Tiny pairs of eyes watched the body, unafraid of the retreating men. Rats drawn by the smell inched greedily from the hidden depths, cautious only of a cat’s return; or one of the dogs.

But the hounds slept soundly in Dahlquin this night. Perhaps Lord Hubert had grown soft or relaxed his guard. Maybe he was overconfident in the Dahlquin image of invincibility and tenacity the assassins thought as Eoin was murdered outside Lady Eloise’s very door. With the two guards dead, one assassin slipped into her bedchamber. It was dark but not silent. Snoring rattled the furnishings, making his hair stand on end. No more guards, no hounds. Barely enough light glowed from the hearth to illuminate two sleeping figures on the floor: Nursemaids, perhaps? The bed was empty. Unslept in. Sir Byron quietly felt around anyway, for any form. Only a book. He scanned the room thoroughly. Armed as he was it was impossible to be absolutely silent, one of the sleepers roused.

“My lady, dear, is that you? Elo-” the name remained unfinished, the woman was sliced near in half. The commotion woke the other sleeper. The red-haired assassin grabbed for the man’s head in the dark. A scuffle ensued; muted voices, finally John felt a large hand cover his mouth and part of his nose. A dagger pressed cold and sharp on his throat. Was it wet, John pondered? Blood? His?

“Where is she?” hissed Byron’s angry voice.

John could smell blood, lots of it. Whose? His wife’s? They were here together, in the lady’s room; sleeping on a pallet upon the floor waiting for her. His wife had been the Lady’s nursemaid since infancy.

“Where is she?” Byron’s voice grated in John’s ear. John was bleeding and overwhelmed. The stranger threatening, the oppressing odor, and the unconscious game he played not to believe it was his own wife’s death he smelled.

“The lady,” the Byron demanded.

“Eloise? Not here?” John finally croaked through the pressure of a blade already severing the outer layer of flesh. John felt his own death as imminent. How clear and indisputable: His wife and now him. He knew it, to his amazement, accepted it, and shouldering the full responsibility of a man, made no effort to alter it. He would die.

The knight felt the futility of it too. Byron would get no information from this dredge. Worthless filth. Keeping back of the man to avoid the blood, he slit John’s throat to the spine. Angered, he kicked the bodies, as if this would somehow reveal where his prime target was. Curse the bitch. No wonder it had been so easy. She and her notorious hounds from hell weren’t even here. What next, assist his partners with the lord and lady? Maybe Eloise was with either of them, or they would know where she was.

A small dog yapped in the adjoining chamber. The squire was to assassinate Lady Anne while the two knights killed the father and heir. Instead of the sleeping lady, he found only a small hairy dog biting viciously at his ankles. Kicking at the relentless dog he rummaged quickly through the empty bed, Sylvester continued to bark and bite. The squire heard a deep, rumbling growl, but there was no source. The witch’s chamber was haunted, the squire thought.

Hounds from hell were abundant in Dahlquin. Lord Hubert usually had any number of dogs with him. The Lady Anne preferred small companion dogs, but even these were alert, could bark a warning, and put a good bite on an unprotected finger.

There was no one in Lady Anne’s bedchamber this night. This was uncommon among the nobility. . It was Sylvester’s growls and yaps that alerted Lord Hubert’s dogs, which in turn woke Hubert, Anne and Sir Reginald.

“No one here, either?’ hissed Byron as he slipped into Anne’s chamber.

It was Lord Hubert who must be killed first, the heir and then the witch. But where were the women?

Hubert and Reginald reacted immediately, without thinking or speaking. Neither man had fully undressed; they had fallen into the uncomfortable sleep of men with unresolved problems on their minds. Anne slept restlessly as well. It was the ill luck of the other assassin, Sir Davydd, to face Hubert and Reginald, armed and waiting. But it was the hounds that took the day.

The savage dogs got the assassin by hand and throat. No chain mail covered his face, making an easy target. The table was overturned, ewer and bowl crashed to the floor. A chair slid across the room, propelled by man and dogs, wedging beneath the bed. Reginald was closest to the door adjoining Anne’s chamber, the carnage of red headed man and flailing dogs separated him from Hubert on the other side. Anne sat petrified on the bed.

“Where are the guards?” Anne wailed, incredulous with the howls and destruction before her?

As Byron came to assist his brother, Sir Reginald descended upon him with an elbow to the face, feet swept out from under him, the traitor thudded to the stone floor. Taken alive to answer questions and suffer a proper death later. Seeing this, the squire turned and ran to take his chances with the gatehouse.

