June’s book of the month is an oldie but goodie. WaterBrook Press is repackaging some older titles, among them the Heirs of Cahira O’Connor Series. The first book, THE SILVER SWORD, has just been released . . . and the price is a bargain (only $6.99!)
Here’s a review from the Amazon.com page:
And a sneak peek at the prologue:
Even from across the library I could feel the stranger’s eyes upon me. “Just ignore him and he’ll go away,” I muttered to myself, clicking furiously at the computer keyboard. From the corner of my eye, I could still see him—a soft little man of late middle age, with features delicately carved with lines of concern and a small round paunch bulging over the waistband of his trousers.
The screen before me flickered a moment, then brightened as the slow modem received its transmission. When in the world had the college installed this computer, anyway? Nineteen ninety-three?
Despite the modem’s glacial slowness, the good old World Wide Web had not disappointed. The search engine pulled up twenty-eight references to “piebaldism,” the topic I’d chosen for my research project. I only had to investigate the most promising leads, and maybe I’d have enough information to keep my writing prof happy. I hoped these links contained something useful, because twenty-eight references were not exactly a lot of material. Just for fun, a few minutes earlier I had typed in my name, “Kathleen O’Connor,” and the Internet search engine had pulled up over sixty-six thousand references to “O’Connor” and/or “Kathleen.”
“Excuse me, Miss O’Connor?” I looked up. The strange man stood beside me now, his shoulders hunched in a touching sort of dignity, his wool hat in his hand. A thin, carefully clipped mustache rode his upper lip, and his face seemed firmly set in deep thought.
“Yes?” I gave him a polite smile. No use in letting him know I was ready to scream for security if he turned out to be some kind of kook.
“I pray you will pardon what must certainly be an untimely intrusion,” the man said, a note of apology in his voice. “Let me introduce myself. I am Henry Howard, a professor of European History here at the college. And though you must pardon my inquisitiveness, I asked the librarian for your name. She said you come here often.”
Didn’t all English majors live in the library? Not knowing quite how to respond, I nodded. “Nice to meet you, Professor Howard,” I said, glancing back toward the computer screen. “But I’m in the middle of researching my semester project and there are others waiting to use the computer.”
“I don’t mean to intrude.” He tightened his hold on his hat. “But I couldn’t help noticing your hair. It is quite lovely. And quite. . .unusual.”
Was that some sort of pickup line? Murmuring a quiet “thank you,” I turned back toward the computer and typed my name, hoping to convince him I had things to do. I’ve heard comments about my hair for most of my life, and if this man had some sort of hair fetish, I didn’t want to encourage him. Most people either love my hair or hate it, depending upon whether they consider redheads temperamental or spirited.
Professor Howard had not taken the hint. “That streak near your temple—“
I cut my gaze back to him, ready to blast him with a withering stare.
With one hand he pointed toward my head in a tentative gesture. “I know this may be a bold question, but is that discoloration natural? It appears to be, and it is quite distinctive, but you never can tell with young girls these days. One of my nieces has painted a black stripe down the center of her head.” He shrugged helplessly as his voice drifted away, but his gaze remained locked with mine. Didn’t he have enough sense to be embarrassed by his bad manners?
“The streak is natural,” I answered quickly, determined to be done with him. “I’ve had it since childhood.”
“Did your mother—“ The professor hesitated and gripped his hat again. Maybe he did realize he was being nosy. “Did either of your parents have such a discoloration? Or one of your grandparents?”
“I don’t think so,” I answered. In spite of my annoyance, my confounded curiosity—the character flaw my mother always predicted would get me into trouble—rose up like a kite. Did he want to interview me for some kind of genetics study? No, he had said he taught in the history department, not the college of sciences.
“I wondered.” A smile found its way through the mask of uncertainty on his face. “You must think me terribly rude, badgering you with questions of such a personal nature, but I couldn’t stop myself when the librarian told me your name. The O’Connor clan of Ireland has a bit of lore attached to it—mythological lore, really—but when I saw you and heard your name—well, I thought it would be lovely if the story were true.”
I leaned back and crossed my arms, still studying his face. I hated to admit it, but this rambling professor had really intrigued me. I have always been interested in genealogy, but since returning to college I stayed so busy trying to juggle my part-time job with writing assignments that I scarcely had time to read a newspaper, much less research my family tree.
Maybe it wouldn’t hurt to indulge the professor for a moment or two. “What lore?” I rested my elbow on the table, then propped my chin on my hand. “I know very little about my family.”
