Chapter Fifteen

The moon was perfectly poised above the tallest of the Lochmaben Stones, balanced on its very edge, when Father Auliffe, abbot of Caer-Birrenswark Abbey, and Riona Damhnait, Druidess of Dalriada, jointly spoke the words uniting Medraut and Keelin in marriage.

“We are gathered to unite this couple…” Auliffe began, “in the sight of God…”

“With the blessings of the Daghda, Father of the Irish Celts,” Riona added, “to join together our two great kingdoms.”

Auliffe turned to Medraut, whose knees quaked visibly in the moonlight. “Do you, Medraut, King of Galwyddel and nephew to Morgana, Queen of Ynys Manaw, vow in the sight of God to love, cherish, keep, and protect your bride, Princess Keelin of Dalriada, who will be your sovereign queen, seeking no other?”

“I do so vow,” the boy said, with only a slight quaver in his voice.

“And you, Keelin ni Dallan mac Dalriada,” Riona spoke by turn, “agree and vow before the gods of your ancestors to honor, love, and help your husband all the days of your life, seeking no comfort, no bed but his?”

Her fingers tightened on Medraut’s. “I do so vow,” she whispered.

“Then,” Father Auliffe said quietly, eyes bright with hope and wonder, “I declare before God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit, that the two of you are joined as one. Let no man come between thee.”

“Blessings on thy heads,” Riona added, “and may many happy, healthy children play at your hearth.”

Keelin blushed furiously, then Medraut turned and lifted trembling hands to her face, bending to kiss her gently. Morgana found it necessary to brush wetness from her eyes and Dallan mac Dalriada blinked a little too rapidly, as well. Young Cleary came forward with the official marriage documents and the new king and queen of Galwyddel signed, laughing nervously over the trembling of their hands. Then it was done and nothing could undo it. Before she could give in to the shakes threatening her own knees, she smiled brightly and kissed her nephew and niece by turn. Dallan mac Dalriada hugged his daughter tightly, then clasped Medraut’s arm in the greeting of equals.

“Take wondrous care of my child,” Riona translated, “for she is all that is precious to me.”

“I will do my best,” Medraut vowed, voice cracking slightly, “to give you grandchildren who may be equally precious.”

Lailoken, who had stayed back in the shadows during the proceedings, stepped forward with a small wine cask. “A token of my esteem for the king of Dalriada and promise of things to come. Perhaps we might drink a toast to bride and groom?”

Dallan mac Dalriada accepted it gravely, then handed it to one of his men. Father Auliffe said heartily, “Cleary, lad, fetch out the holy communion wine I brought along, nothing but the finest from Rome will do on such an occasion. And the cups, lad.”

Something about the glint of Lailoken’s eyes caught Morgana’s attention for just an instant, then Dallan mac Dalriada was giving orders that the wedding gift be carried back to the ship and Cleary was pouring cups and handing them round and Father Auliffe was making the first toast.

“Long and happy lives, children.”

“Long and happy lives,” they chorused back.

When the toasts had been made, Morgana said, “Tradition for many generations has seen couples married at this circle led to the caverns below the bluff, sacred caverns, once, and full of auspicious portents, holding as they do the happy moments of union of so many generations of Britons. I have ordered a bridal bower prepared, with a fine bed, oil lamps for lighting the grotto, and plenty of food and wine. Dallan mac Dalriada, you are graciously welcome to ride with us to Caer-Birrenswark upon the dawn, to see your child safely upon the throne of Galwyddel.”

“I will stay until dawn,” Dallan agreed, “but only to greet my daughter as queen. I must return to my own throne, afterward, for winter is soon upon us and many preparations have yet to be made.”

“Of course,” Morgana nodded, even as Keelin’s lips quivered—despite her attempt to show a brave countenance. “Shall we, then, lead our heirs to their marriage bed?”

