Fearchar and Seonaid stared up in awe at the massive arched gate at the bottom of the mountain passage. It soared to heights Eoin’s memories had not clearly conveyed. They sat in a covered cart waiting as the line of merchants and travellers entered and exited through the pass. The guard in his uniform and Eoin in a pure white shroud rode on the front bench. A gate guard turned from the cart and rode his horse at a gallop up the path toward the top of the mountain.
His guard had initially baulked at bringing Fearchar and Seonaid. With some cajoling, the man had relented. It had been months to get from the Isle of Skye to the middle of Persia. They had taken a ship around Spain and saw the Mediterranean through Egypt and into the depths of the desert.
They rolled through the main street of the city. Eoin’s companions were surprised by the luxury that even the lowest of the people appeared to experience. Clear water ran in channels from the top of the mountain down to free-flowing fountains rimmed with vegetation and shade. The people, upon seeing the guard, were curious but didn’t give the cart much thought. The wheels cracked and rattled on the cobbled road. It made slow progress as people milled about the street, selling and bartering goods.
Eoin clambered his way over the bench to the back of the wagon and dug around in his pack. Vanora ruffled her feathers at his scent so close to her perch. He whistled a low note of reassurance. She stepped sideways and then back, settling her plumage. He pulled from his bag a long length of gold chain, a thin gold necklace, a key, the signet ring, and a lock through which the loops of shimmering yellow were secured.
“Eoin?” Seonaid crooned softly. The thought still grated at her.
The white-haired man raised an eyebrow for a second and smiled reassuringly. It is how it needs to be, he placated as he looped the chain through his bracers and locked it. It’s a show. It will be all right. He carefully tied the necklace, key, and ring back into his duffel bag, certain to keep it from getting lost. The Fyskar took a large wrapped package from his pack and set it on the bench. He pulled his shroud back on and clambered into the front.
They approached the second gate, this one grander than the last. Seonaid could not suppress her gasp at the staggering beauty. Eoin smirked under his shroud. He remembered that reaction, the same he had experienced on his first approach to the palace years ago.
The men at the gate called to the guard on the cart, and they discussed something Seonaid and Fearchar could not comprehend. Axel creaking, the coach came to a jittery stop. The gate guards surrounded the carriage to look in and were greatly surprised to see Fearchar in a brightly patterned kilt and Seonaid in her matched dress, wrapped in an equally bright tartan. Admittedly, they had never seen a red-haired man before, so that was unusual in and of itself.
They crept to the passenger side of the cart. Eoin threw up a hand, his bracer and chain flashing in the sunlight before they could tug his shroud away from him. The men backed away with a bark of orders. A bar dropped, and the gates opened with a clatter. One of the guards broke away from the group and ran through the gates.
The carriage tugged forward, and Eoin’s heart was in his throat. He fidgeted with the package on his lap. The wood beneath his taping feet echoed under the creak and strain of the pulling donkeys.
Inside the palace gates, Fearchar and Seonaid could not stop staring. Around them, more fountains, more tile, more plants than they could have imagined lent the space a sense of paradise. Birds sang from the trees. Palms waved softly above them, throwing dappled shade around the perimeter of the brilliant courtyard. Honeysuckle bloomed profusely on grates, scenting the air heavily.
The guard pulled to a stop and allowed Fearchar and Seonaid off of the cart while he had a pair of servants take their luggage. Seonaid, taking Eoin’s gauntlet, encouraged Vanora to her hand.
Eoin eased off the carriage, careful that his shroud did not fall, and took his wrapped package. He worked his hair up under the cover, curling it to rest loosely atop his head. His feet were bare, and the tile was hotter than he would have liked. His bangles flashed at the hem of the white fabric. He pulled the shroud further over his face and bowed his head to look down at the tile. They waited as the cart pulled away. Fearchar and Seonaid stood behind Eoin, bracing themselves.
Footsteps drew their attention to the main steps that lead up to the grand entrance. A tall, olive-skinned man with a severe black haircut followed by a series of guards and servants approached them. The guards spoke quietly with one another. The giant of a man waved the guards to their positions. They circled the group loosely as the royal approached them. Vanora chortled at the noise. The birds stopped calling to each other, and the grounds quieted save for the burble of the fountains. A weight settled heavily in the pit of Fearchar’s stomach. The black-haired royal was immense in size and formidable. He approached Eoin, sudden fear blossoming for the physician.
