Excerpt © Vera Bell 2023. All rights reserved.
The Beltane Fires
May 1, 1556, Ulster, Ireland
His gaze pierced me through the blinding glitter of torches and the thick coils of woodsmoke. And without warning, hope glimmered—I might just have what could never be mine.
What foolishness! Aedan O’Neal never asked for my hand and never would. A son disowned by the King of Tyrone, with no title, land, nor cattle, he was no match for me, a chieftain’s daughter. But if the whispers of his impending tanistry proved true, then I, a mere daughter of his subject, would be no match for him.
I bit the inside of my lip, fighting for control. He could have been Belenus himself, returned to light his roaring bonfires and grant favors to his mortal subjects. Why did he have to stand so ruthlessly in my line of sight?
He wasn’t standing there alone, for he suffered no lack of worshippers. Two tittering girls had attached themselves to him like bees to a honeycomb. One craned her neck to murmur in his ear, fingers grazing his shoulder. The other touched his arm, skirts brushing against his léine. But our eyes remained locked as his deepening gaze held me in thrall, making me oblivious to anything that wasn’t him.
My mother elbowed me, scandalized. “A son out of favor—he’s no match for you, Neave! And look how he carries on with those lowborn wenches. Rid your head of the notion before it takes root there.”
But the festivities were in full swing now, the Beltane fires flaring bright as the flame they’ve rekindled inside me.
He couldn’t have recognized me, of course, but I remembered him well from my visit to his place of fosterage, Castle Caulfield, five years past. I’d been nearly eleven, a half-baked, gangly lass with a body like a boy. It wasn’t so with him. Tall and broad even at fifteen, he looked every bit a man. And robbed of his station or not, his poise redeemed his father’s wrongdoings—he exuded strength that transcended rank and custom.
One glimpse was all it took to know he was made for greatness. One glimpse was all I could handle at that tender age. Silent and imposing beside his older foster brothers, he’d commanded the meeting without uttering a word. The endless whispers rang true. His every aspect declared him the hero Cú Chulainn come to life, sent to us by Tuatha Dé Danann to save Ulster from the English.
And now, his stare sent my heart reeling and my color blazing.
Don’t. I blinked. I’m not for you, and you’re not for me.
His gaze swept my face before he turned away, taking all my peace and joy with him.
A sudden dread chilled me to the core and made me sway on my feet. I squeezed my eyes shut, but my heart only thudded louder, and breath came faster in my chest, choking me—
I stopped when he wheeled round, his eyes boring into mine. I’ll prove you wrong.