This is an Advance Reader Draft, so not the final version. It will be edited and likely refined further during the final pre-publication steps once the manuscript is completed. I hope you enjoy it and find the story interesting or intriguing. Let me know what you think. You can read about the trilogy this book one is part of here.
On the flight, Maeve Foel read that the suburban town Swords, just north of Dublin—where the airport was located—had been founded in 560 CE. It had a restored medieval castle and Norman tower she wished there was time to stop and see, but there wasn’t. She would barely make the last ferry to Wales. The weather in Dublin was supposed to be mild in September. What she read must have meant earlier in the month. And not the last day—today—which was chilly, rainy and what A. A. Milne would have described as blustery. Only with no Pooh or Piglet around to brighten the day for her. She was cold-soaked by the time she found where to catch the bus to the port.
Stena Line Port Facilities
Less than an hour later, heavy sheets of rain raked the quayside and Maeve as she boarded the Stena Adventurer and the ferry sounded its final call. Inside the entrance, she moved to the right and resettled the pack on her shoulders. Further down the short corridor, she found a lounge area and sat on a plastic seat some equally wet traveler had paused in long enough to turn rain-slick and leave a hand-sized puddle she didn’t notice until her ass made contact. That’s great, now I can walk around wet-cheeked, she thought and stood again looking for a better place to spend the three hours to Holyhead. Scanning the area, she spotted a hefty man and tiny woman at a set of two seats—a small table between them—near a bank of windows, shift around to stand. “Let’s grab a bite…” the man said. The woman sighed, “Okay, Harry,” stood and followed him. Maeve moved fast to claim the seats, putting her backpack on the table and pulling closer. Leaning toward it, she checked the outer compartments. All secure.
The backpack with its inner lining was more waterproof than the Levi jean jacket she wore and wished she hadn’t. Back at Dulles airport, it had seemed serviceable enough for what she expected the weather to be. She tugged the coat off and draped over the chair next to her, unsnapped the pack’s front compartments and took out one of the Holy Cross Crusaders rally towels always kept there. Its purple more vibrant than the faded sweatshirt—now soaked front and back—she wore now. The shifting wind had brought the rain down the front and then defied gravity to get up inside the back of her jacket. She wiped her face, neck, and upper chest where the old shirt’s collar sagged. Across from her, a man—early 20s looking with a fringe of gingery beard—was staring. The wet-chill had stiffened her nipples, and he was locked on them. She snapped her fingers twice and brought his head up, but he couldn’t hold her glare long. His eyes slid away to look through rain, and sea spray splattered plexiglass. Though in the semi-reflection his eyes shifted toward her, she ignored him but put the jacket back on.
It didn’t seem to bother anyone around her, but the slight pitch and roll near the dock increased as the Stena Adventurer moved out onto the choppy, wind-whipped Irish Sea for the 65-mile crossing to Wales. A motion-sickness headache already building along with an increasing queasiness made her regret eating the airport food-court breakfast burrito before her flight. She never cared for boats or being on the water, which is why she opted for the Marines in the college Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps program that helped pay for college. Instead of the four-week summer cruise with the U.S. Navy following every academic year, after her sophomore year, she went to Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training in the Sierra Nevada mountains 21 miles northwest of Bridgeport, California. And the mountains were something certain… something she could count on and trust.
Three hours later, either she had adapted to the sickening motion—which never happened during her two Navy summer cruises—or the view approaching Holyhead, Wales from the sea was regal enough to overcome being nauseous. Maeve thought the latter. The towering sea cliffs loomed over the waves, and soon the ferry passed—according to the pamphlet and map she held in her hands—the South Stack Lighthouse that rose, including the summit it sat upon, 180 feet over the sea. What stretched before her that climbed from the sea was a sight that made her feel what sailors experienced when he, or she, came to land from the sea. That sense of awe, allure, and expectation.
