Another extract from my historical fantasy novel.
Ríona watched her brother march purposefully across the meadow in the direction of the little beech wood. Even out in the fields, where no one could see him cradling his bruises, he always held himself straight. Fiachra was the eldest and could have been their father’s heir, but he was also Talannach, and it would not do to draw the attention of the High King. Nothing had been said, but when the clan elected a new leader to succeed Cormac, though her eldest brother’s name would be put forward, Ríona knew he would be passed over. Fiachra was precious and must be protected from the jealousy of High Kings.
She turned back to the meadow where the mares had got over their surprise at the young, impetuous stallion that had suddenly disappeared. What they no longer saw they no longer feared. Heads bent again to the sweet grass. A couple of colts caught Ríona’s attention, and she wondered whether her father would let her have a riding horse, or whether his charioteer had not already marked them. Cormac Mac Niall was indulgent with his only daughter, but his horses were special.
While she watched, the herd began to move uneasily. The old stallion, the herd leader, sniffed the air and snorted. With pricked ears and tail held high, he trotted back and forth, chivvying the mares with their young ones further from the river. The girl watched and raised a hand to shade the morning sun from her eyes. A lone horseman emerged from the belt of woodland that followed the river’s course. His horse moved with an ungainly gait, tired perhaps after a long journey. She peered harder. Not tired, tireless. The horse, massive and jet-black, was a Fomhóire mount, and the girl felt a chill grow in the brisk air.
This was Mac Niall land and the girl was the Mac Niall’s daughter, so she strode to meet the stranger and pushed her unease to the back of her thoughts. The herd had moved closer to the fort and the old stallion stood defiantly, his eyes fixed on the newcomer whose smell was unfamiliar but filled with a strange menace. Ríona’s nostrils too twitched, as if the tide had washed a bloated whale corpse up the river.
The horseman pulled up his mount. “Is Mac Niall here?” he called. The voice was harsh though the speaker had a comely face.
“He is,” the girl replied suspiciously. “What do you want with him?”
“That is between me and Mac Niall.”
“You can tell me just as easily. I am his daughter.”
“And does his daughter have a name?”
“Ríona,” she said begrudgingly. “What is your business?”
There was a silence as the man eyed her as he would a fine horse, and she held his impudent gaze defiantly, willing herself not to blush.
“I was told he has a fine herd of horseflesh. I see that is not all he has that is worth inspecting.” She winced in anger but held her peace. “I was told he had a fine crop of foals this spring, and he might have some to sell.”
“My father rarely parts with his horses, and then only as a gift. He does not sell.”
“Perhaps I can strike a bargain with him.” The horseman slid from the back of his mount and led it by the reins. “I shall speak to him, if you would announce me.”
She was tall, but he stood a head taller. A dark face with dark eyes bent to gaze at her. His features were regular and handsome, but there was a coarseness to the slack set of his mouth and the grain of his skin, and his complexion had an unhealthy greenish hue. She recoiled inwardly, crushing the instinctive urge to put more distance between them, and she held her head high. “Who shall I say is asking for him?”
“Desmond Mac Murrough,” he replied, and his loose lips twisted into an arrogant smirk.
Ríona knew the Mac Murrough’s history as well as she knew her own. It was a story that filled her with revulsion and shame for those forebears who had not destroyed the giants from the sea when they were given the chance. As she watched Desmond mount his horse and let it amble across the fields towards the fort, she saw Fomhóire in his awkward seat, in the graceless posture, shoulders slumped forward. No horseman, Mac Murrough, but an unnatural thing neither fish nor man. It cried out in his blood—seawater tinted his skin, and his breath was the belch from a whale’s belly. Only a Mac Murrough would have thought to turn the breaking of the world to his advantage and mingle the blood of his clan with the beasts from the sea, she thought with disgust. Ríona felt the blood freeze in her veins when she recalled the acquisitive look in his eyes.
She called to her charioteer to warn her father a guest was on his way and looked about her for Fiachra; the eldest son should be with his father to receive a guest. Her eyes scoured the edge of the beech wood, searching for the awkward fluttering of a bird of prey. She almost sighed with relief when a bird shape darted from the eaves of the wood, its flight jerky and ungraceful. Fiachra.
The bird had not quite landed in the grass before it was stretching and becoming a tall, black-haired youth, tumbling to his knees as the momentum of the bird’s flight carried him on. As soon as his tongue became a man’s once more and he recovered the power of speech, Fiachra asked urgently, “Who was that, Rí? The mount was a Fomhóire beast and its rider had a black look about him.”
“Desmond Mac Murrough. And don’t ask me what he wants.” Her fists clenched in anger. “He says he’s after buying horseflesh. But he’d take a different mare if she were offered.”
Fiachra’s eyes flashed. “The arrogant devil! Was he disrespectful to you? If he was—”
“His kind has no respect for any woman. It’s breeding stock he sees and nothing more. He could no more be disrespectful to me than he could to the Fomhóire brute he was riding. Your place is at home now, with Father. We, at least, know how to show our guests courtesy.”
Ríona’s voice was firm but she was trembling with anger. She tried to bring another acid remark to mind but found nothing, only disgust and anguish. Her brother shook his head and touched her arm lightly. She sighed and took a deep breath to calm her racing heart. “Go, now,” she said. “I shall stay here and watch the horses. They have bonnier faces than the black devil yonder.”
Fiachra nodded and whistled for his riding horse. He understood what his sister feared, for herself and for all the women of all the untainted clans. As he rode back to the fort, images, dark and ancient, poured past behind his eyes, of the time when Mac Murrough’s rise began, and the shameful pact he made with the giants from the sea.