When Riona translated, Dallan mac Dalriada smiled and offered his arm. They descended once more to the shingle and Morgana led them down past the high bluff, where the sea and countless millennia of rainwater seeping through the soil had carved caves in the limestone. They paused at the entrance to the nuptial cavern long enough for Dallan mac Dalriada to pull his daughter close for one final hug. When Riona took the trembling young bride into the cavern first, to prepare her, Dallan mac Dalriada strode briskly back down the strand toward his ship.

Morgana said quietly, “See to it, Medraut, that your bride knows pleasure before you allow yourself to taste it and you will have begun your marriage wisely. Hands, lips, whispers, and all of it exceedingly gentle and patient.”

He gulped. “I will try, Aunt.”

“See that you do.” She embraced him warmly. “I am deeply proud in you, Medraut. I will ride to the cottage nearest Lochmaben circle, where the captain of your fine fishing sloop has invited us to spend the night, and will see you again in the morning. Send Riona after me and we’ll go there together.”

As she turned to leave, glancing back over one shoulder, she prayed that she had done the right thing, in this. Whatever the outcome, she had acted for the best. There was nothing else to be done—except lie awake and wonder what Artorius truly would say.

* * *

The night was waning its way toward dawn when Covianna slipped into the abbey. She had not come by the normal route, up the path through the labyrinth, but rather through a narrow fissure which was concealed behind the main hearth of her mother’s forge house, a fissure hidden by the enormous bellows and a panel of rock placed as a door to further close off the opening to those not permitted to know the full secrets of Glastenning Tor. Her mother’s forge house stood at the base of the hill, with no other buildings between its rear wall and the beginning of the labyrinth—and the beginning of the secret passage Covianna followed, lifting her skirts clear of the dampness and trickling water underfoot.

The passage led upwards along the selfsame path as the labyrinth’s walls, having been cut beneath them. The lowest stone of the walls served as ceiling for the passageway. It was cramped and narrow, forcing her to bend nearly double most of the way, but led her steadily upwards in safety, an escape route her remote ancestors had built centuries before the coming of the Romans, so the legends of her family said.

Whoever had built it, near the summit, the underground path divided, one branch to her left leading down toward the deep caverns of the Tor, used for centuries as shelter in time of siege; the other path led upward, toward the hidden exit inside the abbey itself, whose builders and architects had come from Covianna’s own ancestors, intent on preserving their secrets intact from any and all comers, including the priests of the new religion.

Particularly from the priests of the new religion.

When at last she emerged, taking the right-hand, upward-sloping turn, Covianna found herself in the lovely Mary Chapel, situated in the very center of the Great Mother’s Holy Vulva, a placement that made Covianna smile in wry humor. The fools who ran the abbey had not the faintest idea that their “Mary Chapel,” devoted to Mary Queen of Heaven and Mother of the Christ Child, concealed a passage down the very birth canal of the far older Holy Brigit, Goddess of the Tor.

Covianna shook out her skirts and straightened her back, which ached from the long, bent-over climb. The oil lamp she carried sent golden light splashing across the altar, behind which was the ancient eggstone of the old shrine. Intricately carved, the eggstone was topped by a hollow where ancient priestesses had sat, menstruating lifeblood onto the stone while uttering oracular prophecies.

She set her lamp in the hollow of the stone, no longer needing its light to make her way and not wishing to waken anyone except Myrddin. She smiled in anticipation. This was not the first trip she had made, tonight, along the secret pathway. Her previous three trips had served to transport everything she would need to spring the trap on her chosen victim. It waited, patiently, below the earth for his arrival.

Covianna whispered along the corridor leading past the monks’ pitiful little cells, the silence broken only by the mouse-soft hush of her skirts and the occasional shattering snore from some overfed inhabitant. Emrys Myrddin had been given the guest chamber beside the abbot’s room, reserved for visiting dignitaries. The door was only partially closed, allowing her to slide inside without a betraying creak of iron hinges.

