Macbeatha: an excerpt

Macbeatha: a Novel
copyright 2014 Catherine Wells
all rights reserved

They reached the little steading of Duff mac Moryn just at dusk on All Hallow’s Eve. Macbeatha’s men were nervous; despite the priests’ insistence that Hallowmas was a festival to honor the departed saints of the Christian faith, every Scot knew it was Samhain, the Feast of the Dead. On this night the door between our world and the Otherworld is open so spirits may pass back and forth. Perhaps the good Christian saints are indeed abroad that night, and a man might be visited by his grandfather or his favorite uncle or some great warrior ancestor, but there are other spirits abroad, as well. Spirits whose intent is evil. Spirits who will try to steal a man from his tribe and kin, dragging him back with them to the Otherworld.

That was the night on which Macbeatha tore down the house of Duff mac Moryn.

It was a mean hut of wattle and daub, so it did not take much tearing. When my lord called to those within and demanded that Duff come out, Duff refused. “Go away!” cried a frightened female voice. “Evil spirit, go away! We will not come out this night!” They imagined, you see, that he was a demon from the Otherworld. He might as well have been.

“I am Macbeatha mac Findlaech!” roared my lord. “Ruler of Moray, king of the House of Loarn, and brother-in-law to the son of Boite, whose life you took in Cairn o’ Mount Pass! Come out and face justice!”

Of course, this did not increase Duff’s willingness to unbar his door. So my lord took the hatchet from his saddle and hacked into the mud daubing of the house, hooked the weapon around a framing stick, and gave a mighty jerk. A chunk tore loose from the wall. “Come out and face me, Duff!” he bellowed, chopping another hole and making the whole house shiver. Then he ran a rope through the two holes and urged his horse back.

Voiced shrieked from within as the wall pulled away completely. The remaining three walls listed, and the thatched roof tilted at a crazy angle. “Come out, mac Moryn!” my lord shouted, riding his horse into the hut and sending Duff’s poor wife scurrying to get her children out from under its hooves.

“Mercy, lord!” cried Duff, falling on his knees. “I beg you mercy! Spare my house and my family!”

“Your family had best run for the hills, if they would be spared!” Macbeatha snarled, looping his rope around a roof pole.

So they ran, with pigs and goats and two cows getting tangled up in the rush to escape. My lord rode his horse out, pulling the roof down into the hearth fire. Soon the whole cottage was ablaze.

It was that light which guided us the last distance to him. Lauman and the others gaped in wonder at the sight before them, while I squirmed against the straps lashing me to my horse. “Cut me loose, you fools!” I shouted at them. And to Macbeatha, “Lord! Lord, stop! Lord, it is I, Kelda, come from your lady with an urgent message. Oh, stop! Please, stop!”

But he could not hear me, for a terrible rage was upon him.

Duff tried to run, but Macbeatha leaped from his horse and brought the man to earth, tumbling round and round with him in the dry grass. “Mercy, lord!” Duff croaked.

“Stand up!” my lord commanded, clambering to his own feet. “Stand up and draw your sword!”

“No, lord,” Duff whined, coming only to his knees. “No, I will not draw against you.”

“You only draw against boys, is that it?” Macbeatha demanded, launching a fierce kick which doubled the man up. “Boys who don’t have a chance to draw their own swords in defense. Isn’t that right?” Another kick sent Duff sprawling in the dirt. “Now, draw your sword, coward, and fight a real warrior!”

“Mercy!” Duff cried again, blood gushing from his nose in the eerie light of his burning house. “God forgive me, I have sinned, I know I have sinned. Only have mercy, and I will be your servant forever.”

“My servant? My servant! I wouldn’t have a servant like you!” Macbeatha seized Duff’s tunic and jerked him to his knees. “You’re not fit to lick the boots of my servants!” And his powerful left fist lashed out, striking Duff in the face.

