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Thick gray clouds trailing their black shadows across the valley floor chased the clear sky beyond the horizon. The sun flashed an occasional quick shaft of light on the singing throngs that straggled through the valley towards the green hill in the distance. Despite the thick, pungent smell of harvest in the August air, the bishop's wife shivered with cold. Fearfully, she handed the somber stranger a dish of curds.
"The sun passes quickly," she said, her wavering voice betraying the fear she felt for this red-haired man with the thick muscular arms. He could tear her apart with a single movement of those arms. She promised herself again that she would yield her life and honor only after a fierce fight. Perhaps the children could flee down the hill while she resisted. He was so strong her final battle could only last a few seconds. She drew the heavy black mantle around her pale blue tunic, hoping he did not see her slender shoulders tremble.
The stranger took the wooden bowl with elegant courtesy. For such a powerful man he had graceful, gentle-looking hands. He ate his food with surprising delicacy.
"As quickly as human life," he said gravely, sounding almost like her husband preaching a funeral sermon.
She did not know whether to sit with him on the rough, bleached bench at the entrance of their tiny hill fort or return to the house. The children were safe at the door, playing with the stranger's huge wolfhound. She stood by the bench, still shivering beneath her mantle and watching him eat as though she were a servant in attendance at a feast.
She was feeding the chickens at the wall of the hill fort when he appeared suddenly at the entrance, a tall, grim young man with huge eyebrows of flaming red, a fierce wolfhound at his side, a dangerous shillelagh gripped menacingly in his hand. He drank in the lines of her body with thirsty, piercing blue eyes. The servants were purchasing food, Enda was in Tara; she and the two little girls were completely defenseless. He had given the usual greeting, "Jesus and Mary be with this house," respectfully enough, but his knuckles were white around the handle of the cruel club.
He wished to see the good Bishop Enda. The bishop was in Tara with the Holy Abbot Colum. Might he wait for their return? It might be many hours. He had come a great distance; he would wait, if the gentle lady granted permission.
Indeed, he had come many miles. His gray pilgrim's tunic was covered by thick dust. His handsome young face was drawn tight with weariness. The bishop's wife forgot her fear long enough to remember the duty of hospitality. She wrapped herself quickly within the protective vastness of her cloak and ran to the house to fetch him food. The wolfhound inspected the frightened chickens with interest, tried to get a response from an indifferent cow, then trotted after her to the door of the house. She could feel his vicious fangs sinking into her neck. Instead the dog offered his huge head to her daughters to be petted. The younger girl pulled his big ear. The dog barked delightedly.
"Would you like a cup of mead?" she asked politely. Her heart was still beating rapidly, but confidence was flowing back into her body.
"Better that it be saved for the fair. There will not be enough to drink in all of Royal Meath for Dermot MacFergus's celebration." There was a flash of silver in his hard blue eyes, anger in his resonant voice. His feet seemed to push against the ground, as though to shove the offending earth away.
"It has been thirty years since there was a harvest festival. My husband says many are coming simply to see what such festivals are like."
His grim face turned towards her, his eyes devoured her. "One can become quite thirsty in thirty years—especially if one is Irish." His countenance was brightened by a quick, warm smile. It vanished just as quickly. He continued to stare at her intently.
"It may be many more hours before Bishop Enda and the holy abbot return. They may have to wait long before the king will see them—if he will see them at all," she said. She was afraid again. If only he would leave. Her fingers tightened on the plain silver broach at the neck of her mantle.
"I imagine that the king will see his cousin no matter what the royal concubine Finnabair may say. The O'Neills are a determined lot, especially when they are clergy." Another hint of the smile. His smile made her want to caress the lines of weariness out of his face.
"She will destroy all Ireland with her black magic before she is finished. We Christians are no match for her." She spoke primly, struggling to keep her emotions in order.
"Does the wife of a bishop believe in fairy lands and fairy princesses, Lady Ann?" He asked ironically—this time only his eyes smiling.
So he knew her name. Her face was hot with embarrassment. "Of course, I do not, but there is something strange and unearthly about her beauty. It is also said that she really came seeking King Cormac." She felt the broach bend under the pressure of her fingers. Oh, Enda, come home quickly. I am confused and frightened.
He raised one of his massive eyebrows quizzically. "The monk?"
