Authors: Laura Parker
Guiltily Una crossed herself. Perhaps the priest’s advice was the best solution. Perhaps Meghan’s true calling did lie with the Church. Once safely behind convent walls, Meghan’s dreams might stop, and her blemish would no longer pose a threat. Yet, how could Una give up the girl whose every look reminded her of her beloved sister Maura?
Una’s gaze softened at the memory of Maura Fitzgerald—a lass no man in Munster could pass without commenting on her beauty. Her skin held the richness of fresh cream and her lips were as red as ripe wild strawberries. In the end, her beauty had entrapped her. It won for her, against her desire, the passion and jealousy of a man who later became known as the greatest chieftain in all of Ireland, Shane the Proud, “the O’Neill” of Ulster.
It had been expected that Maura would bear Shane a male
heir. But after two days of labor, Maura lay dead, and the babe…
Una clasped her hands together. “Lord in Heaven, I’ve lived not a day without the memory. And so Ye well know. But I’m a simple woman. May I not be held in account for what was done out of pity for a poor wee babe’s life. ’Twas her birthright!”
Tears gathered and ran down Una’s full cheeks, though she told her herself the deed was history and Shane O’Neill was dead. A year earlier his handsome head had been lifted from his shoulders through the cunning of the O’Donnells, his clan’s ancient enemies. The head had been tarred and sent to English Dublin, thrust on a pike, and hung from the northwest gate for all to see. All of Ulster was aflame with the treachery perpetrated by the O’Donnells. Shane had been a hard man, more feared than liked, but he had won the admiration of Irish nobility by standing firm against English aggression in his homeland.
Yet, Shane’s death had awakened new fears in Una. He had made many enemies, not all of them O’Donnells. His death would bring either an invasion of Ulster by the English or the massacre of Shane’s heirs by other O’Neills as they fought for the title of “the O’Neill.” Either way, there would no longer be protection for herself and Meghan. This was the beginning of their exile in fear.
After a quick glance at the entry, Una dropped to her knees by the corner of the turf fire and began gently to scrape away the dirt from behind the blaze. The dirt lifted easily, having been dug up frequently. Finally a corner of rough cloth appeared and Una grasped it and tugged, freeing a weighted bundle from its hiding place. When the thong tied around it was loosened, she carefully unwrapped the cloth to reveal the jeweled hilt of a sheathed blade.
Stones of amethyst, translucent rock crystal, and amber gleamed dully from the gold work. It was a weapon of great workmanship and value, a piece of artistry worthy of a nobleman. With trembling fingers she withdrew the dagger from its sheath. Light flashed off the blade, whose only blemish was a single rusty-brown streak along its fine edge.
Una bit her lip until it bled, but her eyes remained fixed upon the dagger. No, she would not give Meghan up to the Church just yet. Lives had been lost to preserve the secret of Meghan’s birth. Now that Shane was dead, Una alone knew the truth. Even in her fear she believed that the visions that came to Meghan were proof of her special nature and that the gift should not be given even into God’s service unless Meghan herself wished it.
“But ’twill be poor comfort for the like o’ ye, Una Fitzgerald,” she whispered as she furtively retied the bundle. “If a vision of the truth should come over Meghan one fine day, ye may still answer for yer part in the deed!”
Not until dawn, when rain hissed upon the heath sod that roofed the hut, did Meghan close her eyes and allow herself the pleasure of sleep. For the past four nights she had lain wide-eyed in the dark, listening. A snap of a twig or a rustle of leaves might mean there was a lurker in the woods.
But night after night the only sounds she heard were the faint scratching of her rush mattress when she moved and Una’s low sonorous breathing as she slept. When a lightening of the sky signaled the approach of dawn, relief flooded her body, weariness dragged her lids shut, and Meghan tumbled down the rabbit hole of sleep.
Then, as it had each morning, came the dream of the stranger at the pond.