When the man was but a few steps from the white shroud, Eoin produced what had been in the package, the leather wrap falling to the tile between them. A gold chain dropped away from jewelled bracers. The clatter of beads popped around the courtyard. A pair of red deer antlers, plated in gold, gleamed. The crown in Eoin’s hands was immense in size and detail. Heavy loops of gold flowed around the band. Strands of gold thread, beryl, and freshwater pearls dripped in long cascades from the antlers to create trailing curtains of gold, white, and aquatic blue.
The guards glanced at each other, confused. Their hearts were surely in their throats as their prince reached out and gingerly touched a trembling hand holding the crown while the other went to the bowed head and pulled the shroud from the body. The physician’s tattoos flashed in the sunlight for a split second as white hair fell around his gold torc and naked chest. His great kilt in sky blue, lavender, and white hugged his hips and draped to his knees, his legs and feet bare save for the bangles. The prince looked down on the bowed head kindly and whispered a few words. “Niloofar.” The name resonated through the courtyard loudly. The guards flinched and stood to attention, backing away a step. The prince’s absent physician had returned home.
Seonaid and Fearchar, having seen the prince’s touch, knew Eoin was talking to the man in his void. They waited patiently as the man studied the crown as a method to hide his reason for physical contact. The giant of a man broke the connection and tenderly took possession of the crown.
Mirza’s warm hand cupped Eoin’s trembling fingers, supporting the weight of the crown. “I’m home,” the physician whispered across the connection. “I’m home. Let me be home.”
“You’ve been gone so long, White Bird. I thought you’d made a nest in the underworld.” Husky, his voice slipped across Eoin’s nerves as he reached for the shroud.
Eoin’s mouth ran dry as he closed his eyes against the glare of afternoon on the white marble. Hair tumbled around him, catching the sun. The bright light forced Eoin to blink. He followed the line of fitted pants to the voluminous petticoated robe. Embroidered gold gryphons and spiralling ferns on a bronze ground led to a fitted torso. Black hair had grown to his collarbone. “Mirza,” he sighed when he found the prince’s deep brown eyes searching his.
The slash of his lips pulled into a gentle smile, softening his eyes as he studied Eoin’s face. “It took you bringing back two compatriots, an eagle, and a crown. You told me so many years ago to wait. Please, will you tell me, White Bird?” Mirza dropped the shroud, his fingers trailing momentarily along Eoin’s arm, giving him a second to respond in their private link.
“Fearchar and Seonaid. They’ve taken to me as lovers. He has designated himself as my bodyguard. She is his wife.” Eoin unchained his memories to pour out, giving the man towering over him in the void access to everything he desired to see. “Do you still want me?” A throb of terror burned through Eoin’s nerves.
Mirza waved it all away. “When you left, I gave you my blessing to seek out your own pleasures and indulge in what you’ve been kept from since you entered my rooms. I don’t need to know, physician. Physician. You told me to wait so long ago I don’t even remember now. Tell me, so I can call you by name. Give me your name. You told me to take anything I want as long as I kept your family safe and left your torc. I will not take your name from you, but would you be willing to give it to me?”
“I did, didn’t I? I told you one day I’d tell you why you couldn’t take the torc from me. I told you I would come back to you with who I am. To travel the world twice to find myself.” Eoin smiled up at Mirza. The giant’s breath hitched in his throat. The physician bowed his head to study the elaborate crown in their hands. “My clan is long dead. There’s no one to be a royal to any more other than my sons and my lovers. My name, though, that I still have, not even death can take that from me. Fyskar. They were my clan. They were my love, and my life, my sun and my moon. Mirza, my own name. You’ve asked me for that every dark night I spent in your bed.”
“And every morning, you would leave in the quiet morning, telling me to call you physician, doctor, Niloofar, my servant. You’ve been so much more to me than that. How many more dark nights must I wait for you to tell me who you are?” His tone dripped along Eoin’s bones, sweet as nectar. He shivered. As they stood apart in the world, he pulled Eoin to him in the void, engulfing him, burying his face in white hair. “I never want to wake up to you gone again.”
Eoin folded into him, resting into the familiarity of his hold, breathing in the spice lingering in his thoughts. “My father is dead, and so is my clan. I am no longer Flath. It has taken me too many years to realise I was no longer a prince of my clan when he passed.” Eoin pushed to have distance, to present himself to his prince. Mirza relinquished his hold at Eoin’s insistence, retaining possession of the tips of his fingers. “My name, Mirza, is Eoin Impundulu Niloofar of the Fyskar, and I am rightful Righ of those that are left of my small domain. I am the last king of my people, the last Pictish Laird of the isles. Albin and Callum are Flath and royal heirs to the land of the Fyskar.”