By the time Lord Hubert could call off the dogs, Davydd was but a torso mangled and mauled. He would answer to no one but the Devil. Hubert hated a mess in his bedchamber. As a knight and lord, battle was a way of life and he thrived on it. But in his bedchamber where he, his wife and child took their refuge, this was defilement. Even as these thoughts ran through his head, he was in flight to the bedchambers of his women. Anne’s room lay undisturbed save for the ranting Sylvester. That little excuse for a dog helped save his life. Hubert didn’t appreciate the debt to a dog no bigger than a flea on a real Dahlquin hound. Later.

His worst nightmare awaited him in his daughter’s chamber. The stench of blood and death hit him as he entered the door. Foul it was when a body was laid open. No time for emotion, he methodically analyzed the scene. Bed mussed, but unslept in. The nursemaid, hacked almost in two, lay cruelly strewn across the floor. And who was the other? Definitely not his daughter: A man, aye, John. Look again, fool, maybe your mind refuses to see what is truly present, he scolded himself. There were only two bodies. And Eloise was not one of them. No sign of a real struggle, no dogs, either. Eloise was not here or taken hostage. Relief and fear.

“Hubert,” Anne said, a Psalter in her hand, “Eloise is in the chapel.”

Again Hubert scanned the chamber.

“Light. We need light,” Hubert said, taking a candle to the embers in the hearth.

Reginald entered dragging Byron bound and gagged behind him. Hubert’s hounds snarled, snapping at the captive. Sylvester sniffed at the dead bodies on the floor.

“What, are you sure she isn’t here?” Hubert asked suppressing panic.

“Aye, the chapel,” Anne continued, “she left her Psalter on the bed, a sign to Nurse or I. Before God, oh Hubert,” she wailed as the brunt of the shock set in. Not knowing what to do next, she clutched the Psalter to her breast as if it would miraculously make her daughter appear. The lady gave a thought to run to the chapel, a thought to attend to Nurse and John; but she knew from the stench that it was no use.

“Murder! Guards! The guests be traitors!” Reginald shouted stepping into the corridor. “Stop the guests! Guards!”

Eoin and Donegal were quickly discovered, dead; others were summoned from their posts. No trace of Eloise or her dogs, except the sign she was in the chapel.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Welcome to my Dahlquin Chronicles blog. I have committed myself to posting the beginning of my first book in this series, starting with the introduction and first chapters. I am undecided as to how much I will post or whether to follow the book(s) chronologically.

Dahlquin is a story of self-determination. Ireland in 1224 AD is a volatile isle poised for civil war with the black cloud of English subjugation threatening from the east. At the western edge of the known world a young woman rebels against her rigid, patriarchal society, as her family battles to maintain their autonomous base of power.

Eloise Dahlquin is the quintessential adolescent, a medieval Dorothy, seeking a voice in her hostile world. Remote, enigmatic Connacht, Ireland bridges the old and new, blending Celtic mysticism with church doctrine, Irish blood lines with Welsh-Anglo, in this universal struggle for co-existence. Why me, why this book? I have researched the Middle Ages into middle age. I have been married over thirty years and raised two children: I know about seeking a voice in alien cultures. Of equal importance, if I can’t get “boinked” in a medieval castle or cathedral I will write about it.

For more information not found here or on my website, please follow the “contact me” instructions. I would honestly, truly and most emphatically LOVE to hear from you.

Thank you for coming.

DAHLQUIN, continued 3

Eloise and her mother dropped off another basket of herbs in the kitchen, it smelled divine, roasting mutton, fresh bread and the most hearty, meat and leek gravy. The preparations for the feast were well in hand, and Eloise hugged Margaret, kissing her in appreciation; travel and confinement forgotten. The cook patted the girl’s cheek leaving a flour handprint.

The seneschal thanked Eloise for the ledger, pleased the accounting was in order. “She’s got potential,” he addressed Lady Anne, who clutched her little dog in the crook of her arm.

Bolstered by the praise Eloise continued to sing and dance her way towards the residential chambers.

“Come, Mother, what a night this will be,” she held her hands out encouraging her mother to spin and twirl with her. Her two large dogs moved ahead, investigating.

“Eloise, not now,” her mother directed. “This is no time for such frivolity. These men and their purpose are yet unknown.”

“Aye, and we their hosts! What entertainment, we will sing…and dance,” Eloise said, arms over her head as she pirouetted right into one of the pages, leading the six knights to the baths, her father and Reginald behind.

Eloise bounced off the boy in surprise, and into the practiced arms of Sir Davydd.