Or it was just the hiraeth her grandmother and mother talked about so much when she was young. Conceptually—academically—she understood the concept of hiraeth: the Welsh longing for home or something missing… a place… a time or era. A bittersweet emotion. One of her anthropology professors talked about its equivalent in other cultures: the Portuguese saudade, the core of their beautiful fado music, the Galician morrina, Romanian dor, Gaelic cianalas, Russian toska, German sehnsucht, and Ethiopian tizita. Her grandmother had talked often about its power and how it gnawed at you until if you waited too long… it abandoned you. Leaving only an empty ache for a part of you gone, as if amputated. A phantom pain always there. Her mother had not fought the hiraeth and returned to Wales long ago; not even coming to the U.S. for her college graduation and when she completed Officer Candidate School to become a commissioned officer in the Marine Corps. She had not seen her in over 12 years.
While acknowledging the concept, Maeve had not understood the longing for something never experienced. A place… a land… she had never been. Until she felt it growing as she neared her 30th birthday and that figured mainly in accepting the offer to visit a dig site in Wales. She spent the flight from Washington DC to Dublin trying to disregard how it strengthened—legitimizing how her mother felt and her decision to leave the United States—as she got closer and thought of nothing but it. Her mother did not know she was finally coming to Wales, which was a can of worms better left unopened.
Stena Line Port Facilities
The sign read: Croeso I Gaergybi in Welsh, and beneath it in English: Welcome to Holyhead. Maeve had studied the long and turbulent history of the island of Anglesey—Ynys Dywyll, the Dark Isle—the northernmost part of Wales she was about to walk upon. It was the last stronghold of Druids resisting the Roman invasion, and it was the last refuge of the Welsh princes who resisted English conquest and dominion. Holyhead and Anglesey were the gateway to a strong and proud Celtic land and some of the most beautiful countryside in the British Isles. This home of her ancestors and an irrational family obligation she had foregone.
When she stepped off the Stena Adventurer, it washed over her. Sensations, fleeting flashes of memories, sounds, and tastes only imagined in dreams as a child. Most had frightened her. But she was awake; they felt real. Something within—a tight-wound knot she’d not realized existed—loosened. Her lungs filled so deeply it was as if breathing before that moment—all her life—had been shallow, a weak effort always gasping for more. Every sound was piercing, distinct. The scree of gulls above, the call of line-handlers and buzz of passengers from the vessels. The colors of the sky sharpened when in brief moments, the clouds tore and split their gray veil and showed edges back-lit by a setting sun still there but mostly hidden.
In the Marines, she learned book learning was one thing… but boot learning was where shit got real. Boots on the ground was the actual classroom. She studied hers: Danner’s Marine Expeditionary Boot Style No. 5311 for a temperate climate. Another pair of MEB’s for hot weather was in her apartment closet back in Crystal City. Wiggling her toes inside them and twisting their soles to dig into the patch of dirt and grass just off the sidewalk. That elevation of senses—almost a vibration coursing through her—toned down to a soft thrum. She let out the deep-held breath and checked Google maps on her phone for directions to where she was headed; about 16 miles east and south… twenty minutes on the A55 and A5114. She scanned the area around the dock-front for somewhere or someone to ask about the bus to Llangefni.
The Bull Hotel
Prodded by interest sparked in one of her classes in Architectural History, Maeve couldn’t help but read up on the hotel before she left the U.S. Constructed around 1850, it replaced a seventeenth-century inn on the same site known as the Pen-y-Bont and renamed as the Bull’s Head in 1817. Built in a seventeenth-century style, faced with limestone and fitted with a slate roof, the central part of the hotel was a double-depth, three-story structure with a full-height gabled wing to the right rear that created an L shape. The roof had three gabled dormers over a 2-story, rectangular bay window. Some upper floor windows—long and narrow looking—were at a pitch and the first-floor windows were small-paned casements with transoms. The center section was adjoined by the lofted tack rooms and servant’s quarters that formed one arm of the U-shaped range of outbuildings behind the hotel, the opposite side was a connected row of single-story coach-houses. She stared at the overhead sign depicting a burly black beast in a green and wheat-brown field with the word Gwesty’r above it and Bull Hotel below. Walking beneath it, down the building’s broadest side, she entered the north-facing entrance and stepped inside. And back in time two hundred years.
