Louth, Ireland: April 1569
Early-morning mist banked the forest, stretching wispy fingers back into the darkness. Under the silent canopy of ancient oaks the light of dawn had not yet found a path. Night creatures, dulled by the impending morning, had crawled to their places of rest while the day creatures had yet to stir with the warmth of sunrise. The only sounds were the creaking of dew-drenched limbs, the distant whispering of the topmost leaves, and the rumble of water unseen yet never far away in this land.
Into this twilight world fled Meghan O’Neill, the sound of her bare footsteps muffled by the spongy carpet of moss.
A frosty stinging filled her lungs, and she shivered beneath her leine. Until a year ago she could run for as long as she desired. Now her chest ached from the bouncing weight of her full breasts, but she did not dare stop to catch her breath. She had made a mistake in going near the settlement, a mistake which would cost her her life if she did not hide quickly.
Only when she spied a fresh print on the path did Meghan pause and dip a slender finger into the impression. It was the hoof mark of a wild sow, weighing perhaps twenty stone. Foreboding coursed through her. Where there were tracks there was certain to be the danger of the animal. Instinctively, like one of the forest’s wild creatures, she raised her head and tossed back her tangle of blue-black hair to breathe deeply of the cold, wet air. It was soft, perfumed with the rich, pungent smells of molding leaves and the acrid sting of green wood, but it held also the unmistakable rancid odor of a wild boar.
Then suddenly Meghan was overwhelmed by a familiar sensation. Her vision narrowed to a pinpoint of light, and her body began to tremble. She pressed her fingers over her eyes but it did not help. With a whimper of resigned fear, she gave up the struggle, closed her eyes, and waited.
Most often the visions came to her in dreams, the knowing yet unknowing, the sense of inevitability, which she could not alter or even understand. She could not remember when the first dream had come to her or when she had realized that she was not reliving memories but was enveloped by visions of things yet to be.
The vision came swiftly, as if it were aware that there was little time, and it was the same as that of the night before. Vivid images stirred behind her lids, then flared full-blown; she saw blood-soaked moss and torn flesh, and the stench of death invaded her nostrils, the smell of blood nearly suffocating her.
Gasping, Meghan opened her eyes wide and the vision vanished as the distant cries of angry men and boys came to her ear.
“Dinna ye see her, Rory?” cried a man.
“Aye! She ran this way. Nae doubt she’s found cover!”
“Runnin’ like the divil himself was on her,” answered a third male voice as the heavy footfalls neared. “Do we nae give chase, man?”
“Aye, that we will! Ye lads circle to the right, the rest take the left. She’ll nae go far in them black regions. Rory, fetch the hounds! They’ve the scent of her.”
Meghan froze for an instant, her nostrils quivering with the scent of wild boar and the fetid musky odor of men. Which was the more deadly enemy? Dare she try to warn the men of the danger she foresaw when she knew they meant her harm? She touched the knife strapped to her left forearm. It was puny protection against armed men or a boar.
The question was answered as a fist-sized stone whizzed past her left shoulder with barely an inch to spare.
“There! There!” came a cry behind her. “I see her! Come on, then, or we’ll lose her!”
Meghan had lived her entire sixteen years in the wild, and she reacted as an oft-hunted creature would. With the instinct of a fleeing doe, she showed her pursuers a quick flash of her back, then ducked behind a wall of trees and crouched among the ferns that grew thickly at the base of an oak. But as the clamorous cries of the men grew stronger and she realized that her hiding place would soon be discovered, she jumped up, grasped the tree trunk, and began to climb.
The tree was difficult to scale, not one she would have chosen to climb for pleasure, for its trunk was broader than the span of her arms. She gained the first inches upward by digging her hands and feet into niches in the bark, which shredded the skin of her bare toes and fingers as it yielded grudgingly the purchase she sought. Inch by inch she pulled herself higher, uncaring that as she stretched for a handhold her wool tunic tore at the armhole.
“I dinna see her!” cried a man crashing through the underbrush just feet from the tree. “Faith! We’ve lost her,” he exclaimed in disgust, and fell to swearing roundly as he stopped under the limbs of the tree to which Meghan clung like a squirrel.
His voice frightened Meghan into stillness. With her heart pounding so hard in her throat that she feared it might leap out, she listened to his labored breathing.
“May the good Lord come ’twixt us and the evil we pursue,” a second man said as he joined the first. “Ye seen her plain as me, Shaun,” he continued. “A great clot of blood hanging from her face, the mark of the divil. Could be she’s turned her monstrous self into some great beast.”
“Nae!” Shaun replied. “’Tis a vast tricky place, a forest. She’ll have found herself a hiding place. Wait till Rory brings the hounds. They’ll flush her out quick enough.”
