Authors: Angela Elwell Hunt
he checked the girth strap, then slipped her left foot into the stirrup and threw herself over the horse's broad back. Manville, she noticed as she glanced toward the far side of the stable, had already mounted his favorite steed. A servant held his horse's reins and was leading him toward the castle barbican.
“Hurry,” she told the groom in a low voice.
The stableboy attending her grinned foolishly, then gave the horse's flank a slap. “In a hurry to get yourself killed, are you, Kafka?” He grinned and handed her the reins. “You are as ready as you will ever be.”
She straightened, then made a quick clucking sound with her tongue, turning the stallion toward the doorway. Nervous flutterings pricked her chest as the huge animal moved out of the stable, through the barbican, and onto the tournament field. Averting her eyes from the crowd of onlookers gathering behind a rope, she faced the opposite end of the jousting field and forced her riotous emotions to settle down. In a few moments she would have completed her test. If she acquitted herself well, she would earn the right to be dubbed a knight. Of course Novak would feel compelled to tell Lord John her secret, and the Lord of Chlum might not agree to knight her.
But it wouldn't matter. In the eyes of her fellow knights, she would have proven herself. Her parents and Sir Petrov, watching from heaven, would see and know that she had not failed them. And if Lord John cast her out of Chlum Castle, she would take her newfound skills to another manor and continue her quest of vengeance. For she had begun to believe her father was rightâwar did lie just over the horizon, and she was sworn to be involved in the battle.
She gave the stallion a slack rein and cantered slowly across the field toward her position. Midnight's speed and power exhilarated her, and her blood raced in response. Let the test begin. She had no intention of permitting herself to fail.
All books are either dreams or swords â¦
Sword Blades and Poppy Seed
Book I: The Silver Sword
Book II: The Golden Cross
Book III: The Velvet Shadow
(available Spring 1999)
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John of Chlum
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ven from across the library I could feel the stranger's eyes upon me. “Just ignore him and he'll go away,” I muttered to myself, clicking furiously at the computer keyboard. But from the corner of my eye, I could still see himâa soft little man of late middle age, his features delicately carved with lines of concern and a small round paunch bulging over the waistband of his trousers.
The screen before me flickered a moment, then brightened as the modem received its transmission. When in the world had the college installed this computer, anywayâ1993?
With infuriating slowness, the ancient modem finally retrieved twenty-eight references to “piebaldism,” the topic I'd chosen for my research project. Only
Just a few minutes earlier I had typed in my name, “Kathleen O'Connor,” and the Internet search engine had pulled up over sixty-six
references to “O'Connor” and/or “Kathleen.” It would be nothing short of a miracle if I managed to come up with enough information to keep my writing prof happy on just twenty-eight references.
“Excuse me. Miss O'Connor?” I looked up, struggling to contain my impatience. The strange man stood beside me now, his shoulders hunched in a touching sort of dignity, his wool hat in his hand. A thin, carefully clipped mustache rode his upper lip, and his face seemed firmly set in deep thought.
“Yes?” I forced a polite smile. No use in letting him know I was ready to scream for security if he turned out to be some kind of kook.
“I pray you will pardon what must certainly be an untimely
intrusion,” the man said, a note of apology in his voice. “Let me introduce myself. I am Henry Howard, a professor of European history here at the college. And though you must pardon my inquisitiveness, I asked the librarian for your name. She said you come here often.”
Didn't all English majors live in the library? I nodded. “Nice to meet you, Professor Howard,” I said, glancing back toward the computer screen. “But I'm in the middle of researching my semester project, and there are others waiting to use the computer.”
“I don't mean to interrupt.” He tightened his hold on his hat. “But I couldn't help noticing your hair. It is quite lovely. And quite â¦ unusual.”
Was that some sort of pickup line? “Thank you.” I turned back toward the computer and typed my name, hoping to convince him I had things to do. I've heard comments about my hair for most of my life, and if this man had some sort of hair fetish, I didn't want to encourage him. Most people either love my hair or hate it, depending upon whether they consider redheads temperamental or spirited.
Professor Howard had not taken the hint. “That streak near your templeâ”
I cut my gaze back to him, ready to blast him with a withering stare.
With one hand he pointed toward my head in a tentative gesture. “I know this may be a bold question, but is that discoloration natural? It appears to be, and it is quite distinctive, but you never can tell with young girls these days. One of my nieces has painted a black stripe down the center of her head.” He shrugged helplessly as his voice drifted away, but his gaze remained locked with mine. Didn't he have sense enough to be embarrassed by his bad manners?
“The streak is natural,” I answered quickly, determined to be done with him. “I've had it since childhood.”
