BEAUTY AND THE HIGHLAND BEAST
Carraig Brigh, Scotland, 1706
Four Sinclair clansmen came for Moire o' the Spring in the middle of the night. It was urgent, they said, invading her cott, rudely shaking her awake. Their heads knocked against the bundles of herbs that hung from the low black roof beams, and they grimaced and crossed themselves as they looked at her stores of gnarled roots and dried berries, all as wizened as old Moire herself. The tang of male sweat replaced the dusty green scent of the plants, made her nostrils quiver, and sharpened her own fear.
She barely had time to pull on a shawl before they wrapped their fists around her arms and carried her out. They weren't rough, merely firm about things—she was going with them, will she or nill she. They lifted her onto a sturdy garron behind one of the men and rode out as quickly as they'd arrived.
"Who sent ye to me? Where are we going?"
Her questions went unanswered.
Moire assumed some poor lass had a babe on the way and needed her help. It must be someone important—why else would they send four men to fetch a midwife in the middle of the night? The garrons moved over the low hills along the coast, toward the village of Carraig.
Her mouth dried when they turned from the track that led to the village and took the one that went up toward the castle of Carraig Brigh. There were no pregnant lasses at Carraig Brigh. There was nothing but madness and death. Moire made a low sound and tried to wriggle off the horse, but the rider's strong arm pinned her in place. "Easy, old woman—you'll be well paid," he growled.
They'd brought her to heal the chief's son. Terror made her sweat, and the cold wind made her shiver. She'd heard the stories about Alasdair Og Sinclair, told wide-eyed, in low whispers. One day the man they called the Laird o' the Seas had sailed away on a voyage to France that he'd made a hundred times or more. Weeks later he'd come back to Carraig Brigh, broken and mad, his ship taken, his crew dead. He screamed in his sleep, beset by evil dreams, and bled from wounds that would not heal. 'Twas said Alasdair Og was cursed, doomed to fight a devil trapped in his mind for possession of his soul.
It wouldn't matter how much gold the Sinclair offered. If Moire couldn't help his son, she'd be the one to pay—with her life. Chief Padraig Sinclair had summoned other healers to Carraig Brigh. They came from far off places, used knowledge and potions she'd never heard of. Not a one of them had been able to restore Alasdair Og's health and sanity, and when they failed, 'twas said the chief tossed them off the top of the castle and watched their broken bodies sink into the sea beside his fleet of ships, ships that sailed no more now their captain was mad.
How had the Sinclairs heard of Moire? She was a humble soul. She kept to herself, tended the ancient spring of the goddess, and helped only those who came to her. Fear numbed the icy blast of the wind as she stared up at Carraig Brigh's bony tower, a crooked black finger rising from a solid fist of rock.
"Ye've made a mistake," she whined as they rode under the iron teeth of the gate. "I'm naught but a simple midwife." No one listened, and the wind carried her pleas over the edge of the cliff and drowned them in the bay below.
In the bailey, men stood in the light of gale-thrashed torches. There wasn't a friendly face among them, or a word of welcome.
Someone hauled her off the garron, kept hold of her arm as he propelled her across the bailey. The portcullis fell with a metallic squall that ended on a human note, a wail of pure agony that floated down from the tower and made Moire's innards curl against her backbone. The clansmen shifted uneasily, crossed themselves, and turned their eyes up to the narrow window high above them. Moire's escort grabbed a torch from the nearest man as he opened an iron-studded door and pushed her up the steps inside.
"Do you truly have magic, old woman?" he asked. "You'd best hope you can conjure a cure."
She stumbled. A witch. They thought they'd summoned a witch.
"A midwife, just a midwife," she protested again, panting. The curving stone steps were steep, but he gave her no time to catch her breath. Her old legs were no match for his long, muscular ones. She scrabbled at his sleeve. "Please, there's been a mistake."
