Authors: Laura Parker
Tears cascaded down Meghan’s cheeks. She hated the dull-red mark that turned the color of blood when she was frightened or blushed. Once, when she was eight, she had tried to scrape it off with a piece of bark, but Una had caught her at it and had given her a sound thrashing with a switch. Una said it was not her place to deny what she had been given at birth and that she must live with the burden of the mark.
Ever since Meghan had been old enough to remember, the clansmen of Ulster had viewed her with suspicion. They whispered among themselves and made the sign of the cross when they glimpsed her cheek, as though they might become tainted by her presence. Yet, the wariness of the clansmen was better than the utter fear she invoked among the peasant herdsmen of Louth. No one in the settlements surrounding the O’Neill clan fortress at Lough Neagh had ever raised a hand against her. She had been safe there in Ulster; it made no sense for her and Una to have left. Surely Una would change her mind and take her home again.
One night, a little more than a year ago, Una had suddenly packed their meager belongings and brought her south from their homeland. Una had not explained the need for the sudden journey, nor had she allowed Meghan to show her face at all once they set out. They had journeyed south for days until they reached the county of Louth. For the last year they had lived here in seclusion, hidden from the world and from the joy of being with other people.
Meghan sniffed back new tears. She was so lonely, more so in the last few months than ever before in her life. In all her life she had never had a friend. Even in Ulster, those few brave souls who came to call on Una were careful not to stare at Meghan or touch anything she touched. She liked people and envied the happiness of the families she sometimes glimpsed when they did not know she was about. That was why, when Una was away bargaining for goods in a neighboring settlement, Meghan would crouch in the reeds on the bank of the
river to watch the herders who lived in the clearing near the forest.
She had been going there this morning, just to watch and wait, and to sound the cry of alarm if the boar of her nightmare appeared. Long ago she had learned to heed the warnings of the “sight,” as Una called her troubled dreams. But she must have been observed on an earlier visit, because men had been waiting in ambush when she arrived at the water’s edge. If not for her acute senses and her swift legs, she would have been caught.
The cold had seeped slowly into her body and now she began to shake like a leaf in the wind. Beneath her shift, the tips of her breasts puckered in a way that half-delighted, half-frightened her. Shyly she touched one breast, its tender fullness new and unfamiliar.
Within the past year her body had changed so quickly, creating new curves and hollows, that she could not become accustomed to one change before another surprised her. Only a few months earlier she had awakened to a gnawing ache in her lower belly and found herself bleeding below. Una had soothed her fright but warned her to expect such a thing to be a monthly occurrence thereafter.
“’Tis a sign that ye be a woman now, and sure ’tis cause enough for lament,” Una had said, and then had refused to discuss it further.
Suddenly and inexplicably ashamed, she jerked her hand away from her breast and wrapped her arms tightly across her bosom. Una said that the changes of her body were manifestations of the devil, charms to tempt a mortal man’s soul. Una had said it, with a twinkle in her eyes, Meghan remembered, but that did not allay the uncomfortable feeling that her kinswoman was speaking the truth.
But why should the devil do such a thing to her? She had seldom been in the company of men; the only one she had ever exchanged more than a word with was an Ulster monk who had regularly visited them to instruct her in reading and
writing. Yet, the herders, too, called her a devil. Were they right? Did her mark make her so ugly that men could not bear to look upon her face?
With a shuddering sigh, Meghan leaned back against the tree trunk and stretched her legs out along the limb. Only then did she notice that her legs were criss-crossed with fine bloody scratches that had begun to sting and itch. Rubbing the chafed skin only smeared the blood. After a moment she gave up and stared at her hands. The fingertips were badly scraped, as were the soles of her feet. In consternation she examined the tear in her shift, which exposed her from armpit to waist. Sharp-eyed Una would be sure to ask how she had come to such mischief.
Remembering the dead man, she groaned in sorrow. If Una threatened her with a thrashing for spilling a crock of milk, Una would surely beat her mercilessly for having roused the herders against them. She must do something, and quickly.
Following an urge that had been with her since childhood, Meghan sought the sky. Moving steadily up the tree, she concentrated on the changing patterns and colors of the canopy of leaves. Finally, near the top, she pushed back a branch that blocked her view and smiled up into the warmth of the early-morning sun.
In the distance, the tops of the Mourne Mountains rose above the mists, their rugged forms littered with ancient gray boulders and clinging wet grasses. Here and there, a hillside pasture was visible, its lush greenness bringing unexpected tears to Meghan’s eyes. Overhead, a lark called, its note sweet and clear as the blue sky on which sea clouds sailed. She was at the top of the world.
The thought quickened Meghan’s pulse. The dazzling gold and green shimmer of beauty lifted her spirits out of a world of misery. She no longer feared the dark forest below with its deep shadows and uncertainties. Surely the peace and happiness that now was just beyond her reach would someday be hers.
The branch she stood upon was slim and supple, swaying and dipping playfully beneath her weight in the spring breeze. Perhaps by summer Una could be persuaded to give up this hiding and return to Ulster.
“Please, soon!” Meghan whispered fervently to the day.
The climb down to the ground took longer than the climb up. When she touched the damp earth once more, Meghan was again hushed and worried. She had yet to find a way to keep Una from being suspicious about her appearance. As she reached down to scratch a new itch, an idea came to her. She would bathe in the pond at the edge of the oak grove; that would remove the dirt and soothe her scratches.
She made her way toward the water confidently. The herdsmen believed her a demon capable of turning herself into a wild boar at will, and they would undoubtedly come again into the forest to search for her, but she knew they would not follow her to the pond: they thought it was enchanted.
When she reached the marshy waters of the small pond, she stood for a moment watching a water bug skimming across the glassy surface. The pond was little more than a sunken bog, its surface deceptively calm. In its amber and brown depths lay a swaying forest of reeds in which an unsuspecting swimmer might be caught.
