12 July 2012

Excerpt Thursday: FIRE & SILK by Erin O'Quinn

This week on Excerpt Thursday, we're welcoming historical romance author Erin O'Quinn. Her latest title, FIRE & SILK, is sent in ancient Ireland and made its debut this month. Join us Sunday, when Erin will be here to talk about the novel and offer a PDF copy to a lucky winner. Erin tells us a bit about the novel:

If you are familiar with northern Ireland, you know the name Inishowen, the northernmost promontory, part of Co. Donegal, that swells into the Sea of Éire. In the fifth century AD, it was called Inis-Owen, the Isle of Owen, after Owen MacNeill, one of the sons of the high king Niáll of the Nine Hostages. To the west lay Tyr-Conall, “the land of Conall,” named after Owen’s brother Conall Gulban and now called Donegal. And the land south of both was named Tyr-Owen, “the land of Owen.” Of course, this area is now Co. Tyrone. The following excerpt from Fire & Silk is a fictionalized account of how those lands got their name. Yet the derivations of the names are true and accurate.

Owen MacNeill is a character who has appeared in all my romance novels--a cripple, yet a man bigger than any around him, larger than life, a tragic figure who has just discovered his royal heritage. Here, the hero of the novel Flann O’Conall is taking his uncle Owen to see the brother he has never met. The hilltop where they stop is indeed called the Grianán, and it actually is the site of an ancient ring fort, as the narrative suggests. On the map, it is the narrow strip in yellow between the two large lakes.

**An Excerpt from Fire & Silk**

A curious procession moved south, beyond Snow Mountain. It bore slightly west, away from the worst of the foothills in the high pastureland. In front rode a quiet redheaded man on a black stallion. He turned his head often to gaze at the woman next to him, one whose long, dark hair lifted like wings around her face. 
He turned in the saddle to glance at his companions. Behind him, there rolled and rattled a vehicle borrowed from the poetry of the filí, bards of the kings. The man in the chariot was large and heavy browed, and he shouted out to a brace of strong horses as he guided the vehicle around a rocky outcropping or a small gully. Beside him sat a shapely little woman, her deeply black hair swept up with a large ivory bodkin, her eyes sometimes on the driver and sometimes gazing ahead.
Behind the chariot, three very large men sat astride horses, shouting and laughing, sometimes singing. And in the rear walked six packhorses. This was the caravan of Owen, King of Inishowen, who traveled to meet his own brother for the first time.
Above them, thin clouds, gray as dove feathers, flew south with the prevailing wind. Flann eyed the clouds from time to time, confident that the fair weather would continue for another day. It was important that when they reached the hilltop stone remnants, the Grianán, his Uncle Owen be afforded a clear view. 
This was the fifth day of their trek. This morning they had caught sight of the Swilly to the west, and Flann reckoned they would see the bird-shrouded island and the hill fort within the hour....
He turned Storm around and cantered alongside the chariot. Owen turned his eyes to the younger man in a silent question.
“There is a nearby hill,” Flann said. “A place I want ye to see. Can ye ride astride a horse?”
“I can, and I will,” Owen answered bluntly. 
“Then let us stop here. I give ye the stallion. And Moc, ye may have the dappled gelding.”
Flann signaled to his cousins, and the procession stopped. Murdoch dismounted and walked to the chariot. He and Flann stood a while talking, and then both men turned to Owen. Each of them grasped the brawny man by his shoulders and buttocks, and they lifted him from the chariot and set him high in the saddle. 
Mockingbird needed no help at all. She mounted Breac easily and waited for Owen. He grasped the pommel with one large hand and flicked the reins a little, urging the stallion onward.
Flann had stepped back, letting Owen and Moc lead the procession. The three MacOwen boys, now walking, were leading their own horses close to his flank, ready to catch their father if he should fall from the saddle. He and Mariana ... walked hand in hand behind all of them....
The hill was four or five hundred feet above the flat ground, and the incline was steep enough to force them into a slow, meandering path upward. Flann saw the first sign of the ancient ruined wall. He saw Owen point and say something to one of his attendant sons. In spite of the steepness, they all began to move faster, until finally, they stood on the crest of the sun-drenched hill.
He joined the others all grouped near and on the tumbled remains of the rock fortress. Everyone was looking down into the valley on the shining water of the Swilly and on a small island that seemed to lift and swell as the thousands of birds took off and landed on its surface.
Owen sat on the stallion, seeming to be frozen in place, his eyes more alive than Flann had seen them. “Tell me about this place,” he said without taking his eyes off the island.
“They call it the Grianán. I think the place itself used to be called the Kingdom of Aileach. Ye can see, I think, that it is several hundreds of years old. Here stood a fortress, Uncle Owen, I am sure of it.”
“I agree. Who destroyed it—and when? I think none will ever know.” He looked around the circumference of the stones. “Behold a tumulus—a burial mound, I think.” He urged Storm twenty feet beyond and sat looking at what to Flann seemed merely a small grassy hill on a hill. “Perhaps King Aileach himself lies under this mound.”
“If ye cast your eyes east, Uncle, ye may catch a glimmer of the River Foyle. About six or seven miles. There lies the bally of Derry.”
“Indeed?” Owen asked, a smile toying with his wide, narrow mouth. “Then this place where we stand lies between the Swilly and the Foyle, and the land south is unclaimed by any clan.”
“Ye’re right, Uncle. On the west stands the leg of your brother Conall. And on the east stands the leg of your brother Leary. The head is Inishowen—your head.”
“And the land south, nephew, must be my mighty groin, eh? I have often said I would capture my kingdom like a lover. And there she lies.”
He pulled the reins sideways, leading Storm to where Moc sat on the gelding, and he rode close enough to reach out and grasp her hand.
“Boys, cast your eyes on this place in the sun. It is well-named a grianán, like a summer house. D’ye think ye can have a new fortress built here?”
Fergus was clearly excited. “Yes, Father. After our visit with Uncle Conall, Echach and I can begin to gather men like milk cows and herd them to this high búaile. We will start to build right away.”
Owen looked at Flann. “Go raibh maith agat. My deepest thanks. You have awakened an old desire. This kingdom shall live again. We shall call it the Land of Owen, or Tyrone, from this day forward.”