With Tower And Turrets, Crowned
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by Charles J. Schneider
Description: Islay--an island kingdom in the Inner Hebrides, Scotland--is the setting for this tightly plotted tale of passion, witchcraft, and thwarted vengeance that begins and ends in the highest room of Dunyvaig Castle's tower. With Tower and Turrets, Crowned takes place during a six hour time span, in the dead of winter in 1143--and relies on recollections, flashbacks, and dreams to tell a story that actually began three years earlier.
Rhian MacDomhnuill is a powerful Gaelic warlord who falls in love with Gwyneth, a beautiful and sultry peasant maiden. Rather than marrying Gwyneth, Rhian is sadly coerced into a politically expedient union instead--with Sif, an Icelandic princess who, unbeknown to Rhian, has a dark and evil soul. Gwyneth, whose heart is broken, finds a way to reunite with Rhian as a servant in his castle. When Sif learns of her husband's rekindled passion with his former lover, she becomes intent on revenge; and her malice takes a form that is not only unexpected, but also unnatural and terrifying.
Rhian must ultimately face his destiny as he fights the greatest physical and emotional battle of his life, at the summit of his castle's soaring tower. Based loosely on an old Scottish legend, With Tower and Turrets, Crowned is a historically based fantasy that combines elements of romantic fiction and the supernatural in an adventure filled with intrigue, seduction, and magic.
eBook Publisher: Double Dragon Publishing/Double Dragon eBooks, 2011 Double Dragon Publishing
eBookwise Release Date: November 2011
1 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [164 KB]
Reading time: 93-130 min.
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The night was cold and frigid, just like her. The only difference, Rhian thought, was that the winter air felt invigorating--in stark contrast to the bitter sting of her icy indifference. He had hoped that a baby would warm her heart; and soon, he would know if the bond of a child between them would soften her emotional hardness. His wife's labor, still in progress, had been long and difficult; and Rhian's frustrating vigil outside her bedroom chambers had left him feeling powerless and numb.
He stood now on the balcony of his castle's tower: the mighty Rhian MacDhomhnuill, Warlord and Thane of Islay--a large coastal island at the southern limb of the Inner Hebrides of Scotland, with sworn but tenuous allegiance to the Norwegian king. Earlier, at mid-day, Rhian's wife, Sif, had been carried into her bedroom after collapsing in the banquet hall. Rhian, plagued with apprehension, waited in the small antechamber outside her rooms; and although his servants had done their best to make him comfortable, he became more and more concerned about the well being of his child in her belly. After some time, the midwife came out--announcing that Sif's water had broken, and that her contractions were coming more frequently. "All will be well," she said; but Rhian remained skeptical.
He waited nervously, seated in a large chair by the fire as the hours passed, his nerves frayed by the Lady Sif's muted cries from behind closed doors. The platter on the table beside him overflowed with food, but it remained untouched. Unnerved by the uncertainty of the night's conclusion, he couldn't eat, drink or rest. He couldn't even think. Rhian, accustomed to physical battle but not used to this kind of intangible emotional adversary, found himself appallingly vulnerable, and completely at the mercy of, this new paternal foreboding.
Finally, the heavy door to the Lady's chambers opened. The midwife, clearly exhausted, would not meet his eyes.
"What is it, Bridget?" Good news or bad, I need to know.
"It will be soon now, My Lord," she answered. "The baby's crown is at My Lady's entrance, and her pains are more frequent." Her demeanor was nervous, awkward--in keeping with a servant who is faced with the task of delivering an unsavory message.
"Go on, midwife," he said calmly. "You are only the messenger. Say what you intend freely, without fear of reprisal."
She studied the carpet, rather than look at him directly. "She asks for you to take your leave, Master, so the sounds of her final efforts are made with some degree of modesty and privacy."
"Is that all?" Rhian frowned, annoyed at first; but then he shrugged. If this is her wish, so be it. "Go tend to her, Bridget, and assure her that I will not hear. I will go to my tower."