"He is not a monk. He is a scholar and a pilgrim in Rome fighting for the successor of St. Peter against the Goths. He is also the strongest warrior, the finest athlete, and the most noble poet in all Ireland. The young women grow faint at the mention of his name."
"Do the poets say he grows faint at the sight of women? I have heard no one sing of his success in love." The stranger stood up abruptly and turned to stare across from the Hill of Slaine to the Hill of Tara. He gripped his deadly club as though he were about to swing it in battle. The wolfhound turned away from the children, stopped wagging his tail, watched his master for a moment, and then, bored by a false signal, returned to the delights of having his ear pulled.
She felt compelled to defend the absent High King. "No one doubts his ability to succeed in love if he should choose." She added quickly, "May the Lord Jesus and his holy Mother protect King Cormac from the witch Finnabair, should he ever return." Thank God he was pacing up and down, no longer consuming her with his passionate eyes. She felt a firm but friendly nudge against her thigh. She gasped in dismay. The great wolfhound nudged her again and looked up at her with big, happy eyes, his mouth open in a vast affectionate grin. Despite herself, Ann patted the immense head. She grinned back and released her tight grip on the broach, letting the cloak fall open.
The stranger had turned sharply at the sound of her cry. The warm smile, the silver flash in his eyes. "You must forgive Podraig. He has a weakness for beautiful women."
Lady Ann's face flamed once more. Childbearing and the rigors of life in Ireland had only refined her brown, slender good looks. Still, even the Irish, masters of the elegant compliment, were hesitant about flattering the wife of a cleric. She rewrapped her cloak tightly.
"You call your dog after the great saint who lit yonder fire?" She did her best to cover her confusion—and her pleasure—by being shocked at the irreverence to her husband's sainted predecessor.
"Go away, Podraig," the stranger said, shoving the great gray dog gently. "You can make friends with the lovely lady after she has grown weary listening to me."
Her shaking legs could no longer support her. She collapsed to the bench, feeling grateful for its sturdy support. Podraig ignored the command. Placing his massive head on her lap, he looked up with adoration.
"My husband the bishop says that in his head King Dermot is a Christian, but in his heart he still yearns for the old religion." She felt like she had no more strength than rainwater in a barrel.
"I would think that other parts of him might also be involved." His voice was hard. She couldn't see his eyes, which were cast downward.
"When Queen Muirne was alive he performed the old rite of inauguration—as bloody and obscene a ceremony as you will find on all the earth. Yet when Queen Ethne was here he was a devout and pious Christian who came to yonder church each Lord's Day for the Eucharist. Now that he has a pagan concubine, he proclaims a harvest festival." He sat down next to her on the bench.
Instead of being more afraid, she was sorry for his great weariness. He was so tired. The poor man had come a long way. He would never be able to sleep unless he let the tension flow out of his body. If he was going to rape her, he was going to rape her. Rapists don't talk about the Eucharist. Of course, she would not put her arm around him, as one would do with an exhausted child who was falling asleep. She banished the thought of holding him in her arms.
"Yet he has had a hard life," she said. "His three queens dead, his two sons, Colman Mar and Colman Bec killed in battle, King Cormac gone—perhaps never to return. Finnabair brings consolation to his old age. He has ruled long. My husband the bishop says he has ruled well as Irish kings go."
The blue eyes regarded her coldly for a moment. He was really quite young—in his middle twenties probably; the eyes made him look older.
"If political skills and military victory were enough, Dermot would be a great king. The king is Ireland. When he sways back and forth Ireland sways. He keeps power that way but Ireland suffers."
"Even now," she agreed dutifully, frightened by his intensity, "it is said that the crops have been poor this year because the king sleeps with a pagan woman."
"Foolish superstition!" snapped the stranger angrily. "If the crops are bad it is not because heaven is punishing us for the king's amusements; it is rather because the Irish people are confused by a king who won the great victory at Dumcreda through the help of the holy abbot and then had the foul ceremony of inauguration to keep the alliance of the pagans in the country. If the king is not clear about his beliefs, how can the people of Ireland know what they should believe?"
The bishop's wife knew that her Enda would have thought the argument too harsh, but she did not want to anger the stranger by disagreeing with him. The drops of rain, which had been falling lightly for some time, came more quickly. "The rain is worse. We should go into the house."
