Authors: Laura Parker
“Did you see her?” Revelin questioned as he scratched the ruff of fur under the dog’s chin. “Well? Where is she?”
As if the dog understood the question he stood up and ran a few feet away, then swung about and barked excitedly.
Revelin grinned. “You’re teasing. I believe you know nothing about her.”
Ualter’s ears lay back and then sprang forward again as he shot past his master and raced around the edge of the pond. Revelin watched skeptically as the dog rooted about in the tall grasses, frightening a flock of ducks who had thought themselves well hidden. In the meantime, Revelin reached for the first of his clothing and began to dress.
Finally, with a yelp of pleasure, Ualter grabbed a length of fabric and bounded back to his master.
“What is this?” Revelin murmured, then whistled appreciatively as he unfolded the cloth and realized it was a linen shirt like the local peasants wore. She had been naked.
This must belong to her. So she was real after all.
The thought gave him a warm rush of pleasure.
He folded the garment and tucked it into the front of his doublet. But when he had pulled on his hose and boots, he found himself staring out across the marshy waters in thoughtful contemplation. He had a desire to see the girl again. No, it was more like an urgent flood in his blood, quite unlike anything he had ever experienced before. Yet he did not know where to begin. She could be a member of any family within miles. The memory of wide blue eyes, unbound silky black
hair, and an astonishingly lovely face would be of little help.
Revelin closed his eyes, pushing impatiently against his lids with his thumb and forefinger. There must be something he could remember that would make his search easier. The memory came back so quickly and sharply that it made him laugh out loud.
“She wears a rose!” he said, bending over to lift Ualter’s muzzle and bring the dog’s eyes to meet his. “She has a blood-red rose upon her left cheek! With that mark we shall find her, Ualter. That we shall!”
“Ah well, it’s home ye’ve come at last,” Una remarked at the sound of footsteps. “Come in, lass.” She beckoned the shadow that paused in the doorway. “I’ve saved ye a wee morsel.”
Reluctantly, Meghan moved into the range of the dull glow from the smoky peat fire in the center of the floor.
“What’s—?” As Una’s gaze swept her niece’s nakedness, the handle of the butter churn slipped from her hands and she rose from her stool.
Belatedly, Meghan raised her hands to shield the parts of her body not hidden beneath the cascade of her hair, but she could not hide the fresh scratches on her arms and legs or the leaves and thistles that had caught in her hair as she ran home through the forest. The excitement and terror riding high and hard within her had crowded out consideration of anything until now.
A look of innocence came into her eyes. “Ach, Una. ’Tis not so bad as ye be thinking.”
“What am I thinking, lass?” Una pinned her with the full scrutiny of her canny gaze. “Ye run off before sunrise without a word, and now ye come back looking like the fairies pulled ye backwards through a bog. And where’s yer
Have ye no shame? Take me mantle and cover yerself,” she commanded as she swung the garment from her shoulders.
Guilt and misgiving chased across Meghan’s features as Una placed the mantle across her shoulders. The rough woolen fabric chafed her outraged skin but there was also warmth within its scratchy folds and she accepted it gratefully.
“Now…let’s have a look at ye.” Una gripped Meghan’s chin and tilted her face to the light to study her overly bright eyes. Where she was not splashed with mud, Meghan’s fair skin was rosy with exertion—or perhaps something more. “Well, lass? What’s become of yer tongue?”
Not for the first time in recent months Meghan tingled with resentment of Una’s authority over her. For a moment she stared stubbornly at the ceiling of the tiny wicker-work hut. Was she never to have secrets to keep or share as she chose? She was exhausted and sore, and her feet ached with cuts and stone bruises. Despite that, a warmth encircled her, an emboldening warmth fed by the memory of a man with amber hair and green eyes. No, she would not tell Una of the meeting at the pond. It was too special, her emotions too fresh to expose them to the older woman’s harsh judgment.