“Ah. If you’ll permit me–” The professor pulled a chair from the empty carrel next to mine, then sat down, resting his hat on his knees. “The O’Connors ruled over medieval Ireland as warrior kings of Connacht. From the day the Normans first entered Ireland the O’Connors served as faithful allies of the English sovereigns, but in 1235, treacherous Norman foot-soldiers and archers crossed the Shannon River and killed the ruling O’Connors in their ancestral home. That much we know as fact. But it’s what we don’t know for certain that fascinates me.”
He lowered his voice and leaned forward as if he were divulging a great secret. “It is said that Cahira, daughter of the great king Rory O’Connor, lay in childbirth as the attack began. She was delivered of a son on that fateful day, and as the murdering Normans entered the castle a serving maid spirited the baby away. The men had been dispatched to the towers and defensive positions; most were dead or dying. Cahira, still weak from childbirth, chose to defend her home rather than flee with her child.”
Slowly and deliberately, the professor removed his glasses, then began to wipe them with a handkerchief from his jacket pocket. “According to legend, Cahira picked up a sword to defend the chamber in which she and her ladies had taken refuge,” he said, critically examining the lenses of his glasses before returning them to the bridge of his nose. “They resisted in a valiant display of courage, but the women were no match for the professional knights. And as Cahira lay dying of a wound from a Norman blade, she lifted her hand toward heaven and beseeched God that others would follow after her, ‘bright stars who would break forth from the courses to which they are bound and restore right in this murderous world of men.’”
The professor told the story in a smooth, almost soothing voice, but I felt my heart rate increasing with every word. Why did the story move me? And why was I sitting here listening to this fanciful and melodramatic professor when I had a project to begin? This warrior princess and I had the same last name, but surely we had about as much in common as an apple and an oyster.
“That’s an interesting story.” I smiled at Professor Howard and picked up my pencil. “But I really need to get back to work.”
Apparently not one to be easily dissuaded, Professor Howard straightened himself in his chair. “There is more to the tale, Miss O’Connor. Cahira had red hair, too. In fact, seeing you made me think of her.” He gave me a slightly reproachful look. “I had hoped you might be acquainted with her story.”
Did he think all redheads pledged themselves to some kind of secret club? “No, I don’t know much about Irish history,” I answered, waving my pencil and hoping he’d take the hint. “I’m an English major. And I have this project to do—“
“Cahira also had a streak of white hair near her left temple.” His eyes gleamed with a curious intensity. “I have seen an artist’s rendering of the princess. If I believed in such possibilities, I would think you could be her sister.”
That remark left me speechless. All my life I have been teased about the sprout of white hair that grows from my left temple. As a kid my friends called me names ranging from “skunk head” to “Cruella DeVil.” As a teenager I tried everything from dye to lightening the rest of my hair to match the streak, but that area of my scalp had a will of its own. Lately I’d learned to leave my hair alone. I had finally reached a place where I could just roll my eyes at what the world thought of my looks; too many other things demanded my attention. Sometimes I almost forgot I had a freakish white sprout growing from the side of my head.
But people like Professor Howard were always reminding me. And he wanted me to believe I might be related to some Irish princess who apparently cursed her descendants to roam in the stars or some such silly thing.
I shook my head and protectively tucked my strand of white hair behind my ear. “Thanks for sharing that story, professor, but this streak is a result of piebaldism. That area of my scalp doesn’t produce pigment. My situation isn’t as pronounced as someone with albinism, but the condition is similar.”
“I know,” Professor Howard answered, a small, fixed smile on his face. “Piebaldism is inherited. And yet you say neither your parents nor your grandparents share this condition. Is there, perhaps, an aunt or an uncle, probably on your father’s side—“
I held up my hand, cutting him off. “No one. But the gene could have come from some great aunt, for all I know. O’Connors are everywhere.”
“As scattered as the Irish.” He stared at me in silence for a moment, his eyes gleaming with interest, then pulled a card from his coat pocket. “I believe, my dear, that you may be directly descended from Cahira O’Connor. I know it sounds unlikely, but what’s the harm in a little investigation? If you’d like some guidance, here’s my office number. If I’m not in the office, one of my student aides will take a message.” He leaned forward and clapped his hands to his knees. “Call me if you have any interest in learning more, Miss O’Connor. I have several books which should interest you.”
Not knowing what else to do, I took the card. Professor Howard stood, nodded regally, then threaded his way through the carrels until he disappeared from sight.