"There's no mistake, Moire o' the Spring. 'Tis you and no other we were sent to fetch. The chief would summon the devil himself if he thought it could save his son."
"What's wrong with him?" she found the courage to ask.
He grunted. "Have ye heard of Jean Sinclair?"
"Aye, of course. The lass they called the Holy Maid of Carraig Brigh," Moire replied.
"That's her. She was Alasdair Og's cousin, the chief's niece. Padraig wasn't pleased when she decided to take holy orders and shut herself away in a French convent." He rubbed a hand over his face. " 'Tis a sad tale. They set sail from Sinclair Bay and put in at Berwick for the night, only to be ambushed by English soldiers. Alasdair Og thought there'd been a mistake, that they'd been taken for pirates, perhaps, or kidnapped for ransom. He imagined it would be a matter of a few days' delay, an exchange of coin, and they'd be on their way again. But they didn't bother themselves about ransom. They took the gold Alasdair Og was carrying right enough, and the goods, and the ship, and they murdered his crew. Then they beat Alasdair half to death, and threw him and Jean into the dungeon of Coldburn Keep."
Moire put a hand to her throat, a shiver racing up her spine.
"Worst of all was what they did to poor wee Jean. They raped her, tortured her, then murdered her in front of Alasdair. He was chained to the wall, could do nothing to help her. She pleaded with God for help. She was just a slip of a girl. They said if she was Catholic and a Highlander, then she was no better than an idolatrous witch. 'Twas hatred—not just for the Scots, but for Alasdair Og in particular. They called him a pirate, blamed him for things that had nothing at all to do with the Sinclairs. It wasn't wee Jeannie's fight—Alasdair told them that, but they wouldn't listen. He lay in his own filth for a fortnight, chained, wounded, and listened while they beat her, broke her bones, tormented her. They kept him alive to hear her screams."
"And then?" Moire asked.
The man grimaced. "They hanged her as a heretic in the courtyard, forced Alasdair to his feet, made him stand at the window and watch." He stared down at her from the step above. "He can't forget any of it. That's why they call him mad—he has nightmares, feels constant pain, and starts at shadows. Can you help him?"
She blinked. Did the holy maid haunt Alasdair Og Sinclair? Perhaps it was the devil's work after all. Moire knew little of the Christian God, either Catholic or Covenanter. She followed the ancient goddess, tended her sacred spring...
Another guttural scream came from the top of the tower. Moire shrank against the cold stones of the wall and made a sign against evil.
Her companion took hold of her arm again. "Come on." He opened a door at the top of the steps, dragged her through it. The room was nearly dark, lit by a single candle—expensive beeswax—and the dull glow of a brazier in the corner. The sweet scent of the candle mixed with the dark stink of old blood, corruption, and sweat. It was a smell Moire knew. It meant illness far beyond her ability to heal, and death.
She looked down at the man on the narrow bed. Alasdair Og Sinclair's big body was rigid, the cords of his throat taut. His fists bunched the sheet under him, tore the fine linen. His left leg was bandaged from groin to knee, and she could see the thick purple-red scars that marred his chest and right arm. Under those, his skin was pallid, with an unhealthy, feverish sheen. His eyes were sunken hollows amid the sharp bones of his face, and his nose had been broken and left unset. She felt pity bloom in her breast. He must have been a handsome man once, tall and well built.
She looked around the room. There was a priest kneeling in the corner, counting prayers on his beads, his voice barely audible over Alasdair Og's moans.
Someone else sat in the shadows, sprawled in the room's only chair, regarding her with a coldness she could feel in her bones. The chief of the Sinclairs of Carraig Brigh wore a fine brooch on his shoulder, a red stone that glinted like the devil's own eye in the candlelight. His hair was thick and dark like his son's but shot through with gray, his face lined and haggard. Her heart went out to him too, knowing he'd been with his son through every tortured hour. The man needed sleep, and hope, and she had none to offer.
