Munster, Ireland: October 1691
“…And so, one fine morning the lass Deirdre happened upon a raven drinking calf’s blood which had been spilled upon the snow. The sight arrested her. ‘There,’ said she to her servant, ‘I could love a man with hair like a raven’s wing, lips of red, and a manly body as clean as snow.’”
“Aye!” answered the seven-year-old girl who sat listening at her nursemaid’s knee. “Aye, ’twill be so for me! Red lips and a fine-bodied man, ’tis what I want.”
Brigid McSheehy smiled at the girl but wagged a reproving finger at her. “Ye’re not to say such, lass. ’Tis unbecoming in a wee bairn. Ye know naught of men and I pray to the good Lord ye shall remain in ignorance some years.”
The girl jumped to her feet, unruly corkscrews of cornsilk-gold hair bouncing at her brow. “I will not! I will have the man I choose.” She perched a small fist on each narrow hip. “If ’tis today he’s coming, I will have him!”
Brigid rose to her feet. The jest had gone too far. “Miss Deirdre Clare Butler Fitzgerald! ’Tis wickedness ye’re speaking. Her ladyship would have me hide from me back if she heard ye. I should never have begun that tale. ’Tis unfit for young ears.”
Deirdre’s eyes suddenly glazed with tears and her lower lip drooped in a childish pout. “You promised! You promised you’d tell me the story if I finished me porridge, and I did.”
Brigid raised her eyes heavenward. “Aye, I promised, and that sorry I am that I did.” Lady Elva, Deirdre’s stepmother, had banished the tragic love story from the nursery after the child had first announced her intention of becoming like her legendary namesake in every way. Yet, Deirdre loved “The Sons of Uisliu” and could repeat it by heart. “Let me tell ye the tale of ‘The Dream of Oengus,’” Brigid suggested. “Now there’s a lovely tale with a happy end for a pair of lovers.”
“I want the other, about the girl whose name I bear.” Deirdre blinked back her tears, her flushed cheeks rounding in the beginnings of a smile. “I’ll not tell that you told me the story…if you finish it. Please,” she begged softly, and placed one tiny hand on her nurse’s arm. An impudent dimple puckered her left cheek. “I promise to be good. Really.”
Brigid stared down into the child’s beautiful gray-green eyes fringed with thick spikes of gold-tipped lashes and could not resist smiling back. Half a dozen years of life hardly seemed long enough for the child to have developed such artless charm, she thought begrudgingly. Yet, from birth, Lord Fitzgerald’s only daughter had been able instantly to win affection from both friend and foe alike.
“Aye, well we could do with a bit of that this day,” the nursemaid murmured under her breath. She glanced around the nursery, bare now but for her chair and the footstool where Deirdre sat. What had not been sold had been piled onto the wagons parked on the drive before the Norman fortress known as Liscarrol Castle. Within hours they would be gone, gone from Liscarrol, gone from Ireland. Forever.
Brigid caught back a sob but a sigh escaped. She saw Deirdre’s eyes widen in surprise and sought to distract those sharp eyes that saw more than they should. “We’ve little time left for stories, lass. Ye best go to the stables and take yer pick of the mouser’s new litter.” She held up a silencing hand as the girl began to protest. “Once we’re aboard ship, I’ll finish me tale, and there’s a promise to ye.”
Deirdre stared up into the beloved face of her nurse, noting with misgiving that the woman’s usually ruddy cheeks were as white as her linen. “What is wrong, Brigid? Why does Lady Elva cry each time I ask why we’re leaving Liscarrol?”
“And how should I be knowing the family business?” Brigid answered gruffly and looked away. She had been forbidden to tell the child what was occurring.
“Is Lady Elva in the family way again?” Deirdre persisted. “She cried all last spring before Owen was born.”
“Faith!” Brigid whispered, coloring to the roots of her hair. “For a gently reared lass, ye’ve a single lack of modesty. Ye’re not to think of such things,” she admonished as she took the child by the arm and escorted her to the door.
“I will not cry,” Deirdre pronounced. “I will laugh every day that I carry my child. You’ll see. He will be as handsome as his father, but smaller, I think.”
Brigid did not even try to reason out this bit of childish logic. She simply opened the nursery door and gave the girl a gentle shove. “Come back in a trice. If I must come looking for ye, I’ll be bringing me strap!”
Deirdre curtsied to her nurse but devils danced in her eyes when she looked up. “I’ll come straight back, if I don’t find me black-haired lad. If I do, tell Da we’ve gone to fetch the priest!” She spun on her heel and raced for the narrow stairwell, taking the steps two at a time.
“’Tis a heart an’ a half in that wee bairn, and there’s a truth!” Brigid murmured admiringly, going to the window to watch for her charge to appear in the yard below.
