WHERE has Maid Quiet gone to, Nodding her russet hood? The winds that awakened the stars Are blowing through my blood. O how could I be so calm When she rose up to depart? Now words that called up the lightning Are hurtling through my heart. --- W. B. Yeats
Aoife! Where was she?! In a panic Declan scrambled out of the ancient stone structure and scanned the immediate environs, then the further fields. The morning mist was not so thick as to leave any doubt as to her absence. Swiftly he disabused himself of his immediate fear that she had been seized by Blaylock or the Crusaders, for the tidy pile of his garments on the ground indicated that her decampment had been orderly and of her own volition. A collection of objects was atop the clothes, among which he recognized a pair of red and white ribbon garters, and he realized they must have been in the pockets of the great coat. Hastily he packed everything into the knapsack. For some time, he zigzagged about the pasture and neighboring fields, searching for clues as to the direction she had taken, but she had been shrewd in concealing the traces of her passage, for even with the wet ground, his search was fruitless. Chagrined, Declan considered the possibility that she had been wakened last night by his unconscious lewdness whilst dreaming of her --- that she had fled in fright. He soon dismissed this supposition...she would have protested his improper embrace had she been aware of it. Thank God he had woken when he did...before his body had inadvertently proceeded to fully violate her! The shame of his rude transgression was his with which to privately contend. And, more to the point, her disappearance was not at all unexpected. She had made no secret of her dislike of him and had three times attempted to free herself of his presence. Declan could not resent her actions. After the events at the cottage and castle that fateful night, the lass had every cause for enmity towards him...and every right to make her own way in the world. The same fear for her safety that had kept him by her side these past several days now rose again as he contemplated her forging her way alone...a wee bonnie maid. From what she had left behind, he deduced she was clad again in her nightgown...but at least she had the coat so she would not freeze and had the dagger for protection. He prayed that Fate keep her safe, and that Blaylock and the Crusaders never find her. Even with his recognition of Aoife's right to self-determination, Declan continued to search in expanding circles round the site of the cromleach, wishing only to assure himself of her safety...to share with her the remaining money in his possession. No lies these sentiments, but he was not fool enough to be ignorant of another motivation in seeking her --- the glumness in his heart at the empty place alongside him where she had walked till now. Nay, he was not ignorant of his smitten state...but perhaps he had been foolish to wistfully hope that he had seen intermittent flashes in her countenance of something other than hatred. 'Twas no gentle regard, to be sure, but on several occasions her eyes had met his with a searching, enigmatic expression. Then the other night! The night in the church ruins when she had seized the weapons from him. Oh Jaysis! Never would he forget the vision of that innocent lass gaping at his musket and bandeliers...her lovely face aflame...her pink mouth falling open...her blue eyes wide circles...her chest rising and falling with her agitated breaths. In the face of her raw fascination, Declan had ceased to wonder if Aoife knew how to fully cock the flintlock pistol she was pointing at him --- instead his mind had been paradoxically possessed by the sensation of his surging blood being drawn --- like iron shavings to a magnet --- into his organ by the burning caress of her gaze. She had got him fully cocked, so she had! And...she hadn't killed him. There was that. Perhaps that in of itself was reason enough for him to take heart. At last, Declan admitted defeat: no trace of her was to be found in the fields. With a sigh, he stepped onto a narrow dirt lane and headed east. It seemed odd at this juncture to simply walk along a road...so long had he and Aoife been avoiding them. By mid-morning, the road took him into a village, where his restless eyes surveyed the passersby on the street and faces in the shop windows. 