*Author's Note: All characters, people, places, names, and events belong to the author. Forgive me if I've insulted your intelligence, but it had to be said.*



Chapter 1


I awoke screaming from another nightmare. My sisters whom I shared a bed with, Kara and Maeve, started to scream as well, and pretty soon the whole chamber was yelling and carrying on as if the world was coming to an end.

That's the way the men found us when they came clambering into the chamber room. It took a while for the maids to realize that there was no danger, and their shouts o' alarm quieted into a hushed murmur.

Calum pushed his way through the bodies blocking doorway. "What's the matter?" he asked calmly. He was dressed in nothing but his breeches, and his chest was bare. The women, especially the young servants, blushed and giggled, like a bunch o' lovesick sparrows. "What happened?" he asked again, patiently.

My twin sisters pointed accusingly at me. "It's Brenna's fault," said Maeve. "She scared us all by screaming like the Devil himself!"

I looked down shamefully at the covers that were twisted in my hands. Calum's face softened and he came to me, siting on the edge o' the bed where I was now sitting up, fiddling nervously.

"What's the matter, Raven?" he soothed me. "Was it a bad dream again?"

I nodded.

"Do ye want to talk about it?"

The whole household was listening; ears perked up to hear my answer. I felt awkward, so I shook my head no. "I can't remember it." It was partly true.

"Are ye alright to go back to sleep, then?"

"Aye." I smiled.

He stroked my arm reassuringly, causing jealous stares from the older twins.

Just then, my father came through the door in his night shift, as usual, the slowest and last to arrive. "Is it the plague?" he asked, only half-serious.

"Nay, Master, 'tis no but the little one. Had another one o' her dreams." Calum stood up and walked toward my father.

I wasn't little. I was seventeen.

Calum waved his arms for everyone to leave the room, and the men filed out. Calum followed last, turning around one last time to bid me good night, then closing the chamber door behind him.

The women went back to their giggling, and Kara and Maeve huffed at my having waked them needlessly, but eventually we were all able to drift back to sleep.



* * *



I overslept the next day and missed the morning meal. This was the twins' doing. They had intentionally left me sleeping while the rest o' the household stirred. And none o' my other sisters had bothered to waken me. I dressed quickly in my surcoat and kirtle, plaited my long, knee-length black hair, but it was too late. I saw by the empty house that the others had already eaten and were about their morning's work. I stomped down the hall to do my chores.

As I was on my way, I paused for a moment outside a familiar door. It was the door to Calum's room, the room he had all to himself. It was a tiny storage area that had been made into a small chamber for him, but to have a place all to one's self was a luxury than no one but Calum knew. No one was allowed inside without Calum's permission, and when he left it, he locked the door with a silver key he wore on a matching chain around his neck.

It was for this reason that I didn't bother to try the latch. It would be locked. As I turned away from the door, I nearly collapsed from fright when I found my face suddenly buried in a clean white tunic. My stone-gray eyes looked up straight into Calum's face and sprang back, giving a little cry o' fright.

He seemed to think this terribly funny. He laughed good-naturedly. "Calm down, little Raven, before ye break a wing." He held out his hand and offered me a full loaf o' bread that had been baked freshly in the early morning. "I saved it for ye from the morning's meal."

I accepted it eagerly and gave him a quick grateful hug, all that my burning face would allow. "You always look after me," I thanked him and sped down the hall before he could laugh any more.

Indeed, he did always look after me; it was no young girl's fancy. I had always been his favorite, though I had no idea why. I supposed it was because I was so amusing. And as I was the favorite o' him, so he was everyone else's.

He had come to us one winter evening seventeen years ago. My mother, who was with child with me at the time, had found a little boy wandering around the dooryard, near shivering to death. One look at him and she was crossing herself as if she had seen a ghost. It was not that a hungry, wandering orphan was an unusual sight. What struck her about him was his hair - it was as white the snow that fell and melted into it! When she came closer, she saw that all he had were the clothes on his back and a silver ring with a red jewel on his finger. Mother confronted him, but all he could say (or would say) was that his name was Calum, and he was five years old, the same age as my oldest sister, Cailean. Mother, filled with pity for the freezing child, brought him into the house. That very night, she went into labor.

My father was not fond o' the idea o' another mouth to feed. He wanted to send the boy away, but Mother scolded him. "He's no but a child," she had said. "He can't be much trouble, and he'll hardly eat a thing. Now hear me out, husband. This newly born babe is your sixth girl, and you've not a son to carry on after you've gone. I say you're to raise him up with your daughters. He's bound to marry one o' them someday. He can inherit your trade and keep your daughters safe."

My mother was the real head o' the household, and her word was law.

I was given the name Brenna, which means Little Raven in the ancient tongue, for my hair was as black as a raven. I am the only one with such hair in my whole family, nay, my whole household. After me, no more babies came.

Calum was raised with me, along with my elder sisters, from oldest to youngest, Cailean, Alana, Ena, and the twins, Maeve and Kara.