"Can you heal my son?" he demanded, his voice hard as flint, pitched low, as if he feared waking the man on the bed.
Moire treated simple sicknesses and injuries. She gave women herbs and charms to make or prevent babies, to ease pain, and to make birthing easier. She had no experience of battle wounds or madness. She glanced at the man who had brought her here, now standing between herself and the door with his arms crossed. His eyes were as cold as the chief's. Even the priest glared at her, his beads still now, his eyes full of suspicion.
Moire approached the bed, checking the patient, buying precious time. Her hands shook, and her mind worked. What would she do if it were a pregnant lass lying here in pain? She put her palm on Alasdair Og's forehead, felt the heat there. He flinched at her touch, muttered, "Jeannie ..."
Moire couldn't imagine what Alasdair was reliving in his fevered brain, didn't want to. She lifted his eyelid with her thumb, looked into his eye. He did not look at her. She stepped back, rubbed her hands along her tattered skirts.
"Well?" Padraig Sinclair demanded.
Moire hesitated, overwhelmed. Such terrible wounds, such agony. Did she dare tell him that his son was going to die? She looked at the priest, saw malice twist his thin lips. Witch...the word was unspoken, but she heard it nonetheless. Fear of her own death stopped the truth in her throat.
Moire knew how to soothe the anxiety and pain of childbirth. Was Alasdair Og's so very different? She opened the bundle tied around her waist with trembling fingers and took out a small pouch of valerian. She pinched up the dry leaves and crushed them between her palms, let them fall into the cup that stood by the bed. She filled it with wine and pushed the poker into the brazier, then plunged the hot iron into the draught to heat it.
"Help me lift his head," she ordered the man by the door. He came forward, put his arm under Alasdair's head. "'Tis only something to help you sleep without dreams," she murmured as she held the cup to Alasdair Og's cracked lips. He grimaced but swallowed. It was a good sign, and an unexpected one.
"'Twill help him rest," she repeated to the chief, who hadn't taken his eyes from her for an instant. She turned to examine his son's injuries. The scars marring his chest were thick and jagged. She bent to sniff them but detected no corruption. The wound that ran down his right arm from elbow to wrist had healed badly, left unstitched and untended for too long. Now the scar was ugly, red, and puffy, but no streaks of poison ran under his skin. He was a strong man indeed.
Last of all, she turned to his injured leg, fearing it would be the worst, knowing it. There was blood on the bandage, black in the candlelight, and yellow pus. She bent over it and drew back at the smell. The corruption was far gone. Unchecked, the poison from this wound would spread through his body, kill him...but the chief was watching her with his hard eyes, his jaw set, his fist clenched on the hilt of his dagger, as if his will alone could keep his son alive.
"How long—" She was choking on the smell. "How long has he been like this?"
"Seven weeks, perhaps eight," the chief replied. "Some days he is as he once was and seems to be improving. Other days he's ill, fevered, fearful. The nights are the worst of all..." He swallowed, lowered his gaze, but not before Moire had seen the glitter of tears. When he looked up again, the hard mask was back. "You will heal him," he commanded.
She could not. Moire opened her mouth to speak, to prepare him for his son's death, but he drew his dirk, advanced on the bed with the naked blade glinting in the candlelight, and fear stopped her tongue again. Instead of plunging the knife into her heart, he slit the knot that bound the bandages on Alasdair's leg and nodded for her to proceed.
Her hands shook as she unwrapped the linen, trying not to breathe. The miasma filled the little room. The priest turned aside to vomit in the rushes. The man at the door clamped his hand over his nose and mouth. The chief didn't flinch. He stared down at the ugly wound. It oozed foul-smelling yellow fluid. Moire had known brave men to faint at a birth. This was death, and still Padraig Sinclair kept his feet. Was he so used to seeing men die? She could almost feel the wing beats of the raven goddess of death hovering over the bed, waiting. The priest held up his crucifix, one sleeve clasped over his nose, mumbling prayers, as if he could frighten the corruption away. If that were true, then why had his God not already healed the chief's son? Moire doubted her goddess could do any better.