“I was attacked by a wild beast,” she blurted, not knowing where the words came from. Lowering her gaze, she met Una’s look of disbelief. “Truly!” Born with a fertile imagination and raised on Gaelic lore, Meghan’s lie quickly matured into the full fabric of a story. “’Twas a horrid creature with huge fangs and claws so sharp they’d flay a man with a single stroke!”
Una’s carroty brows rose for an instant before her eyes narrowed skeptically. “And so, how would ye have me believe ye escaped so fierce a brute?”
Meghan’s imagination faltered until the stinging sensation
of her palms reminded her of her first adventure of the morning. Triumphantly she held them up for the older woman to see. “I climbed a tree!”
Una chuckled and shook her head, disturbing the thick plait resting on her shoulder. Once the plait had been carrot red; now it was grayed with age. “I’m nae so great a fool as to believe that tale. Beast, is it? I’d as lief believe ye’d been with some man.”
Meghan’s gaze slipped away as a guilty blush suffused her cheeks. Was there some difference in her, she wondered, that her aunt suspected what she hoped to keep secret?
Alive to every nuance of her niece’s moods, Una did not miss the change as the girl’s face warmed to scarlet. “Meghan, lass, what have ye done?” She caught her niece’s shoulder and tried to catch her chin but Meghan kept her head lowered.
After a moment, Una released her with a sigh. “I’d nae have believed it possible but—” She paused to pass a hand over the sweat on her brow. When she glanced up there was a new look in her eyes, a kind of desperate knowledge. “There’s a man somewhere who knows the answer to me questions. Would ye deny me that, Meghan?”
Meghan’s gaze fastened on the long neat rills of dirt raised by the bristles of Una’s broom as if the earthen floor held clues to what her answer should be. Her lie had been spontaneous, uncalculated; and now that Una had seen through it, she had no choice but to revert to the truth.
“I did not run from a beast,” she admitted reluctantly. “There were herdsmen in the forest. I—”
“Herdsmen?” Una repeated in horror. “Ye wicked, wicked lass! Ye know better than to go near the settlements. A thousand times I’ve warned ye. After one glimpse of yer face, should a babe sicken or a cow abort her calf, they’ll descend upon us like wolves upon a wounded stag!”
Fear washed through Meghan as she raised a protective hand to her left cheek. Una’s anger was no easier to bear than the
unfounded wrath of the herdsmen. “’Twas a dream that made me go there,” she confided. “It came to me in sleep last night. I sought to learn if ’twas true.”
“The dreams.” Una sighed in defeat, her strong square shoulders sagging. It had been many months since the visions had visited Meghan. She had hoped, had dared to believe, that they were gone once and for all. Now that hope was dashed. Leaving Ulster had not broken the link with the otherworld. “’Tis always the same. What’s a body to do against such temptation?”
“It foretold a man’s death,” Meghan whispered.
Una gasped and crossed herself. “Mercy’s Grace be upon ye, child, for the burden of such evil knowledge.”
Meghan blinked back the tears that roughened her voice. “Why do the dreams come to me? What am I that men must fear me so?”
The older woman shook her head. “’Tis not for ye or me to say what brings the sight. Ye must learn to keep the visions in yer heart, tell no one. I do what I can for ye. There’s been no cause for any to wonder what more a mother could have done for ye.”
It had been many years since Meghan had voiced the question, but now it held a new urgency in her mind. “Why will ye never tell me who my mother was and what happened to her?”
“Ye had no mother, to tell a plain truth!” Una snapped, turning a blind eye to the expression of hurt on the girl’s face. “But enough of that.” A new horror electrified her face. “Meghan, lass, ye didn’t lead the herdsmen here?”
“They didn’t see me,” Meghan lied, fearing what Una would do if she knew the truth. “I did climb a tree. When they passed by, I went to the pond to swim, but a noise frightened me and I ran away. That’s where I left my
She lowered her gaze before speaking, but Una seemed not to notice. Her own expression had softened a trifle. “Well,
there’ll be no more of that. Ye’re to keep away from the settlements after this. ’Tis only a mercy they didn’t set eyes on ye, or I’d not offer a stone’s worth for another safe night.”