Almost at once Deirdre appeared, running across the damp grass and splashing mud on the hem of her gown. The wind tore her hair from its ribbons and lifted the thick tresses until they formed a wavy banner of gold at her back. That was the way of the lass. She disliked nothing as much as confinement. Dashing across the sodden ground was a miracle of freedom to her. How she would hate the tiny cabin aboard ship to which she would be consigned. “Enjoy it, me lass. ’Twill be yer last trip to the stables of Liscarrol.”
Brigid turned away, batting back her tears, and after a long sad look about the bare room, she picked up the chair and stool to carry them below stairs to be packed.
As she descended, she wondered again why Lady Elva had asked her to accompany the family to France. Deirdre had already absorbed the sum of her meager education, and more. She could read and write both English and the forbidden Gaelic. Latin she had learned from her half-brothers Conall and Darragh.
Deirdre’s skills were remarkable in one so young; everyone who met her remarked upon them. If she were a boy, she would soon have a proper tutor or be sent to a monastery to prepare for the priesthood. Conall and Darragh, young men both, were following their father as professional soldiers. Tradition was the third son was given to the Church. Perhaps young Owen, whom Brigid heard in the distance bawling lustily for his mid-morning meal, would be the next Fitzgerald priest.
“I’ll not be tellin’ her ladyship!” a woman’s voice cried from the ground floor as Brigid descended the last steps.
“Ye won’t be telling her ladyship what?” Brigid asked when she spied the cook and the doorman squaring off.
Maeve, the cook, looked up, her face flushed with anger. “Sean here says there nae potatoes in the larder and nae five hams put back in the smokehouse, when I did it meself.” She turned on her opponent and shook a beefy fist at the white-haired man. “Here’s five hams what I’ll be puttin’ in yer larder, ye lyin’ thievin’ son o’ Satan!”
Sean flushed but did not dodge the halfhearted swing, which went wildly astray. “God’s life, woman. I swear to ye, I sent only what the master ordered. Them hams went to feed our lads at Limerick.”
At the mention of the fateful battle, both women crossed themselves and murmured prayers.
“Get along with ye then,” Brigid said after a moment. “But ye’re not to say a word to her ladyship. She’s grief enough on her shoulders this day.”
“Aye, that she has,” Maeve agreed. “Only some is worse off than others. Ireland’s good enough for those of us without. ’Tis only them what can afford the fare, hiein’ off to France!”
Brigid stiffened. “Did I hear ye say a word against the folks who have fed and housed ye better than ye deserve?”
Maeve lifted her head defiantly, her double chin wagging in evidence of her well-fed state. “I gave two sons to the cause of King James. What of them, their poor bones lying in unhallowed ground, rotting till the Day of Reckoning?”
“None can tax Lord Fitzgerald for giving less than his fair share,” Brigid countered. “Look about and then tell me ye do not remember how it once was at Liscarrol. The gold and silver are long gone. It put powder in yer lads’ muskets. The crystal and furnishings were sent to Paris to buy shoes and blankets. Did not Lady Elva give her best jewels so that our lads marched with something in their bellies? Ye’ve little to complain about and much to be grateful for.”
Maeve snorted. “But where did it get us, I’m asking? That coward King James is hid like a squirrel in his nest, safe tucked away in France, while our own Lord Fitzgerald claps his last rags to his back and prepares to depart from his motherland. ’Tis a sad day, this, when our own lords turn tail and run.”
Brigid did not answer that sally. She herself could not quite reconcile the reasoning behind the mass expatriation of the Irish army since the surrender of King James in his war with William of Orange for the English throne. The Protestants had won again; yet, the Protestants had won before, and many native sons born and dying Catholic had remained. Why now this sudden desertion of their homeland?
“’Tis no business of ours and certainly ye’ve no say in how Lord Fitzgerald conducts his affairs. Small wonder he would have his wife, small son, and daughter away for a time. There are stories about how the English are putting both women and children to the sword for no more reason than the devil’s own pleasure of it. ’Tis enough reason for him to remove his dear ones.”
Without waiting for a reply, Brigid thrust her burdens at the footman and said, “Add them to the rest. Miss Deirdre will be back from the stables directly, and Lord Fitzgerald’s give the word we’re to be ready to leave when he arrives.”
She turned to the cook. “Do not be gaping at me, woman. Ye’ve food to provide for the journey to Cork, and his lordship will not take kindly to excuses.”
The cook’s mouth worked open and shut a few times but no sound came out of it. Giving up, she turned and walked away.
Brigid smiled, amazed at her own temerity. Under normal circumstances she would never have dared to speak in that manner to another servant. But there was nothing normal about packing to leave her homeland.
Until she had come to Liscarrol Castle with her kinswoman, Grainne Butler, who became Lord Fitzgerald’s second bride, she had never been more than two miles from her home in Kilkenny. Now, out of loyalty to her dead mistress and a sacred promise which bound her to the child, she was about to embark upon the open face of a sea she had never before seen. Crossing herself against the unknown, she stepped out into the day.
“Deirdre! Deirdre!” She clucked her tongue impatiently as she scanned the yard. “Now where has the lass gone?”
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