The Distant Tide – Heather Day Gilbert

The skies were as unsettled as her own future. Swirling mountain breezes billowed through Britta’s narrow castle window, carrying with them the unmistakable tang of a storm. The sunshine of the morning had given way to glowering clouds this evening. Springtime in Ireland could be fickle. She swiped at another errant tear. Refocusing on her favorite book, her finger traced the Latin words on the ancient vellum page. A sharp rap sounded, and her nursemaid, Florie, entered her room in her usual way, without waiting for permission. She bustled toward Britta’s chair, her brass-blond hair escaping her kerchief. Her round face was flushed from walking up the tight circular stairs. “I’ve been shoutin’ for you, Princess. There’s no one to come and fetch you, since your father took my servants with him on his journey to see the high king. It’s time for our evening meal.” Florie was bolder than any other servant in the castle, but for good reason. After Britta’s mother had died young from the fever, Florie had stepped in to care for the toddler princess. Britta couldn’t recall one day when her loyal Florie hadn’t come rushing when she needed her.

The woman leaned closer, the smell of cooked meat wafting from her clothing. She cupped Britta’s quivering chin with her rough hand then pushed black strands of hair off Britta’s face. “You’ve been crying. What worries could be weighing on you, safe and healthy as you are?” That was just the problem. She was perfectly safe here in the castle—so comfortable, she never had to leave this place. And the largest part of her didn’t want to leave. Generations ago, the O’Shea family had settled in this lush pocket of Ireland. This beloved castle and land held her close, as tightly as if she were shackled. She tried to explain. “You know I’ve always wanted to share my faith with those who have never heard of Christ, and even to those who still hold to druidry.

” Florie nodded, thoughtful. A smile broke across her face. “Perhaps your father will make your dream possible with this journey. You are of marriageable age now, and I have heard the high king has four handsome sons—” Britta gasped at the suggestion. Surely her father had traveled to discuss kingdom business with the high king, as he did every year. “I can’t leave you, Florie. Nor could I leave Father, although he might not miss the opinions I so freely offer him.” “True, I shouldn’t like to see you leave, Princess. I doubt your father would, either.” Florie’s light eyes crinkled.

“Perhaps God has another suitor for you, closer to home.” Britta sighed. She didn’t want to think about suitors yet. She wanted to understand how to use her talents for God—whatever those talents were. She was a proficient reader. She also enjoyed talking to Father about decisions for the kingdom, but every time she shared her thoughts, it was as though she was talking into the wind. Father listened to his right-hand man, Ronan. Not to her. The psalmist said she should ask for the desires of her heart, but the two strongest desires were irreconcilable. There was no way to spread the Word without leaving the kingdom she cared so deeply about.

Florie patted her hand. “Come on down to eat. You’ll feel better with something in your stomach, and then I can prepare a bath for you.” She rustled down the stairs without waiting for Britta’s response. Not even vaguely mollified, Britta glanced out the window. The low gray clouds obscured her view of the nearby mountain. Because its crowning rock formation was shaped like a crow’s beak, many viewed the monument as an annoyance, an obstruction to the clean line of rolling green hills that swept to the ocean. But to her, it felt like a protective ally, solid and reliable. Even though it was simply called Crow Mountain, she liked to imagine more poetic names for it, like Eagle Aerie or Piney Bluff. If only God would make His plans for her as obvious as that mountain.

WHEN BRİTTA RELUCTANTLY TRAİLED DOWNSTAİRS, she caught Ronan and Florie attempting to move the tabletop onto the trestle in the great hall. To save space, the table was always taken apart after meals and moved into a corner. The tabletop was a dense plank of cherrywood, and it would be impossible for two people to manage it, even given Ronan’s considerable strength. The guards her father had left behind were already camped at their posts for the evening. “Let me help.” She grabbed a beveled corner, ignoring their black looks. They didn’t want the princess to sully her hands with menial labor. But she was the princess, wasn’t she? Even though Ronan had been left in charge, she could still do as she pleased. After considerable effort, they successfully maneuvered the tabletop into position. Cringing to think of repeating the task before each meal, Britta declared, “We will leave the tabletop where it is for the duration of my father’s absence.

” Florie murmured her approval of this plan then scurried off to the kitchen to retrieve the food. Ronan, too, nodded in agreement. He removed his mace from his belt and propped it against the wall, near his shield and sword. As always, Britta felt a wave of thanks that her father had left his best warrior behind to protect her. Ronan’s family had lived near the castle all her life, and he had battled alongside her father many times. His loyalty was unquestionable. Glancing at his mace, a shudder passed from head to toe as she imagined the damage the heavy spiked weapon could inflict. A nervous giggle escaped as she tried to picture such a gentle-spirited man wielding such a deadly weapon, although his build was undeniably powerful and she knew he would not hesitate to protect her life with his own. He glanced up, his dark eyes softening. “Is something amusing?” Before she could explain, Florie emerged with a large pot of onion soup.

She served it up, accompanied by a hunk of white cheese and slightly scorched oatcakes. Finally, she took her seat, waiting for a look from Britta. Nodding, Britta sipped her soup, the cue that others could eat. She took an oatcake from the pewter dish then cast a furtive look down the table. Florie started to wipe her mouth on her sleeve then instead used her linen napkin. “Pray tell, what d’you need, Princess?” “Have you any of the bog butter? I find it gives my oatcakes incomparable flavor.” “I surely do, and I don’t know how I forgot to set it out.” Florie hastened into the larder, returning with a greeny-black butter ball. “Thank you. I know Father says it’s uncouth, but I’ve found nothing matches its taste.

