Warrior of Fire

By: Michelle Willingham
Chapter One

Ireland, 1172

Carice Faoilin was not afraid to die.

She had been sick for so long, she didn’t know how it felt to be an ordinary woman any more. She didn’t remember what it was to awaken without pain, to walk in the sunlight and enjoy each day as it was given. Most days, she stared at the walls, confined to her bed because she was too weak to move.

Until now.

In a matter of days, soldiers had invaded her home, demanding that she fulfil her delayed betrothal contract. She was ordered to accompany them to wed the High King of Éireann, Rory Ó Connor. The Ard-Righ had a brutal reputation, and few women wanted to wed him, herself included.

Perhaps she should have gone meekly, obeying the High King’s orders as a woman should. But then, Carice had never been the obedient sort. She wouldn’t have agreed to the betrothal, had her ambitious father given her a choice.

She was not going to lie back and offer herself up as the sacrificial lamb—even if this escape attempt killed her. And it very well might.

Each footstep felt leaden as she struggled to disappear into the dark forest. She’d chosen a long branch to use as a walking stick while she made her escape. A small voice inside her warned her, You don’t have the strength to reach shelter. You’re going to die tonight.

She silenced the voice. She had lived with the prospect of dying for so long, what did it matter any more? Worrying about it wouldn’t change anything. Instead, she preferred to fight for every breath, living each day as if it were her last.

Although today might be her last day if she didn’t find shelter soon.

With every step she took, the air seemed to grow colder. There was snow upon the breath of the wind, and Carice huddled within her cloak, leaning heavily upon the staff. Her feet were half-frozen, and her fingers were numb. She didn’t know how long she’d been walking, but she prayed to find a warm place to sleep. Please let there be shelter somewhere close by.

Her prayer was answered when she reached the far side of the forest and ventured into an open field. Just near the horizon, the moon illuminated a fortress with a tall limestone wall surrounding it.

When she drew closer, she realised it was an abbey, not a fortress. Never had she visited this place, though it was only a few days’ journey from Carrickmeath, her home. But tonight, it was her best hope for shelter.

I don’t know if I can make it that far, her body reasoned. Every muscle in her body ached, she was starving, and the distance appeared vast.

If you don’t keep going, you’ll freeze, her brain reminded her. And death by freezing didn’t sound very pleasant. She had to keep moving, especially since she’d made it this far.

Carice continued walking across the snowy meadow, counting the steps as she did. Though her legs were shaking from exertion, she forced herself to keep going. While she walked, she hoped that the monks who dwelled within the abbey would grant her a place to sleep and a warm fire. Or, at the very least, a place to collapse from exhaustion.

It was the promise of getting warm that kept her walking. Snowflakes began descending from the sky, the barest drifting flurries.

Just a little farther, she told herself. Don’t stop.

When she reached the abbey, strangely, the gate was open. A crow cawed at her arrival swooping down to inspect her presence. Inside the grounds, the scent of smoke lingered like a harsh memory. A fire had ravaged the outbuildings, and the battered stone structures were charred and lay in ruins. Another building nearby was in better condition, but it, too, had visible damage, along with the nearby roundtower that was missing its roof.

‘Is anyone here?’ she called out.

There came no answer, no sound at all. She walked through the open space, her feet crunching within the wet snow. Near the cemetery, she spied four freshly dug graves. Snow covered the earthen mounds, and she crossed herself at the sight. A chill crossed over her spine as she wondered what had happened here. Were all the monks dead from the fire? Clearly, the abbey had been abandoned.

Carice walked up the stairs leading to the main sanctuary. There was no wooden door remaining, and inside, the chapel was dark and cold. At least it was better than remaining outside, she reasoned. The fire had not reached the inner sanctuary, for the scent of smoke diminished as soon as she walked inside the space. At one end, there was an altar with a larger chair beside it. Spider webs lined the corners of the walls, and a savoury aroma caught Carice’s attention.

It was the faintest scent of food, like a roasted fowl. Someone had been here recently. She spied bones upon the floor and her stomach growled at the thought of a hot meal. It seemed that she could never satiate the endless hunger tormenting her. She pushed back the cravings and called out again, ‘Is anyone here?’

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