by E.J. Alexander
by E.J. Alexander
Owen McDoogal sat alone at his workbench, awash in the contented exhaustion of completion. He dabbed a square of breacan into the crock of beeswax, and rubbed a final coat along the dark wood--more in reluctance to set the weapon down than of any need of its already glossy shaft.
But it was done: his greatest work, the culmination of a CharmWeaver’s art. Owen breathed a final thank-you to Morrigan for her blessings, and wrapped the spear in a long strip of the cloth--the finest wools made proud with McDoogal colors.
He named the weapon Cride Iarr, Heart Seeker, for it could not err against the enemy, clan Dunnin.
Three weeks he’d labored. The shaft, made from a great rowan tree blasted by skyfire, was coated in a distillate of amber and ox blood. The head was fashioned from a glassy wedge of obsidian, serrated and keener than razor-ground iron. The bindings were sinew, the lamb offered up on the third day of the third week of the third month.
Most importantly, Morrigan herself imbued the weapon with her power. Throughout its crafting, he’d kept his chanting vigil, calling upon the great queen to weave his curses into every inch of the weapon. There was nothing more pure or focusing than cleansing one's mind of all but hatred.
A soft step outside the door interrupted Owen’s reverie. It was Nessa, his little sister, bringing food. His back protested with a spike of pain as he rose to receive her.
She carried his ale mug and a platter of beef, thick-sliced and red with blood.
“You work too hard,” she began her jovial chiding.
Nessa brought with her a brightness he looked forward to each day. And with her flowering, her beauty had come to match her disposition.
“Let me ease your back,” she said, setting the platter on the workbench.
“My thanks,” said Owen, stretching. “But no, come, please sit.” She possessed a thoughtfulness he could only wonder at.
Seeing the wrapped weapon, she stopped. “Is it . . .” Her hand went to her lips, fingers trembling.
“Yes, it is done. Thanks be.”
“What now?” Her voice quavered. She seemed to have grown suddenly weary.
“Take on one of the Lord Killian’s commissions, I expect. He has been insistent enough.”
“And an apprentice?”
“An apprentice would be as much work as help,” he said in a sharper tone than intended. She only wanted the best for him, Owen knew.
“Here, sit.” Owen offered his stool. “Tell me of your day.”
“A day like any other,” she said absently, not sitting.
“Is something wrong?” She seemed more closed to him lately. It hurt. He would not let anything be amiss between them.
“It will never be used,” she said.
“There is peace now, there is no need . . .”
“As the gods will,” was all he could think to say. There had been an unusual stretch of calm, that was true, but it wouldn’t hold, Owen knew. He could sense the tension, like the air before a firestorm.
“Are you well, lass?” he asked, realizing how pale she had truly become.
“I am fine,” she managed, as she lifted her skirts from the flagstones and scurried out.
It was the next marketday when he discovered the awful truth. He was looking for a hawser-blade when he saw Nessa speaking closely with a young man. A stack of barrels partially concealed them. It took a full minute before he recognized the man. Conner Dunnin.
Fear stung him, nearly paralyzed him. He had to get her away from him. Dunnin would kill her in an instant if he learned who she was. She did not know the danger.
Owen rushed up and connected hard with Connor’s bony shoulder.
“Get away from her!”
Connor ducked away, disappeared behind the barrels, and was gone. Owen grabbed Nessa, pulling her aside.
“Are you all right? What did he do?”
“We were . . . just talking.”
“That was a Dunnin!”
“You hit him!”
“What? That was a Dunnin.”
“I know. Conner Dunnin. I love him.”
There were but few moments in Owen’s life where he was completely stunned. This was one. He stood trying to understand, trying to bring together the impossibilities. It was true, he realized, looking at her. Sometimes the world attacked without warning.
Rage welled up inside him again. Did she not know what those fiends could do--had done to their clansmen for as long as there were taletellers? How they stole cattle and sheep or just slaughtered them to rot in the field? How they murdered Uncle Fergus, leaving his severed head hanging by its braid from his door beam? How could she be so naïve?
“You know nothing of the world,” he said.