She stared into his green eyes topped by prominent red eyebrows, an eager grin spread across his face as he steadied her.

“Eloise!” her father and mother gasped simultaneously. The little dog, Sylvester growled from Anne’s arms.

Recoiling from the admonished tones of her parents, Eloise studied Sir Davydd, he was not the pretty one she heard about.

“Excuse me, sir,” she said politely, “I am so sorry, are you hurt?” She brushed him off, and tidied his surcoat.

Davydd laughed, “Takes more than a fine dance to ruffle my feathers. No harm done. Are we to see some more?”

Eloise flushed pink further highlighting the white flour handprint; nodded to the other knights and stepped back. “Mayhaps, tonight. Mother and I love to sing and dance,” she added, enthusiasm building, she dared a glance up.

Hubert moved in, “I do apologize, sir, my daughter is…exuberant.” Everyone heard the pause as Hubert hesitated for a suitable word. He glared at his daughter before turning his attention back to his guests. This was not the time or place to present his wife and daughter to these strangers. Both women wore aprons, had dirt under their fingernails, with flowers and rosemary woven in their hair like two vulgar May Queens. This intrusion forced his hand. To dismiss his women would be rude. He must make the proper introductions all around; and he did, grimly.

Nor did Hubert appreciate the leering glances cast upon his daughter by his guests as each took her hand ceremoniously. Except Byron; he seemed offended, and Hubert knew that look as well. Not everyone loved Dahlquin, and many suspected his women of witchcraft.

“Please, take your leave, we will see you at the feast,” Hubert said, signaling the pages escort the knights to the baths. Best they were contained elsewhere.

“Ladies, I look forward to this evening,” Davydd said, “Mayhaps you could teach me a dance step or two,” he addressed to Eloise.

“But watch your toes, he’s a bit heavy on his feet!” Ioan teased.

Was Ioan the pretty one, Eloise wondered? He did have large brown eyes, but pretty like a woman, none of them fit that description.

“Lord Hubert, you have been blessed,” Davydd said, “tonight we shall dance like never before,” or ever again, he thought with deceitful satisfaction. “Ladies,” he bowed and left with the others.

Eloise blushed and bit her bottom lip with anticipation. What fun, already she played the music in her head, practicing the steps. She reached for her mother’s hand to proceed to the residential tower. They, too, needed to freshen up. Instead her father gripped her arm painfully.

“Have you gone daft? Flitting about when there are serious matters to consider.” Hubert peered at her, his stern brow knotted with fury. Few people had the audacity to meet his gaze on a normal day, only Eloise had the unadulterated gall to do so now; and she only chest high.

“Nay,” she said, offended. “Mother and I have been exceedingly busy with”

“You embarrassed me,” he cut her off, “and continue to do so.”

“I would be a gracious hostess, as you and Mama taught me,” she huffed indignantly.

“Eloise,” her mother said, taking her arm. “Not now.” But Eloise shook her off without a glance.

Reginald tried to catch the girl’s eye, to distract her from this foolish impudence; he adored Eloise and wanted to help manage that Dahlquin spirit, but she was locked on her father.

“Taught you to prance about as an uncouth…public woman!” Hubert’s voice was livid; he fought for appropriate language.

“Uncouth! Mama never…I would sing and dance to make you proud!” she interjected. “Seems my only purpose.” Rather than send her to a university, they insisted she slave away in domestic servitude.

“Ellie,” Reginald warned, shaking his head. She needed a mate, and children-sons of her own to vent that energy. Of course, in the eyes of her uncle, no one was good enough for her. Who could love her as she deserved and shelter her as Hubert and he did?

“Dahlquin is,” again Eloise didn’t finish.

“I have indulged you too long,” Hubert said, his hand clenched in a fist.

Anne bit her bottom lip, sighing audibly.

Contempt mixed with anger covered Hubert’s face, but Eloise didn’t recognize it.

“Indulged! You teach me rule, tell me to be strong, then yell at me,” Eloise carried on, ignoring her mother, provoking her father.

“Eloise!” Reginald called, reaching for her, to put a hand over her mouth, something, “Stop this foolishness.”

“Indulged!” she cried again, mistaking her father’s prolonged silence for license to continue. “Nay, I work too hard! Trying to make you proud. Indulged! Everything I do is for,” she didn’t finish.