She gathered the two little girls together and herded them inside ahead of her and the stranger. They went past the chickens, cackling loudly to protest the rain, and entered the dark aircha, The stranger sat wearily on a polished wood bench by the table while she lit a candle and hurried the children into their immdai. She came back to the aircha, automatically removing the broach from her cloak. With a salmonlike leap the stranger was on his feet, a firm hand graciously lifting the cloak from her shoulders. He was very close to her, his eyes once more probing every part of her body. They were alone in a darkened house with the rain beating loudly on the thatch roof. She was conscious of the smell of the smouldering turf embers in the fireplace. She cowered back against the rough log wall, head down, feeling that she was naked before this invader.
He swung the cloak to a peg, carefully pinning the broach to it so it would not fall to the floor. He was grinning at her like a pleased little boy.
"Lady Ann, you are surely one of the most beautiful women in Ireland. You must be a terrible distraction to the good bishop in his ecclesiastical responsibilities. If I were a raiding pirate seeking new slave women, I would have carried you away on sight. But I am only a poor pilgrim, even less a threat to your lovely body than the faithful Podraig. You are safer with me in the house than if there were a bevy of holy nuns here."
She was embarrassed, humiliated, angry, and reassured. She sought refuge in his contagious laughter. What a fool she had been. Then she sank to her knees in front of him, the humiliation returning.
"I am overcome with embarrassment and fear," she said contritely, knowing that there was nothing at all to fear from this strange, attractive, pathetic man.
"In God's name, why?"
"I have treated the High King of Ireland as though he were a common traveler. I am truly sorry, royal lord. If I had known—"
"Of course, Lady Ann, you should have known. Cormac MacDermot is fool enough to travel through Ireland as a simple pilgrim with a huge stick and a wild-looking dog. He has every right to expect the reception due a king. Still, I think you must be absolved because Podraig likes you—but only on the condition that you fill this bowl with more curds."
He lifted her off her knees like a princess and handed her the bowl with the deference of the lowest of servants.
"I have not been courteous, royal lord." She couldn't look at him. Would her mad heart never stop beating?
"Then let it be written in the annals of Ireland that Ann, wife of the Bishop Enda of Slaine, was rude, hostile, and unfriendly to Cormac the High King when he came to her rath as a simple pilgrim."
She knew he was smiling his warm smile, even if she did not have the courage to look. "That's not true!" she replied hotly.
"Of course, it's not true. You invited me in, you gave me food, you offered me shelter, you petted my fierce warrior of a dog—didn't she, Podraig? You did everything one should do for a stranger. King Jesus himself would not ask for more. Nor will I."
She produced a bone for the delighted Podraig. "I have done none of the courtesies. Should I warm the water for the fothrucud?" she asked diffidently.
"Lady Ann, I assure you that if the holy abbot, my royal cousin Colum, should return to find me being bathed by the wife of a bishop, I would be exiled to the coldest and most rocky island of Scotland—as appealing as that courtesy might be."
Stop smiling at me that way, even if you are a king. "Even the Lord Jesus," she said meekly, "washed the feet of his apostles."
"The High King of Ireland should not argue religion with a woman, much less the wife of a bishop." He was weary and dejected again, sinking into Enda's chair at the head of their table.
She busied herself preparing for the washing of his feet, her hands still trembling and her heart still pounding. She laid out the large linen cloth in front of him, placing on it three copper basins filled with water. (Only important people such as bishops, she reflected with irony—and some pride—had copper basins.) She took two heated stones from the hearth and put each in a basin to warm the water. She arranged the ground pumice, the crushed flowers and reeds, which would be used to scrub the feet, and finally put a pile of clean linen cloths next to the basins. King Cormac watched her in silence and merely nodded his head in grave courtesy when she gave him the required flagon of mead and removed his tattered mantle.
Podraig, like a loyal and devoted servant, padded after her, always keeping his great bulk out of her way.
"I have never washed the feet of a High King before," she said, sitting on the floor in front of him. She banished brusquely from her mind the image of bathing his whole body. It would be a very beautiful body.
"Given the kinds of men who have been High King since Podraig—the saint, that is—it is perhaps just as well." The brief warmth was gone from his voice now, replaced by deep melancholy.
