With all the certainty of a young man who thinks himself full-grown, Faolan mac Domnall knew that his family was cursed. It explained why their milk soured well before their neighbors'. It explained why their roof always leaked. It explained why his mother died, still young and fair. It explained why his father had taken to drink and lost his title and his standing. And it explained why he was sitting in chilly mud on this wet morning. Cursed.
The rude beast of a horse in the stall next to him shrieked a whinny that Faolan was sure was mocking laughter.
"You won't be laughing like that if I don't fix this door, Banner," he promised lowly, wiping away the stinking mud that had splattered to his eyes.
Although the stable was less than two years old, its door had rotted through earlier than anyone could have predicted. Cursed.
"You think it's a fair joke, seeing me covered in dirt, drenched like a cat left in a storm." Faolan dug his frozen fingers into the puddle, searching for the nail he had dropped in his fall. "But a wet autumn is sure to bring an icy winter."
Banner snorted, lowering his head to lip at Faolan's hair.
"Ah! You don't believe me now, stubborn mule. But you'll be frozen twice over come solstice time if this door won't keep the wind out."
As if it heard him, the wind howled in fury, blowing the door back a second time. But Faolan, the element of surprise lost, refused to be bested. With all the strength he had, he braced it shut and hammered the last nails into the new latch. Despite the piercing cry of the wind over the meager stretch of the barley crop, the new wood held fast. Though his brother Bradan would have done the job surer, and Aidan would have solved it cleverer, Faolan was certain only a curse could break his handiwork before spring.
"See there, Banner," he bragged, wiping his muddy hands on his tunic. "That ought to do."
The dappled horse huffed a cloud of hot air and returned to nibbling at the fresh straw that lined his stall. The breath of fresh earth and the spicy, warm scent of horses was coming home for Faolan. As the weak beams of autumn's morning cast themselves through the slats, he wondered if he had been too hasty with considering curses.
The deep bellow of his father echoed in the stable, in his chest, in his very bones. Donnchad mac Domnall had once been the mighty leader of Fir Tulach. Now he was a sorry, stinking drunk who cared more about ale than he ever had about their tribe. Though Faolan credited him: the man still shouted like a chief. The ale, at least, had not robbed him of that.
"Comin'," he yelled back, giving Banner a playful scratch before jogging up the hill to their cottage.
Once, in a time before, their cottage had been his mother's pride. Despite its years of poor luck with mice and mold, she filled it to the corners with warmth. Diedre Uí Carraigh was the fire in the hearth and her absence left the mac Domnall men with nothing more than cold ashes.
"I said, 'I'm coming,' you impatient lump of a—"
But Faolan stopped short. Next to his filthy mass of a father, was the most beautiful woman he'd ever seen.
As he approached, she let down her hood and liquid bronze hair tumbled down her back. Her skin was fresh cream, sprinkled with freckles. And her eyes! Faolan didn't know if they were blue or gray or violet or a sparking combination, all he knew was that they were framed by long eyelashes that fluttered against her cheek. She was the sunrise after a moonless night, the breath of spring after a frozen winter.
"You're Faolan, the horse boy?" Her voice was music, soft and lilting.
"I suppose so," he answered. Faolan 'the horse man' did not feel like a worthwhile correction.
"Saoirse Uí Néill," his father grunted as a poor introduction. "Her horse threw a shoe a mile back."
"Princess, it is an honor." Faolan bowed low as his father stumbled back indoors. He supposed it was wonderful fortune his father found the liquor early this morning. Better he treated the princess with surly discourtesy than outright hostility. Better he was contentedly drunk than sober enough to remember High King Aed had been the one to strip him of his title and his reputation. The latter, his mother had once said, was the only thing men truly cherish.
For a moment, Faolan thought the princess might ask about his father's rudeness, or perhaps his stench. Princess Saoirse of Mide was clearly too polite to mention either. He considered apologizing on behalf of the man or trying to explain the justifiable descent of a disgraced chieftain into a drunk. Faolan mac Domnall was too polite to bore her with his family's troubles. So, in the habit of politeness, they ignored the topic completely.
Her fine features formed into an expression of utmost concern. The princess's entire form seemed to fill up with the emotion, it spilled over into a tremor in her words.
"Oh yes, please! I fear I pushed him too hard and now he's thrown a shoe. If I've hurt him, I'll never forgive myself."
The heartfelt shame of her voice, the worried crinkle of her eyebrows, eased the lecture Faolan would have normally given a careless rider. She was the picture of contrition and even the thought of punishing her further sent a needle of guilt into his chest.
"When I realized that I was on mac Domnall lands, I knew I must find you. They say you've a gift with beasts. Almost like magic."
The contrition, now paired with the compliment, sent a wave of hopeless affection through him. Saoirse was beautiful–that was common gossip among all the sects of Mide–but Faolan had not been prepared for her earnest charm and liveliness, to snare him so completely.
"Let's take a look then," he managed to say. Faolan ran a hand through his dark hair. The feel of the drying mud against his scalp near stopped his heart with a wave of embarrassment. Here he was, speaking with a princess, covered in mud from the seat of his pants to the dirt he'd smeared across his face. Cursed.
"The-uh-stable door knocked me into the mud."
He near swore with how foolish the words sounded as they tumbled from his mouth. A clever man would have concocted a better story to explain the filth. Guileless Faolan only answered truthfully with a sheepish grin.
To her credit, Saoirse did not laugh. She could not hide the flush of color that rose to her cheeks, but she did not laugh.
"It must have been quite a door." Her eyes measured him from the top of his head to the tips of his worn boots. The touch of humor relieved any awkwardness.
