Note: this is an adapted excerpt from The Romance of Eowain, a forthcoming full-length fantasy adventure novel.
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The Romance of Eowain
Chapter Four, Scene Ten
That night, the garden of the Lady Rathtyen was alive with rose-colored water avens, lilac bitter-vetch, eponymously-named bluebells, and the gold bog myrtle.
“Remember when his first missive arrived?” Cuneen caught up with a small bouquet. “Oh, I do. It was so romantic.”
“Who will teach a soldier the words that would recommend his suit to a gentle heart like yours?”
Cuneen clutched the bouquet to her breast. Out of the side of her mouth, Breda breathed, “I’d sure like to try.”
Eithne scowled at Breda and Cuneen. In person, Eowain was gruff, war-like, preoccupied with all the daily tasks that came to the desks of kings, high or low. He ordered his council, passed judgments, and pursued bandits in his southern woods. He’d had only a few evenings in their first ten-day to sit together and play at games of fickle. Little enough time to speak of matters between them, where their marital arrangements were concerned. And awkward into the bargain.
Eithne shook her head. “No. Even in his letters, he’s a man of war, concluding treaties with idle boasts.”
“If I could win a lady by playing leapfrog or vaulting into my saddle with my armor on my back, I could—though you may accuse me of boasting—easily get myself a wife. But, before the Gods, Eithne, I cannot turn pale on purpose or gasp out fancy phrases, and I have no gift for clever declarations.
“So what do you say to my suit? Do you like me, Eithne? Give me your answer; in faith, do: and so clap hands and a bargain: how say you, lady?”
Breda clucked. “As though he were negotiating the purchase of a brood-mare.”
Eithne shook her head. “Don’t they share the same notion of their blood’s dignity that our people have? Doesn’t love count for something?”
Cuneen offered Eithne the flowers. “Yet there were other words, my Lady. Hints that maybe Eowain is more than we’ve seen?”
“Like what?” Eithne wrinkled her nose. “Do, tell us.” Cuneen was too romantic. She’d memorized all of Eowain’s missives for her.
“A good leg will shrink, a straight back stoop, a black beard turn white, a curly head grow bald, an attractive face grow wrinkled and a pretty eye hollow. But a good heart, Eithne, is the sun and the moon, or, rather, the sun, and not the moon, for it goes on shining brightly forever.”
Breda shook her head. “My Lady, can you afford to be picky?”
“Well yes.” Eithne bristled. “There it is, isn’t it?” A woman of nigh on twenty years, old by the standards of her people to be a fresh, new bride. If she refused this suitor, there might not be another willing to partner with an aged maiden from a remote place in the wilderlands.
“Yet why should I agree? What else—not counting warfare and insecurity—does he offer? He’s not wealthy. I knew that from the first sight of his court, even if he’d not later written it in his letter.
Cuneen put her finger in the air. “Yes, yes, I remember.
“You must find me such an ordinary king that you think I sold my farm to buy my crown.”
Eithne shook her head. “No, that doesn’t much concern me. Dolgallu is a mean and difficult land. That Dúnsciath and its kingdom and her king are also poor and hard, that doesn’t bother me.”
“So what is it, my lady?” Breda stooped to pick a blossom as well.
“It’s the question of quality, in the end, isn’t it?” Eithne didn’t like the way it sounded, but there it was. “The matter of the man means a great deal after all, doesn’t it? His character and his dignity. How much do I know about him? Is he a good man?”
Breda nodded. “He’s never been caught lying, I’ve heard.”
Cuneen agreed. “I heard that too. And he’s never been taken prisoner from any field of war.”
Eithne rolled her eyes at them. “That’s like what Father said of him.” She mocked her father’s deep-throated voice and thoughtful manner. “He’s never been known to break his word or an oath. He’s avenged the murders of his kinsmen.”
“Don’t forget what the bards sing of him.” Cuneen loved the bards. “There’s that one where he faced and killed a giant ogre of a Gruin-man upon the hill of battle.”
“Aye,” added Breda. “And the one where he defeated her own kinsman, the prince of our tribe.” Breda made a face and a gesture as if ticking a point from a board.
Cuneen made a disapproving gesture at Breda’s contribution. “Oh, but there’s the one where, roused like a mighty bear from slumber in the winter hills of Droma, he rescued you and defeated the bandit-chief Cael the Viper. And we know that one’s true!”
Eithne frowned at her maid. “Yet when he wrote of himself in the letters that followed, I don’t know? I had a glimpse into the spirit of the man. His courage in the face of the kingly challenges set before him.”
Cuneen sighed. “Remember how modest and humble he was?”
In truth, the most incredible thing I have ever done was to become king. I have been nigh on a month in the office and still, I scarce believe it myself. It was always Lórcan that my father intended to be king after him, and if not my brother, there are a half dozen cousins elder than I and fit for the task. I never expected this responsibility should fall to me, and that my brother had to be maimed into the bargain is twice the sorrow.
“And—.” Cuneen thought for a moment. “He wrote of his doubts and the nature of his piety too, my lady.”
Of the Gods, I will tell you plain: I do not know that I trust Them. As the Lord-Drymyn has taught me all my life, They are forgetful and take no great interest in aiding any man. And yet, I cannot help at times but be moved by Their presence. In the sunlight upon the river on a quiet day, or in the haunting beauty of a foggy morning wood. Surely, I felt the presence of Echraide, the Goddess my people swear by, when I was crowned upon Her hill. It was as if all my difficulties slipped away and a deep sense of peace came over me, assuring me She would guide my hand as king and man.
She knew what he meant about that feeling one has, in little moments, an awareness of presence unseen. In much the same way, as Eithne lifted the bloom to her nose, the velvety petals in her hand and their scent reassured her.
Life goes on. This was the message the season of Flowering taught.
The thought was bitter to her. Yes, life goes on. The evening sun had set and the waning gibbous moon was aloft in the starry sky. The weather was still uncommonly warm, even by the low-landers’ reckoning. She removed the woolen shawl she’d brought out with her and draped it over her arm.
“Warm night, eh?”
Eithne’s heart clutched and she turned with a start. But it was only the old widow Rathtyen, dressed in her black robes.
Her maids glanced to each other and her. How much had she heard?
Eithne relaxed a piece. She’d clutched at her belt knife, but let it go. “Yes. Yes, very warm. We still had snow in the mountains when I left. This all seems very…”
“Strange?” The old woman chuckled. “You needn’t be afraid to say so. I remember what it was like when I got married. Two weeks in a baggage train, like a piece of luggage, and then found my worthy husband was a creature of his mother’s, and there were Foreigners all about. Everything was strange.” She took Eithne’s elbow and guided her out into the garden, away from the house. Away from her maids.
Eithne let out a breath she hadn’t realized she was holding. “Indeed, my lady. It is, as you say, all very strange.”
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