“Eoin.” Mirza’s fingers tightened on his physician’s hands. Eoin absorbed the pure note wrapped around his name in the void before letting go of the connection. “Niloofar.” Mirza lifted the heavy crown from Eoin’s wobbling fingers. The physician dropped his hands away from the immense piece.
Mirza fingered the drops of gold thread and freshwater pearls. “It is a beautiful crown. I have not had the privilege of observing one of such intricacy closely before. In travels to the edge of our domain, I have seen many headdresses of chiefs and leaders. None have spoken of such wealth or reverence.” He appraised the ten-hand length antlers. At twelve pounds of gold, gemstones, and bone, the crown was a dominant fixture in the courtyard.
He raised it to the sun, casting blue sparks across the tiles. The stones clinked in a soft cascade. Turning to his physician, he did the one thing Eoin had not expected from him. He slipped the ring over Eoin’s head, holding it to allow him to pull his hair into order. The weight settled heavily on his neck when Mirza let go. The antlers swept back from his temples. Eoin had never worn it before and was surprised at the sensation. The threads cascaded around his shoulders and down his back to place him in a veil of jewels. He looked up at the prince, confused. “Righ Eoin Impundulu Niloofar, ruler of the Fyskar,” Mirza pronounced the title carefully in English.
Mirza? Eoin asked.
“Righ, I thought he was a Flath?” Seonaid whispered to Fearchar under her breath. Vanora chattered at her question.
“His father, the last Righ, is dead, Seo.” Fearchar observed the giant.
Mirza turned to Eoin’s companions. Fearchar and Seonaid had the wherewithal to show the royal a modicum of respect. Fearchar bowed deeply, and Seonaid dropped into a practised curtsy. Seonaid glanced to Eoin’s hands, as did Mirza, to watch his translation of the introductions.
“Ah am Fearchar, formerly of clan MhicFhionghain, now of clan Fyskar. T’is my wife Seonaid, formerly of clan MhicLeod, now too of clan Fyskar. We ‘ave come in service a’ Righ, Laird, Duine Naomh na coille, Each Geal, Eoin Impundulu Niloofar a’ clan Fyskar, yer Highness.” Fearchar spread his bow a level farther. Dropping so many titles at once was tricky.
Mirza glanced to Eoin’s flying fingers for a clearer translation. Explain, please? He asked after the unfamiliar terms Eoin had to spell.
King, overseer of the land, Holy Saint of the Forest, the high priest, White Horse, the conjunction of the soul and the person, Eoin, the White Bird, the Water-Lily of the people of the Fyskar.
Mirza’s eyes rounded at the lengthy explanation. You are a holy man?
To my people, I am. I stand between birth and death, between female and male, between pure and poison. I connect the spirit to the land. I walk the Forest and guide those who have passed on across the River. I am not what you understand as a holy person, that which my sons’ study under. He hedged. Mirza was accepting of Henri’s Huguenot ways and tended to be open to visiting emissaries who practised other faiths. Eoin had never told him, never felt it would matter to him.
Mirza nodded to Fearchar before commanding the guards back to their positions and heading for the palace. Eoin didn’t have enough time to explain what was happening, only enough to move for Fearchar and Seonaid to follow him in. The coolness of the halls was a breath of fresh air compared to the heat that burned across the tiles outside.
“Impundulu! You’re alive!” Amina bustled down the hallway, followed closely by Tau, bearing falconry gauntlets and hoods.
“We heard you’ve come home and brought people with you!” Tau encompassed Eoin in a hug with Amina before remembering their presence in front of Mirza. Eoin slipped his memories into his family, letting them see the quick flashes of what had transpired during his trip and explaining Vanora to them. When they released him, they turned to the bird, Amina wary of the immense creature. She looked to Tau for directions.
Eoin motioned Seonaid forward. Amina, this is Seonaid and Vanora.
“Should I be handling the bird, Impundulu? Is it safe?” Amina turned from Eoin to Tau.
Seonaid stared in fascination between the two. “He told me about you both, but you’re both more beautiful than he expressed. I’m sorry. That’s not- I mean, you’re probably here just for the bird. He’s told us a lot about you, and I just didn’t think.” A blush ran up her ears.
Mirza watched the interchange in fascination as Eoin worked through translation of Seonaid’s comments and Amina’s embarrassment. It had been a long time in an empty palace since he had seen his physician’s dance or heard his speech with the people he called family.
A bit of work and a lot of encouragement from Tau had Vanora transferred to Amina’s hand from Seonaid’s. It had taken longer to explain the bird’s fidgety nature around men than for the bird to step up to Tau’s oversized glove on Amina’s hand. Tau helped her back down the hallway, gently instructing her every time the creature shifted.