A trickle of light from a high, narrow window fell like a sword blade across the bed. She could see the soft rise and fall of the woolen blanket across Myrddin’s chest. For just a moment, she regretted the necessity of destroying such a brilliant mind, not to mention the most skilled lover she’d ever lain with; but only for a moment. Marguase’s shade cried out for justice and this man’s death was the first step in obtaining it. Pulse thundering, Covianna tiptoed across and used a long strand of her hair to tickle Myrddin awake.

Myrddin’s eyelids flickered, then he focused on her face. A tiny furrow appeared between his brows. “Trouble?” he breathed.

She smiled reassuringly. “Not a bit. I’ve something to show you.”

He leaned up on one elbow, so that the blanket slid to his waist. “Show me? In the middle of the night?”

” ‘Tis the safest time.”

Myrddin’s eyes widened. “You’ve found the caverns beneath the Tor? I knew they must exist!”

Covianna breathed out a chuckle. “Oh, aye, they exist, all right. I’ve known for years how to reach them. So have all the clan heads of my family line. We’re just chary of those we share the secret with, as I’m sure you must understand, given your own training.”

The corners of his eyes crinkled. “Indeed. Let me get my boots and cloak.”

A moment later, she was leading him through the silent abbey, down to the Mary Chapel, and through the opening, rescuing her lamp from the eggstone. “This way,” she murmured, waiting for him to pass before closing the hidden exit. “The tunnels have existed for centuries, so far as we know. It’s a bit cramped.”

They bent low, following the passageway down to the split, then turning downward for the journey to the first of the caverns. Lamplight flickered across dressed stone, casting distorted shadows as they crept ever downward into the earth. A glow of light from ahead beckoned them forward. “I’ve been into the cavern already,” she murmured by way of explanation when he commented on the fact, “to set everything up. It’s far more spectacular when you can see everything in the first instant.” Within moments, the walls and ceiling opened out into a magnificent stone chamber nearly thirty feet high. Myrddin gasped.

Glittering stalactites dripped from the ceiling in thousands of points like the teeth of dragons, mirrored by the sharp points of stalagmites reaching toward the roof of the cave. Rock glittered in blood-red and golden hues, glistening with ever-present water which poured and splashed down massive columns of rock. Shimmers of white crystal like hoarfrost surrounded deep, black pools along the floor. The roar of underground torrents vibrated the floor and the very air of the room, from deeper within the hill; at the far end of the cavern, a spectacular waterfall plunged from the ceiling and vanished into the bowels of the deeper caves, adding its volume to the water which gushed to the surface in the Tor’s sacred springs. Lit torches burned every few feet, thrust into iron brackets some ancestor had driven into the walls.

“There’s a path into the deeper caverns,” she breathed softly, hardly able to speak in a less reverential tone. This was one spot where familiarity did not breed casual disregard. “Come, I’ll show you.”

She led the way across the cave, pointing out the black opening where the cavern descended along the edge of a bottomless sink. Myrddin peered into the hole, down which the roar of water could be heard. “Does the cavern ever flood?”

“Not this high, so far as anyone has ever recorded. Of course, most of what we know about the history of these caves is preserved only in our family’s most secret lore and we’ve lost bits and pieces through untimely deaths, over the centuries. The deeper parts of the cave flood with the seasons, of course, but most of these upper chambers are relatively dry.”

“And the monks know nothing of this?” He swept an awed gesture at the glittering beauty of the cave.

“Not a thing,” she said cheerfully. “We made certain the cave used for the abbey’s cold storage was closed off when the abbey was built. By my ancestors, I might add,” she chuckled.

“Is the chapel the only way in?”

“No, there’s a passage just beneath the walls of the labyrinth, which opens out at the bottom of the hill.”

“Inside one of the forge houses?” he guessed. “It would be the only place you could hide the entrance from the youngsters.”

Oh, yes, he was far too clever, was Emrys Myrddin. She had little doubt that, left to his own devices and with no more clue than the existence of the springs, he would have poked and prodded until discovering the way down. She smiled. “Indeed. In a true emergency, of course, we could shelter everyone from the abbey and the village. Which my people have done before, in times of great peril. I wanted to put your mind at ease, before you leave in the morning.”

