Sadbh knelt on the hut’s earthen floor to examine the bodies more closely.
Pity engulfed her when she saw how young the boys were, not even old enough to grow warrior’s beards. The mournful keening of the mothers filled her ears. Their jagged solo wails and shrieks cut the autumn air with grief, audible through the clamour of an outraged clan outside. Sadbh heard the mothers’ agony as though they keened for her ears alone. It was overwhelming, the tearing pain of loss as a future was ripped from the woman who’d given it birth. Sadbh blew out a long breath and drew another in an effort to slow her heart’s racing.
The cruel wounds inflicted in a style she knew all too well stirred memories of an old loss to the surface. Her vision blurred and then darkened as a wave of panic crashed over her. Not here, not in the land of Eire, dear goddess, let it not be so.
The Morrigan’s divine presence threatened to come to the fore as it always did in times of great distress. Black wings beat at the edges of her mind, a rage that no mortal could ever hope to bear began its corrosive journey through her veins. Sweat ran down her back as Sadbh exerted every drop of mortal strength she possessed to keep the goddess from taking control. Over the years she’d learned how to stop the Morrigan from using her as she saw fit and sometimes, if Sadbh caught the onslaught in time, she could force the divine presence back into its customary place deep inside her heart.
There must be vengeance!
There will be, my goddess, with you by my side, the guilty cannot hope to avoid it.
After a few moments of intense effort, the tide of the Morrigan’s great strength receded within her and Sadbh set about her duty.
She noted the bruised wrists and cut throats. The wounds matched each other perfectly, all by the same blade likely wielded by the same hand, Sadbh was sure of it. Straight and clean, no jagged edges. The blade that had done this bloody work was short and razor sharp. Death had been quick, but how long had the boys been held captive before their deaths? Long enough to collect bruising on their young bodies, evidence of their struggle to live.
Rising, she turned to the Ri Tuath who had sent for her that morning. He was young for the responsibility thrust upon him, this was only his first year as the clan leader and nothing in the clan’s past had prepared them for this. The whiteness of his face and the set of his jaw signalled the tense fury he was holding in check.
‘Well?’ he said.
‘It was not one of our people that did this, Cormac,’ answered Sadbh, keeping her voice low, ‘of that I am sure.’
He nodded once. A flicker of relief crossed his face.
‘If I have your word on that, I can stop the warriors running wild,’ he said, ‘they’re already setting their minds to revenge. They’re not too concerned against whom. You are sure?’
‘I am indeed,’ Sadbh answered.
Cormac looked at her for a moment, doubt evident in his eyes.
‘If I may ask,’ he said finally, ‘how? How can you tell our neighbours did not do this and steal the cattle the lads were minding?’
Sadbh hesitated before answering, torn between wanting to offer comfort and keeping the truth secret for now.
‘They were held with their arms bound, perhaps for a few hours before they died, Cormac,’ she said slowly, ‘have you ever heard of any of our people doing that?’
Cormac shook his head. Of course not. If their people took captives they kept them alive and even treated them as honoured guests, eager for the ransom their safe return would earn. To kill a bound captive would be the ultimate insult to a clan’s honour.
‘Who would do this then?’ he said, ‘who would bind and cut the throats of three youngsters with only thirteen summers behind them? They must be found and justice done upon them, my people demand no less and neither do I.’
Sadbh felt the gathering storm of the goddess and knew she had not the strength to keep the Morrigan locked within her. But she did her best to keep the full wrath hidden from the man in front of her. He deserved a better answer than the one she gave him now.
‘That is for the Morrigan to know and I alone will deliver justice as is my right, Cormac of the Golden Lands.’
She felt the Morrigan’s otherworldly voice emanate from her throat and knew her eyes had darkened to black, by the stricken look on Cormac’s face. He swallowed convulsively and took a few paces back.
Sadbh cursed inwardly. Cormac was a decent man, a duine uasal, he should not be bearing the weight of the Morrigan’s anger.
‘Forgive me,’ she said, reaching out a placatory hand, ‘the Morrigan is wilful and cannot be denied.’
Cormac shook his head and ignored her outstretched hand.
‘I’ll be needing your help,’ he said, frustration evident in his voice, ‘only the word of the Morrigan delivered by her mouthpiece will stop what my warriors are planning.’
Sadbh winced internally at his description, but kept her face expressionless. She nodded her agreement at Cormac. Together they left the hut and walked into the uproar outside.
People spoke long of the morning when Sadbh, the Morrigan’s Own, strode out among them and spoke.
She was no ordinary woman of the clans, though her height and dark red hair would have marked her out anyway. It had been over ten generations since their people’s stories had told of another such as her. She was dedicated to the war goddess of Eire and no longer considered a mere mortal, but a woman who shared her body and indeed her very soul with the divine.. She was accustomed to being viewed with awe and sometimes even fear when she walked amongst the people. And rightly so, for crossing her could very well mean offending a goddess.
The stories said that when Sadbh was fully possessed by the Morrigan, her eyes turned dark, black even, as she dispensed divine justice in the goddess’s name. Few could swear to this, as few who had ever seen those eyes change colour now lived to tell of it.
And now all, even the grieving families of the slain boys, were silent awaiting her words.