'Twas absurd to think that she would chance such exposure after having so recently gained her solitude, but Declan's impulses at this point answered only to his heart. His first instinct proved to be correct: he saw her not...unless she had spied him first and had hidden away. At the public house he stopped and ventured in. As he crossed the room to take a seat at the bar, he searched the cozy interior for the red-haired lass with the faery eyes...in vain. He took a pot of tea and sat for some time watching the steam rise from his cup, shifting intermittently on the stool as his lacerated back twinged. Again, he prayed for Aoife's safe journey wherever she was bound. Had she somewhere to go? She had never answered his inquiries on that point. "Good morning, sir," a man's voice interrupted his thoughts. Declan raised his head to see a cheery looking chap of about thirty on the opposite side of the bar, apparently the proprietor, who busied himself placing mugs on a shelf. "Did my wife get ye sorted with the tea?" Declan nodded. "Aye, thank you." The man paused in his work. "Hey, aren't you Declan Quickfist? The prizefighter?" 'Twas somewhat jarring to hear that appellation, so much had happened...so complex had his circumstances become, that he scarce recognized that carefree young bruiser as himself, although in truth that life was his less than a week ago. He shrugged briefly. "I am," he replied. "Arrah! I knew it was you, so I did!" The man leant on the bar with a grin. "I was at your match last week. By God! The way you trounced Killer Kincaid was something poetic! Ye've got a wicked set of paws on ye, lad. 'Tis an honor to have you in me bar." Declan was a little embarrassed. "Thank you, sir." The man pushed Declan's pennies back across the bar. "Here now, tea is gratis." "Nay, sir. You're too kind, so ye are. I can pay." "Your money is no good here, lad." The man leant over the bar and said in a low voice, "I made a fiver on your victory, so I did." He winked. Declan smiled. "Ta." "Sure, 'tis doubly odd --- you turning up here today. Why, there was a man in here just recently asking for ye." Declan froze. Then, with methodical motions he tapped the spoon upon the edge of the cup and set it alongside the saucer. "A man was asking for me?" he said in a nonchalant voice. "When was this?" "Hmmm, let me think...it was the night before last...aye, the place was busy, and he talked to me over there." He nodded towards the end of the bar. "What did he look like?" "He was wearing a uniform, dark blue. He was a strong looking chap. Curly brown hair, I'd say." "Ahhh! That would be me old chum Fitzgibbons, so it would. We're both guardsmen for the Duke of P---. 'Tis a disagreement over an unsettled matter." Declan smiled wryly. The man nodded. "There were two of them actually --- or so I heard from other people about town. Both in uniforms. Going about to the taverns and shops and asking if anyone had seen you or a wee lass with bright red hair." Declan gulped the rest of his tea, forcing it down against the sudden tightening of his throat. He managed a rueful sounding sigh. "Aye, the unsettled matter is concerning a lass's affections. But in the end, we both lost...she preferred someone else altogether." He contained his agitation under a calm demeanor as he stood from the stool. "Well, I'll be on me way, then...see if I can catch up to them." By habit, he started to push the coins across the bar, but was again halted by the proprietor shaking his head. "But I'll shake your hand, lad, if ye will. I can tell me wee boy that I shook hands with Ireland's next boxing champion." With a handshake and another expression of gratitude, Declan left the public house. Immediately he began striding along the street, his mind racing, his eyes darting hither and thither at the people and occasional horses at hitching posts. No uniforms, no familiar faces or horses did he spy. They had been here the day before yesterday! Where were they now? Which direction did they go? How long would they search for them? Why could not the fortune in prizefighting winnings he had left behind be sufficient recompense to Blaylock for any reward he had lost by Aoife's disappearance? Equally revelatory in his conversation with the barkeeper was the fact that his notoriety from boxing was a liability...in this part of Ireland 'twould not be unexpected for him to be recognized. He thought on the two villages into which Aoife and he had ventured...the two public houses, the market. Had his presence been noted by the townspeople? Was that how the guards had managed to track them here? Or was it merely by chance that they had been so near? It came to Declan then that, for this reason alone, he must cease searching for Aoife --- to persist would increase the danger of her being discovered by the Crusaders. When he reached the end of the village, he considered the road in both directions. The long-buried, unsettled matter in his soul rose forth and prodded him. He took the road west, walking briskly without concealing his tracks. Let them follow him and not Aoife. To Kilkenny town he would go. Aye, he would return to the town of his birth.