Chastened by the reminder of the danger in which she had placed them, Meghan said nothing more.
Turning, Una lifted an oak piggin that was half-full with milk. “There’s been enough mischief afoot this morning to spoil the butter.” She glanced doubtfully at the churn and then back at Meghan. “Ye know what’s to be done.”
Meghan nodded. It was churning day. Churning was a ticklish process subject to the whims of witches and fairies. Everyone knew that. Una had never said so, but they both understood that Meghan’s dreams were a gift of dubious origin. If the butter failed to break, there was no doubt where the blame would be laid. That was the reason why Una had banished her from the house every churning day since she could remember. The “whiteflesh” was their staple for the summer. A failed churn meant a starving week.
“Ye’d best take this. ’Twill be nothing else till evening.” Una plucked two oatcakes from the basket on the hearth.
Without a word, Meghan reached for the cakes, which were generously spread with the last of their butter, then stepped out of the hut into the morning air. A nameless but very real guilt gnawed at her, bringing back her desperate need to be assured that she was not some malignant evil, capable of rousing hatred at a stranger’s single glance.
If only she were brave enough to explain to Una about the man at the pond whose life she had saved. Then perhaps Una would not be so angry with her. Yet, telling the truth would not change the fact that the herdsmen had seen and pursued her and believed she had changed herself into a wild boar and killed one of them. She had seen fear chalk Una’s face at the mention of a vision of death. If she learned that the vision had come true, Una might turn away from her forever. No, she must not speak.
She chose a tree not far from her doorway and sat down among the rosy spikes of foxglove and lacework ferns that grew at its base, resting her back against the trunk.
Meghan closed her eyes, squeezing them until dizzying colors cartwheeled behind her lids and then merged into a single image of beauty that was the golden stranger’s face. This was not one of her visions, which came in a guise altogether different from this mingling of fascination and fear and…and something more. She had dared to touch him, to hold him tightly to her as if he were an unexpected gift of great value. So little time, so brief a moment had he been hers. Now there was only the remembered satiny coolness of his lips under hers. The memory touched her, astonished her senses with delight. Though she had wished it with all her heart, he had not been hers to keep. And she knew instinctively that sharing the bursting sweetness of her experience with Una would only dim its beauty.
“Be silent,” Meghan admonished herself softly, as though the trees would hear and respond, “be silent and pray that the herdsmen will give up their search.”
Reluctantly, she licked the last of the butter from her fingers and gathered the large folds of Una’s cloak tightly about her. But when she started off toward the nearby oak grove where their sow and piglets hunted moldy acorns as fodder, there was a secret smile upon her lips.
Watching from the shadow of the doorway, Una had waited patiently for the girl to finish her meal and disappear into the woods. Sighing with relief, she returned to her stool and began churning with furious determination.
For sixteen years she had lived apart from people, caring for a child who was not her own. In the beginning it had been simple to raise a babe away from the world. But Meghan was no longer a babe. Each day she ventured farther, expanding the limits of her world until she knew the country better than did her aunt. Fear for their lives had made Una abandon Ulster for the wilds of the south. Now a new threat was upon them,
one that loomed larger than the troubles that had made them flee their homeland. Meghan had become a nimble, fresh-budded woman.
“And more’s the pity for the pair of us,” Una muttered. “Any man with breath in him would yearn to lie upon her thighs…till he got a good look at her face. Then there’d be the devil to pay!”
The priest who had baptized Meghan had said it was no sin to be born with the mark of fairies. Only time would tell whether the mark was for good or ill. Except for the mark, she had been a wee fair babe with the creamiest of skin, velvety black hair, and eyes that seemed to see into a body’s soul.
Una paused for a moment, resting her forehead against the dash handle. Though she had raised Meghan from birth, she could not say she had spent a comfortable hour in the girl’s company. Meghan was a constant reminder of the guilt Una bore. But even that would have been endurable had the girl’s “dreams” not begun. They had come first in the summer of Meghan’s sixth year. After that, the fear of impending danger seemed ever with them, for Meghan possessed a gift of the “sight.”