Secretly grateful, he and his shadow--a flickering and distorted shape on the torch-lit walls--navigated the maze of corridors, deserted at this time of night. He was tired, but sleep would not come easily until his child entered the world. He passed his bedchambers on the way to the spiraling staircase that led to his sanctuary in the highest tower of his castle, Dunyvaig.
Rhian began the ascent, trance-like--his boot-clad footsteps echoing hypnotically in the dizzying cylinder of the tower stairwell. One hundred and ninety-nine steps later, ?Rhian reached the small room at the tower's summit, where he had spent so many hours--especially of late--in private meditation. He stepped into the orange glow of firelight--warming his hands in front of the hearth, where a constantly replenished stack of wood blazed like a furnace, from nightfall to dawn, by his insistence, whenever the weather was cold. It was mid January, the dead of winter--and the nights seemed longer as his restlessness worsened. Plagued by insomnia these past few months, he was glad to have this warm refuge to visit in the middle of the night.
He took one of the candles from a recess in the wall, lighting the wick in the hearth fire and using it to flame the other dozen blocks of cold wax that shivered patiently in the icy stone. Orange lightened to yellow in the room, as the candlelight's illumination surged. He walked to his desk, where his journal lay open; sat for a moment, scribbling a few quick thoughts on the next empty page with feather quill and ink; and then got up, with a sigh, pushing open the double door that led him onto the small tower balcony. And this is where he now stood.
The frozen breeze blew on his face and through his dark hair. The cold wind was a surprising antidote to his ennui, which magically lifted as he rested his arms on the tower's ledge. His breath swirled its white mist over his hands--there one moment, gone the next; a symbolic representation, he thought, of the brevity of human existence.
But a child! His son, or daughter, would be a symbol of immortality and permanence, conceived from his own flesh and blood; and a vehicle that would carry his legacy beyond the boundaries of his own lifetime. And perhaps a baby would heal, in part, the regret that surrounded his arranged marriage to the heartless and stony Viking princess.
He sadly pondered the events leading up to his wedding last spring. His union with Sif was an obligation of duress, conceived by the King of Mann and the Isles--Olaf the Red, also known as Morsel: the Norwegian crown's local magistrate. Rhian's marriage to Sif was solely intended to strengthen political ties between the Gauls and the Vikings; and Rhian had given up so much of himself by relenting to Olaf's coercion, resulting in the unhappiness that had started to take over his life. He sighed, again. Perhaps this baby will fill the gaping emptiness.
His massive castle, Dunyvaig, was perched on a rocky precipice--built atop the precipitous slope of a ragged sea cliff overlooking Lagavulin Bay. The full moon was a backdrop for drifting tendrils of grey clouds, which retreated from the blowing winter wind like defeated soldiers on an eerie lunar battlefield. The jutting terrace protruded from the peak of the soaring tower; and as Rhian stood on the edge of nothingness, he noticed a dark outline of a bird, perched on the stone railing to his left.
"Cadha, come." He used the name that he had given the resident osprey a few years before. Cadha meant from the steep place--which of course referenced her home on the highest castle turret. She had made the tower--the site of her own birth--her permanent residence; and so far, she had tended to two separate sets of hatchlings during the past two seasons there, in a large nest that she had built on an exterior drainage ledge, just five or six feet below the outer edge of the circular parapet.
She looked at him briefly, as if to say 'no, Rhian; not now'--her black eyes glittering in the soft moonlight, knowingly. 'You will have a young one of your own to attend to shortly, thane,' her gaze seemed to speak. Her wings flapped a silent goodbye, as she dove noiselessly from the railing, and into the moonlit blackness below.
Rhian laughed softly as he leaned out over the incomplete darkness that stretched endlessly to the left of the tower's balcony, watching with happy envy as the beautiful bird of prey flaunted her glorious freedom. "Return soon, my friend," he whispered, wishing that he too could escape the prison of his castle, if only for a moment, and join her in happy flight.