“Did your mother â¦” The professor hesitated and gripped his hat again. Maybe he did realize he was being nosy. “Did either of your parents have such a discoloration? Or one of your grandparents?”
“I don't think so,” I answered. In spite of my annoyance, my
confounded curiosityâthe character flaw my mother always predicted would get me into troubleârose up like a kite. Did he want to interview me for some kind of genetics study? No, he had said he taught in the history department, not the college of sciences.
“I wondered.” A smile found its way through the mask of uncertainty on his face. “You must think me terribly rude, badgering you with questions of such a personal nature, but I couldn't stop myself when the librarian told me your name. The O'Connor clan of Ireland has a bit of lore attached to itâmythological lore, reallyâbut when I saw you and heard your nameâwell, I thought it would be lovely if the story were true.”
I leaned back and crossed my arms, still studying his face. I had far too much to do to be listening to such nonsense, but this rambling professor had really intrigued me. I had always been interested in genealogy, but since returning to college I stayed so busy trying to juggle my part-time job with writing assignments that I scarcely had time to read a newspaper, much less research my family tree.
Maybe it wouldn't hurt to indulge the professor for a moment or two. “What lore?” I rested my elbow on the table and propped my chin on my hand. “I know very little about my family tree.”
“Ah. If you'll permit meâ” The professor pulled a chair from the empty carrel next to mine, then sat down, resting his hat on his knees. “The O'Connors ruled over medieval Ireland as warrior kings of Connacht. From the day the Normans first entered Ireland, the O'Connors served as faithful allies of the English sovereigns, but in 1235, treacherous Norman foot soldiers and archers crossed the Shannon River and killed the ruling O'Connors in their ancestral home. That much we know as fact. But it's what we don't know for certain that fascinates me.”
He lowered his voice and leaned forward as if he were divulging a great secret. “It is said that Cahira, daughter of the great king Rory O'Connor, lay in childbirth as the attack began. She was delivered of a son on that fateful day, and as the murdering Normans entered the castle, a serving maid spirited the baby away. The men had been dispatched to the towers and defensive positions; most were dead or
dying. Cahira, still weak from childbirth, chose to defend her home rather than flee with her child.”
Slowly and deliberately, the professor removed his glasses and began to wipe them with a handkerchief from his jacket pocket. “According to legend, Cahira picked up a sword to defend the chamber in which she and her ladies had taken refuge,” he said, critically examining the lenses of his glasses before returning them to the bridge of his nose. “They resisted in a valiant display of courage, but the women were no match for the professional knights. And as Cahira lay dying of a wound from a Norman blade, she lifted her hand toward heaven and besought God that others would follow after herâin her words, âbright stars who would break forth from the courses to which they are bound and restore right in this murderous world of men.'”
The professor told the story in a smooth, almost soothing voice, but I felt my heart rate increasing with every word. Why did the story move me? And why was I sitting here listening to this fanciful and melodramatic professor when I had a project to begin? This warrior princess and I had the same last name, but surely we had about as much in common as an apple and an oyster.
“That's an interesting story.” I smiled at Professor Howard and pointed toward the computer screen. “But I really need to get back to work.”
Apparently not one to be easily dissuaded, Professor Howard straightened himself in his chair. “There is more to the tale, Miss O'Connor. Cahira had red hair, too. In fact, seeing you made me think of her.” He gave me a slightly reproachful look. “I had hoped you might be acquainted with her story.”
Did he think all redheads pledged themselves to some kind of secret club? “No, I don't know much about Irish history,” I answered, fingering the mouse and hoping he'd take the hint. “I'm an English major. And I have this project to doâ”
“Cahira also had a streak of white hair near her left temple.” His eyes gleamed with a curious intensity. “I have seen an artist's rendering
of the princess. If I believed in such possibilities, I would think you could be her sister.”
The remark left me speechless. All my life I have been teased about the sprout of white hair that grows from my left temple. As a kid, I was called names ranging from “skunk head” to “Cruella De-Ville.” As a teenager, I tried dying it, and once or twice even lightened the rest of my hair to match the streak, but that area of my scalp had a will of its own. Lately I'd learned to leave it alone. I could finally just roll my eyes at what the world thought of my looks; too many other things demanded my attention. Sometimes I almost forgot I had a freakish white sprout growing from the side of my head.
But people like Professor Howard were always reminding me. Now he wanted me to believe I might be related to some Irish princess who apparently cursed her descendants to roam in the stars or some such thing.
I shook my head and protectively tucked the strand of white hair behind my ear. “Thanks for sharing that story, Professor, but this streak is a result of piebaldism. That area of my scalp doesn't produce pigment. My situation isn't as pronounced as someone with albinism, but the condition is similar.”