” As she finished slathering a thick layer of butter on the oatcake, Ronan spoke. “I shall be riding over to Brennan’s castle to trade horses in the morning. Would you care to accompany me?” It seemed a careless question, a discussion to pass the time, until Britta raised her eyes and met Ronan’s dark ones. His completely unguarded gaze struck her like the lightning that had finally loosed outside. She took in his intense look, his half-quirked smile. He was so expectant, so…fixed on what she would answer. Realization dawned. Ronan found her desirable. Had her giggling led him to think she was admiring him? Or had he felt this ardor for some time? If so, how had she missed it? An embarrassed flush covered her cheeks. She tried to invent an excuse.

“My stomach…perhaps I need to…” Unable to continue, she stood and rushed from the great hall. She heard Ronan shove his chair back to stand, and Florie’s anxious voice trailed after her, but she could not stop. Bolting into her room, she threw herself on her bed, thoughts fluttering about like doves’ wings. How long had Ronan found her attractive? For so many years, they had they wandered the land together, discussing everything from hawks to laws to books. Had the storm-charged air, coupled with her father’s absence, released his hidden feelings? A sudden thought wormed its way to the forefront. What if this unexpected option was the simple solution to her future, a way to ensure that she could stay in her castle for life? Surely her father would be pleased if she married his right-hand man—the one he would doubtless leave his castle to, since he had no male heirs. This time, no books could assuage the pounding of her heart. Outside, thunder pounded and rain swept across the moors, spraying mist into her open windows. She jumped from her bed, slamming the shutters together and drawing the iron bar across them for good measure. She wished she could lock her thoughts away so easily, but it was impossible now that Ronan’s face had betrayed his true feelings.

Was this an answer to her prayers? THİS WOULD BE A SURPRİSE ATTACK. Ari Thorvaldsson cast a lingering glance at his family’s chainmail shirt, which he would leave behind to enable more stealth. His closest friend, Sigfrid, gave him a meaningful stare with his one functioning eye. “What was the real purpose of this voyage, Ari?” What sort of question was that? The entire crew understood his motivation to avenge his brother’s blood, spilled in this deceptively green place—Ireland, some called it. The clan responsible for Egil’s death must feel the wrath of the Northmen, as had so many others on this fair isle. Feeling weighted by the heavy, humid air, Ari chose his weapon carefully and did not answer. He was most comfortable with his sword, its name carved in the blade: Peacebreaker. Surely it was an apt name, since peace had been stolen from him with Egil’s untimely death. His brother had only been sixteen when he fell in a raid on this very castle. Sigfrid pressed him again.

“Are you certain you want to attack?” A sudden twinge of doubt reared its head. He had only been ten himself when his brother was slain. His father forced him to stay with his mother on the longship, waiting for the outcome of the struggle. Although he could barely remember the castle his family had raided, he could still close his eyes and smell the pungent blood that had spread across Egil’s chest that day. His eyes fixed on the odd mountain backing this castle, its point similar to the beak of one of Odin’s ravens. Strange that he could not recall it from his youth. Sigfrid had not been with his family during that raid, so he could not confirm Ari’s memory. But he had followed the course his father had mentioned, and the lines of the castle looked so familiar. This was the one. Blond strands of hair escaped their leather binding as Ari nodded forcefully.

“Of course we must attack. We did not sail here to trade or explore. We came for vengeance.” Sigfrid nodded. “Then take care as you scout for us.” Thunder boomed, and he sheathed Peacebreaker, taking his shorter knife in hand. This sharp angled seax would serve him well in close quarters. He hoped to gain access to the castle grounds before anyone could send up an alarm. The men had set up camp last night and would soon lose the benefit of surprise. Ari knew they were still exhausted from the long voyage to this Irish inlet.

He had to move now that twilight was falling. He gave a nod to his men. No words were necessary. If they heard his battle cry, no force on earth could stop them, no matter how exhausted they were. Like a wave of heat and hatred, Vikings would sweep the offensive castle clean. THE RAİN MOVED in heavy sheets, forming deep puddles and loosening Ari’s footing. Creeping cautiously among the wet tangle of berry vines inside the walled garden, he hoped the tightly stitched seams of his leather boots would keep his feet dry. There was nothing he hated more than cold, soaked feet. At home, when he checked traps in the deep snows, there had been several times he’d feared frostbite would take his toes. He glanced back at the circuitous route he’d taken to creep up to the rear of the castle.

Clambering the stone wall hadn’t been easy in the near dark, but it was surprisingly low. Perhaps the Irish were prepared for shorter invaders, or perhaps they anticipated attacks only on the castle gate in the front. He had spied but a single guard stationed there. It was possible that he had timed his attack well, when the castle wasn’t fully manned. And the crashing storm had provided effortless concealment. It was a sign: the gods smiled upon this raid. He clenched his jaw. Who was he fooling? The gods hadn’t protected his brother. They hadn’t given him any happiness in the years he had tried to please his father, stepping into the position of heir. They had never even brought him a woman interesting enough to marry.

He fingered the ancient bronze bottle he kept belted inside his tunic. It was unwieldy, but it was his heritage, and he didn’t want to die without it. It was a trophy from his ancestor, who had bravely sailed west, to this very country, and plundered the holy men who lived here. This bottle and its story had passed to each Thorvaldsson heir. Ari stomached the thought that Egil should have inherited it and pushed on. Candlelight flickered in the window then disappeared. This was his chance. He gripped his seax, ready to slash at anyone inside. For Egil, he told himself. For Egil he would bring this castle to its knees.

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