The gentle, barely visible whitecaps of Lagavulin Bay were distant shimmering lines of undulating pallor, and his eyes saw them in a fleeting illusion as an army of brilliant white serpents that rode the waves in grotesque and orderly formation. He leaned forward over the battlement, bewitched and entranced by the optical illusion; and suddenly, the impact of the dizzying altitude hit him in a rush. Rhian stepped back from the ledge, nearly losing his balance; and retreating with a pounding heart to safety against the tower's outside wall, he found himself right next to the open door that led back inside.
A hand touched his shoulder, and he startled.
"Apologies, My Liege."
Rhian turned towards the broad shadow standing right next to him, on the doorway's threshold. "You surprised me, Brenhin. I didn't hear you approaching."
He felt his friend and lieutenant's hesitation like a heavy weight. If I must know, it should be now. "Well?" Rhian asked, turning away as he spoke--fearing the words that he must hear, and the news that he would have to bear.
"I bring news of Lady Sif's labor." Rhian turned abruptly to face the fateful courier.
"This much you need not say, Brenhin. Tell me, do you bring with you good news, or bad?"
"I bring you joy and sorrow both, My Lord."
Rhian took in a breath of preparation, at the same time stifling a touch of impatient annoyance. "Out with it, man. Am I a father, or not? A simple yes or no will suffice."
"You are indeed a father, Rhian," Brenhin said. "Your Lady has born you a healthy baby girl; and she is indeed a beautiful sight!"
"Thanks to our God in Heaven," the Thane whispered; and then, almost as an afterthought, he asked about his child's mother. "And Sif? Is she well, or were there...complications." Perhaps she had died in the birthing--a terrible thought, he tried to convince himself.
"The Lady Sif is well, my Lord." Brenhin hesitated, his voice hushed.
"If you have more to tell--although I can't imagine what other news you could say--please do so without further hesitation."
Brenhin looked down. "She bore you a second child, Rhian. It came as a surprise, shortly after the girl was delivered."
"And?" Rhian asked, knowing full well the answer to his question.
"Stillborn, my Liege. A son; but the Lady's cord was twisted like a noose around his neck."
Rhian fell to his knees. Sif had carried low and large, but no one would have ever guessed that twins had been growing in her pregnant womb.
A son, who he would have raised as his heir and successor; a son, who might have some day been a warrior king; a son, who he would have loved with his whole heart and sole; a son, dead before he had even taken a single breath; his son, whose flame had been prematurely extinguished--an unnatural demise, caused perhaps by the curse of his loveless marriage.
But I have a daughter--healthy and beautiful, warmed now by the heat of her mother's bosom and the promise of a thankful father's arms. Rhian's heart surged with love and hope. This newborn daughter would be his special child, a beloved and radiant shaft of hope for the entire island kingdom.
Brenhin helped to him to his feet, a gentle hand on his elbow; and as he did so, a light flurry of snow started to fall--perhaps a silent harbinger of joy? The flakes fell softly on the balcony railing, like a blessing descending from the heavens.
"Take me to my daughter, Brenhin. I will call her Aibhilin." Aibhilin--little bird. The name came to him, at that very moment, as a natural choice, since the baby's coming into this world had coincided, like a premonition, with Cadha's appearance on his tower's railing.
Brenhin said nothing. Is there more he is not telling? Rhian looked carefully at his friend's expressionless face. Yes, there is something more.
He grasped Brenhin firmly, with both hands on his shoulders. "Pray--tell me what troubles you, friend."
"You will see, Rhian," he said quietly; "you will see. Come now, please."
Brenhin turned away, walking brusquely into the tower room, and heading purposefully towards the spiraling staircase. Rhian had no choice but to follow; and they descended, together, down the dark and seemingly endless stairwell.
Rhian had no idea what awaited him below; but whatever it was, he feared that it would change his life, forever.