* * *
Maeve set her pack and shoulder bag on the narrow bed not much larger than her rack at Quantico. She glanced at the Casio G-Shock on her left wrist; an hour and a half until meeting Andrea at a pub called the Foundry Vaults just around the corner on High Street. Opening the shoulder bag, she took out a zippered portfolio and sat in the chair next to the bed beside a window that slanted to follow the roofline and formed the tapered ceiling of the small—cheapest—upper floor room. She pulled an article from the top of a stack of papers inside: ‘Mysterious Mass Grave Found May Contain Bodies of Viking Slaves.’ Her friend Andrea was one of the team on the dig. And though it took her savings to a new low level to fly here on such short notice, she couldn’t resist Andrea’s invitation.
Andrea came from money—the ‘pay to dig’ requirement often met by those trying to gain field experience would never stop her—but Maeve would never ask her for help. But Andrea knew people and that could lead to a good contact with the site leader or the dig’s backers. Since leaving the Marines, her lack of connections was proving a severe detriment to finding work using her Anthropology degree and field of study. Something others warned her about. And she did not want to do what several of the Marines she knew had done when they left the service; join some security firm or defense industry business. She had decided to become a Marine to test if—no, prove—she could handle a hard challenge. That was done, established, and she must get on and make the rest of her life what she wanted. A love of history and the study of ancient cultures fascinated her. Now she must figure out how to make a living pursuing her passion.
She opened the backpack. She had brought none of the few feminine—girly, in her mind—pieces of clothing she owned. Stuffed inside at the top were two pairs of jeans and her running shorts. Beneath them were six Holy Cross Crusaders shirts—newer than the one she wore—and a half dozen green Marine tees. Then underwear and the XXL Led Zeppelin t-shirt she slept in and the faded Quantico-issued utility blouse—her hiking shirt—the long sleeves cutaway and arm openings neatly hemmed.
Shaking out one of the Holy Cross shirts to put on, she got pissed again. The university—her alma mater—had considered doing away with the Crusaders nickname; concerned about negative connotations or interpretations. Thankfully they re-considered, but they dropped the armored knight mascot, and that’s what made her mad. She had bought a dozen of the shirts with the knight before they were discontinued. Her alma mater’s identity crisis coincided with her own on leaving the Corps and facing what to do next. She embraced Holy Cross’s history and traditions; its sense of legacy and purpose and done the same with the Marine Corps’. The irony, which she entirely accepted but struggled with, was she still fought against her own family and its beliefs based on—she thought—centuries of handed-down guilt-driven commitments.
Maeve set a 60-minute reminder on her phone, pulled out the black lozenge-shaped container that held her Popchose wireless earbuds, Bluetoothed them to the phone and picked a favorite album set to shuffle the tracks. As she closed her eyes, the melodic and haunting opening to ‘No Quarter’ began, and she drifted to Jimmy Page’s melancholy riffs that complemented Robert Plant’s iconic voice: “Close the door… put out the light.”
The Foundry Vaults
Maeve researched the pub too. The building dated from 1819, but in the last few years, new owners put money in, and she was surprised at the interior’s modern design. At first, it struck her as odd, slightly out-of-place, inside the shell of a two-hundred-year-old building. But judging by how busy it was so early on a Saturday evening, the modernization worked. The four handpumps were in steady operation, and waiters and waitresses kept a steady stream of pints of beer flowing to people at the tables and booths along the wall.
Maeve spotted Andrea—her back to the hostess station—at a table against the wall near the end of the bar. Over it hung a sign with three words, she couldn’t pronounce, but the line underneath was in English: “Rich and well-built, full-bodied,” she read it aloud as she tapped her friend on the shoulder.
