we are a little different this year:
some contributions are exclusive stories, others are excerpts
from the authors' novels,
but all have our traditional format of...
Read the Story - Guess the Song
Here's a clue to the song title
Niall of the Vale, by Cryssa Bazos
County Limerick, 1652
Niall O’Coneill slowed his mount to a halt at the edge of his uncle’s woods. His wolfhound, Fionn, crept forward, then tensed. The wind carried the acrid stench of ashes. A meadow stretched before him where nothing stirred, not even the flutter of a bird. Then he heard the distant cawing of crows. His horse shifted nervously under him. Fionn growled.
An alarm pealed in Niall’s head. Years of fighting against the English, and he knew the signs.
He loosened his sword in its scabbard and checked the stag-horn dagger tucked into his belt. Motioning to Fionn, he started across the open field.
Every sense sharpened as he scoured the far woods for any sign of English patrols. His horse’s hooves clomped against the winter-hardened ground and rang deafening in his ears. Niall reached the shelter of a copse where a solitary cow path led to the outbuildings. The greedy caw of crows grew louder as he approached.
Ahead, through the tangled trees, the charred remains of his Uncle Mulriane’s byre stole his breath. All but one valiant post lay in a pile, reduced to blackened timbers. Rage, cold and jagged, sliced through Niall. He clenched his gloved hands into fists; the reins dug into the worn leather.
English marauders. This stank of them. Niall had seen enough of their handiwork.
Before, the enemy would never have dared venture so far from their garrison without a full regiment for fear that the Irish brigades would pick them off. But this winter, Irish military strength was dwindling, and the English invaders became emboldened.
Caution. The enemy could still be here. It took all of his training not to give in to panic and race to his uncle’s manor.
At a quick glance, the courtyard appeared empty—none of the Mulriane servants putting things to rights. His attention focused on the manor. No trace of a cook fire rising from its chimneys, everything too still. One window had been shattered.
Niall rode around the byre, grimly taking in the wreckage, until he was clear of it and faced the courtyard.
Then he saw a cairn. Fear clawed at his gut. Crows flapped over the mound, picking at the spaces between the rocks, strands of hair caught in one beak.
Niall roared and kneed his horse, charging towards the cairn. Fionn shot ahead, scattering the birds and sending them in an angry blur of wings and shrieks. Niall launched himself from his mount and rushed to the cairn.
Please not my sister—not Mairead.
He snatched at the rocks, heaving them aside to dig through the cairn. Niall lifted a stone and then froze. A hand—a man’s fingers contorted like claws. He cleared several more rocks to reveal a face.
Niall dropped the stone he was holding.
His uncle’s sightless eyes stared wide and milky. A once hearty man reduced to this. Niall braced his hands on his thighs and bowed his head, fighting to catch his breath. After a few moments, he shifted and, this time with more care, he dug out the other body. Aunt Fi. She was tucked beside her husband as though she had fallen to sleep—except for the dried blood that stained the front of her dress.
How many cairns had Niall found during these years of war. How many had he passed without giving thought to who lay beneath? But this one—this one was personal.
Niall reached over and smoothed her hair before he rose to his feet. “Where are the others?” he shouted at the watching crows, then lobbed a stone to scatter them. His cousins . . . their servants?
Dear God, where is Mairead?
He hastily replaced the rocks and, when he straightened, caught a movement from the corner of his eye at one of the upper windows in the house. Had it been a bird’s reflection—or were the whoresons still inside?
“Time for answers—or blood.” He tethered his horse and headed for the manor. “Fionn, with me.”
The hound followed, then shot ahead and disappeared around the corner to the front entrance. Fionn’s whining and sharp barks spurred Niall forward. Drawing his sword, he approached, slightly crouched and coiled to spring.
He scanned the side of the manor and courtyard. Nothing stirred, not even a flash from the window. Fionn’s whines grew more pleading.
