Saturday, September 24, 2016
Meghan O'Bries: Part II
The stranger sat with one ankle propped over his knee, looking quite at ease. He was long-limbed and pale, with a slender build, but strong, square shoulders. His raven-black hair was swept back and tied at the nape of his neck, contrasting sharply against his clear, narrow face. Clad entirely in black but for the silver embroidery that embellished his cloak and belt, he made quite an imposing figure, despite his casual position.
“Who are you?” Meghan asked, taking a step forward.
The man didn't move, but regarded her with a calm yet peculiar expression, almost unreadable. Meghan thought for a moment he seemed amused, yet there was also a hint of sadness, and then something else flashed deep within his eyes... something utterly foreign.
“Please, don't be alarmed,” he said. “You are Meghan O'Bries, are you not?”
Meghan didn't answer, too unsettled by his sudden unexplainable presence.
The man looked her over and nodded, answering his own question. “Yes... yes you are,” he said with, Meghan thought, a note of approval.
Frowning, Meghan's eyes darted to where she'd hung her coat. There was a dagger in the breast pocket, and she'd been a fool not to keep it on her. It was that infernal grogginess, clouding her mind and addling her senses.
“I wouldn't do that, if I were you,” said the stranger, raising his brows.
Meghan sucked in a breath and clenched her fists, her surprise and fear turning to anger without warning. “Who are you? Why have you come here? And why have you been shadowing me these few days?”
The man rose and moved forward, gliding smoothly past Meghan as she shrank back. Turning, he looked down to meet her eyes and Meghan realized suddenly how very tall he was.
“I am here because I have business with you, and I have watched you for the same reason.” He cocked his head, watching her carefully.
Meghan shook her head in confusion. “What business? Do I know you?”
“In a way,” he said. Blinking, he turned away and looked through the window, leaning against the wall. From some hidden pocket in his cloak, he pulled out a worn booklet and flipped it open, scanning the pages with a cool gaze.
“Yes,” he murmured, “you may know me better than you think. Meghan O'Bries, five-and-twenty years of age. Born in the year 1530, to Lachan and Raeda O'Bries. Your father died in a skirmish with the Norn when you were but ten years.”
Meghan glanced at the booklet and frowned, nodding. “Yes...”
“During your fifteenth year you also witnessed the Fainhearn Massacre, in which you lost your mother, and you were taken as a ward by your father's younger half-brother, the blacksmith Finn MacGabhann- correct?”
Meghan nodded again, more baffled than ever. The stranger met her eyes for a moment before turning back to his booklet.
“And it was under MacGabhann's care that you met his son Dairn, who promised to protect you with his life. Which was well since Finn MacGabhann passed away less than two years later, of an illness in the lungs.”
The stranger continued, his voice dispassionate, and yet somehow not unkind. “On his deathbed, MacGabhann revealed that he was descended of the Old Kings, and that he now named Dairn his heir, the rightful king of Ern.”
Meghan blinked slowly and looked away, her upper lip curling. “Anyone could know this. You had only to question those who knew Finn MacGabhann or my parents.”
The stranger smirked and shook his head, turning the page of his booklet. “I'm not finished. In his dying moments MacGabhann also revealed that since your father, Lachan, was his elder brother, that it was he who had been the original heir, and as such you too were an heir to the throne.”
Looking up, he folded his booklet and replaced it in the depths of his cloak. “And as he closed his eyes in death, you and Dairn swore a vow in blood that there would never be any rivalry between you. You would work as one to take down the Norn and bring order back to Ern, with or without aid: or you would die in the attempt. Thus, eight years and six months ago, your fate was sealed.”
Meghan felt cold. Not a soul on earth had known of her own royal blood, or seen the vow she had taken with Dairn. Dairn said it was too dangerous for anyone to know who she really was. They had never spoken of it since that day. She remembered how lonely it had felt in those first months after Finn's death, with only each other and their mission as comfort. But when the first of the Old Clans sought them out, hope had ignited in her heart like spark on a bed of dry leaves. She had always known that Dairn was destined for more, and that if the people of Ern would only band together they might stand a chance against the tyrants who had robbed them of their land. Quietly she had encouraged Dairn, pushing him gently until he could at last see the hope that had brought the clans to them. That hope had spread until it was a roaring fire, and the united clans dared for the first time in generations to call themselves the Free Folk. Not one of them knew how ready she and Dairn and been to die just months before...
Except this man.
“How can you know these things?” Meghan breathed.
The stranger looked at her, his face twisted with what almost seemed like a challenge. “I know because I was there.”
He moved toward her slowly, seeming taller by the step. “Your parents' demise, the massacre, Finns passing, the vow. Surely you can guess my name.”