“I only regret I can’t stay longer.”

“Yes. A pity,” she agreed. “I also wanted to show you where we forge our most sacred blades. Artorius’ sword, Caliburn, was forged here.”

“In the belly of the dragon,” Myrddin murmured, glancing at the dragons’ teeth stalactites overhead. “How symbolically fitting.”

“We put great store by symbolism in my family.”

They made a sharp turn where the walls narrowed down to a passage a mere three feet wide, then emerged in the showplace of Covianna’s ancestral clan. Myrddin let go a shocked sound.

“It is impressive, isn’t it?” she asked smugly.

He simply stared, mouth coming adrift. Before them stretched a black river, into which thundered the cataract from the chamber above. Water spilled out of the ceiling in an endless roar, catching the light of torches she’d carried down and lit earlier, gleaming like a thousand fireflies in the starlight. Ribbons of stone flowed along the edges of the ceiling, looking like so many long, curling strips of bacon hung for smoking. Near the center of the cavern, the river widened out into a black lake some fifty or sixty feet across. In the center of the lake stood a stone island, ringed by glittering white crystalline walls some three quarters of an inch high. On the island stood a forge, its hearth glowing like balefire where she had patiently stoked the coals in preparation for Myrddin’s visit.

A column of stone had been cut away to form a standing pedestal on which rested a massive iron anvil. Leather bellows hung above the coals, held in place by iron brackets in a neighboring flowstone column. A path of stepping stones had been laid across the lake, a pathway which would, if previous experience were any indication, soon be underwater, given the amount of rain falling above. At times, the entire island was underwater. Her timing tonight was, as ever, flawless. Her tools stood ready, waiting only her hand and Myrddin’s unwitting cooperation.

“I wanted to show you everything,” she murmured, slipping her hand into his. “I lit the fires and brought down all the tools I would need to finish forging a dagger blade I’m making just for you. Help me operate the bellows?”

He laughed in open delight. “It would be the greatest honor of my life, dear heart.”

She kissed him, then led the way quickly across the stepping stones. She had already poured wine into two silver goblets. A full wineskin stood nearby. “A toast,” she smiled, lifting them and handing the drugged goblet to Myrddin. “To victory.”

He touched rims with hers, then drank deeply. “Show me what to do.”

She sipped, then demonstrated how to operate the bellows. “Yes, that’s perfect,” she nodded as the coals hissed and flared brilliantly gold in the center.

She lifted a nearly finished dagger, which needed only a final touchup with the hammer before tempering the blade. She used heavy tongs to slide it into the coals, watching the color of the metal with a critical, practiced eye. The moment it was ready, she slid it out, laid it against the anvil, and snatched up the hammer, striking sparks and quickly working up a sweat.

“More wine?” Myrddin asked, gulping the last of his as he pumped the bellows. That was hard work in itself.

She shook her head. “No, I’ll not pause a moment until it’s done. Pour another for yourself, you can leave the bellows a moment while I hammer.”

He drank, then worked the bellows again at her direction, sending gusts of air across the coals. He made a hefty dent in the wineskin as she evened out the blade along its length, working more for show than because the knife needed more shaping. She was nearing the point of completion when the drugged wine began to tell on her victim. He was blinking more often and he lifted his arms with increasing difficulty when directed to operate the bellows. When he started to stagger, nearly going to his knees, Covianna flashed him a bright smile. ” ‘Tis hard work, operating the bellows. Even young apprentices find it exhausting.”

He muttered something into his beard and made an effort to hold onto the big wooden handles. She smiled to herself and waited a bit longer, putting the finishing touches on the weapon of his destruction. It didn’t take long. He slid to the ground, blinking in confusion.

“Almost done,” she said cheerfully. “All it needs now is the quenching.”