“Enough! You will take your meal in your chambers.” Hubert’s voice was flat, without emotion as he withdrew, turning his back to her. The worst, he was barely in control. Eloise knew not to speak now. No one was that stupid. As an only child and heir to Dahlquin, her father taught her from an early age about management. Eloise was a bright girl and Hubert lavished education on her. It was awkward, and at times a dangerous game to allow a woman, even a noble lady to learn or do too much. Despite the very clear messages of station and function, the laws and rules were ambiguous and inconsistent, so easily twisted and manipulated by the upper classes as best suited them.

Disappointment was not adequate, horror too dramatic. But somewhere between lay her feelings. Eloise had argued with her father in the Great Hall. Tensions were high with all the excitement and she went too far.

Too late she heeded Reginald’s plea, now he shook his head and shrugged at her. The disappointment in his brown eyes brought tears to hers.

Eloise looked to her mother. Anne made no attempt to intercede either. This was between Ellie and Hubert. Although she needed Ellie to assist her as hostess of Dahlquin, Anne would never argue with Hubert when he was in such a state. With a heavy heart Anne watched Eloise stalk off to the residential tower. Life was full of hard lessons.

Back in her chamber Eloise’s nurse brushed out her long, amber hair. Should have been for the banquet, but now it was simply a routine before bed.

“So soft it is,” the nurse commented. She felt compelled to break the brittle silence crackling between them. “Luxurious as silk, dear.” Eloise did not answer. “Always liked this color on you, too,” the elderly woman commented regarding the gown. “Highlights your blue eyes and white skin.”

“They’re blue gray,” Eloise corrected. Who cared? No one would ever see them save a handful of kin in the residential tower.

“Aye, so they are. All the more desirable, too.” Her young charge had many admirable attributes. The lady was a little shy of medium height. Like her mother she was trim and modestly built. What she lacked in womanly bosom could always be enhanced, or padded. Where her mother was the quintessential noble lady, quiet, subdued and elegant; Eloise mirrored her father in action: Loud, robust, challenging.

“Your father wants only to protect you, dear,” the nurse continued. “To insist on singing may have been overlooked. But dancing, before strangers, is a bit provocative, sweet one, truly.”

Eloise rolled her eyes. “Not you too.” The girl sighed. “Dancing and singing are suitable forms of entertainment for guests. Mother and I sing all the time, it’s no sin.”

“Aye, the singing,” the nurse offered, “your father might have agreed to that, later, if he saw fit. But you insisted, nay demanded.” The nurse wiped a tear from her eye. “Lucky you are not to be beaten beyond recognition. Your father is tolerant; patient as a saint with you.”

Eloise frowned, wiping her own tears. Why was it always her fault? Surely she was the patient one, in a world so full of restraint and confinement. Often enough she was compared, unfavorably to her saintly mother. But now her father, too. In silence the nurse continued to brush out the girl’s hair in long gentle strokes.

“Please, go,” Eloise said. “Don’t miss the banquet.” Music, distant but joyous haunted the chamber, reminding Eloise what she was missing.

“With you here alone! Nay, we’ll dine together,” the nurse answered. Faint laughter joined the music.

“Please, you can tell me what I missed. I won’t be alone,” Eloise pointed to the pair of hounds. Dragon, yipped in her sleep, massive paws flicked as the prey fled before her in the dream. Beast stretched out before the hearth. “I’ve some confessing and penance to do,” Eloise sighed. “And tell Margaret to wear the new apron!”

The nurse frowned and started to disagree.

“Don’t add guilt to my disappointment.” The Lord and Lady Dahlquin saw to it Eloise never suffered alone, her actions had serious consequences for many people; this burden of responsibility came with her noble birth. “Please go, you and John.”

“I won’t be late,” the nurse said, closing the door behind her.

DAHLQUIN, Continued

Lord Hubert, Sir Reginald, the seneschal and several Dahlquin knights spent the afternoon in conference with the six guests. They were Sir Davydd and his brother Sir Byron, who shared the same flaming red hair, with bushy eyebrows that bobbed dramatically when they spoke. Cousins Sir Ioan and Sir Ryan, and Ryan’s half brother, Sir Arnolf. One overworked squire was shared between them all. The six guests, Hubert and Reginald sat around a small table. The seneschal and remaining knights stood near Hubert. Pitchers of wine were available plus some good well water.

“Tell us more of this army,” Reginald asked, sitting back in his chair.

“They mean to take revenge on Meath,” Davydd said. “Young Timothy O’Neill got his nose out of joint!” he laughed.

“And the O’Neills, does Lord Magnus stand behind Timo? I mean Timothy,” Reginald asked. The O’Neill’s still considered themselves the monarchy of all Ireland, claimed it was their ancestral right, High Kings of Ancient Tara. But young Timothy was one of many landless younger sons of the O’Neills. And out of favor.