Eoin turned back to Mirza, his task of seeing Vanora safely taken care of finished. The giant motioned his guards to open his chamber doors and welcomed the entourage into the receiving room. The prince motioned to a set of chairs facing his long, raised bench. He seated himself on his rugs, lounging contentedly into the pillows. Fearchar and Seonaid seated themselves nervously.
Be patient. Eoin put up a pair of hands to still his companions, hoping to calm the tension he was getting from them. The guards were not keen to leave their prince, but with a sharp command, they grudgingly left the room.
Mirza sat languidly, watching, waiting for the click of the door as it closed. His physician quietly dropped the bar across the entrance to lock it from the inside. Touching a tongue to dry lips, he swivelled to meet Mirza’s eyes. “Eoin.” The prince held a manicured hand to the white-haired man.
Stay, Eoin demanded of his compatriots. He paused for the briefest of seconds before stepping between Seonaid and Fearchar’s chairs to the prince. The black-haired man, disregarding his audience, hungrily watched Eoin approach him. The prince smoothly traced his finger up Eoin’s chain, pulling it carefully to him. Eoin took his hand lightly, his chain in the palm of the prince’s hand. The prince pulled Eoin to stand in front of him. Fearchar’s breathing shallowed. Scarlet swept over Eoin’s cheeks as his eyelashes drifted to hide his expression. Seonaid reached across to grasp Fearchar’s hand hard. The prince pulled the physician closer. Mirza caressed one of Eoin’s legs, encouraging him to rest his knee on the bench, partially straddling him.
Fearchar shifted. The prince’s eye rolled to the side to pin Fearchar to his chair. Fairchar’s heart hammered in his chest as the prince wrapped his other hand around the back of Eoin’s neck, pulling his head down to kiss him. Off-balance, Eoin pressed the heel of his hand into the prince’s shoulder, his fingers pulling at the fabric. The prince’s hand returned to climb up Eoin’s leg, firmly cupping his upper thigh under his kilt. A tremor ran up the white-haired man’s back. The jewels of his crown clicked and shifted in the silence.
A heart beat painfully across the space. Fearchar erupted from where he sat. His short chair scraped against the tile. The prince regarded Fearchar’s outburst for a terse second before releasing Eoin from the kiss. He turned his full attention to Fearchar.
“Laird!” Fearchar called out to Eoin, fury and fire raising his hackles. The prince whispered something demanding. Eoin swung his glazed, unfocused eyes to Fearchar and Seonaid.
“I would ask, Mirza, if you still plan for me to marry your sister, that you do not touch me again. She will know of you and me, and I do not feel that will bode well within the palace.” Eoin pushed back a distance from the black-haired man in the void.
“Would you like that? To be free of my embrace. To have a woman’s company in your bed? You’ve brought your own. My sister will not protest such an arrangement. She grew up in the harem as all my siblings and I did. It is not an unfamiliar circumstance to live in.” Mirza stayed back from his physician’s pacing.
“No, you fool. I don’t want her company.” Eoin turned back to his prince.
“What is it that you want, Eoin? Tell me, and I will give you anything within my power to provide you with.” Mirza reached for Eoin’s fingers in the void.
“You withheld yours when I withheld mine. You wouldn’t even allow those of the palace to use it around me. Tell me your formal name, Mirza.” Eoin turned away from the man but held his hand, though it shook with nervousness.
Mirza tugged at Eoin’s hand until the white-haired man fell into his embrace. “Shahazedah Marduk, fourth Mirza for the seat of Jabal Alnasr,” Mirza whispered tenderly against Eoin’s ear.
“Marduk. Never ask me to marry anyone else again.” Eoin looked up into his prince’s dark eyes. “I prefer keeping your bed warm at night. Let us continue the way we were before I left. Let me be safe in the confines of these walls. I have seen the world twice over. I want my apothecary and to see to the health of the family. Let me be free in my own small way. I am done with the witch hunts, the running, the hiding. Keep your wives, find your lovers when you tire of my talents. I want to grow old in safety.”
Mirza’s heart beat hard in Eoin’s void. He could taste the nervous energy flowing from the giant at the proposition. “You would have me after I bound you to me?” Mirza ran his fingers along Eoin’s gold bracers.
“As my red marks are my bonds with my husband and my wife, so are these gold jesses my bonds with you. I allowed what you did to me, Mirza. At every moment you and I could touch, I held your life in my hands. Even here and now. I can see your heart in my palms, beating with trepidation.