She wet a cloth in the remains of the warm wine and cleaned the leg. Her patient flinched, drew a harsh breath, but didn't wake. He muttered, talking with someone she couldn't see. It made the hairs on her skin rise and creep.
She stepped back at last. It was all she could do, all she dared to do with the chief and the priest watching her. She needed her wits now if she was to survive. "I need more than I have brought, other herbs and—things," she dared, hoping for escape.
"Tell me what you need. They'll be fetched at once," Padraig Sinclair said. He had an intelligent face, not cruel, despite the tales she'd heard. She realized she'd unintentionally given him hope.
"Oh, but I must get them myself," she wheedled. "'Tis easy to mistake pennyroyal for nightshade or chamomile for hellebore if ye don't know." Once back at her hut, the goddess would surely protect her from harm. But a bead of sweat trickled down her back as suspicion closed the chief's lined face.
"Can you heal my son or not?"
It was her last chance to tell him the truth. She could do no more than make his son comfortable until the end came—and it would come, she was sure of that. But she wouldn't be here to see it—she'd be at the bottom of the tower with her skull broken. She didn't want to die—nor did Alasdair Og. She was sure of that too. He was fighting very hard... She silently called upon the goddess as she forced herself to meet the laird's eye.
"He will live," she lied, making her voice loud and sure, playing the role of the goddess. Had she miraculously come to this small room in the dead of night, taken control of Moire's tongue? The priest looked up in surprise. The very walls seemed to lean in to listen. "But a holy maid caused this, and only another maid—a virgin pure—can restore your son to health," she finished.
Padraig Sinclair stared at her a moment. "Then not you I assume, crone."
Despite all her years and all she'd seen, Moire blushed.
"What kind of maid? A bride, a nun, a holy healer?" the chief demanded.
She had no idea. "You must search for her, bring her here," the goddess said cryptically through Moire's lips.
"The virgin," the priest cried, excited. His accent was thick and foreign. "Our Lady will heal him. We will bring her image from the chapel, send to Rome for holy relics, place them before your son, offer prayers, say masses—"
The chief's brow clouded. He had given up on God, Moire thought. Or he suspected trickery—whether from herself or the priest, she wasn't sure.
"A living maiden," the goddess insisted, using Moire's tongue. Moire withstood the chief's terrifying glare, cast it back at him until he looked away to gaze down at his son.
"There's not another lass like Jeannie Sinclair anywhere on this earth, among evil men," Padraig muttered, and fell silent. He rubbed his chin, looked at Moire again. "My son was betrothed, but the match was broken when he returned like this. She was a maid, or so I was assured. Another well-bred bride, perhaps?"
Moire folded her hands together and tilted her head. "Just so. You must go and seek her, bring her here." Surely it would be easier—kinder—if Padraig Sinclair were away from Carraig Brigh when death came for his son.
The big clansman by the door shifted his stance. "There's a laird at Glen Iolair, to the west, a MacLeod. I've heard he has a number of daughters of marriageable age. Perhaps
there's a lass there..." He shrugged. "They've probably not heard of Alasdair Og's...illness, so far away."
The Sinclair swallowed, and Moire saw hope war with indecision in his eyes for a moment. He nodded at last. "I will leave at once." Triumph soared in Moire's breast, only to crumble to dust when he pointed his finger at her. "You will remain with him until I return." He bent to run his hand over his son's brow, brushing away lank locks of dark hair. "Keep him alive." It was both an order and a plea.
Her stomach flipped as the goddess left her. She caught the fine wool of Padraig Sinclair's plaid as he passed her. "Aye, Chief, but if your quest should fail—"
He spun, plucked her hand free, and glared at her. "If my son dies while I am gone, then you will share his grave."
© Lecia Cornwall
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