“How was he offended?”

“The usual,” Davydd snickered, “Horses, whores and honor.” His friends laughed as well, but the Dahlquin men remained silent. “He seeks redress,” Davydd shrugged, “is all I know.”

“Seems extreme,” Reginald commented, “to seek out the Danes and Norse Hebrides. “It is an army large enough to threaten the peace.”

“Expensive, too. Timothy O’Neill has naught the resources,” the seneschal added. Nor was Dahlquin the most direct route to Meath in central Ireland.

“Not for revenge. Reeks of war,” Reginald said. “Does King Henry III know? Is England behind this?”

“Nay, Timothy acts alone, for revenge on Meath, no more,” Byron said as jovially as possible.

“Good Sirs, Lord Dahlquin,” Ioan offered, refilling his cup with wine, “we have told you all we know. It is an army of some magnitude. But we are not aligned with the O’Neill’s nor Timothy.”

“Kill not the messengers. We only bring you news of what we saw. Surely the six of us were naught in command to interrogate ‘Tim’o’neill’! We spoke with them only briefly,” Davydd added.

“Send your own enquiry, lord,” said Byron, revealing some agitation.

“Aye, bears watching, doesn’t it?” Ioan added.

Hubert nodded. He had been content to let his men ask the questions. Impassively he watched the six strangers before him with cold, deep-set blue eyes. Graying brown hair receded well behind his head, not unlike a tonsure. Years of hard combat showed on his face and in his lined expression. Still he sat tall and firm and confident. No one would doubt he was still a man of action.

“Who are you aligned with?” Reginald asked pointedly. “Who is your liege lord, then?” Valuable information, most armed men were funded by a lord or baron, thus did they owe him their allegiance in all things. This was the core of their society. Sworn fealty to one’s lord or the patriarch of the family unit.

“We are knights-errant, sir. It is our plan to travel the length and breadth of all Ireland. There are many good works to be done, and in so doing, we might yet find our place and pledge ourselves.”

“I am from Wales, sirs, and would seek new opportunities,” Arnolf claimed. “My lord, William de Braose crossed King John, his men were ‘excused’. Not wishing to die, I left.”

The Dahlquin men shrugged. Ireland had no love of England, and they were too familiar with that sad tale of years past. William de Braose had told all that England’s King John strangled his own nephew, Arthur of Brittany. John in turn left William’s wife to starve to death in prison and confiscated all de Braose’s lands. The vassals were dispersed.

“My condolences,” Hubert said, thinking the man would have been a mere child then.

“Lord Dahlquin, your forebears hail from Wales, eh?” Arnolf said. “Ireland has been good to the Welsh and English alike, we have much to offer each other,” and he held up his cup in tribute.

“Sir Davydd, here, is leaning towards the monastic life,” Ioan said with a shove and wink. Not unusual, many landless sons sought a career within the church; daughters too.

“I may feel the calling, now and again,” Davydd conceded, nodding his red head thoughtfully.

Knights-errant, bah. Hubert had little regard for the renegade nobility who would not or could not make the pledge to one liege. They were dangerous, unpredictable. In some circumstances it did happen, as with de Braose’s vassals.

Hubert’s men exhausted the possibilities, gaining as much information as the travelers were able to divulge. The knights were happy to oblige.

“Let us send word to Ashbury,” Hubert concluded. “Our allies should be forewarned as well. An army the size of which you speak will be a plague upon the countryside.”

The guests exchanged subtle glances, but Hubert detected little. Ashbury was southwest of Dahlquin. These men had come in from the north, was Ashbury their next stop? Then the dreaded Scragmuir’s further southeast? There was plenty of time to warn these six strangers of the devious Scragmuirs.

“The Norsemen will eat dirt for lack of anything better,” said one of the Dahlquin knights. The Hebrides islands were known for a harsh environment. The men laughed as they left the conference.

“Let us clean and rest before dinner!” Hubert said grandly as he rose ushering the men out.

DAHLQUIN, Beginning


JUNE 7, 1224 AD

Uninvited guests are the scourge of hospitality.

“Remember, if you turn away my brother, so you turn away me,” someone recited as a reminder.

“Aye, that’s beggars and the like, not well fed noblemen,” another kitchen worker complained above the noise. “With lust and mayhem in their eyes.”

“Could be angels, or even our Lord and Savoir Jesus, in disguise,” Lady Eloise chimed in; but she didn’t believe it. Not this time anyway.