Lifting the glowing dagger in her tongs, gripping with the strength she had gained over many years at the forge, Covianna turned and knelt. She smiled down into Myrddin’s eyes—and slid the blade deep into the old man’s belly.

He screamed, eyes flying wide in shock and pain.

She ruffled his hair. “Poor old fool. Don’t you remember the secret of Damascus? You taught it to me, yourself.”

The blade hissed and steamed in his wine-laden belly while blood poured across the haft and dripped off the end of the tongs. His mouth worked. One hand came up to grip her arm weakly.

“Why?”

She brushed his cheek with her fingertips. “You should never,” she murmured, kissing his mouth softly, “have urged Artorius to murder Marguase. She was my first mentor and a far better alchemist than you could ever hope to be. My poor, gullible little fool.” She pulled the blade out and blood gushed from the wound. He collapsed backwards, ashen from blood loss and shock.

“Don’t worry, love. You won’t be long in dying. Even if you managed to stop the bleeding, the water is rising.”

As she spoke, she bound his wrists and ankles, tying him firmly to the base of the nearest flowstone column, dragging him across the stone floor in a long smear of blood. He cried out weakly in pain, unable to do more than shudder. She bound him with his head down, toward the water lapping at the rim of the island, less than six inches below his face.

“It’ll be over your head soon,” she smiled. “If you’re still alive when it reaches your mouth and nose. Oh, before I forget—and just in case you’re wondering—this is precisely how I forged Caliburn. Artorius’ young cousin was as great a fool as you. Don’t worry, darling. Once you’re nicely dead, I’ll come cut up the pieces and let the Goddess sweep them away, as I did with that little idiot. You deserve no less than he, after all. And who knows? Perhaps I’ll give birth to your brat and send it to the afterlife to join you.”

She gave him a last kiss, piled her tools and newly forged weapon into her satchel, and left him to die, laughing gaily all the way home.

* * *

Morgana and Brenna McEgan were roused from sleep perhaps an hour short of dawn by an urgent pounding on the door of the cottage where they, along with Riona Damhnait, had arranged to spend the night. The fisherman who owned the cottage, the same man who had captained the sloop which had ferried Medraut and Lailoken to Dalriada, answered the summons with alacrity, while Morgana and Riona both stumbled out of bed to see what the alarm might be.

“A thousand pardons,” a young voice gasped from beyond the open door, “but I must see Queen Morgana immediately!”

It was Cleary, the young cleric who had recorded the marriage and treaty arrangements.

Morgana exchanged a worried look with the Irish Druidess before stepping into the light of the fisherman’s oil lamp.

“What is it, Cleary?” she asked quietly, images of multitudinous possible disasters running through her mind.

“Father Auliffe sent me,” the lad explained, voice shaking. “There’s trouble, Queen Morgana, perhaps very bad trouble. I was to room with Lailoken, your new minstrel, and I thought it peculiar when he slipped away in the middle of the night. Saddled his horse, put his belongings on a packhorse, and left very fast indeed, down the coast road toward Caerleul. I might not have thought anything amiss, but a rider has come from across the border with Strathclyde, bringing dreadful news from Dalriada. Oh, Queen Morgana, I can hardly bear to tell you what’s happened.” The boy’s eyes swam with tears and his hands shook.

She rested a hand on his arm. “Tell me.”

“It was a boy, Queen Morgana, a young Briton taken into slavery across the border between Strathclyde and Dalriada. He and his whole family were taken, sold to a farmhold just outside Fortress Dunadd. He said they woke this morning to the sight of carrion crows, thousands of them, and the wind carried a sickly stench. His master rode into Dunadd and found…” Cleary gulped, voice trembling. “The whole town was dying, everyone. People in convulsions, vomiting, paralyzed, a terrible plague or… or…” he cast a mortified glance at Riona Damhnait, who had gone ashen in the lamplight, “or perhaps some terrible poison. Everyone, Queen Morgana, from the royal household at the fortress to the lowest fisherman’s hovel.