Sadbh shuddered as the raw power of the goddess broke through her mortal frame and possessed her utterly. Through a grey haze she heard the ravens’ beat wildly in the air and felt the cold shadow of the Morrigan’s great wings fall over her.
The words of the goddess issued from Sadbh’s lips, almost choking her with the sheer venom of the Morrigan’s hate.
‘People of the Golden Lands, you are invaded! The conqueror from the east has slain your kin!’
The people gasped in unison, shock plain on their faces. The warriors roared in outrage, their voices blending into a mighty howl of defiance. Cormac’s face was pale but he motioned his people to silence.
‘Who invades us, Morrigan? Who are our enemies?’
Sadbh wanted to double over in pain, for the Morrigan was merciless, forcing the worst memories from her past to the surface. Making the old agony anchored in Sadbh’s very soul fresh again. Beloved faces, bloodied and still in death, crowded her vision. The fury rose inside her as it always did. It was a fire that she desperately tried to keep banked, but it was meat and drink to the Morrigan. Gleefully, it was fastened upon now, carefully tended, stoked to life until it blazed up with terrifying suddenness.
An unearthly shriek, half human and half divine, erupted from Sadbh’s throat.
Sadbh gave herself over to the rage, all semblance of her mortal nature temporarily in abeyance.
‘They have no place here, this is our land!’
The crowd roared in response, stirred by the display of divine might embodied by the woman standing before them.
‘Death to the Romans! Kill them all!’
A wave of murderous anger swept over the crowd, meeting the one emanating from the Morrigan, feeding off each other and rising in intensity until all cried out as one. A great cry for blood and vengeance went up from the settlement.
Sadbh saw Cormac’s face twist into a mask of rage and felt the pleasure this gave the Morrigan swirl through her belly. Every face was the same, the Morrigan’s influence leapt from person to person, touching each one with divine fury.
The Romans would not stand a chance.
Sadbh huddled by the campfire, built as hot as she could make it, desperate for warmth. She felt frozen through, iced by a fury too frigid for a mortal to bear. Deathly tired and unable to stop the shuddering running through her exhausted body, Sadbh simply endured until it began to pass. Gradually, she subsided into shivering, her muscles twitching as the flames finally began to thaw the frost from her bones. Only then did she attempt to wipe away the tears running down her cheeks.
Sadbh wept silently at first, but as her body warmed and loosened by the fire, she began to sob. Every time the Morrigan possessed her, she lost a part of her mortal self, but she had not experienced so violent an invasion since the very first time the Goddess had claimed her. Drained and terrified, it was all she could do to walk on unsteady legs out of Cormac’s settlement without collapsing.
Sadbh looked inward for a moment, her senses searching for the Goddess, but the great presence was quiescent within her. She let out a shaky sigh and allowed herself a heretical thought.
I cannot contain her much longer and even if I could, I would choose not to.
As her mind relaxed its iron grip on her thoughts, another one came unbidden to the forefront.
I would rather be in the Otherworld with those I love.
The luxury of even contemplating that possibility filled Sadbh with a kind of desolate joy. The pleasure of laying down her burden at last, made her head spin. But such thoughts never lasted long enough to become plans, at least not yet.
Exhausted, but fighting sleep, Sadbh watched the fire until only the glow of embers remained. Such solitude was rare for her, the time to think without a stronger will over-riding her own was a rare gift.
It was autumn, the crops had been harvested, there was a true bite in the night air, the great festival of Samhain drew closer. A time when the barriers between the living and the dead were thin as mist. A time that Sadbh both longed for, and dreaded, in equal measure.
It was almost too cold to be spending the night outside, but Sadbh could not have borne to stay in the settlement of Cormac Ui Conail and his grieving people, not after whipping that grief into a vengeful rage. Tomorrow night, she promised herself, she would seek the hospitality of a nearby clan and be sheltered for the night. There would be music, poetry and hot food aplenty. Sadbh would laugh and talk and spend a night sleeping safe and sound amongst her people. She held the conjured vision for a moment, savouring it. Yes, tomorrow night would be different.
The lie coiled greasily around her heart.
It was the same one she had told herself last night, when she’d made her meagre camp on the shores of the eastern coast. Tomorrow would not be different. It’s for the best, I’m tired of being stared at, she told herself, and some young hothead would’ve challenged me to a fight or a fuck. Either would let him boast of touching a goddess. And I have no heart for either.
A full moon glowed overhead, the forest noises filled her ears as the night creatures scurried about their business. It was undeniably peaceful, if lonely. Her eyelids drooped and she pulled her wool-lined leather cloak around her. Leaning back against the bole of the oak, she was concealed within the moon-shadow of the tree, invisible to anyone who might spot her fire.
Sleep inexorably approached and as always, Sadbh tried to stave it off. She checked her weapons one last time. Her spear rested next to her within easy reach, an iron blade was in its customary place scabbarded across her back. A dagger at her belt completed her portable armoury. Exhaustion could be denied no longer and Sadbh reluctantly closed her eyes.
A familiar face came to greet her, bright blue eyes so typical of his clan, a laughing mouth, just as she had last seen him before…her heart ached with desolation…before her world had become ashes. Carac, my heart, I miss you, I love you now as I did then. She let herself slip down into a fitful sleep, trying to keep her guard up against the visions of a joyful past, now blasted beyond recall.