The card he had placed in my hand was simple and direct:
I stared at it for a moment, then felt a blush burn my cheeks. If this was Professor Howard’s technique for introducing himself to young women, I had to admit his approach was unique. Of course I had no intention of contacting him again, but in the space of a few moments he had spun a story that brought me from complete disinterest to fascination.
“Excuse me, but are you about finished here? I need to use the computer.”
A grungy-looking guy in a tee shirt and jeans spoke up behind me, and his question caught me off guard. “Um, I’m just starting,” I said, glancing at my watch. “And I’m signed on for another fifteen minutes. Check the reservation sheet at the reference desk.”
The guy snorted and moved away, but I knew he’d be back, circling like a hungry trout. I had to get to work.
I was about to crumple the professor’s card and toss it toward the nearest trash can when a sudden thought struck me. Since I was researching piebaldism, why not focus my topic a little? What could it hurt? Almost without thinking, I entered the command for a new search. “Find piebaldism and O’Connor,” I murmured as I typed. If the gene really did run in the O’Connor family, there might be some record of other O’Connors with piebaldism.
Searching. . .
I drummed my fingers on the desk, waiting for the ancient modem to search and report. The professor had made Cahira’s story sound romantic and dashing, but her curse or prophecy or whatever-you-want-to-call it hadn’t made a bit of sense. What was that bit about bright stars in their courses? Total drivel. Poetic, yes, but drivel nonetheless. Maybe the professor had overdosed on his morning coffee and caffeine had kicked his imagination into high gear.
Search results. . . four.
I took a quick, sharp breath as the computer screen flashed again:
Piebaldism and O’Connor:
Rory O’Connor, the last king of Ireland, killed in the Norman Invasion in 1235. . . Survivors in that bloody attack included a grandson, who was spirited away from his mother’s arms as the Normans attacked. According to legend, the child’s mother, Cahira O’Connor, rose up from her bed of travail to wield a sword against the enemy, but scholars believe this may be an anecdotal myth fabricated to ennoble the sufferings of a murdered Irish princess. Cahira was noted for her exceptional beauty and a bold white streak through her red hair, one of the earliest recorded instances of piebaldism. . .
The Hussite Crusades: holy wars launched by Pope Martin V against the followers of Jan Hus, a Bohemian reformer. Among Hus’s more influential followers was Anika of Prague, a fifteenth century woman who fought as a knight prior to the Hussite Crusades. Annals of that time record an unusual white streak through the hair situated over her left ear, probably the result of piebaldism. Several chroniclers report that she claimed to spring from the ancestral throne of the O’Connors, ancient kings of Ireland.
Pirates and Seafaring, women at sea: Aidan O’Connor, a seventeenth century woman described by her contemporaries as a “spirited lass with flaming hair marked by spout of gold,” undoubtedly a case of piebaldism. The daughter of a cartographer, she disguised herself as a common sailor to go exploring, fought pirates, and eventually commanded the vessel.
Civil War, women in battle: Flanna O’Connor, a nineteenth century Georgia woman who disguised herself as a soldier and fought in the Civil War at her brother’s side. Commonly known as the Pale Ghost, she was as well known for her ability to rescue captured comrades from behind enemy lines as for the singular pale streak which ran through her red hair. See piebaldism.
All my previous plans faded like a bad radio signal. Could Professor Howard’s story be true? Could there really be a link between these O’Connor women and the unusual physical characteristic we all shared? What were the odds that three women—four, counting Cahira herself—would share the same physical characteristic and risk their lives in war?
The idea was extremely far fetched, and yet there was a certain symmetry to it. What had the professor told me? A dying woman had begged God to allow bright stars to break forth from the courses to which they were bound and restore right in the murderous world of men–
My thoughts halted as abruptly as if they’d hit a brick wall. Of course! The bright stars were women! Cahira had barricaded herself in that chamber with the women of the castle. And, knowing that the men had gone to defend the fortress, she had stepped out of her roles as mother and daughter and princess in order to pick up a sword and fight. In that hour of weakness and fear, she may have regretted her feebleness and femininity.
My imagination caught the image. I could almost see this woman, drenched in sweat, her limbs still trembling from the exertions of labor and childbirth, her husband’s heavy sword in her hand. Her maidservants were doubtless around her, some crying, some cowering, a few helping the nurse and infant escape through a tunnel or window. And Cahira, knowing that her situation was hopeless, begging God to allow her descendants to live and grow strong in order to restore right in a savage world.