“The boy’s master promised him not only his freedom but the freedom of his whole family if he could ride overland through Briton territory and carry a message in time to King Dallan mac Dalriada.” Cleary was openly weeping, now. “The abbot, Father Auliffe, fears treachery, Saxon treachery. And none of us know Lailoken so very well. Why should he ride away so quickly in the middle of the night, just before news of this disaster at Dunadd could reach us? The abbot sent me to fetch you and Riona Damhnait, while he brings King Medraut and Queen Keelin.”

Morgana felt faint with shock, compounded infinitely by Brenna McEgan’s utter horror. The look in Riona’s eyes was one Brenna had seen only too often, a look of sanity strained by news so dreadful, by betrayal so deep, the mind could not properly take in the scope of disaster.

“Has King Dallan already sailed?” Morgana whispered, praying that he had not.

“He has. I ran to the shore first, hoping to stop him and deliver the warning. He had already said his good-byes to Queen Keelin, saying he did not want to wait longer and miss the tide.”

Brenna’s memory flashed to a sharp image, of Lailoken handing a wine cask to the Irish king, of the look in the minstrel’s eyes when Father Auliffe had insisted they share the communion wine, instead. The wine had been poisoned, she could see it clearly, now, when it was too late. Lailoken must be hosting Cedric Banning, there could be no other explanation for his swift departure—or the mass destruction of the entire Dalriadan capital. How had he accomplished it? Weapons of mass destruction were a terrorist’s stock in trade—Brenna knew that only too well—but what weapon could Banning have concocted in the sixth century? Nerve agents or even something as ordinary as mustard gas required chemistry far beyond the reach of anything Banning could possibly have access to, here and now. She tried to focus on the symptoms, to deduce what kind of poison he might have used. Morgana, at least, knew something of poisons.

Witch’s bane? she wondered grimly. It’s potent, but how could he have acquired such an immense supply and delivered it?

“Oh, dear God,” Brenna moaned, making a sudden connection between the cask of wine, the bottles she’d glimpsed in Lailoken’s “peddlar’s” pack, and the most toxic poison in the world—easily grown inside sealed bottles of rotten food. In the time he’d been here already, Cedric Banning could have grown more than enough to poison a whole town, and then some. “He’s grown botulism!”

“What is this word, botulism?” Riona demanded in a hard, cold voice.

Morgana had pressed hands to her cheeks, which felt clammy and cold, even to her own fingers. Brenna had to answer, as Morgana knew nothing of it, either. “If one allows food to rot inside a sealed container, a potent poison grows in it. He must have mixed dirt in with it, to ensure the botulism would grow and produce the toxins.” Morgana, grasping desperately at some explanation that would prevent further disaster to Brythonic-Irish relations, added in a shaking voice, “If Lailoken is a Saxon agent, dear God, he must be a Saxon agent, they’ve already shown themselves capable of the worst kinds of slaughter. A man who could order infants hacked into pieces could order anything. And I was a fool and trusted Lailoken, sent him to the very people I wanted to make peace with.”

She lifted ravaged eyes to meet Riona’s gaze. “We must sail after Dallan mac Dalriada at once. I have to stop him or anyone else who might drink from that wine cask. Pray God he has not already tasted it. And riders must be sent after Lailoken. I want him found and brought back to me, alive and in chains.” She turned to the fisherman and his family, who watched silently, eyes wide in naked horror. “Can you take us out tonight? Is your boat fast enough to catch the Irish king?”

“God will lend us wings,” he choked out, “for catch him we must.” He hurried away, shouting orders and sending runners to rouse his crew for immediate departure.

Morgana turned to the Irish Druidess, dreading what must be said next. Riona Damhnait held her gaze for a long, ugly moment, gauging Morgana’s words and the genuineness of the emotion behind them. After a long and dangerous moment beneath a shuttered, thoroughly reptilian stare, something softened behind the other woman’s eyes. Tears came, for the first time.

“I do believe you know nothing of this.”

