Carraig Brigh, Scotland, 1706
Four Sinclair clansmen came for Moire o’ the Spring in the middle of the night. It was urgent, they said, invading her cott, rudely shaking her awake. Their heads knocked against the bundles of herbs that hung from the low black roof beams, and they grimaced and crossed themselves as they looked at her stores of gnarled roots and dried berries, all as wizened as old Moire herself. The tang of male sweat replaced the dusty green scent of the plants, made her nostrils quiver, and sharpened her own fear.
She barely had time to pull on a shawl before they wrapped their fists around her arms and carried her out. They weren’t rough, merely firm about things—she was going with them, will she or nill she. They lifted her onto a sturdy garron behind one of the men and rode out as quickly as they’d arrived.
“Who sent ye to me? Where are we going?”
Her questions went unanswered.
Moire assumed some poor lass had a babe on the way and needed her help. It must be someone important—why else would they send four men to fetch a midwife in the middle of the night? The garrons moved over the low hills along the coast, toward the village of Carraig.
Her mouth dried when they turned from the track that led to the village and took the one that went up toward the castle of Carraig Brigh. There were no pregnant lasses at Carraig Brigh. There was nothing but madness and death. Moire made a low sound and tried to wriggle off the horse, but the rider’s strong arm pinned her in place. “Easy, old woman—you’ll be well paid,” he growled.
They’d brought her to heal the chief’s son. Terror made her sweat, and the cold wind made her shiver. She’d heard the stories about Alasdair Og Sinclair, told wide-eyed, in low whispers. One day the man they called the Laird o’ the Seas had sailed away on a voyage to France that he’d made a hundred times or more. Weeks later he’d come back to Carraig Brigh, broken and mad, his ship taken, his crew dead. He screamed in his sleep, beset by evil dreams, and bled from wounds that would not heal. ’Twas said Alasdair Og was cursed, doomed to fight a devil trapped in his mind for possession of his soul.
It wouldn’t matter how much gold the Sinclair offered. If Moire couldn’t help his son, she’d be the one to pay—with her life. Chief Padraig Sinclair had summoned other healers to Carraig Brigh. They came from far-off places, used knowledge and potions she’d never heard of. Not a one of them had been able to restore Alasdair Og’s health and sanity, and when they failed, ’twas said the chief tossed them off the top of the castle and watched their broken bodies sink into the sea beside his fleet of ships, ships that sailed no more now their captain was mad.
How had the Sinclairs heard of Moire? She was a humble soul. She kept to herself, tended the ancient spring of the goddess, and helped only those who came to her. Fear numbed the icy blast of the wind as she stared up at Carraig Brigh’s bony tower, a crooked black finger rising from a solid fist of rock.
“Ye’ve made a mistake,” she whined as they rode under the iron teeth of the gate. “I’m naught but a simple midwife.” No one listened, and the wind carried her pleas over the edge of the cliff and drowned them in the bay below.
In the bailey, men stood in the light of gale-thrashed torches. There wasn’t a friendly face among them, or a word of welcome.
Someone hauled her off the garron, kept hold of her arm as he propelled her across the bailey. The portcullis fell with a metallic squall that ended on a human note, a wail of pure agony that floated down from the tower and made Moire’s innards curl against her backbone. The clansmen shifted uneasily, crossed themselves, and turned their eyes up to the narrow window high above them. Moire’s escort grabbed a torch from the nearest man as he opened an iron-studded door and pushed her up the steps inside.
“Do you truly have magic, old woman?” he asked. “You’d best hope you can conjure a cure.”
She stumbled. A witch. They thought they’d summoned a witch.
“A midwife, just a midwife,” she protested again, panting. The curving stone steps were steep, but he gave her no time to catch her breath. Her old legs were no match for his long, muscular ones. She scrabbled at his sleeve. “Please, there’s been a mistake.”
“There’s no mistake, Moire o’ the Spring. ’Tis you and no other we were sent to fetch. The chief would summon the devil himself if he thought it could save his son.”
“What’s wrong with him?” she found the courage to ask.
He grunted. “Have ye heard of Jean Sinclair?”
“Aye, of course. The lass they called the Holy Maid of Carraig Brigh,” Moire replied.
“That’s her. She was Alasdair Og’s cousin, the chief’s niece. Padraig wasn’t pleased when she decided to take holy orders and shut herself away in a French convent.” He rubbed a hand over his face. “’Tis a sad tale. They set sail from Sinclair Bay and put in at Berwick for the night, only to be ambushed by English soldiers. Alasdair Og thought there’d been a mistake, that they’d been taken for pirates, perhaps, or kidnapped for ransom. He imagined it would be a matter of a few days’ delay, an exchange of coin, and they’d be on their way again. But they didn’t bother themselves about ransom. They took the gold Alasdair Og was carrying right enough, and the goods, and the ship, and they murdered his crew. Then they beat Alasdair Og half to death, and threw him and Jean into the dungeon of Coldburn Keep.”
Moire put a hand to her throat, a shiver racing up her spine.
“Worst of all was what they did to poor wee Jean. They raped her, tortured her, then murdered her in front of Alasdair Og. He was chained to the wall, could do nothing to help her. She pleaded with God for help. She was just a slip of a girl. They said if she was Catholic and a Highlander, then she was no better than an idolatrous witch. ’Twas hatred—not just for the Scots, but for Alasdair Og in particular. They called him a pirate, blamed him for things that had nothing at all to do with the Sinclairs. It wasn’t wee Jeannie’s fight—Alasdair told them that, but they wouldn’t listen. He lay in his own filth for a fortnight, chained, wounded, and listened while they beat her, broke her bones, tormented her. They kept him alive to hear her screams.”
“And then?” Moire asked.
The man grimaced. “They hanged her as a heretic in the courtyard, forced Alasdair to his feet, made him stand at the window and watch.” He stared down at her from the step above. “He can’t forget any of it. That’s why they call him mad—he has nightmares, feels constant pain, and starts at shadows. Can you help him?”