“Mercy, lord!” the assassin sobbed, for he was a great coward at heart, as all who knew him would testify. “In the name of God and the Holy Mother, have mercy!” But Macbeatha struck him again. He wore a ring with a green jewel in it–a wedding gift from the Lady Gruoch. Now it caught the firelight as his left fist lashed out again and again, pounding into Duff’s face and stomach.

By this time I was frantic. I carried my lord’s shaving knife with me always, and when I realized the men were not paying any attention to my pleas, I struggled to loose that blade from its hiding place beneath my skirts. It was a small thing, but very sharp; I sawed urgently at my bonds with it.

Finally Lauman saw what I was about and remembered his mission. With a muttered curse he drew his dagger and slashed away the cords holding me in the saddle. I stumbled to the ground and lurched toward Macbeatha, crying. “Lord, stop this! Your lady beseeches you! I beseech you!” In my worried and wearied condition, I could not think what to say beyond that. “Lord, the Hag,” I panted. “Lady Gruoch says she had a dream–lord, please–”

But Macbeatha had hold of Duff’s hair and was hauling the battered man to his feet. “I said fight me!” he roared at his victim, landing a punch deep in his gut.

I would have thought Duff had no breath left to speak, but he managed to gasp, “Mercy,” before he crumpled to his knees.

“Did you have mercy on the boy?” Macbeatha thundered, locking his fists together and swinging them like a club at Duff’s face. We could hear the crack of breaking bones as his cheek caved in. “Did you have mercy on Uchtan?” Another blow, this from the other side. “Did you have mercy on the priest? A priest, for God’s sake! You would have murdered a man of God!”

Now at last I reached him, lunging at him from behind, trying to seize one arm, “Lord, stop!” I begged. “Lord, you mustn’t! You’re a king, you must show mercy.”

Annoyed at this interruption, Macbeatha swung around to see who inhibited him. There was madness in his green eyes, a hate so insatiable that for a moment I thought he would kill me, too. But then he seemed to know me. “The boy was under my protection,” he grated. “I swore to her that I would protect his life.”

“To Lady Gruoch?” I guessed, pouncing on a slim hope. “And it is she who sent me to you, lord, counseling restraint.”

But he tossed me aside, and his eyes went back to the bleeding lump before him. “I swore it to her!” he bellowed, seizing Duff by the hair again. “I swore it to her, and you have made a mockery of my vow–!”

Before he could land another blow, however, another arm, stronger than mine, stayed him. “Enough, lord,” growled Owen; and when Macbeatha made to use his right hand to strike Duff again, he found that, too, seized. “It is done,” said Venko gently. “The deed is done, lord. The man is dead.”

And so he was. With animals bawling in terror and flames shooting up into the night, Macbeatha looked back on the awkwardly sprawled form of Duff mac Moryn and saw it was lifeless clay. Slowly the madness drained from his eyes and the tension from his limbs. I ran to him again and threw my arms around him, weeping. I had failed. I had failed his lady, and worse, I had failed him.

There was a squeal and a groan like a banshee’s wail as the last walls of Duff’s house fell in. Overhead in the winter sky the Pleiades glimmered, those stars that herald the supremacy of night over day, of the dark of winter over the warmth and light of summer. There was the sound of sobbing: Duff’s wife cradled one child in her arms while another clutched tightly at her leg, and firelight lit the streams of her tears. She was a pitiful sight to behold, and my heart ached for her. How would she and her children survive this winter, with no house and no husband?

The little boy clinging to her leg was perhaps four or five winters. He was blond of hair and fair of face, though his countenance was stained red by the flames. He stared with horror at the fierce, towering warrior who had just beaten his father to death. Macbeatha’s eyes met his across the trampled yard, and I felt my lord suck in his breath. Did he know, in that moment, what he had done?

Beware Fife, the Hag had told him. Beware the Dark Warrior. Duff means black, you see, and though Duff was dead, there stood his son: mac Duff.

Copyright 2014 Catherine Wells
all rights reserved

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