“Maeve!” the woman stood quickly to brush her cheek with a kiss and glanced up at the sign. “It describes you if you’d wear something other than oversized tees and sweatshirts.”
“Yeah, yeah… your and my mother’s lifetime rant,” she cocked a thumb at the sign, “but not the rich part… that’s all you. What’s the first line mean?” Maeve asked, settling into the seat across from Andrea, the brush of her legs under the table lingered before shifting away.
“Cwrw’r Ddraig Aur…” the Welsh rolled smoothly off her tongue, “Gold Dragon Ale.” Andrea picked up the menu and flipped to the beverage page and read: “A legend of a beer. Powerful and proud. Like a giant astride two mountains watching over the valleys below. Unashamedly Welsh and brewed for pubs in this part of the world, but available to all. Full-bodied, with rich malt and hops, complemented by complex aromas of spice and tart fruit.”
“Well, then I’ll have one!”
“Oh, no… you know me. If it’s tasty… definitely more than one.”
Andrea reached to cover Maeve’s hand with hers. “It’s great to see you.”
The leg rubbing against hers returned—a pleasurable pressure—under the table. “I’m starved. What’s good to eat?” Maeve picked up the menu, saw Andrea smiling at her and blushed, something she thought no longer capable of with her former lover. “I mean food!”
Andrea turned to a page. “The footlong pork sausage hot dog on a warm baguette is good. Comes with fried onions and chips, sorry… French fries. You can get a side of ale chutney and add cheese for 50 pence. I’m going for the Hunters Chicken with bacon & melted cheese in a barbecue sauce.”
* * *
Shots of Dà Mhìle, seaweed gin, followed several pints of Gold Dragon and emptied plates. Amid that, they had also fended off the overtures of a handful of locals seeking Saturday night hook-ups.
“Want to see the site? Before we go back to my room?” Andrea smiled her eyes alight and a tinge of color blooming on her high-cheekbones.
“Tonight?” Maeve checked her watch out of reflex, “I mean it’ll be too dark.”
“I’m sure you remember your way, but if you want… I’ll give you a flashlight for under the blanket.”
“No,” Maeve shook her head, dodging acknowledgment or encouragement of that comment, “I mean at the dig. I’d love to see it. But….”
“Tomorrow my boss will be there, and you won’t get to see what I’ll show you,” Andrea’s wicked smile spread to Cheshire cat proportions.
When she replied to Andrea, she would come to visit her, Maeve expected what would happen. Dealing with her former lover’s appetite and somehow curbing it. The truth was she was still figuring out her sexuality. There were two people she had let get close: Bobby who had been killed in a helicopter crash… and Andrea. Bobby had been love. Andrea was solely lust that burned so hotly it hurt. Maeve downed the last of her gin. “Alright… let’s go.”
“To my room!”
“No, the dig.”
* * *
The Dig Site
The minute she entered the site, Maeve was no longer flushed with the initial euphoria of alcohol that with excess went south to turn into something she would regret in the morning. They moved further in, Andrea hugged her tight, a boozy smooshing of breasts against her arm.
“They were digging to extend the lane next to the college here, and one of the contractor’s backhoes broke through and fell nose-first into the chamber.” Andrea went to a shed set up outside the contractor’s site trailer, and with a fumbling of keys unlocked the door. She took out two large yellow and black plastic flashlights, handed one to Maeve and switched hers on. “Follow me and watch your step on the ladder.” She walked over to a pit circled with temporary lights, ducked under the boundary tape, and stepped onto the platform that secured a reassuringly large metal ladder disappearing into the black hole. “Come on,” she went down.
Maeve hesitated then followed. At the bottom of the ladder, the flashlights illuminating an arc around them, she grabbed Andrea’s arm. Not only sober now but with an almost preternatural—and disturbing—clarity that settled over her. “You found a tunnel… that runs off the chamber where the bodies were found….” It wasn’t a question.