“The stone I heaved at her found its mark, I’d swear,” the second man boasted. “Still, I dinna see a single drop of blood anywhere about. Think she were a spirit, Shaun, aspyin’ on God-fearing folk? Nae good will come of it, and there’s a truth!”
“Were she a spirit, she’d nae have run away from the likes o’ us,” Shaun rejoined. “She were human. Still, the mark was on her, and we’ll be doin’ ourselves nae mischief to stone that one. ’Twill be bad luck else. Rory?” he bellowed suddenly. “Where’s that lad when a body needs him? The hounds will have forgot the scent.”
Cold and damp from the dew, lungs pained with every breath of chilled air, Meghan felt herself slipping from the branch. She had been chased more than a mile by the men. They were wrapped against the morning chill in heavy gray mantles, but her shawl had been lost as she fled across the meadow. Swept by a new surge of fright, she commanded her trembling muscles to lift her upward as she clutched the lowermost limb. They refused to move, leaving her hanging by her arms.
Then the sound of the hounds unhooked her fatigue-locked muscles. The distant baying of those great wolf hounds was more frightening than the sound of the men at her heels. If the dogs discovered her, their great jaws would tear her to shreds within seconds. Drawing on the last of her strength, she pulled herself up to chest level and threw a slender leg over the branch to straddle it. A moment later she was balanced on tiptoe, stretching for a higher, safer limb.
The herders came confidently into the dark forest, shouting and carrying torches and clubs. As their dogs drove all before them, the racket sent startled wild creatures scurrying in every direction.
Frightened by the din, a boar raced through the heart of the forest. A cowardly creature by nature, it was running away. When it found its path blocked, however innocently, by the two men beneath the ancient oak, its instinct for self-preservation took over. Black bristles rose on its hump as it tucked its head down, baring the sharp points of its yellow, curving tusks.
In her fright, Meghan had forgotten the smell of the boar, and her pursuers were too angry at the loss of their prey to heed it. Now the fresh scent came sweeping over her, and she turned to look toward the ground. To her horror, she saw the boar break from the brush nearby.
The sow paused a moment, its small eyes judging the two men. Quick-footed despite its size, it shot forth like an arrow from a crossbow when one of the men turned and fled. One saber-sharp tusk caught him in the ankle, and he screamed as he stumbled and fell.
Turning instantly, the sow charged again to gore the half-risen man in the chest and then toss him aside with a heave of its great head. It found an escape in the underbrush just as the hounds broke into the clearing under the oaks.
“Ah, God! The beast’s killed Shaun!” his companion cried, rushing to the fallen man as the hounds began to close in, drawn by the scent of boar. He kicked away the first of the hounds to reach the battered body, then swung his club at another, threatening but not delivering blows as he shouted, “Keep away! Keep away from the poor lad!”
“’Twas the she-divil what done that!” one of the newcomers whispered in fear as he crossed himself. The rest of the men did likewise and fell silent at the sight that greeted them.
“God strike me dead if she dinna!” Shaun’s companion replied. “Ye seen her, every one of ye. She’s a divil, that ’un,” he continued, caught up in the fever of his imagination. “She growed great tusks the like of a most monstrous boar, all black bristles and such, and killed Shaun, may God have mercy on his soul. She must be stopped!”
Though the others nodded, none of them moved in the direction in which the boar had disappeared.
“’Twill be time enough for killin’ when Shaun’s been proper laid out,” one man suggested. “May the Lord God lay waste to the divil’s hag what did this filthy deed!”
Confused by the irrational anger directed at her but stricken with guilt nonetheless, Meghan watched as they lifted the dead man and carried him away. Finally, when they were out of sight and the forest was silent once more, she turned away and buried her face in the crook of her arm.
She cried softly at first, but as the terror receded, a sense of guilt overwhelmed her and her tears became heaving sobs.
It had happened just as she had dreamed it. The boar had come and killed, and she had not been able to prevent it. The herders were right: it was her fault that a man was dead. If the men had not been looking for her they would not have been in the forest.
It no longer mattered to her that the dead man had been trying to catch and kill her. She could remember only the terror-filled nightmare that had predicted the herdsman’s death. She had dreamed of death but had not known whose until it was too late to prevent it. Why could she never understand enough to stop what was about to occur? The knowing and yet not knowing was a torment, a curse.
Absently her fingers traced the outline of the pebbly-textured birthmark the size of an acorn that curved across her left cheek an inch below her eye. This was the reason why she had been told to keep to herself, out of sight of strangers. It was the reason why Una, her kinswoman and companion, made her pull her shawl over her face when they encountered people on the road. It was the reason why they had lived apart from people since the day Meghan was born. She bore the “mark” of the otherworld.
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