“Aye, you’ll be kept safe enough,” the worker grumbled.

Eloise and her mother, Lady Anne, briskly concluded the details of the evenings feast with Margaret the head cook. Generally noisy, the castle kitchen buzzed with heightened excitement. A banquet, unplanned and spontaneous required all workers to task, more bread to bake, soup must be stretched, best to butcher a ram, the hunters may return too late.

“Enough,” her mother, Anne, said sternly, “Please finish the accounting.”

“Why can’t the seneschal do it? It is his job to manage,” Eloise said. A tedious task when they had unexpected guests to dress for.

“The seneschal is with your father, interrogating the six strangers,” not guests, her mother emphasized. “He needs an accounting of all supplies used and remaining. And, since you need reminding,” her mother added, “it is your job foremost as a lady of Dahlquin to manage. Then his.”

Eloise sighed, couldn’t this wait until tomorrow? Guests were a special treat at Dahlquin, a remote Irish castle in western Connacht, guarding the frontier. Good Christian knights were a rare commodity, compared with the merchants, jongleurs or unscrupulous raiders. A time to hear news, gossip and tales. Songs, dances, or games might be shared, and the people of Dahlquin could send word of the events in their lives to the other estates of Ireland and beyond.

“Very good, Margaret,” Anne said to the cook, “I’ll leave you to it.” She turned to her daughter, “Eloise, finish tabulating the barley and flour used then meet me in the garden, unless you prefer to spin,” Anne said, exiting the kitchen. Her long braids hung regally, barely moving although she walked quickly.

“I’ll be in the herb garden, Mama,” Eloise agreed. Some of the workers giggled. Few things displeased the younger Lady Dahlquin more than spinning thread at her distaff.

“Back to work!” Margaret ordered her assistants. “It’s a feast to prepare and all the more work for us. Six hungry strangers, from the north.” Margaret sensed the lord and lady Dahlquin were agitated yet all proceeded jovially. “Mind your mother, lady,” Margaret called to Eloise, “don’t dawdle lest we both suffer.”

Eloise sulked in a corner, bent over the musty ledger.

Save for the middle of the night, the kitchens were always busy. Dahlquin was a large estate with many mouths to feed. The great hearths smoked and belched, cauldrons simmered and sputtered. Children kept the fuel coming and swept the embers and ash. Quick moving terriers were under foot and the occasional cat made her way stealthily through the shelves; each chasing the opportunistic vermin or snatching the rare scraps that might fall to the floor.

Today’s gossip throughout the female ranks of Dahlquin castle concerned tall, handsome, mysterious, noble, courageous, gentle knights from afar, six of them. The wild imaginings and exaggerations of the evening to come had the womenfolk, old, young, highborn or low, carrying on. The kitchen workers were no different.

“Oh, aye,” said the upstairs charwoman, I saw ‘em come in. Tall as trees, straight in the saddles. I could feel the presence of God upon ‘em. Father, Bless me,” she stated, dropping her eyes and crossing herself.

“Oh nay,” a kitchen helper disagreed, “They be trouble, I smell it,” and she spat into a corner.

“I hear the stable boy say one of ‘em is too pretty to be a man, what with his big brown eyes, and fine features,” said another dreamily. Quietly Eloise took all this in from her corner, ledger forgotten.

“Pretty is it?” the kitchen helper chimed in, “Trouble comes from a pretty man!”

“Hard to please a man when he is prettier than you,” Margaret the cook added.

“And you’d know about that, would you now?”

“Me? Nay, a cooking woman is always beautiful,” Margaret said proudly.

“Oh, aye, covered in flour up to your elbows, and your skirts tied above the knees as you lean over the boards!” hooted the charwoman. All the women laughed with her.

“Exactly,” old Margaret clucked.

“Aye, stuffing his face with a free hand while stuffing the cook with his cock,” snorted the charwoman. The room howled with laughter.

“I’ve sharp knives here, Sarah, watch yourself,” Margaret said. The words were menacing, but her voice and expression were mild. Like the woman herself, Margaret’s attire bespoke durability, practicality and pride. The brown, homespun gown, well-worn from years of use, was meticulously mended. Her apron, too, was patched, reinforced, and washed more often than some people she knew. Anne and Eloise made a new one for Margaret some two years past. A beautiful thing it was, absorbent and quilted. Margaret wore it only on high feast days when the workers ate in the Great Hall.

“Margaret!” called a familiar voice. “Up to your old tricks again?” it was John assisting the children bring in some peat for the hearth. “I always loved working the kitchens. Women and wine.”