“How could you know that… that just happened today?! Andrea shook off her arm and turned to face Maeve.
“I see and… and hear them… I have to get out of here!” Maeve spun and scrambled up the ladder.
The Bull Hotel
Andrea had accepted her apology and lack of explanation but looked hurt at her insistence on returning to the hotel alone. Maeve sat to pull her boots off, stripped of socks, pants, shirt, and bra… relishing that release with a sigh. Yanking the Led Zeppelin shirt from the chair and over her head, she sank back on the bed trying to understand what had just happened at the dig. She set her alarm for 06:00 AM; her morning runs always helped to sort her head out. From the bed, she watched the window as the rain began, grew heavier and sluiced down the glass. Rivulets that caught and made twists of the street light as they coursed to the wind’s sough that lulled her to sleep.
* * *
Separated when they had first been herded into the chamber, the girl realized the old woman wore the same clothes as her mother just hours before and clutched the red gem—its gold chain broken and dangling—formerly, forever, around her neck and hidden under a high collar. A gnarled hard thrust at her, “Take it and go… the stone will lead you…”
“Go where… mother?”
“Open the tunnel and follow until it comes out at the mountain. Look for the cairn marking the path. Then you’ll climb, it’ll be hard… at the top, you’ll look down; follow the pull of the stone. You know the invocation though it’s not been used since…,” the woman’s hair—locks whitening and thinning as the girl watched—tossed with her shaking head. “It will take you down… down. Where no one goes… but you must.”
~ ~ ~
The girl came out of the tunnel among a pile of rocks and faced a dense tangle of ancient forest growth. She found the waymark of stones for the path. Wet leaves piled high and blanketed the trail, and like the pain and exhaustion, they pulled and tangled at her feet. She often stopped to catch her breath and find her will; what little remained. It was hard, so hard. The pile of the dead at her feet and before her on the path were things that once lived so high, almost to touch the sky. Now red, yellow, and brown carcasses strewn on the ground. Head still down, she looked at the vines that started under the dead leaves. Following the green of their winding on the trees that lined the trail brought her eyes up, climbing their height. They were life; growing infinitesimally and breathing as she looked at them. Her head lifted. In the distance there was an opening through the trees at the crest of the peak she labored to reach but was only halfway there. There the dense underbrush cleared, and maybe she would have room to breathe. Something was over the rise; there in the light. It called. The tears she had shed could not be undone. But those almost breaking free… even exhausted as she was… those could be held back. Back there… behind her, now many miles away, were people she loved and who loved her. She kept going. The heaviness of each step lightened just enough, and she believed in her soul she could make it a step at a time to save their lives.
She reached the peak to find a table-rock clearing that dropped into a rock-choked and mist-veiled defile. The jewel in her hand pulsed and pulled. It wanted her to go down. Through that chaotic ravine was the entrance; a sealed gate that led underground. Borne by the wind, she heard the snarls and growls that eddied around rocks and echoed in the fog to climb the escarpment and reach her. The Cwn Annwn, the death hounds, sensed she carried the stone… and she was coming to release them to save her people. The jewel’s ruby glow radiated through her clenched right fist; an emanation revealing bone and a pressure on her skin that throbbed like a beating heart.
* * *
Startled from the dream…. her alarm going off, Maeve lurched up as Robert Plant sang: “With eyes that shine, burnin’ red… dreams of you all through my head.” She shook off the threads of the dream—the girl and the baying of hounds—that clung like cobwebs and picked up her phone to thumb DISMISS and end her wake-up song. Uncurling her right hand, in the palm, Maeve saw a livid welt—recalling the pulsing of the jewel in the girl’s hand—that faded like the dream. A message notification blinked on her phone, and she tapped to open. It was her mother: “Please come. I’m dying, and the last Draenen heir is finally coming home.”
# # #