Certain that she was alone, Meghan stripped off her tunic, flung it on the bank, and dived head-first into the silent water, her knife still strapped to her wrist.
Her slim body slipped unimpeded through the soft, smooth water. Like a thousand gentle fingers the cold water soothed and caressed her body. Savoring the freedom of weightlessness, she arched her back and swam in slow, graceful somersaults just beneath the surface. Finally, when her need for air forced her to the top, she struck out with deliberate strokes across the water, her yard of blue-black hair trailing like a banner of silk ribbons.
As she had in the treetop, she felt the intoxication of happiness winding up through her. In the water she was as insubstantial as a leaf. Neither fish nor ducks resented her intrusion into their realm, nor did they care whether she was blemish-free or marked. They swam away only from the hands of predators. Ugliness did not frighten them.
Aye, I am ugly,
Meghan thought as she flipped over onto her back and opened her eyes to the hazy morning light. She had looked at her face often enough in the glassy surface of the pond to know.
She discounted the reflection of the large, velvety blue eyes that stared back at her from the green-brown water and the lustrous tangle of inky tresses that surrounded the delicate angles of her chin and brow. She saw none of her beauty, only the vivid birthmark that marred the creamy smooth texture of her left cheek. Sometimes she would squint until her image blurred and the red mark seemed only a shadow on her cheek. Then she could make believe that it was gone entirely. Or she would drape her hair forward over her left eye to cover the mark, and pretend that she looked like everyone else.
Yet, I am not like everyone else.
Meghan sighed and closed her eyes. She would not think about it.
The snort of a horse on the opposite bank took her by surprise. Alarmed, she slipped noiselessly beneath the surface. Several swift kicks carried her into the reeds growing thickly in the shallow water, and wriggling free of their slick coils, she came up for air among them. Then she crouched and waited.
Before long she heard the voices of her unwelcome companions. First there was a great splash beyond the sea of reeds where she hid, followed by a large dog’s joyful barking. In that instant the morning sky exploded with life as geese, ducks, and cranes took flight in fear for their lives. A moment later she heard a man’s shout.
“Heel, Ualter! Heel, you great beast!”
Meghan tensed. The words were spoken in a tongue which, though she did not speak it, she recognized as English.
When the dog continued to thrash at the water’s edge despite
its master’s command, the voice roared again, “Go ahead and drown yourself, you ungainly cur! I’ll not be sharing my cloak with you this night.”
Her heart pounding in fright for the second time that morning, Meghan slipped the knife from the thong that held it securely to her wrist. Its narrow but deadly blade shone like silver in the misty light as she waited behind the blind of weeds.
Perhaps, she hoped wildly, they would simply pass on. But that hope bolted when she heard the creak of saddle leather and the man dismounted with what sounded like a groan of pain. An instant later, the reeds behind her rustled and a covey of quail, flushed by the dog, raced toward the woods for cover.
Meghan gripped her knife more tightly. If the dog’s attention was drawn to the birds, he would surely spot her.
But the animal did not come her way. He was content, it seemed, to wade back and forth, barking incessantly. Finally, after another sharp command from his owner, he ceased barking and the splash of water died.
For a long, nervous minute Meghan remained perfectly still and listened. They were not going away. She could hear the man speaking softly in his unfamiliar tongue to his pet but she could not tell what they were doing. The voice came no closer, but it did not retreat.
Curious and needing the advantage of observation, Meghan reluctantly moved toward the voice, keeping only her head above the surface. The lazy ripples made by her passage were so slight that she knew no one would notice. At last she found a thinning in the pond weeds and looked for the first time at the intruder.
Ever after, whenever she saw something beautiful, she would remember that this man bathed in the morning light was more beautiful.
Angled sunlight, illuminating the pond mist like a sheer saffron flame, surrounded the man in a brilliant golden haze. Everything about him was golden, from the amber sheen of
his skin to the rich color of his hair, from which dawn’s light struck gilded sparks. He stood still, his face in three-quarters’ profile, and Meghan caught her breath. His was a mysterious face, unlike any she had ever seen before, with its smooth cheeks, straight mouth, and long jutting nose. Cut short, his fair hair waved closely about his head. He was bare to the waist, his green velvet doublet lying in the grassy bank. Broad in the shoulders, his tall and well-muscled form was lithe, not bulky.
As he moved toward the water, she noticed the bandage on his right forearm, through which blood had seeped, and the smears of mud on his boots and leggings and on his brow. He walked stiffly, as if he had injured his hip or knee, but at the water’s edge he dropped gracefully onto the grass and began muttering to himself. In quiet curiosity she watched him tug with difficulty at his thigh-high boots, speaking swear words that she did not need translated. He was injured and was impatient with his awkwardness.
Had he spoken her language she might have been tempted to aid him. But she was not certain that he was even real. The men who had chased her that morning were thick-bodied and hairy, their features half-hidden beneath unkempt beards and wild streaming hair that reached to the middle of their bare backs.
Once before, in Ulster, she had hidden and watched O’Neill warriors who stopped to camp near her home. They were muscular and tall and wore wolf skins and bright yellow mantles across their shoulders, which they shed to bathe in the Blackwater. Fascinated, she had stayed and watched until Una had come looking for her. And so she had learned that men were mostly the same. Save for the amount of hair on body and face, she had decided that the only difference among men was in their size.
But this man, if he was a man and not a fantasy, had scarcely any hair. What little there was was the color of wild honey.
Meghan still held her weapon. From the corner of her eye, she kept track of the overeager dog prancing back and forth behind his master. He was a huge beast, nearly as tall as she, with a reddish brown coat and dark markings on his ears and muzzle.