Niall hurried around the corner and recoiled. Mounted on two spikes were a pair of bloody heads. As he drew closer, he recognised one—his cousin Diarmuid.
Mother of God.
Bile shot into his mouth, and Niall choked it down. “Bastards!” A curse on the lot of them.
Jaw clenched, Niall gripped his sword. A paper nailed to the iron-studded portal fluttered in the wind and caught his attention. He reached the door, and his eyes swept across the words. That they were written in Irish, not English, stirred Niall’s outrage. A true Irishman would have had his throat cut before colluding with the enemy.
For the crime of harbouring and collaborating with the outlaw Tóraidhe,
this manor and lands, including all associated chattels and outbuildings,
have been seized in the name of the Commonwealth of England.
Niall ripped the proclamation from the door. “God damn them.” He crushed it in his fist and yanked open the door, no longer caring what noise he made or if any soldiers had been left behind to guard their spoils.
Let them come.
The crows were hungry. Let them feast on rancid English flesh for once.
A scuffling echoed from somewhere inside the house. Niall canted his head, listening for the intruder. “Fionn, search,” he whispered. The wolfhound set out without hesitation, leading Niall through one room to another, past broken and upturned furniture. The cold wrapped around him like a tomb. With every step he took, dread gripped him. What would he find in the next room?
From the floor above, a patter of footsteps darted across, then the creaking of the stairs. Fionn bolted ahead. Niall raced into the hallway and found the door to the kitchen swinging on its hinges. He plunged into the kitchen in time to see a shrouded figure reach for the fireplace poker and whirl around to face him. Their mantle fell away.
Niall skidded to a halt. A woman stood before him, panting and out of breath, her face pale against the vivid auburn of her hair. Her attention darted between the threat of the advancing wolfhound and Niall’s drawn sword. She held the iron poker aloft, and it shook in her grip.
Niall lowered his weapon and motioned for Fionn to stop. “I mean you no harm.”
The woman’s shoulders slumped in relief. “You’re not English.” Her poker lowered, its tip striking the earthen floor.
“God forbid.” Niall took a step closer, but the woman shrank back. Her gaze darted to the back door, and she edged towards the exit. “Wait—don’t fly.” He clamped down on his growing impatience, sensing that any moment she’d disappear, and then he’d learn nothing. “Are you alone?” He used a tone one would use on a skittish colt, even though he wanted to yell, Where is everyone?
Instead of putting her at ease, his question appeared to make her even more nervous, and she lifted the poker again. Fionn crept forward to inspect her closer, but she held her ground. “Down,” Niall commanded. The wolfhound loomed before the slight maid, the top of his head easily reaching her chest. Strangely, she seemed more wary of Niall than the dog. “Who are you?”
She didn’t answer right away, as though she weighed her answer. “Áine Callaghan,” she said. “I’m a servant—the Mulrianes’ dairymaid.”
Hope flared in Niall. If there was one survivor, there were sure to be more. “Where are they? My kin—where’s my sister?” Trust Mairead to have found a safe place to hide, clever girl.
“I’m Niall O’Coneill—”
“O’Coneill.” Her eyes widened. “Mairead O’Coneill—”
“Where is she?” He looked around, as though expecting to see her running into the kitchen. But the house was silent, and the maid, Áine, looked away. “She’s not here, is she?”
Áine gave a slight shake of her head. Her eyes were bright with tears when she met his gaze.
“What happened to her?”
The maid’s mouth quivered. “I can’t say. I didn’t see. Taken by the English, I suppose—they must have been all taken.”
“You suppose?” His tone sharpened. “How do you suppose? Were you not here?”
Áine clutched the poker to her chest. “I saw nothing—”
“When did this happen? Can you tell me at least this?” The blood pounded in his temples. “A day ago, two?”
Niall sucked in his breath. By Jesus. So long? The trail would be cold. Where would he find her—if she still lived? Panic clawed at his gut. “She could still be near—”
“I searched the area for all of them,” Áine said. “Every day I venture a little farther and still, I’ve seen no sign of them.”
