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January 6, 1840
A blast of pungent sea air swirled through the tiny village of Lios na Capaill, scattering dry leaves in the school yard, which was now curiously silent, deserted by children who had been sent home early because weather was on the way. Foul, dodgy weather.
As the wind swept a path between the gravestones in the church cemetery, it sounded for all the world like a tortured banshee, prophesying imminent death and destruction.
Inside their cottages the villagers shivered, crossed themselves, and whispered prayers to send their departed relatives back into their graves where they belonged. Those who had shutters closed them against the wind and any malevolent spirits who might be riding the wings of the hurricane.
Still wailing, the storm whipped down the village street, past the three pubs, the police barracks, the tailor's cottage, and the forge with its horseshoe-shaped door. At the end of the street the carpenter's shop caught the brunt of the blast, as the wind buffeted the shop's one window, rattling the pane in its casement.
"Saints preserve us. Have you ever heard such a frightful sound, Michael?"
Young Michael McKevett looked up from his carving and blinked his green eyes, as though seeing the girl for the first time. "What? Were you talking to me, Annie?"
"No, I was talking to my wee brother here," she replied, pushing out her lower lip in a pout. If there was anything Annie couldn't bear, it was to be ignored. She looked down at the baby in her arms and caressed the soft red fuzz on his head. "At least baby Daniel looks at me when I talk to him," she said, "though he hasn't much to say."
Unlike hissister who can talk the hind leg off a mule, Michael thought, but he held his tongue. If he said anything so unkind to Annie, she would surely cry. And Michael remembered the last time he had made her cry. It had been ten years ago when they had been mere garsoons five years old. He had tied her long braids into a knot, and her mother had been forced to cut her hair, her beautiful golden hair.
Annie's father, the burly village blacksmith, had thumped Michael soundly on the head, Michael's own father had beaten him senseless with the harness leather, and Annie had cried for four days until her eyes had swollen shut. She had been a fearsome sight with red, puffy eyes and her beautiful hair chopped off like a lad's.
Michael had vowed that he would never be unkind to her or make her cry again, and after ten years he had kept his promise.
A chilly gust funneled down the chimney and scattered the fine white ash and glowing embers of the peat around the open hearth where Michael sat on a three-legged stool. "'Tis a bad wind, for sure, Annie," he said. "And I believe it's gettin' worse."
Michael stood and stretched to ease the knots that hours of carving had tied in his back. He was exceptionally tall for his fifteen years, his limbs sprouting long and lean, a young oak without mature foliage.
He laid the miniature horse that he was carving on the floor beside the stool and joined her at the window. He squinted through the mist-fogged glass, looking for the familiar sight of his father stumbling down the street, coming from O'Leary's pub. A wave of giddy relief swept over him when he saw the empty street.
The pub door flew open, and Michael tensed, expecting his father to stagger out. But his heart leaped when he saw that it was Caitlin, John O'Leary's lovely, red-haired daughter, hurrying outside to shutter her father's windows. Michael's green eyes glittered with youthful interest when the wind whipped Caitlin's dress taut across her maturing body, her copper curls swirling around her pretty face. Memories of last Sunday afternoon caused his blood to rush to his cheeks. After Mass, he and Caitlin had sat beside the river, holding hands, talking of everything and nothing. Hours later he had summoned the courage to kiss her. And what a kiss it had been. He was still overcome with gratitude that she had allowed him such sweet liberties.
Ah, Caitlin, he thought and wished that it was she standing beside him and not Annie, who scowled up at him, her blue eyes narrowed with suspicion and disapproval.
"That Caitlin is a bad one," she said with a self-righteous lift to her dimpled chin. "She'll come to no good in the end."
"Caitlin's a fine person, and I'll ask you not to speak ill of her in my hearing." From the corner of his eye he saw Annie push out her bottom lip, but he ignored her pout. "Da's still there at the pub, tiltin' his glass," he said, eager to change the subject. "O'Leary's tap must have been open when it rusted. If he stays there another hour, I'll finish my horse. He'll be drunk and complaining like a disappointed weasel when he comes home. But it'll be worth it, it will, if I can finish the horse."