Meghan shook her head, lost.
“Think, Meghan! What common element to these events in your life share?”
“The Norn,” Meghan began, a hard edge entering her voice. “Are you-”
“No.” The stranger reached out and grasped her shoulders, and Meghan found herself drawn into his eyes, so dark and deep they seemed like endless chasms.
Meghan felt her heart drop. Flinching, she withdrew from his touch. “Death? She whispered. “B-but that means you- you're here for-”
Her lips curling in a sneer. She shook her head vigorously. “I don't believe you. Whoever you are, you've been sent by my enemies and-”
“That's true, in a sense,” he conceded, cocking his head in thought.
Meghan seized her chance and ducked past him, rushing for the door. No thought for the coat or dagger, she had to get away from this man, from this place! She reached for the handle-
But his hand appeared there, blocking it. He looked down at her and shook his head, tsking ruefully.
“No use running Meghan,” he said calmly.
Meghan gasped and stumbled back, She whirled around toward the window, but no sooner had she turned than saw him crouching there in the sill, looking almost amused.
“You cannot fight this, child! I'm sorry, but your time has come.”
Meghan's heart pounded and she could feel her limbs trembling. Death stepped down from the window and approached her, pity crossing his face again.
“Come, Meghan. You've had a difficult life, but you've fought hard. It's time to rest now.”
“But- but....” Meghan shook her head in confusion, unable to reconcile what her eyes saw with what her mind screamed. “I-I'm not done! I'm still here! I'm alive and well..”
Death shook his head. “No, you aren't. At this very moment, you're dying.”
He touched her shoulder gently and gestured behind her toward the hearth. Slowly, Meghan turned, afraid to look, but too afraid not to see.
The fire had burned low, and in the flickering light, she could see herself sprawled on the floor, pale-faced and glassy-eyed, convulsing weakly.
Meghan clapped her hand over her mouth, horrified. She turned away and stumbled to the window, unable to face what she had seen. She could feel tears burning at the back of her eyes, but could find no reason why. She shook her head slowly, trying to put the image from her mind.
“Poison,” Death stated matter-of-factly. “They put it in your water-skin, the Nornish spies, that is. Not so much that you or anyone else would notice right away, but after drinking enough... well, you see the results.”
Meghan mind reeled. Poisoned... after all the times she had escaped disaster, cheated hunger, and survived illness, poison would have her at last. After all of her work to take back the land she so loved, this was how it ended?
“Are you... do you always appear this way?” she asked suddenly, hardly knowing why. She kept envisioning that body, twitching on the floor. She squeezed her eyes shut.
“No, not always. It greatly depends on the person, and their perception of me. Most die too quickly or suddenly to see me coming. Others feel me like a deep foreboding, and some see me as a shadow, or even a great black dog. But it's the slow ones that see me as I am... the ones who are still too attached to this earth, who need convincing.”
“Convincing...” Meghan repeated.
Crossing her arms tightly, she glared into the distance, refusing to meet Death's eyes. “No. Give me more time! You can't take me yet. You've taken enough lives in this country, let me be!”
“I don't control who goes and when,” Death said flatly, a hint of annoyance entering his tone. “I merely uphold the law.”
Meghan shot him a glance, but could not bring herself to look at him long. “It's too soon,” she murmured, “too soon. I-I'm not finished! I have things to do.”
She moved back from the window and paced the hut, running her hands through her hair restlessly. Death looked at her askance, leaning against the fireplace with one leg propped beneath him.
“I have to meet with Heich and my kinsmen, Siobhan. This meeting is crucial! Without them we cannot stand against the Norn, but with them our victory is almost certain. So much depends on these next few days...”
Swallowing, Meghan looked up at him pleading eyes, silently begging for him to understand. She gather nothing from the cold expression with which he regarded her.
“If we wait much longer to strike the Norn, we will lose our momentum. Our people have found this hope under Dairn's leadership, but with winter coming on their energy will flag. We will be struck down, and hope for reclaiming our land will fade into legend.”
Meghan looked down and covered her burning eyes, ashamed of the emotions she could not control. What a fool she was, pleading with Death himself like a common coward, afraid to leave behind a life she had never known she loved until now. It's useless, she realized quietly. Her shoulders slumped. It's over. Best face it as a warrior ought, not weeping like a beggar.
Drying her tears, she looked up, stone faced and resolute. But as soon as she opened her eyes, she jumped in spite of herself, for Death stood before her, so close she could feel the tips of his boots on her own.
“It is not for human kind to divine the future,” he said slowly, “but for your sake, in your dying moments, I can give you a gift.”
* * *
To Be Continued...
(Image taken from the public domain)