He felt light-headed and then leaden with responsibility. He had to protect her, lock her away from that filthy Dunnin’s sight. Perhaps Father could talk sense into her. Owen pulled her home.
Clan McDoogal’s steading sat upon a hill commanding verdant, rock-strewn pastures that rolled down into the sea. From within that great timber-beamed house, Seamus McDoogal reigned as chief.
Owen found him in the stable, his balding pate lowered, instructing young Angus in the mending of tack.
On hearing the story, a fire bloomed in Seamus’s eye. The outcome was inescapable.
Seamus reared up. “Take up the call,” he commanded of Angus.
“Gather the Clan!”
Joyously, Angus ran off to do as bidden.
Nessa’s anguished sobs and bold protests both surprised and troubled Owen. He had done the right thing, that was certain. But the strength of her emotion--the obvious pain she was suffering--called into question his actions and hurt him beyond words. She had even become physically sick. But no, it was still better for her to suffer now and be done with it rather than carry a senseless hope and endure years of heartache. The breaking of her good heart, though, broke him also.
Owen gathered his weapons.
As it had in ages past, the old orchard that lay midway between their steadings served as battlefield.
Nessa insisted on following; Seamus did not deny her. Perhaps it would be for the best--to witness a clear ending, to make from it a clean beginning. But as soon as one of the Dunnin clan appeared on the hilltop, Nessa ran off toward them.
Owen bit back a curse. This had to end, here and now, before Nessa got hurt. He spun Heart Seeker from its wrappings.
Conner was on his way down the hill to meet Nessa as Owen shouldered the weapon. This would make everything right again. Owen cocked the spear fully back. He hurled it with all his strength.
The spear soared high and far, seemingly past Conner, then began to waver wildly. It twisted suddenly downward.
Heart Seeker struck.
Nessa collapsed, pierced through.
Betrayed by Cride Iarr, by Morrigan, by his own hand, Owen fell to his knees. The world reeled. No! Not Nessa, not my sweet Nessa. What have I done?
Nessa was yet alive when he made it to her side. She lay with the spear protruding obscenely from her abdomen. Dark gore seeped from the wound, blackening her dress and tainting the air with its stench. Conner leaned close to her face, holding her hand. Owen was distantly aware of the two clans gathering around them.
Conner’s hands were red with Nessa’s blood. He straightened a lock of her hair, trailing a crimson line across her forehead. After a long moment, Conner moved a little aside to grant Owen space.
Owen took Nessa’s hand. “I’m sorry my dearest, I’m sorry. I am a fool. The gods mock me. In hurting you, they destroy me.” His tears splashed onto her chest.
She coughed. A pink bubble frothed at her lips. “Brother, do me one thing only.”
“Yes, anything. Anything, sweet lass.”
Her breath wheezed inward. “Help Conner build his barn.”
Owen paused for a heartbeat. He knew what that would mean. But even with his life he was willing to pay.
“Yes. Anything. I will help Conner build his barn. Yes.” He glanced up at Conner but could read only pain.
A runnel of blood formed at the corner of her mouth to race the glistening tears down her cheek.
“Your spear did strike true,” she assured him. “Not your fault . . .” She squeezed a little with her delicate hand. “Conner’s child.”
A raging confusion of hatred, fear, and grief racked him. But that was just like her, to use her last breath to try and ease his pain. It was her last act of kindness.
Owen’s head fell back and he released a long keening wail. In that cry was the whole of life’s misery and futility.
The clansmen, both Dunnin and McDoogal, stood witness, their weapons held loosely in their hands. One man dropped his axe and turned toward home. Then another withdrew, and another, until only Owen and Conner remained.
After a long while, Owen looked up. “You will kill me then?”
“Perhaps,” said Conner after a thoughtful silence. “But first we build a barn.”
An interview with E.J. Alexander:
LL: Tell us about you.
EJA: Just a writer trying to get the name out there.
LL: Tell us about your story.
EJA: Just a story.
LL: Tell us about your future.
EJA: Working on a collaborative graphic novel http://www.AmberGraphicNovel.com/
E.J., thank you for sharing your story with us! It's been a pleasure!