And they had! Or had they?
The back of my neck burned with excitement while a curious, tingling shock numbed both my brain and my fingertips on the keyboard. Professor Howard had slipped his little story into my fevered imagination, and now I was delirious with discovery, having validated his so-called myth.
But it was too easy, far too simple. Had I really stumbled onto something the professor did not know—or had I been set up?
I cleared the computer screen and reran the search through a different search engine, this time reversing the order. “Search for O’Connor and piebaldism,” I muttered, typing. I hit the enter key and clicked my nails on the desk in a flood of anticipatory adrenaline.
There was no way Professor Howard could know that I’d actually run a computer search to test his little story. And if I had searched only for O’Connors, I would have pulled up thousands of references, too many to fully investigate. Maybe the link of piebaldism had never occurred to anyone else. I did have a special interest in the subject, after all.
Searching. . .
The computer beeped as the screen filled with the exact four references I had seen earlier. Cahira of the thirteenth century, Anika of the fifteenth, Aidan of the seventeenth, Flanna of the nineteenth. All warrior women descended from the O’Connors, and all similar in appearance.
The possibility of a link between them seemed crazy, absolutely fantastic, but what if my hypothesis were true? These four women had each lived two hundred years apart, in different countries, under vastly different conditions. None of them would have known the others existed. And yet they were all O’Connors, they had all fought as men for at least a brief span of time, and all of them had red hair marked by a streak of white–
Just like me. My mouth flew open in numb astonishment. I am about to enter the twenty-first century, two hundred years after Cahira’s last warrior descendant. Could I be. . . the next one?
The thought was too incredible to comprehend. My fingers began to tremble as fearful images built in my fevered imagination. Were the histories of these women somehow tied into my future? I was a student, not a soldier, but did some global tragedy or struggle lie beyond tomorrow’s sunset? The idea seemed ridiculous, totally implausible, but I’d still be in my twenties at the turn of the century, young enough to bear the blessing—or curse—of Cahira O’Connor, if such a thing really existed.
Whoa, Kathleen! You’ve read too many books, seen too many far out movies. You asked the computer for entries with two terms in common. Out of thousands, no, millions of web pages on the Internet, you shouldn’t be surprised that something surfaced. Professor Howard’s odd devotion to that myth spooked you, that’s all. And it’s late. You’re tired. And you’re facing a deadline.
I put my hand on the mouse and cleared the screen, but thoughts of Cahira and her descendants persisted. How could the strange timing—every two hundred years—be explained by mere chance? And how could four women have the piebald patch in exactly the same place? And I hadn’t searched for links about women who lived as men, that fact had simply come out of nowhere.
I whipped open my spiral notebook and turned to a clean page. If I couldn’t let it go, I could investigate. I’d change my topic for my semester project, and instead of researching piebaldism, I’d explore the histories of Anika of Prague, Aidan of Avonmore, and Flanna the Pale Ghost. And maybe, if I had time and my professor approved, I’d do a background check on Cahira herself.
And if by chance I discovered that Professor Howard was a lonely man pulling some sort of academic scam, I’d publish my findings in the college newspaper and expose the creep. But if he had told the truth, he might have just changed my life.
The first red-headed wonder was Anika of Prague, the woman who fought as a knight—in an actual suit of armor?—in Bohemia.
Bohemia? In my adolescent days, my mother had often accused me of being bohemian, but I don’t think she intended it to be a compliment.
I entered the name “Bohemia” into the computer’s reference book program and pressed the enter key. Thirty seconds later, there it was:
Bohemia, (bo-hê¹mê-e) an historic region of 20,368 square miles bordered by Austria (SE), Germany (W, NW), Poland (N, NE), and Moravia (E). The traditional capital is Prague. With the dissolution of Czechoslovakia (1993), the region became part of the Czech Republic. In the 15th cent. Bohemia was the scene of the Hussite religious movement . . .
Bingo. According to the other search, my girl Anika followed a man called Hus. As excited as a cat at a mouse show, I hit the “print” button and skimmed the entry again. I could look up “Hus” and do a bit of checking on this Hussite movement. And maybe there’d be something under “Czechoslovakia” about this Anika of Prague.
And that’s how it began—a quirk of fate, if you believe in such things, I tend to think it was a divine appointment. But in that minute I just knew I had to find all I could about Anika . . . because in learning about her past, I just might learn something about my own future.
I typed her name into another search program and snapped the enter key.
Searching. . .
Tomorrow: how the idea germinated.