Faolan was suddenly very aware that Princess Saoirse was a tiny, slight thing standing next to him. In Fir Tulach, there was no man who matched the height of the mac Domnall boys. Growing up, Faolan and his six older brothers had always seemed to be in trousers too short and in shoes too small, with bellies too hungry. A tribe of their own, seven monsters, always growing.
"Aye, well, I won in the end."
Again, Faolan lamented he was not quicker with words. His brother Declan was silver-tongued, gifted with the ability to twist any conversation to his bidding. He spun such perfects lies even angels would sing it true.
That was the difficulty with having six brothers: there was always one better at something. Bradan was as wide as an oak tree, stronger than a bull. Aidan was quick with his hands and even quicker with his mind. Cian was fierce, brave near to fault. While Declan spoke honey, his twin Drustan was steadfast and true. Even Liam, who had always earned his father's scorn, sang sweeter than a chorus of larks.
Faolan would never be as strong as Bradan, as clever as Aidan, as bold as Cian, as charming as Declan, as loyal as Drustan, or as gifted as Liam. But now that his brothers were men grown, seeking their fortunes far from Fir Tulach, it was Faolan who filled their absent roles. Roles he did not fill as well as his brothers, as he was frequently reminded.
But it was as the princess had said, he had a knack with animals. There was no magic to it, no glamor, no charm. It was solely the patience of the youngest of seven. Faolan could wait for a wild colt's temper to flare out. There was no rush to hurry the splinting of a sparrow's broken wing. The birds and beasts of Fir Tulach obeyed the sun and the seasons and Faolan learned to understand their language.
Though neighbors whispered of the uncanny ability he seemed to have, they still brought their horses and sheep and dogs any time a natural mystery occurred. Their hushed talk had once bothered him, but with Princess Saoirse so keen for his skills, Faolan silently thanked every gossip who ever had whispered his name.
Saoirse's gelding was a restless creature with a night-black coat and flashing eyes. He pawed the ground and snorted and threw his mighty head at their approach.
Noting the sheen and froth of a demanding ride, Faolan said, "Looks like you pushed him pretty hard."
Another blush crept up her neck, stained her cheeks. "It was thoughtless of me to ride poor Apple so."
At Faolan's disbelieving expression at the diminutive name, she did laugh. The airy sound of it rang like solstice bells, flickered like the candles at mass.
"This surly disposition he's flaunting is all farce. Like all men, Apple is very much a slave to his stomach." At that, she produced a small apple from her pack and offered it to the horse. At once, the agitated bluster calmed to contented crunching. Saoirse smiled winsomely, as if they now shared a particularly lovely secret.
Faolan gave the beast a gentle pat, pushing away the insolent snapping of his teeth with serene confidence. Apple flicked his tail as if considering a second attempt, but the great beast lost interest in tormenting the lad. He stood still as Faolan murmured compliments quietly, inspecting the hoof with gentle hands.
"Looks like Apple will need time to rest this leg," he said, stroking the horse's flank. "No long rides for a while, but he should heal up just fine."
He turned to Saoirse to smile, to share in her assuaged worry. But the princess did not appear relieved. In fact, bright tears welled in her eyes, her lip trembled. Just my luck, Faolan couldn't help but think. Cursed.
"I'm so sorry," she blurted, wiping at her eyes angrily. "It's just Apple has been my only reprieve these weeks and now I've hurt him and won't have any escape!"
Before he could think better of prying, Faolan felt the question fall from his lips. "An escape from what?"
"From that dreadful excuse for a suitor!" Now that the dam was broken, tears and words flooded from the princess in a rush. "My father seeks to marry me off to an absolute boor of a man. A man his own age! A man that would rather talk of killing stags and reliving old battles than he would entertain a new wife. I've been riding further and further for these last moments of stolen freedom. And now I've ruined even that with selfish thoughtlessness."
She finished with a muffled sob and a few heavy breaths. Composure returned quickly, the only evidence of the outburst remained as red-rimmed eyes.
"That must have been very uncomfortable for you, I apologize."
Faolan couldn't help but smile at the picture of this perfectly polite princess apologizing to him, the mud-covered son of a disgraced former chief, for something as human as frustration, discontent, and sorrow.
"Are you laughing at me?"
At the stunned indignation, the imperious lilt to her inflection, Faolan started laughing in earnest. The contagious nature of sincere joy twitched Saoirse's lips despite her attempts to hold that practiced mask in place.
"Stop it! It's not funny! He really is a boor!"
Faolan laughed harder, prompting the princess to dissolve with him into giggles. The unlikely pair, caught in a cycle of laughter, clutched at their sides and gasped for full breaths.
Tears in his eyes, he wheezed, "I'm very sorry, Princess. Only command me and I am yours."
The words stilled her and she looked up at Faolan with a curious expression. Perhaps she noticed the crinkled joy around his golden-brown eyes, or the windswept carelessness of his muddy hair, or the hint of gentle mischief in the tilt of his mouth. Whatever she saw, it gave her pause and set a shrewd determination to that stormy gaze.
"Marry me instead, Faolan." It was the firm command of a princess used to being served, of a woman determined to choose her own destiny.
Faolan mac Domnall knew that his family was cursed. But there were ways of breaking curses and there were none stronger than true love. And there was no love truer than that of a beautiful princess. And there was no princess more beautiful than Saoirse the fair, Saoirse Uí Néill, Saoirse of Mide.
A/N: Thanks for reading the first chapters of The Dreamweaver's Daughter! Faolan and Saoirse's adventure continues! The complete novella can be found on my Wattpad account.