Songs of the North, Book 3
Moira fought the clinging blackness that draped her like a shroud. “No, no, wait,” she wanted to cry out, but her mouth couldn’t form the words.
Voices muttered over her, echoing strangely, but she could attach no meaning to the sounds. The disembodied voices faded and she redoubled her struggle back to awareness.
Where am I?
Her eyelids fluttered, but all she saw were macabre shadows dancing along slime-slick rock walls. She was lying on her side, her hands bound behind her, in a puddle of wetness. Blood? No, she decided, not sticky enough. Merciful Heaven, it couldn’t be her birth water. The babe wasn’t due for some months yet. Her swollen belly shifted, a light tremble reassuring her of the continued presence of that beloved Other. She breathed deeply and inhaled the salt tang of the sea.
A coracle. She was in a small boat.
“Someone help me, for Christ’s pity,” Moira finally managed to say, her words slurring together as though she’d drunk too much ale.
“Get ye gone, Seamus. The decision is mine. I’ll see it through.” The thud booted feet on stone steps reached Moira’s ear where it was joined by another noise—the boom of surf on unsubmissive rock.
“Cedric?” Relief flooded through her as she recognized the voice. Surely her husband’s brother would come to her aid in her bewildering circumstance. “How came we to this ill-omened place? My head is spinning so, the last I remember is dining with ye in the main hall. Ye put a silver cup in my hand and the torches started burning too brightly and . . .”
Her voice trailed away with foreboding when she realized she was no longer wearing the stiff court clothing Fearghus had always insisted upon. Someone had borne her from the hall and stripped off her finery, leaving her shivering in her woolen nightshift. If she were ill, why was she not in her own bed? Her head pounded. It hurt to think through the haze swirling in her brainpan.
“Why am I bound so?”
“First question first, dear sister.” Cedric sank to his haunches on the sagging dock beside her boat. “Ye have a right to know where we are, since few have been privy to its existence, and only those of ruling blood. ‘Tis a secret as old as Conaill Murtheinne itself. We’re beneath the keep in an ancient bolthole. In times of mortal danger, the kings of Ulaid fled through this portal for the untender safety of the sea. A swift current passes by our coastline, ye see, bearing wayfarers far from land with no effort on their part at all.” A wry smile lifted the corners of his mouth. “Content yourself, Moira, that ye will follow the path of kings.”
His words cut through the fog in her mind with clarion crispness. Moira struggled to sit up, fighting both her ungainly body and the swaying craft. But she managed it, for she was determined to look Cedric in the eye. “Ye don’t intend to honor your brother’s line.”
“Fearghus is dead, lass,” Cedric said, his voice almost kindly. “When he died in the hunt, his kingship died with him.”
“No! The heir to Ulaid grows in my belly. My son will succeed his sire. We need only wait a little.” She saw no mercy in Cedric’s peat-colored eyes. Panic reduced her to pleading. “I promise the lad will heed ye in all things as he grows. Ye’ll be king in all but name—”
“Till the boy comes of age,” Cedric interrupted as he untied the boat’s line. “Why should I settle for that when I can put my own issue on the throne? No, wee Tiernan will be King of Ulaid after me.” He gave the coracle a shove and it bobbled away from the rickety wharf.
“But the bairn may be a girl-child and no threat to ye.” Moira strained against her bonds, but they were cinched tight.
“‘Tis a risk I’m not prepared to bear,” Cedric said simply.
“Then are ye prepared to bear the curse of Cain? Your sin is like to his—the murder of your own blood. The child I bear is your brother’s, a king of Ulaid rightwise gotten. Murder us at your peril.” Fear gave way to anger as Moira leveled a wrathful stare at him.
“Murder? Not I,” he said. “Royalty ye claim and royal ye are. Think ye I’d stain myself with your blood? No, the sea will tend to ye and your wee unborn king.”
“A curse upon ye,” Moira said, tugging at her bonds till the hemp cut her skin. “A vagabond and a wanderer on the earth may ye be, and may any who find ye, kill ye. My father, Brian Ui Niall will not wait to avenge me, I promise ye.”
“Even now, ye spit and hiss like a wildcat.” Cedric grinned at her sardonically. “Proud, canny and fearless. Ah, ye’re a grand woman, Moira of Donegal, I’ll not deny it. My brother didn’t deserve ye. If I had no son of me own, I might toss out my milk-sopping Brigid and take ye for my queen.” The rough edges of his voice softened. “Aye, ye’d have been my match and no mistake.”
For a moment, Moira saw regret flicker over his cold features in the wavering torchlight. Then his face hardened, more unyielding than the black stone at his back.
“But sheath your claws and save your curses, woman. I fear neither man nor God. Donegal is afar off. I’ll be bearing the sad tidings to your kingly father that the unexpected death of Fearghus brought ye to early childbed. Even now, a low-born woman is birthing in your chamber, surrounded by servants loyal to me. Alas! Both mother and child will die in childbed. It happens often enough, ’twill not be questioned. When Brian Ui Niall arrives to mourn ye as a father should, he’ll find naught but a moldering corpse with a wee bairn wrapped in a shroud. After a few weeks, all the dead look alike.”
The small candle of hope in Moira’s chest guttered entirely. Cedric’s plan neatly tied up all the loose threads.
“As for the curse of Cain,” Cedric went on, “that holds no terrors for me, since I believe in naught but what my own hands bring me. And now, they’ve brought me a crown. The line of Fearghus will bear the curse, if such things be. Ye are the one set for wandering, Moira.” He folded his arms across his chest. “Though I fear your sojourn will be a short one.”
A tidal surge caught the tiny craft and Moira’s boat was sucked through the seacave, knocking against the darksome rock on its journey over this narrow finger of the sea. Cedric’s torchlight faded. When the coracle shot into the surf, the night sky was strewn with brittle stars.
Cedric’s voice called out to her once more. “Go with your God, Moira, onetime Queen of Ulaid.”
“Sleep with one eye open, brother. I’ll be back, do ye hear me?” She shrieked to be heard over the dash of waves on rock. “My son will sit on the throne of Ulaid and I’ll have my foot on your neck before ye go to your grave, by all that’s holy, Cedric, I so swear. Do ye hear me?”
The only answer was the boom of unforgiving sea pounding against the stubborn shore.