But my mother died when I was only three years old. The only memory I have o' it is o' me sitting in a tree (how I got there, Heaven only knows) and refusing to come down to eat. No amount o' coaxing would help. Finally, Calum climbed up into the tree, took hold o' me, and brought me down. Once in his arms, I would go to no one else. I have been clinging to him ever since.

It was not long after the death that people began to see there was something strange to Calum other than his hair. He was very intelligent for a child. He spoke roughly and with authority to his elders, but when they tried to discipline him, the leather belt would break, or the sheep would get loose, or some other trouble would happen, so that Calum always avoided his punishment. Other times he would gaze at his challenger with such a steady, cold stare that he or she would shrink back in fear o' him and let him by with his mischief. That was in the beginning. Later, people became so fond o' him, that they truly came to believe that he could do no wrong, and overlooked any trespasses.

My father respected my mother's wishes and taught Calum in his trade. Calum mastered it, and by the time he was thirteen, he was mostly in charge o' the household. My soft-spoken father was o' no great opposition, being used to having a wife to run things for him, and he had come to love Calum as everyone else had. There was something magnetic about the boy, and when he ordered something it was done right away, equally for fear o' him, and for want to please him.

By the age o' fourteen, it was clear he was growing to be a great beauty. After first getting over the shock o' his swan-white hair, which hung to his chin and lengthened in the back to hang limply at the nape o' his neck, one could see that his blue eyes, masculine features, and strongly-made body won him the place o' the most handsome man in town. It was general knowledge that he first belonged to the daughters o' our household before anyone else's, but ladies still went out o' their way to meet him and to please him. He was always kindly and good mannered, and he always gave presents, so that the women swooned over him even more. He never played favorites in courting. In fact, he hardly courted at all. He seemed to have no interest at all in marriage. In our house, it was the hope that he would wed one o' my two eldest sisters, but no one would dare to force him. Once, I heard Da mention it to him when he was nineteen. Calum only laughed and told him he would marry when it pleased him to do so an
d never before then. He always got what he wanted.

Then there was me, little Brenna, the youngest. I've always been the most awkward daughter and not very lady-like, I'm afraid. I was in love with Calum as much as the rest o' them, though I never knew it, not until much later. I never expected to have him. Perhaps this is why he was fond o' me.

I remember as early as two, wobbling after him in the long grass o' the meadow. He and Alana were out to join the other village children and I wanted to come, but Alana shouted at me and said I was too little. I was determined, so I followed after them, tripping and stumbling all the way. Alana was irritated and kept glaring at me, yelling. Calum pretended not to notice me, walking terribly slowly for a seven-year-old, but always keeping just out o' reach o' my outstretched arms.

"Calum! Calum!" I cried.

He laughed quietly to himself. To him it was a game. I stumbled once more. This time, I did not get up, but lay sprawled in the tall grass, wailing. Calum turned around and sat in the grass with me, holding me until I had quieted and stroking my wild black hair that had come undone from its plaits.

"Hush, hush, now, little Raven," he had cooed.

Alana stood in the grass with her arms crossed. "Calum, lets go! The others are already playing! Don't mind her, she's just a baby!" At that moment, a breeze blew her loose cap off her head, and she ran after it.

Only the children much minded his favoritism when we were younger. But as we grew, and the affection remained as it had always been, the adults began sending sideways glances. They thought Calum should be becoming more interested in the older, prettier girls. Interest in me, as a wife, never once crossed their minds. I was too awkward. It was out o' the question. Even in my mind.

When I was eleven, I pushed my sister Ena into the pond for name-calling me, and my Da was sore vexed when she came out sniffling and sneezing. He sat me firmly down at supper that night and told me I'd have naught to eat. I sat quietly hungry while the family and the servants (the ones who were not serving us) sat around the long wooden table in the great hall, feasting. Calum stood up from his seat at the right hand o' Da, took some o' his own bread, and, walking over to where I sat, placed it squarely on my empty plate. When he returned, Da looked at him, opened his mouth as if he were going to object, then closed it again and went back to eating. No one made protest, not even Ena.

Now I looked down at the loaf in my hand, remembering that time six years ago. I gobbled it up quickly and headed outside to the hen house to gather eggs for the cook as I did each morning.

The basket was ready and waiting for me when I arrived. Likely they had missed their eggs at breakfast. As I went about my chore, I let my mind wander to other things. I thought about my dream. It was not the first time I had had such a dream. In it, I was a dark raven beating and beating my wings against an invisible cage. Then, I was flying free high above the earth, and I could see the whole manor and the ocean below me. The ocean stretched on forever into the horizon, as far as the eye could see. Up the road, there was the village, and beyond that, some place far, far away, lay the King's town. But this I could never actually see. I just knew it was there. I became aware that I was chasing something. It was a dove. In my mind, I knew I had to catch it. There was a sense o' urgency, such a strong need to catch that pure-white bird that it nearly choked me. The feeling was so real, so smothering, that the dream became a nightmare. The harder I flew the greater the distance between me and
my goal. And then I was falling, falling, falling . . ..