“I didn’t have to leave the Isle and my grandmother. I didn’t have to travel to England. I didn’t need to take that ship to Morocco. I didn’t have to follow Amina to Egret’s Nest. I could have escaped from Cairo. My decisions have led me here.” Eoin tunnelled his fingers in Mirza’s hair to draw his face closer. He pressed his lips to his prince’s, relishing the flavour of mint and rose.
Mirza softened to Eoin’s persistent demand. “And your lovers?” He pulled back to look over Eoin’s feverish face.
“I promised you one day I would show you what a White Horse could do.” Eoin was losing his logic to the eddies of emotion pushing at his void from Mizra.
“You said it would be dangerous with more than me.” Mizra ran his fingers down Eoin’s chest to brush along the edge of the blue kilt.
“For no one other than myself. It was a moot point until now, regardless. I could not join you in your harem due to social etiquette. I would not bear taking one of your women like they are property just to satisfy my lust and your curiosity. I would not ask you to hide the presence of any child I sired.” Eoin drew his fingers along Mirza’s arms.
“Then why?” Mirza was deeply confused.
Eoin grinned up at the man, his eyes flashing a feral green. “It’s a craving I am left with for the talents I possess and sating that desire? I live on that high, eat and drink it, and I hadn’t tasted it for so long.”
Mirza pulled back from Eoin’s void. “Call them to you, White Bird.”
Eoin held out his hand. Fearchar looked the prince up and down before drawing in a breath and forcing himself to walk to his Laird’s side, without knife drawn. Seonaid stood to follow her husband, furious with the situation.
Eoin grasped their hands in his, never breaking contact with the prince, and pulled them into the void.
A crashing torrent wrapped around them, heat burning through the whirlpool. Tension flew across their skin, stretching their senses taught. Fearchar breathed in the heavy tug that settled low and throbbed. He tuned to Seonaid’s instant reaction, the rolling bands of electricity rippling up her chest. In the centre of the torrent was Eoin, bending to every push and pull of the flow. Wrapped around him was the prince, holding dearly to him.
“So, you have met my physician.” The giant fingered Eoin’s hair, dragging his scent deep into his lungs.
“Ye’ve captured our Righ ‘n the Laird’s bairns,” Fearchar stated defiantly. Anger flared out from him, wrapped with a burning lust he refused to tamp.
“He said you make for a respectable bodyguard, and your wife is capable with his signs and reading.” The prince stopped gazing at his physician hungrily to truly study the couple. Eoin had allowed these people into himself. The physician must have his reasons. Fearchar backed up a step, pushing Seonaid behind him.
“I will not be your slave,” Seonaid held onto the back of Fearchar’s great kilt, curling the fabric in her fingers.
“I would not dream of calling your wife such a horrid word.” The prince placated Fearchar.
“And yet that is what Eoin is here, is he not? Or Amina? Tau? Callum? Albin? Those chains…those bracers…” Seonaid demanded of the giant. Fearchar dearly wanted for her to stop poking the hornet nest.
The prince smiled weakly. “He is my physician.” He pressed a hungry kiss to Eoin’s neck.
“Call him what you will. That chain is still there. He is still a slave,” Seonaid bristled.
Mirza glanced up at her, momentarily thinking. Dropping his gaze to Eoin’s skin, he ran a hand up the bracer to gather the chain tightly. “I give him freedom and all that he desires, as I give to his children and the families he has brought within these walls with him.” The prince pinched the gold chain in Eoin’s void, the links shattering. In the dimness, they watched Eoin’s bracers, and anklets dissolve into a set of four red bands, one on each wrist and ankle. Fearchar stared at the men, baffled.
Seonaid approached them. “Eoin?” she whispered. She could no longer identify the many emotions swirling around her. “Eoin, are you all right?”
He looked up at her, his glassy eyes glowing against pale skin. Two was his limit, and Mirza had always had more to give than most. These three were too much. The heat, the pressure, the high he was floating on. His flath crown gleamed in the light. “Join me.” His voice cracked, begged. He smiled weakly, falling into the tide swamping them. The wave promised he would never come out of the drowning torrent. This was what he had wanted, to escape into that high and sear away every scarring memory. In the end, he would lose memories to this night, but it would be worth it.
Hands kneaded. Fearchar’s teeth nipped at Eoin’s shoulder. Seonaid’s hand crept down his sides, her fingers brushing the line of his kilt. His prince pressed and teased. Eoin shifted, allowing Mirza more access. His teeth chewed on his lower lip as his head leaned back to the flow of hands across his body and through his mind. The pressure built as emotions rushed and pulsated across their connection. They had fallen under the spell of a drowning White Horse.
Chapel Orahamm (C) 2022-2023. All Rights Reserved.
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