Morgana could only shake her head. “Would I be willing to sail after Dallan mac Dalriada myself, otherwise?”

“The Saxons truly are such barbarians, they would slaughter a whole town of innocents?”

Morgana wiped wetness from her cheeks. “To sow dissention between our people, to ensure we are busy fighting in the north, so they have free rein in the south? Oh, yes, I believe they would stoop to anything to destroy us. All of us.”

“Then they must be stopped,” she said, with such utter coldness, Morgana shivered.

Brenna recognized that sound. It was the sound of an Irish soul roused to vengeance. God help them, it was something bred into the Irish, bred into their Irish bones and blood, centuries of cold-hearted rage at wrongs committed, determination to strike back at an enemy, whatever the cost. Had Brenna inadvertently tried to prevent the birth of one set of Irish hatreds only to help spawn another? Would the mass murder of an entire Irish colony, which should have been destined to hold power in the Scottish Lowlands for centuries to come, change history sufficiently to destroy everything Brenna had known, everyone Brenna had loved? Had Banning already succeeded in carrying out his mission?

The worst of it was, Brenna realized she might never know.

Even if the Irish didn’t kill her in retribution—and she held no illusions about Dallan mac Dalriada’s reaction, regardless of what his Druidess might now believe—even if she survived the Irish, who could say whether time had fractured sufficiently to trap her in Morgana’s mind forever? It occurred to Brenna McEgan that she might never reach home again. And in the same moment, she realized she was no longer sure what—or where—home might be.

Belfast and Londonderry?

The shot-up, bombed-out ghettoes that she herself had fled from years previously, trying to forget the killing and her own, monstrous part in it? She had tried to start over once, already, in a place that was, although just as virulently Irish, at least not involved in a perpetual self-massacre of the type which had gripped Northern Ireland for centuries. Dublin was the home she’d known for more than ten years now, but what sort of home was it, for a Londonderry girl? She’d been living in exile for more than a decade, trying to run away from the troubles of her own countrymen. And just look at where that had landed her.

Running away from a society gone mad was no answer to the madness.

It only left the madmen that much freer to spill their insanity into more innocent lives.

The lesson had come late. Perhaps too late. Once learned, there was only one way in which to answer it. Immediate, drastic action was needed to prevent the lesson being taught to other wide-eyed fools like herself. There was no answer for the Northern Ireland she had fled, not short of separating the children born to both sides from their parents, from their uncles and cousins, and from one another, putting them into public creches to be raised for the next three or four generations, in some last-ditch effort to give the hatred and the blood feuds a chance to die out and let something healthier grow in its place. Either that, or they’d all wake up one fine morning to discover each side had slaughtered the other in its sleep and they’d all arrived at hell’s gates together, to spend eternity snarling and blaming one another for the hell they’d all built. The devil must laugh each time another Irish fool with a bomb blew up some poor baby in his pram.

Northern Ireland wasn’t dying, it was already dead, soul-deep and rotted out. And the only people who hadn’t figured it out, yet, were the Northern Irish.

A small knot of people came running up the strand, even as fishermen appeared from cottages up and down the little stretch of Lochmaben coast. Medraut, his face grey as dirty ice in the moonlight, skidded to a stop in front of his aunt. Her spirits lifted, however briefly, at the way young Keelin clutched his hand, holding onto what little security she had left. It touched Morgana deeply that the child could still trust them. Would to God it remained so.

“You’ve heard the news from Father Auliffe?” Morgana asked quietly. “We depart the moment the fishermen hoist sail, to try and catch Dallan mac Dalriada’s ship. My poor child,” she turned to Keelin, whose eyes were reddened from weeping. “Would to God I could undo what the Saxons have done, and me the gullible idiot who let them in to do it.”