Declan arrived in Kilkenny late in the afternoon two days later. As he neared the large town and beheld the church spires and castle towers, his heart beat faster in immediate, eerie recognition. Would he find his family's home? Could Ma still be alive? He would recognize her, wouldn't he...even though it had been ten years? Would he encounter anyone else whom he knew, or that would recognize him? In the town he walked at a slower pace, memories rushing forth even as his eyes searched the faces of the people on the streets. Ten years naturally had not passed without some alteration of the prosperous town; nevertheless, all about him he recognized familiar streets, buildings, and signs. The stately castle of the Earl of O---. The magnificent castle yard, alongside which was the elegant mansion that had been constructed for the Earl's mother. He recalled how he and his brother Rory had run here after school to watch the builders at work. Further along he saw Kyteler's Inn, the theatre, Smithwick's brewery, the blacksmith, the cobbler, the tanner, and a variety of taverns whose signs he remembered. He even found the tiny alley leading back to the Hole in the Wall, a fine supper-house where his family had dined in celebration of Rory's formal apprenticeship to Da. That arched oak door --- he had crossed that very threshold with his family some eleven years ago! The onslaught of memories overwhelmed him...all of this had been inside him...unbeknownst to him, his childhood had been hidden away intact in his mind these ten years past. Now it was bursting forth to flood the empty place in his soul. Unerringly Declan made his way to the street upon which his family's home and printing shop had been. His belly twisted as he approached the house...twenty paces...ten paces...five paces...and... He halted before an unfamiliar building in the row where the house should be. This was the spot, he swore it was. There were the apothecary and milliner's shops across the lane, and there was the door of the adjacent house with the lion's head knocker. A few passersby stepped round him as he stood staring in confusion at the three-story building, noting it to be of more recent construction than its neighbors. The street level was occupied by "Walsh and Sons, Solicitors" according to the sign. Declan opened the door and entered. Inside, nothing was familiar either. The front room was a tidy office lined by bookshelves. A man in his mid-thirties sat at a desk, writing in a large book. He looked over his spectacles at Declan. "Good afternoon," he said. "How can I assist you, young man?" Declan cleared his throat. "I used to live in Kilkenny...many years ago. I'm trying to find the house of a family I knew. I thought it was at this address, but it looks different now. It was a printing shop...the Muldowney Printers." The man set down his quill. "Yes, this was the site of the printing shop. It has been...oh, some ten years since. A terrible tragedy it was, indeed, I'm sorry to say. The house caught fire and burnt down...alas the entire family perished." "The entire family? Did none survive?" The man rubbed his chin. "Well, I lived in Kilkenny then...Mr. Walsh's firm was on High Street at the time. I recall there was an investigation, but I do not remember the details. There were four bodies found in the ashes...a man, two women, and a child...that much I recall. 'Twas ruled an accident: a candle next to a drape, I believe." Declan nodded as one in a stupor. The man looked at him with sympathy. "I'm sorry to end your search with such sad tidings. Were you close to the family?" "Aye, in a manner." He straightened his shoulders. "Thank you for your assistance, sir." Once more on the street he walked, his heart beating dully. Two women! Ma and...? Why, the maid Annie must have died too! He wandered without direction for some time, his mind dragging through the import of the new knowledge. Was he surprised? Nay. Knowing Blaylock, he expected no less. But now the thread of hope had been broken, the grief so soon supplanting the epiphany of his identity. By and by Declan found himself approaching St. Canice's Cathedral, its round tower rising steadfastly as ever before him. Instinct made him glance to the right, and just as he remembered, Cathy Fanning's bakery was there: the very place he and Rory used to go when they had the spare coin. Grasping at that ripple of memory, he stepped inside --- the unchanged aroma and cozy interior offered him a token of solace. After a moment's contemplation, he purchased an apple tart, Rory's and his favorite treat. He recognized Mrs. Fanning as he paid --- she was a little plumper, but her golden hair, rosy cheeks, and warm demeanor were the same. Gratefully he returned her smile but was too tongue-tied to speak. As he ate, he felt the tears burning behind his eyes...remembering Rory's grin whilst they raced to gulp down their tarts. Raising his head and inhaling sharply, he gazed up at the cathedral. The sight inspired a new thought, and upon leaving the bakery, he directed his steps to