“Another cairn?” It hurt him to ask, but he had to. “A recently dug grave?”
“There is not another soul who could have done so. Your sister is gone—they are all gone. I’ve lost faith that they could be otherwise.”
A sudden suspicion flared. “And how was it you survived?”
“I’ve hidden somewhere near. I only returned to see if I could find some scraps from the cellar.”
Niall thought of the notice pinned on the front door, and his ire kindled again. A muscle pulsed in his jaw. “Did you betray them? Is that how you secured your freedom?”
A flare of outrage kindled in the maid’s eyes, and she drew herself to her full height. “I betrayed no one. I would never have harmed a soul. I hid in the byre and barely escaped the fire. The smoke overwhelmed me, and I collapsed behind the peat stack.” Her eyes welled with tears. She looked away, her chest rising and falling. “This is—was—my home.”
Niall read the truth in her tone and realised she was as much a victim as his kin—as much a victim as his sister. He stepped away, took in the cold, empty kitchen with stacks of empty crockery. Rage roiled inside his gut. This was to have been Mairead’s safe haven, far from the threat of war, far from any garrison or port. The English should never have reached this estate.
By Jesus. What evil had befallen his sister? Niall thought of the bodies of women and children these past two years—left behind to spread fear and horror.
The pounding in his temples exploded, and his vision darkened. Fire rushed from his belly to his throat. With a roar, he upturned a table, then threw his head back and bellowed out his pain and grief.
As the pain receded, his blurred vision sharpened. He found the maid pressed against the hearth, round eyes filling her face and her hand pressed against her mouth. Seeing her naked fear, Niall struggled to master his anger, to replace the hot blood with ice. After a few moments, a colder, more purposeful fury filled him.
He would make the English pay.
song title: Young Ned of the Hill
by the Pogues
the story of Rebel’s Knot was inspired by this song.
Cryssa Bazos is an award-winning historical fiction author and a seventeenth century enthusiast. Her debut novel, Traitor's Knot is the Medalist winner of the 2017 New Apple Award for Historical Fiction, a finalist for the 2018 EPIC eBook Awards for Historical Romance. Her second novel, Severed Knot, is a B.R.A.G Medallion Honoree and a finalist for the 2019 Chaucer Award. Rebel's Knot is the third instalment of the standalone series, Quest for the Three Kingdoms.
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The Severed Knot Traitor's Knot Rebel's Knot
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Note: it is illegal to copy lyrics but there is no © for ideas!
our stories or excerpts to enjoy
1st Deborah Swift - an excerpt from Pleasing Mr Pepys
2nd Graham Brack - The Clock Struck One
3rd Cindy Vallar - Rumble the Dragon
4th Barbara Gaskell Denvil - The Great Forest
5th Nicky Galliers - Two Stories
6th Annie Whitehead - excerpt from To Be A Queen
7th Judith Arnopp - an excerpt from The Winchester Goose
8th Paul Marriner - First Love
9th Loretta Livingstone - Labour of Love
10th Marian L. Thorpe - excerpt from Empire’s Heir
11th J G Harlond - excerpt from A Turning Wind
12th Amy Maroney - excerpt from Island of Gold
13th Richard Tearle - excerpt from the North Finchley Writer's Group
14th Inge H Borg - Excerpt from After the Cataclysm
15th Juhi Ray - the movie Jodha Akbar
16th Clare Flynn - Excerpt from The Green Ribbons
17th Anna Belfrage - A Light So Bright
18th Elizabeth St John - excerpt from Written in Their Stars
19th Nicky Galliers - Duty
20th Erica Lainé - La Belle Russe
21st Anna Belfrage - Excerpt from A Rip In The Veil
22nd Kathryn Gauci - Excerpt from The Poseidon Network
23rd Cryssa Bazos - Excerpt from Rebel's Knot
24th Debbie Young - The Secret Ministry Of Frost
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