That was always when I awoke. There was more to my dreams, but I never could remember then in their entirety. I had told Calum about my dreams once, but he looked at me with a deep sense o' worry, even though I could tell he was trying to conceal it. I never spoke o' them again.

I stepped outside and shielded my eyes from the bright summer sun. What a beautiful day it was! The waves o' the ocean crashed loudly on the jagged rocks o' the shore. Beyond this wound the road that went to the medium-sized village, not far off. On this road I could now make out several figures on horseback heading in our direction. It was probably someone coming to see Calum with a shy daughter or two and a handful o' gifts for persuasion.

I took the basket to the kitchen and shoved it into the hands o' one o' the cook's assistants. The cook looked in the basket and scolded me for being so careless: I had broken three o' the eggs.

I paid no heed, but clambered off to find Calum. Unfortunately, Ena found me first. "Come on, then, Brenna. You're to help me with the spinning today."

I did not enjoy spinning. I loathed it. I would rather spend my time climbing a tree or playing out in the meadow or on the beach with the town children. My sisters told me I was much too old for childish games. But Calum would shake his head and say, "Let her be. She's different from the rest o' you. She shouldn't be confined to this dreary manner. She's got a pure, free spirit." Then my sisters would glare at me and be all the more cross. At least they ceased to chastise me.

Now I protested as Ena pulled me along to the solar where the spinning went on. "But I saw someone coming up the road! Shouldn't we tell Calum?"

"Aye, you're right." But before I could race off again, "I'll tell him. You go to the solar. Alana's waiting on ye."

My sulking would get me nowhere. I was restless in that large, hot chamber, listening to the ladies and their endless chatter. Once again, they put me in mind o' sparrows flitting about, gossiping. Luckily, I was not there for very long before Cailean came into the solar and announced that there were visitors.

The women fluttered to the windows to see who would be paying a visit so early in the morn. Given the chance, I slipped away and ran to the two great doors that opened up into the main hall. Calum had already gone out to greet them, with Da close on his heels. A crowd o' nosy servants had gathered where the doors flung open. I peered through them as best I could to watch.

Calum walked toward them, raising his hand in greeting. "Welcome, friends. What brings ye to our household on such a fine day as this?" He addressed them in such a way as to put one in mind o' a high, noble lord speaking generously to hopeful travelers: my heart swelled with pride to hear it.

The callers were four men on horseback. They were dressed in travelers' clothes, and one o' them carried a banner with a crest I had never seen before: it was a great white oak tree with a black snake twisted about its trunk. It seemed to me that the snake was strangling the noble tree.

At first, the men had looked curiously at Calum's hair. But, as always happened when Calum spoke to anyone, they were taken aback by his hypnotic voice and forgot for a moment why they had come, sitting upon their steeds in an awe and respect that also was common when in the presence o' this strange-looking man.

One found himself again, and asked, "Who is the lord o' this manner?"

Calum looked expectantly at my father, who spoke up at his glance, "I am."

"You are the merchant that dwells here in Devlin?"

"Aye."

The man cleared his throat and spoke with authority. "We have come to give word that Lord Edan o' the northern province, after many years o' hardship, has succeeded in seizing his birthright and ascended to the throne, henceforth making him King over all the land for all his days and all his line to come. The new King demands tribute from all his subjects as a sign o' their loyalty and humble service to his majesty. The tribute is to be ready in two months' time to be collected by servants o' King Edan."

There was a murmur that rushed through the stillness o' the household. I, myself, was bewildered. King? But we'd never had a king before. True, there had been a struggle for the throne ever since I could remember. But there had not been a rightful King since my mother's mother was a child. Everyone knew that in the King's town far away there were two powers fighting for claim to the crown, but no one believed either side would truly win. From time to time, we received news from the ships that Da traded with, but for the most part, we went from our day to day lives hardly thinking about it, never batting an eye to the troubles that were not our own. Besides, Devlin did fine on its own without a king. It had gone on for two generations as it always had, barely touched by the war that now scourged the northern lands.

While the rest o' us stood baffled by this revelation, Calum spoke steadily, never faltering, "Indeed, good sirs, ye may inform the King that his tribute will be ready. Send word to our new King that his humble servants only await his word - at that we would gratefully do his bidding."

The heralds seemed pleased at this answer and they saluted to Calum and my father. Rearing up on their steeds, they trotted down the trail and galloped back onto the road, this time heading away from the town into the awaiting lands beyond.

Da waited long staring after them in amazement, but Calum turned around and headed immediately back into the hall. The servants parted like the Red Sea to let him through. He caught sight o' me at the back o' the crowd and winked at me. I could not help but to smile. Da looked to see who had caught his attention, but proceeded to follow him when he saw 'twas only me.

"Brenna!" I flinched at Ena's shrill yell.

"Coming!" I called and hurried back to the solar.