Keelin struggled for a moment to keep up a brave front, then spotted Riona Damhnait and collapsed into her kinswoman’s arms, sobbing. Medraut hovered helplessly, wanting to comfort her, afraid she would reject the offer, wanting to strike at something, anything, to undo this monstrous damage. He turned finally to Morgana, anger seething through him like storm-slashed lightning. “Send me after that bastard Lailoken, Aunt! I’ll rip out his heart with these hands” he held up curved claws, fingers rigid with rage, “and feed it as he deserves to my grieving bride!”

“Nay, Medraut. He will be brought to us alive and unharmed.”

“But—”

“The Irish, lad, will want him.”

Unholy glee shone abruptly in the boy’s eyes, reminding her sickeningly of his mother, Marguase, the late and unlamented, she who had almost been queen of Ynys Manaw, had the darkness not taken her soul. Morgana determined to do all that was possible to keep that darkness from consuming Medraut, as well. “Lailoken will be found, Medraut. Found and returned to stand trial under Brythonic law and then handed over for trial by Irish law. He will pay for what he has unleashed. Never doubt that. But your task, nephew, and mine is another matter altogether.”

She had his attention now, at least. The ragged pacing and hyperactive, supercharged energy flooding out of him came to a brief standstill. “What is our task, Aunt? I don’t know enough to rule Galwyddel at a time like this.”

“There is no better time, lad, with war threatening from the south and now an almost certainty from the north. There is but one thing we can do, Medraut. We sail after Dallan mac Dalriada and try to persuade him that we, too, are deeply betrayed by a Saxon spy we did not suspect until far too late.”

She saw it pass through his eyes, the realization that they were honor-bound to warn the Irish king, that he would probably order them killed in a hideous, slow manner befitting the crime, saw him look that death square in the eye and accept it. He nodded slowly. “Yes. It is the only honorable thing to do.”

Her throat tightened, seeing that. If Dallan mac Dalriada allowed them to live, Medraut would make a fine king, indeed. She rested a hand on his arm, unable to speak. He nodded again, not needing her words. Then he turned to his sobbing bride and gently gathered her close, stroking her hair. “We sail to catch your father and deliver the warning. You must be strong, my love, for the agony will strike his heart far more deeply, even, than yours, for he will feel the whole responsibility for failing them.”

She lifted a sodden, red-eyed gaze, lips trembling. “Yes,” she whispered, gulping to try and contain her grief. “He will. The gods have made you wise, Medraut.” She rested her brow against his chest for a moment. “I want to go home, husband, but there is no home to return to. What manner of beast is this Lailoken, to do such a thing?”

“He is a Saxon,” the boy said helplessly. “It is the only answer I can offer.”

The slender princess of Dalriada lifted her gaze once more and even Medraut froze at the look in the girl’s eyes. “Then the Saxons must die.”

She spoke briefly in Gael to Riona Damhnait, who nodded.

“They say Brythonic queens lead warriors in battle,” Keelin said in a cold, hard little voice. “It is time I learned the custom of my husband’s people. Come, Medraut, let us prepare our respective peoples for war.”

“Yes.” He turned to find Father Auliffe standing behind Morgana. “Father, you and Cleary must organize the fisherfolk of Lochmaben to spread the alarm. Galwyddel rides to war. Warn Strathclyde to strengthen the garrisons along the northern border in case we fail to persuade Dallan mac Dalriada of British innocence, but send the bulk of our own fighting strength south, against the Saxons. I will not permit such butchers to remain a threat to our people. Any of our people,” he added, drawing Keelin firmly to his side.

Auliffe hesitated only a fraction of a second, recognizing as clearly as Morgana that the reins of power had just been transferred to the new king of Galwyddel and his queen. The aging abbot nodded. “I grieve for all of us,” the priest said quietly. “It shall be done. Go, my king, and try to prevent further death among our new kinsmen.”

Less than a quarter of an hour later, they were aboard the fishing sloop, crewed by grim-faced men who knew the risk as well as their passengers, and accepted that risk for their new king and queen’s sake. Morgana watched and wept and stared out to sea, raking the dark horizon for the faintest hint of moon-touched sails.

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