She removed the thonged leather sandals and gasped with horror at the sight of barely healed scars and still fresh wounds which covered the soles. "You have walked a long way, Royal Lord," she exclaimed. Her fingers tried to tenderly ease the pain away as though they had a sympathy all their own.
"From Rome." Such great sadness.
"Were there no horses in Europe and no women to wash and bind up the feet of the Ardri of Ireland?" She did not try to hide her tears of compassion for the poor beautiful man.
"It is good for a king to walk and to avoid the services and attentions of others." He was drifting away into grim reverie.
Gently she removed the dirt with a wet linen cloth, and began to wash his wounds with the clean water. Bigger feet than her husband's—her throat tightened at the thought of Enda. Not even a married woman should desire her husband as much as she yearned for him. He said it was not sinful, but it grew worse with the years. A passing image of his lean, strong body was sufficient to awaken her need. He was so sensible, so gentle. Soon he would return with the fiery Abbot Colum. Would the High King and his cousin quarrel? The monk was a holy man; he was also an O'Neill with the passionate temperament of his clan. He believed in his vision of a Christian Ireland with characteristic O'Neill frenzy. The O'Neills had fought among themselves before. What would Enda do if they grew angry with one another? She stopped the wandering of her thoughts and concentrated on her task.
Washing the feet of a guest was a courtesy that even women of noble background like the bishop's wife were honored to perform. Normally it was an action without sensuality, but the slightest contact with this dark, mysterious man made her blood run fast. She could feel the hard tension even in his feet, the suppressed rage which seemed to rule his body, as she very gently placed them in the warm water.
Ever so softly she cleansed his wounds. The muscles of his feet began to relax, a little peace flowed up his calves. Such strong, graceful legs—like a young birch. She should not think of the beauty of a man's legs. She never had until Enda possessed her. Now she could not help herself. Oh, what would happen to this poor man when he went to Tara? Still, she did not want to be his enemy.
"So now you think that perhaps Jesus and Mary ought to protect Queen Finnabair from King Cormac?" he said, breaking into her thoughts.
She pulled back in horror. "My Royal Lord, you have the power to read my thoughts!"
"No, I am good at guessing." Again, there was that instant of humanity and softness in his face. He took her hands firmly in his own and drew her back to her healing work. "Gentle Lady Ann, forgive my terrible rudeness. Please do continue. My weary feet are recovering already." His fingers released her hand and intertwined beneath his chin, the weight of his head resting heavily on them. He watched her closely.
She quickly finished drying his feet. It was not merely her body that felt his gaze. She felt his eyes pry into the recesses of her soul. She tried to control her flushed countenance. She felt trapped by his gaze but also exhilarated.
She crushed the flowers on his feet, the smell of perfume filled the air. She was finished. Impulsively she bent and kissed both scarred feet tenderly. "You are welcome home, King Cormac MacDermot."
He put both hands on her head as though in benediction. The grip tightened. Warmth flowed between them. He could take her now without resistance. He would not, but he could. There would always be friendship between her and the High King. Though she did not deserve it, she delighted in his admiration and gratitude. He released her head. Could he feel the blood surging through her brain?
He helped her to stand, his long fingers firmly holding her arm. "If there was such courtesy and charm in all Ireland as I have encountered in this house today, a man would be a fool to ever leave. Your husband, the Bishop of Enda, is a most fortunate man." He spoke softly as though blessing her.
Podraig's ears raised off the floor where he lay snoozing. He barked perfunctorily.
"So the good dog Podraig announces the coming of the holy abbot," commented Cormac, the hard irony returning to his voice.
They went to the door of the house. The clouds, emptied of rain, were scurrying away as rapidly as they had come. Sunlight fell on the simple white chariot coming slowly up the Hill of Slaine. The bishop's wife felt her heart jump, as it always did when she saw the plain, shrewd face of her husband. Beside him in his chariot was a tall, straight, blue-robed figure with long and flowing gray hair.
It was Colum of Iona, the most brilliant and powerful monk of all Ireland, the unquestioned leader of Ireland's royal family.
"It is my husband the bishop and the Holy Abbot Colum," she said excitedly, hoping that her relief was not too evident.
"An honor for your house," murmured Cormac MacDermot, "far greater than having a mere High King come to call."
Copyright © 1979 by Andrew M. Greeley Enterprises, Inc.