Water, cool and sweet, spangled her lashes and smoothed her hair into an inky flood upon the surface of the willow-green pool. Where sunlight touched the water it melted into liquid amber or merged into the trembling lavender shadows cast upon the surface by oak boughs. Between the amber and
green Meghan swam in lazy strokes that sped her across the top of the water toward…toward…
He stood on the moss-covered bank. Only a golden mantle of daylight clothed his strong shoulders, which sloped into the beautiful arch of his firm young back. His angular hips balanced perfectly the tight curves of his buttocks and the long muscles of his legs.
A dark wing of cloud swept before the sun, its shadow a phantom rider on the land obliterating the amber from the lake, and then the man, too, was gone, eclipsed in the blink of an eye.
The first flutter of unease moved in Meghan’s stomach like a swallowed sliver of ice. The strange fluttering intensified, filling her with a foreshadowing of fear. This was not right. This was not the scene as she remembered it.
She raised her hands before her eyes to blot out what might follow, but the dream that was not a dream would not be denied. The water leaped suddenly, drenching her in a frigid shower that tore an uncontrollable gasp from her. She opened her eyes. Mud-streaked currents swam before her eyes, and then she spied the horror.
Una floated below her, her sturdy, compact body undulating with the currents. Reeds held her, viciously wound in Gordian knots about her ankles and wrists. Una’s mouth was distorted in fear, her eyes wide with despair. She was drowning, dying!
Desperately Meghan clawed at the water, trying to reach her aunt. She could not lose Una. She was only a hand’s breadth away. And then their fingers brushed.
The water exploded with light. With no more substance than that of a falling star, the light dwindled. It wavered an instant, flared, and died, taking Una with it.
A scream rolled up from deep within Meghan and poured from her in an impotent wail of misery.
* * *
Suddenly a callused hand stopped Meghan’s mouth. Surprised by the sting of tears on her cheek, she wondered if she was still caught in the grip of the nightmare.
“Meghan, lass,” Una whispered near her ear as she eased the pressure of her hand over the girl’s mouth. “We have visitors. Not a sound!”
Meghan sat up. She heard first the hissing of the dew-drenched grasses as many feet traversed the open field between the forest and the hut. Then came the voices of men who made no attempt to be quiet. Cold sweat replaced the tears on her face. Without seeing them she knew that what she most feared had happened: the herders had found them.
“Don’t go out!” she whispered, grabbing her aunt’s sleeve. “Maybe they’ll go away.”
Una gently freed her arm. “Keep hidden and there’s naught to fear. We’ve braved strangers’ comings and goings before.” She touched Meghan’s face, lightly tracing the mark on her cheek. “’Tis said the fairies protect their own. We could make use of a bit of luck.”
The raw edge of Meghan’s voice puzzled Una. “Meghan, lass, have ye seen something? Was it a vision that frightened ye?”
“No! No!” Meghan whispered quickly.
“Well then,” Una said with a smile. “There’s naught to fear.”
Naught to fear.
The words were false, but Meghan clamped her lips shut. The dream had not been right. Always before when she had relived the encounter by the pond she had succeeded in saving the stranger’s life. This time the ending had changed.
A shout from the yard startled Meghan, but Una did not pause a second time. She threw back the wool drape hung before the doorway and stepped out into the day. “Ach! If it isn’t a grand welcome I see before me this fine soft morn,” she greeted.
Pausing, she used the excuse of lowering the woolen flap over the entry to observe the dozen men who had come armed with sickles and staffs.
There’s trouble, Una, lass,
she thought as she turned to face them.
“And what brings ye to my hut? Ye’ll be lost, I’m thinking. Or is it food ye seek? Well? Have ye not a word to spare?”
One man moved forward out of the crowd, his grizzled beard framing his hard mouth as he answered her. “We be chasing the divil’s own.”
“The devil, ye say, on so fine a morning?” she replied mockingly. “Did he steal yer herd?” She gestured to where her two cows stood tethered. “Ah well, he didn’t reive mine.” In challenge she added, “Ye’ll not be saying I took me two from the brawny likes of ye?”