“I know,” Professor Howard answered, a small, fixed smile on his face. “Piebaldism is inherited. And yet you say neither your parents nor your grandparents share this condition. Is there, perhaps, an aunt or an uncle, probably on your father's sideâ”
I held up my hand, cutting him off. “No one. But the gene could have come from some great aunt, for all I know. O'Connors are everywhere.”
“As scattered as the Irish.” He stared at me in silence for a moment, his eyes gleaming with interest, then pulled a card from his coat pocket. “I believe, my dear, that you may be directly descended from Cahira O'Connor. I know it sounds unlikely, but what's the harm in a little investigation? If you'd like some guidance, here's my office number. If I'm not in the office, one of my student aides will take a message.” He leaned forward and clapped his hands to his
knees. “Call me if you have any inclination to learn more, Miss O'Connor. I have several books which should interest you.”
Not knowing what else to do, I took the card. Professor Howard stood, nodded regally, then threaded his way through the carrels until he disappeared from sight.
The card he had placed in my hand was simple and direct:
Henry Howard, Ph.D.
Professor of Medieval European History
New York City College
I stared at it for a moment, then felt a blush burn my cheeks. If this was Professor Howard's technique for introducing himself to young women, I had to admit his approach was unique. Of course I had no intention of contacting him again, but in the space of a few moments he had spun a story that brought me from complete lack of interest to fascination.
“Excuse me, but are you about finished here? I need to use the computer.”
A grungy-looking guy in a tee shirt and jeans spoke up behind me, and his question caught me off guard. “Um, I'm just starting,” I said, glancing at my watch. “And I'm signed on for another fifteen minutes. Check the reservation sheet at the reference desk.”
The guy snorted and moved away, but I knew he'd be back, circling like a vulture. I had to get to work.
I was about to crumple the professor's card and toss it toward the nearest trash can when a sudden thought struck me. Since I was researching piebaldism, why not focus my topic a little? What could it hurt? Almost without thinking, I entered the command for a new search. “Find piebaldism and O'Connor,” I murmured as I typed. If the gene really did run in the O'Connor family, there might be some record of other O'Connors with piebaldism.
I drummed my fingers on the desk, waiting for the glacial modem to search and report. The professor had made Cahira's story sound romantic and dashing, but her curse or prophecy or whatever you want to call it hadn't made a bit of sense. Bright stars in their courses? Total drivel. Poetic, yes, but drivel nonetheless. Maybe the professor had overdosed on his morning coffee and caffeine had kicked his imagination into high gear.
Search results â¦ four.
I took a quick, sharp breath as the computer screen flashed again:
Piebaldism and O'Connor:
Rory O'Connor, the last king of Ireland, killed in the Norman Invasion in 1235 â¦ Survivors in that bloody attack included a grandson, who was spirited away from his mother's arms as the Normans attacked. According to legend, the child's mother, Cahira O'Connor, rose up from her bed of travail to wield a sword against the enemy, but scholars believe this may be an anecdotal myth fabricated to ennoble the sufferings of a murdered Irish princess. Cahira was noted for her exceptional beauty and a bold white streak through her red hair, one of the earliest recorded instances of piebaldismâ¦.
The Hussite Crusades: holy wars, against the followers of Bohemian reformer Jan Hus, launched by Pope Martin V, successor in 1417 to the antipope John XXIII (not to be confused with the modern pope who took the same name in 1958). Among Hus's more influential followers was Anika of Prague, a fifteenth-century woman who fought as a knight prior to the Hussite Crusades. Annals of that time record an unusual white streak through the hair over her left ear, probably the result of piebaldism. Several chroniclers report that she claimed to spring from the ancestral throne of the O'Connors, ancient kings of Ireland.
Explorers and Seafaring, women at sea: Aidan O'Connor, a seventeenth-century artist described by her contemporaries as a “spirited lass with flaming hair marked by spout of gold,” undoubtedly a case of piebaldism. The apprentice of a cartographer, she disguised herself as a
common sailor to go exploring. While sailing with the Dutch explorer Abel Tasman, Aidan O'Connor fought hostile natives, studied the flora and fauna of several Pacific islands, and later published a volume of engravings described by her contemporaries as “amazing.”
Civil War, women in battle: Flanna O'Connor, a nineteenth-century Charleston woman who disguised herself as a soldier and fought in the Civil War at her brother's side. Commonly known as the Velvet Shadow, she was as well known for her ability to rescue wounded comrades from behind enemy lines as for the singular pale streak which ran through her red hair. See “piebaldism.”