the smaller Catholic church several streets away --- the church his family had attended. A half hour's search in the churchyard yielded what he sought: a stone cross marking three graves. Here lies John Patrick Muldowney...his beloved wife Brigid...his son Rory. All had the same death date: June 7, 1787. Declan knelt and lifted his eyes to the carved stone ring entwined with the arms of the cross. A bird's cry sounded, and a few leaves blew from a nearby tree bough, fluttering about the stone marker before him. There was yet one place he must go. He found a street leading outside the town, and began skirting the remnants of the town walls, making his way through pastures and fields. Presently he found the portion of wall that enclosed the gardens behind the row of houses where his family's home had been. There he spied the oak tree he had scaled to escape Blaylock's henchman in the garden. Thus oriented, he found the stone wall dividing the pastures and crossed to the stile, prompting several sheep to trot out of his path. Falling to his knees, Declan pried up the flat stone in the ground before the first step and set it aside. In the setting sun, he could see down into the narrow priest's hole. He slid inside. In ten years, he had grown considerably, and he was scarce able to sink down to the ground, sitting and hugging his knees to his chest --- his back, elbows, and toes pressed against the cool sides. The scent of the damp, clean earth embraced him as he sorted through the chaotic emotions possessing him. And at last, Declan forgave himself --- forgave his nine-year-old self for fleeing, for not being able to save his family. For some time, he remained thus, breathing slowly...deeply...feeling the cleaved portions of his soul coalesce. At length, he rose to his feet and climbed out of the hole. He stood nigh motionless next to the stile, but inwardly the turmoil rocked his body. About him, the surroundings were as unchanged as if it were the very day that his family had been murdered --- the pasture, the sheep, the stone walls. The only difference was the oak tree being ten years taller. The bitter rage towards Blaylock swelled anew. A motion above him captured his eyes: a large, black crow was slowly circling the pasture. Lower and lower it glided, then with a ruffle of feathers, it alit upon a blackthorn tree some ten feet away. From its perch just above his eye level, the bird's head tilted, and its glossy black eye regarded him. In the new clarity of his heart, Declan finally recognized her. The Morrigan! His eyes opened like a series of doors swinging wide, back through the years of his young life. She had ever been there, so she had! When he had been mired in the straits of uncertainty, this black-winged goddess of fate and death had been guiding him to his destiny all along! A lump rose in this throat and his hands clenched. "I shall kill him," Declan Muldowney vowed, the spoken words rising clear above the rustling of leaves in the wind. The Morrigan spread her wings, and the magnificent fan of iridescent black, blue, and green flared in the setting beams of light. With a cry, she took to flight and disappeared into the blazing orange disc of the sun.
Declan's immediate idea was to return posthaste to Kilmaedan Castle and wait without the walls till Blaylock emerged --- then shoot him. However, he soon stilled his fury and thought on it with more deliberation. In his two years of service at the castle, he had become familiar with Blaylock's routines. The Captain only rarely left the castle alone; usually he was attended by at least two of the Crusaders. When he did leave, 'twas always on horseback. Declan would be on foot confronting him, and with the time needed to reload the pistol, he would have only a single shot. A single chance against a man who was an excellent marksman and swordsman. Declan credited himself with being accomplished with both weapons as well --- he had not been Blaylock's pupil for nothing --- but the flintlock pistol was at present his only weapon...other than his fists. And this against a man on a fast-moving animal, who would likely be accompanied by at least two other armed men. Even if he did manage to shoot Blaylock in this hypothetical situation, he would quickly meet his maker when the Crusaders drew their weapons and answered back. Declan was prepared to lay down his life, if that was what was necessary to avenge his family, but 'twas not his first choice, nor was it commensurate with his duty to preserve the Muldowney lineage against Blaylock's complete depredation. He would require additional weapons ere pursuing his prey --- and unfailing patience. To catch Blaylock alone would take some time. Declan thus took stock of his circumstances. If he eschewed a roof over his head, he had coin enough for perhaps a week of sustenance. He had a couple items of value he might sell or barter with. How much a knife would cost he had no idea. More money would be necessary, to be sure, both to purchase a knife and to sustain himself whilst he waited and watched.r"