Michael was carving the horse for his mother, to brighten her mood. Patrick McKevett had come home drunk the night before and had beaten his wife from head to toe, but Michael didn't want to tell Annie that. Annie had a gentle father who never raised his hand to his loved ones; she wouldn't understand such things.
Turning away from the window, Michael surveyed the shop, making sure that everything was in order. The work benches had been swept free of curled shavings and every speck of sawdust. On the lime-washed walls the tools hung in their proper places: the scorp beside the well-worn mallet, the awl next to the hammers and the saws. The planking was stacked uniformly, and the templates were sorted and filed.
But it wouldn't matter how well Michael had done his job if his father came back to the shop drunk. It never mattered.
The lad returned to his stool and picked up his carving. Annie followed him, sat on a stool beside the fire, and stuck her little finger into baby Daniel's mouth to keep him from whimpering.
"You shouldn't be carvin' today, it bein' Little Christmas. You should have more respect for holy days. I bet you didn't even go to Mass this mornin'."
Accustomed to Annie's sermons, Michael ignored her and continued to whittle.
"I don't know why you're always sneakin' around carving like you do, Michael," she said. "Your father beats you for it every time he catches you. Why don't you just build the settle beds and dressers the way he wants you to?"
Michael looked down at the horse in his hand. With the last sweep of his tiny carving chisel he had given the stallion a bridle, a fine bridle fit for Brian Boru himself. Lovingly he ran his forefinger over the horse's delicate legs. "It's a wonder, Annie," he said, trying to put his feelings into words that she would understand, "to take a piece of wood, to feel it alive in your hand, to carve a dream that was inside your head and make it something that you can see with your eyes and touch with your fingers.. . . It's a wonder."
Annie's wide blue eyes searched his and he could see that she didn't understand. Nobody understood.
"It's just a wooden horse, Michael," she said quietly. "A fine horse, but. . ."
"It's an enchanted horse. It's Princess Niav's stallion. Here, take him in your hand and you can feel his magic."
He placed the horse in her palm and closed her fingers around it. "Use your fancy, Annie," he whispered. "Close your eyes. Can't you see the stallion, glowing white in the moonlight as he rises up from the black waters of Killarney Lough with Princess Niav on his back? Look, you can see Oisin standing there on the shore. She beckons to him and he follows her. Then she leads him away to the Land of the Ever Young. Can't you see it all, Annie? Isn't it a splendid sight?" He waited breathlessly as he watched her face, her tightly closed eyes, golden lashes sweeping her pale cheeks. Her forehead wrinkled with concentration. Finally her eyes snapped open and she shook her head sadly. "Didn't see it," she said. "Didn't see a thing. Are you sure it's a white horse, Michael? Maybe it's a black horse and ye can't see him in the dark. Are ye sure he's white?"
"Yes, Annie, he's white for sure, but it's all right if you can't see him. Nobody sees such things except meself." Michael sighed deeply. He had really wanted Annie to see that vision with him. He had wanted someone to understand how beautiful these dreams were that played through his mind as freely when he was awake as when he was asleep. Delicate, gossamer dreams spun with the fragility of a spider's web. Again and again Michael found his fancy snared by that glittering web, lured by his own imagination into the Land of the Ever Young where there were no drunken fathers, and where everyone saw visions like his own.
"Do ye think I'm daft, Annie? Tell me truly," he said, his heart in his voice. A childish vulnerability showed in the tremulous set of his jaw, which was covered with the first sprinklings of a heavy beard.
"Aye. Yer daft as a goose. Touched by the fairies, they say around town. But I like you anyway."
"Thank you, Annie," Michael replied dryly. "'Tis a kind and generous heart ye have."
Michael wished that Annie would leave him alone to carve in blissful solitude and revel in the memories of his afternoon with Caitlin. Lying there in the grass, her copper curls sparkling in the sunlight, her amber eyes warm with affection, Caitlin had looked like Princess Niav herself.