Several workers acknowledged him, through the din of chopping leeks, sizzling fat or the barking of orders.

John was an elderly man, married to Eloise’s nurse, one of the few people around to remember the kitchens without Margaret. The cook was hard working, and although she could let the strenuous manual labor fall to the younger staff members she enjoyed the satisfaction of dough between her fingers or a cleaver in her hand. She and Lady Anne could concoct a hearty banquet from a very frugal pantry.

“Greetings, my lady,” he said tipping his head to Eloise, “You’re getting an earful this morning.” Eloise smiled, cheeks still flushed pink, her blue-gray eyes dancing with merriment.

“Mercy, child!” Margaret called, “You still here? Off with you!”

“I’m not a child,” Eloise said indignantly. “I’m seventeen.”

“You’re a child until you’re married.”

“And if I never marry?”

Work stopped and the kitchen grew quiet with workers eager to hear this gossip. The heir to Dahlquin, not marry? How absurd. All ladies were to run a household and bear children.

“You’ll marry,” Margaret said flatly, “Or the abbey,” she scowled. “Until then you’re a child, my lady,” Margaret added with a hint of annoyance. “Now don’t keep your mother waiting. And don’t forget I need mint and borage.”

“And pot marigold,” called another worker.

“You’ll have us all in trouble,” John said, “Nurse too. So off with you.”

Eloise frowned, a prettier image of her intimidating father. Why did they say that, it hurt and wasn’t true. Her parents would never punish them for something she had done. Guilt on top of scolding, and she the sole heir to Dahlquin, how dare they? Shuffling out, her frown turned to a pout. They dared because…because she acted like a child, not a leader; and they cared about her, she reflected as she and her hounds left to join her mother in the herb garden.

The growing season was barely upon them, the pantries exhausted from the winter and Easter celebrations. The herb garden was vibrant and green with fresh parsley, mint and thyme. White flowered raspberry bushes fluttered with bees.

“Mama, do you think our guests have been to France?” Eloise asked, pinching back the rosemary. “Or Rome?” she continued before her mother had a chance to answer. “Might they have seen the Pope?”

“Mayhaps,” her mother started, yanking the dandylion and tossing it in the basket.

“Are they fair of face? What do you think?”

“Eloise,” Anne said putting down her digging stick. “They are strangers. We will feed them and offer shelter, as our Savior Jesus would command. Tonight we shall learn their purpose.”

“What fun,” Eloise explained, eyes closed picturing the banquet.

“There is much work to do between now and then,” her mother said. “Unless you would eat unseasoned mutton and stale turnips.

“Work, work, work,” Eloise grumbled, rocking back on her heels. This garden was laid out in a small sunny location. The stonewall was covered at one end by a rose, with exquisite pink flowers in summer, and large red hips in fall, so important through the winter months. The other end had a vine, which provided luscious grapes in fall and tender leaves in spring.

While larger gardens, orchards, vineyards and additional herbery were located outside the castle walls, throughout the adjoining countryside, this was the private retreat for the ladies of the castle.

Eloise filled a basket with blue borage flowers, passed it to a child who ran it to the kitchens, then started another basket. A refreshing treat, the flowers garnished most any dish, or dipped in warm honey were a pretty display on a pudding.

“Mama, how wonderful it must be to move about like our guests, to travel, see things, and have new experiences.” Eloise could not put words to the restlessness stirring her soul. “I never go anywhere.”

“It is safer here,” Anne said, moving to the chamomile.

“Aye,” Eloise said hesitantly, “But... it won’t…I can’t…” she stopped. Could she just continue on like this? Most girls her age were long since married off; Eloise was in no hurry to be sold into such domestic slavery. At least not with the prospects her father pursued. Argh! Men as old, or older than him, with titles and estates far from Dahlquin. The young ones were no better. Trading paternal confinement for a spouse’s. Plus, she had a reputation herself: A witch, an outspoken child, disrespectful, too educated, a heretic, skinny. Let’s not forget bad luck. She was betrothed twice before but both young princes of Leinster had died as children. A misfortune that still hung over Eloise and Dahlquin. She wove an herbal garland for her mother and herself.

“Eloise, this is what you were born to,” her mother said, indicating their garden and beyond. “Would you rather break your back in the fields, or work on it in a brothel? God has favored you.”

“And I am thankful, grateful,” she answered, “truly I am,” she placed the garland of rosemary, lavender and parsley seed pods upon her mother’s head. Cambridge or Paris are not so far away. Ireland should have a grand school,”

“Not today, I’ve too much on my mind with these strangers,” her mother interrupted. “University or abbeys are not the places for you.” This was an old argument between them. “Thank you,” she added touching the garland

“Your welcome. Dahlquin is my home, not a prison.” Eloise placed her own garland on her head.

