Alt Clut, Kingdom of Ystrad Clud, 870 AD
“Smile,” Aoife’s stepmother, Ula, hissed at her. “You don’t want King Artgal to think you are ungrateful you were invited, do you? He has been known to punish even his most loyal subjects for less. And for one such as you...” Ula’s cruel laughter made Aoife want to run far from here. Not that she had anywhere truly safe to go. She glanced towards the dais and managed to force her lips into some semblance of a smile, then returned her attention to the plateful in front of her.
All around her, the families of the richest, most important nobles of the kingdom of Ystrad Clud feasted. Every one of the long wooden tables was full, and the room was too warm for the fire burning in the grate, more to demonstrate the wealth of the king than from necessity on a summer night such as this one. The gathered nobles were richly dressed in heavy woollen kirtles, and with the excessive heat, the stench of their sweat only grew stronger as the feast wore on, making Aoife’s stomach churn. Not even the smell of roasted meats and vegetables could mask it.
Aoife pulled at the neck of her dress. She’d grown over the past winter and Ula had not yet instructed the servants to make a new summer dress for her. Ula’s four natural-born daughters always came first. There was also the fact she knew Ula did not wish her to look too attractive tonight — at least not in comparison to her half-sisters. Any suitor found at a gathering such as this one was of a higher status than Ula would ever allow Aoife to marry.
“Eat,” demanded Ula, nudging her elbow and smiling beatifically towards the king.
Aoife lifted a mouthful to her lips. Obediently she chewed and choked it down as fast as possible under her stepmother’s wrathful glare. It tasted like ashes. The noise of the revelry around her was giving her a headache, the smoke from the fire stung her eyes and the heat made her queasy. The room swayed around her. She closed her eyes, then felt a sharp elbow in her ribs. Her eyes flew open.
“If you bring dishonour to our family...” her stepmother whispered urgently, her cold expression and hands clasped as if in prayer making it clear where Aoife would be headed. A prisoner forever behind the bare stone walls of the abbey, with no family, no hope for a home, nor a husband and children.
Not that she was sure why she yearned for those things. Her own childhood had been far from idyllic. And there was little chance of any of them before Ula had secured decent marriages for Aoife’s half-sisters. But she wished for them nonetheless.
Across the room a gentleman caught her eye and inclined his head towards her. She thought she recognised him but couldn’t remember his name. She nodded at him.
“Keep your eyes down,” Ula said. “And if you have any ideas in your head about Lord Aethelfred, then forget them. He will not be for you.”
“And what if I am his choice?” Aoife replied before she could stop herself. Sometimes she found it hard not to answer her stepmother back, despite knowing it only ever made her life more difficult.
“Your father will give him short shrift,” Ula promised, hatred etched on her features. “Your father always does what I tell him.”
It was true and becoming more true as each year passed. Ula’s influence over her father’s decisions was not a good thing. Not for the first time, she wished her own mother was still alive to care for her and protect her. What Aoife would have given for her to have lived through her brother’s birth. But they had both died, and her father, Lord Cadell, had remarried. And now she had Ula as a stepmother. Most of Cadell’s people had been happy to see him marry another Briton rather than a Pict. Aoife had often regretted that her father had not sent her back to her mother’s family in Pictland, but Cadell wasn’t willing to give up anything belonging to him – even an unwanted daughter.
Aoife picked up her cup of wine and took a sip. A wave of dizziness swept through her. The cup clattered onto the table, wine spilling like blood and seeping into the wood. She clutched at the edge, trying to keep her balance. She glared at her stepmother. Had the woman finally poisoned her, hoping she could blame another?
“What are you doing?” Ula demanded, talon-like fingers gripping Aoife’s elbow. “Stop this at once.”
But Aoife’s eyes no longer saw the woman, nor the room, nor the walls of the hall at Alt Clut. At first, she didn’t know what she did see. She smelt the salt tang of the sea and heard the whoosh of waves and the cry of gulls. It was night, dark out on the water, and yet in front of her were the heads of hundreds of serpents. They approached Alt Clut in the darkness just before the dawn and swept onto the land, slithering up the walls of the rock and on into the fort. Above them, two ravens circled, watching the progress of the serpents, their frantic screeching serving to encourage the invaders. Blood-curdling screams sounded and she realised they were her own.
“They’re coming! The sea serpents are coming!”
A slap from her stepmother was hard enough to jar her neck and her head hit the back of the wooden chair, sending her down into darkness.