“Tell her, Coilean!” voiced a younger man who stepped forward holding a garment in one hand. “This is what brings us. The dogs had the scent till the rain came.” With that he threw the garment on the ground before Una.
Bending over, her eyes on the challenger, she picked up the garment and her heart skipped a beat. It was Meghan’s cloak. Her tongue passed quickly over her lips. Meghan had lied to her, but there was no time now to seek out the truth.
“Ye great hairy beast!” she spat, hurling the cloak back at the young man. “’Tis a sad day for wooing when ye must come slavering after the flesh of one wee lass with clubs and dogs.”
“’Tis no bride we seek,” the young man replied. He stepped closer to the old woman. “’Tis a she-divil must answer our wrath. She killed one of our own, not a week past!”
Una stood her ground in the face of grumbled epithets. The men were tense but not overly eager for a fight. The stench of their fear was in the air. Like a warm decay it permeated the cool breath of the spring morning. She had lived many dangers in the forty years of her life, and, as always, danger cleared her senses. She could use that fear to her advantage.
“Killed a man? One wee lass against yer number and ye were bested?” Her sneering laughter echoed across the clearing. “If ye were me, I’d not be telling that tale.”
“She were a divil, I’m tellin’ ye,” the young man maintained, shaking his staff in her face. “Ye saw!” he cried, turning to his companions. “We all saw the bloody mark on her face. She were spyin’ on us. When we gave chase she turned herself into a wild boar and gored our Shaun.”
“She killed him!” cried another man.
“Aye, she killed Shaun!” added another.
The hairs on Una’s neck stirred. Despite their obvious distortion of the truth, she realized that they must have seen Meghan the day she went to spy on their settlement, but it did not follow that they knew Meghan lived with her.
“This talk of devils and such, what has it to do with me? I’m no lass, and ye can see for yerselves there’s no mark on me. Be off with ye before I think up curses enough of me own to shrivel yer short hairs!”
The implied threat sent a shiver through the throng of men, their mutterings low and anxious in response.
“Maybe she’s changed herself again, Rory,” the old man said to the young herdsman. “She did such in the forest.”
“Put her to the test,” a voice cried, and was instantly answered by others:
“Aye, put her to the test!”
The urge was hard upon Una to fall back before the threatening voices, but she did not dare do so. No real harm would come to her as long as none of them suspected that Meghan was in the hut.
The men hesitated; they had no desire to lay hands on the old woman while memories of Shaun’s gored body still haunted them. The decision was made for them when a stone was thrown from the back of the crowd.
Una staggered, surprised by the unexpected blow to her head. Before she could recover, another and then another stone found their marks on her hip and thigh. Gasping in pain, she struggled to maintain her footing.
“Curse ye for a mean-hearted lot!” she cried as a rock struck her leg. With a sickening crunch she heard her kneecap give under the jolt and she tumbled forward onto her knees.
A roar of approval went up from the men as they reached for more stones from the rocky ground.
“Stone her! Stone her!” became a chant as rocks rained down on the old woman.
Ignoring the blood streaming from a cut at her brow and the ringing pain in her head, Una threw her arms heavenward and cried,
“Mallacht na mbaintreach agus na ngalrach ort!”
The ancient curse checked the men, their voices breaking off in mid-sentence. Stones tumbled from their hands as they hurried to cross themselves in prayer against the power of the old woman’s words.
“The curse of the widows and orphans on ye!” Una repeated, tearing at her braid until her long graying hair streamed over her shoulders and face. Solemnly she once more raised her face to the sky and cried, “Not another night of yer lives by a warm fire, not another day of yer lives under a clear sky!”
For a long moment no one spoke, and then the man called Coilean stepped forward, a dagger in his fist. Grabbing Una by the hair, he lifted her head and pressed the blade to the bare arch of her throat. “I’ve nae fear of dyin’. If my life be cursed for avengin’ Shaun, so be it!”
Suddenly from within the crowd a girl’s voice rang out. Swiftly, silently Meghan had slipped in among them, and now, eyes wide with horror, she cried, “Don’t kill her! ’Tis me ye be wanting. Let her be!”