“Prison? You go too far,” Anne countered, “what convict rides a fine courser to her heart’s content or plays with such dogs as you have? You know with privilege comes duty.” Anne continued to work the soil. “We have a banquet; you and I are to be hostesses. Please, Ellie, I need you well mannered and,” her mother dropped the rest. “Please,” she implored.

The women worked in silence until Anne indicated they were finished with the garden.

Eloise clapped her hands together to get the dirt off her gloves and tucked them into her apron. “Aye, the banquet!” she brightened, travel and education forgotten. “With handsome strangers, singing and dancing. Let’s go,” she chirped merrily.



In both the ancient world and that of the Middle Ages, Ireland had always been remote enough to be difficult to conquer or control entirely. The Romans barely got a toehold; the tribal Celts and Irish were not easily subdued on their familiar island home. The vital supply lines of the Roman Empire were stretched too thin to Britannia, let alone Ireland. The beauty of the emerald isle and the charm and winning ways of the native peoples in turn won over the Roman settlers.

St. Patrick successfully converted many of the pagan Celts to Christianity and the Church grew and developed in ways peculiar to Ireland. Monasticism was embraced. During the centuries of Viking invasion and colonization coastal Ireland was decimated, as was much of European society. But again, its remote location protected interior Ireland from such brutal devastation. It was the Irish monasteries that saved civilization during these dark ages. Preserving the ancient texts, copying and transcribing the great works and keeping the Church and language alive with beautiful illuminations. In time the coastal colonies established by the Vikings-Danes and Norwegians greatly assimilated to Irish.

Although considered part of the Norman Conquest of 1066, the Kings of England had little time to devote to controlling Ireland. Preserving the kingdom on the continent in France, and warding off the hostile Welsh and Scots gave the English monarchy little resource to spare on Ireland. The Irish kept to themselves and left England and the rest to themselves.

The local politics of Ireland were similar to that of the Scottish Clans. Each family had its own chieftains-kings. Each area was its own kingdom within Ireland or the more ancient Tara. When one man was able to exert enough power or force he would be recognized as the High King of Kings of Ireland. Unless the King of England or one of his important emissaries was present, feudal Ireland governed itself, with little regard for England.

King Henry II of England was anxious to gain rule over Ireland. Although the differences between the Church of Ireland and the Church of Rome had been amicably resolved, King Henry received a papal bull, Laudabiliter, giving him the right to assert his dominance over the island in the name of religion.

In 1169 AD Dermot MacMurrough of Leinster beseeched King Henry II to offer military support to reclaim his lands from the O’Rourke’s and O’Connor’s. Henry did not provide an army, but declared he would not stand in the way of any of his lords who wished to assist MacMurrough. Thus the Anglo-Welsh invasion of 1169 AD; generally Welsh Marcher lords hungry for land of their own. Most prominent among them was Richard FitzGilbert De Clare, known as Strongbow, for his prowess as an archer. MacMurrough promised Richard the hand of his own daughter in marriage, and upon his death, Richard would be the King of Leinster. Other families who sought their fortunes in Ireland were the Butlers, Barry’s, Fitzgerald’s, De Lacy’s and the Flemish Roche’s and Synnott’s.

As with the Romans and Vikings before them, so the Anglo-Welsh were assimilated to Irish. In the feudal society, fealty was sworn between a liege lord and his vassals. A lord’s men were loyal to him alone, not the crown. Thus a king must worry about his lords and barons amassing too large a force and being a threat to his reign.

In the wake of such prominent women as Heloise, Hildegard Von Bingen, the lusty Eleanor of Aquitaine with her daughter Marie of Champagne and their famed courts of love, women were exalted as never before in Christian society. One of the most influential men of his day, Bernard of Clairvaux’s sermons humanized women; feminine qualities of compassion, caring and domesticity were encouraged in all. The cult of the Virgin Mary became hugely popular. Woman as the mother of God was venerated. During this brief enlightenment in history women enjoyed a few decades of reverence, opportunity and limited legal rights to inherit and ascend.

Church reforms of the past century and the Norman laws brought over with the Anglo-Welsh abolished polygamy and introduced the music and poetry of the troubadours.

I have attempted to portray this narrow period in time as accurately as possible. However, except for a few historic figures represented, all others are purely fictional and not meant to mirror the Irish nobility of the time.