Michael sighed and took the horse from Annie's hand. With the sharp edge of the chisel he put the finishing touches to the bridle. Annie seemed to sense that she had offended him and, for once, she sat quietly, saying nothing.
The shop faded from Michael's perception as his mind soared on a flight of fancy. With his dream taking form in his hands, he no longer resented Annie's intrusion. He didn't feel the cold bite of the wind as it swept down the chimney and swirled smoke and dust into the room. He didn't hear the ring of the blacksmith's hammer in the forge next door. He paid no mind to the scraping of heavy brogues just outside the shop. By the time he and Annie heard the halting, uneven footsteps, it was too late. The door flew open and Patrick McKevett stumbled inside.
McKevett was a dark little gnome, long of arm, short of stature, and slightly built. But small as he was, an enormous evil radiated from the man, a pervasive blackness that penetrated Michael's heart and ripped away the fragile, glimmering web of imagination. Princess Niav and Oisin fled on their enchanted stallion to the Land of the Ever Young, leaving Michael behind, shaken and empty.
With a trembling hand the lad thrust the horse and chisel into a basket full of turf bricks. There was nothing he could do about the scattering of wood shavings around his feet. It was too late now. He should have been listening for his father's return.
He glanced over at Annie and saw the fear in her wide blue eyes as she shrank beneath Patrick McKevett's drunken glare. "Take baby Daniel and go home, Annie," Michael told her.
"I said go along home. Now."
An unexpected surge of protectiveness swept through Michael and he liked the feel of it. It made him stronger, somehow, if he had someone weaker to shield from this malevolent presence that was his father.
Annie seemed to sense Michael's newfound authority. She gathered her woolen cloak and her baby brother, and scurried out the open door into the wind and weather.
McKevett slammed the heavy door behind her and shuffled across the hard-packed dirt floor to stand on unsteady legs beside his son's stool.
"What is it you're doin' there, lad?" he asked, his deep voice raw and slurred from harsh liquor.
"Nothing," Michael replied as he stared down at a twisted crack in the floor.
"I can see that with me own eyes." Patrick squinted owlishly through red-rimmed lids. With drunken deliberation he stuck his hands into the pockets of his baggy flannel breeches and rocked on his heels, nearly toppling over backward. "You're sitting there, warming your arse by the fire when there's work to be done. It's an idle one you are, lazy as a piper's little finger, and good for nothing in this world or the next."
Michael ventured a peep at his father and melted under the hatred that glittered in those black eyes with their thick eyebrows drawn together over the bridge of a flat nose. An eye from Patrick McKevett could wither grass -- or scald a tender lad's heart.
Michael wondered, as he had all his life, what he had ever done to deserve all that hate.
"I finished the sideboard for his honor Lord Seawright," he offered, "and I swept up."
"Swept up, you did? If this looks clean to you, you're as blind as a bush." McKevett pointed to the shavings at Michael's feet. "You'd best be looking lively or I'll cut a hazel switch to put some life into those two legs of yours."
Michael shot off his stool as though the devil had pricked his backside. He grabbed a broom and quickly swept the shavings into a neat pile. As he worked he felt those red eyes bore into him, appraising him as an eagle studies a mouse.
Michael replaced the broom and stood in meek submission as he awkwardly waited for his father's next command. But the man simply watched him, his thin lips pressed together in a mirthless smile.
The silence and the tension grew thicker and heavier by the moment as they stood, Patrick staring at Michael, Michael staring at the floor until the sight nearly faded before his eyes.
A sudden gust of wind ripped the sign outside the door off its chains and slammed it against the wall. Michael's taut nerves jerked as though he had been struck. The smirk on McKevett's face widened.
Confusion swept over the lad as he tried desperately to determine his father's intentions. What could he say to break the awful silence? What did the man want to hear? Michael's instincts told him that there was nothing he could say that would help.
"What were you carving before I came in?" McKevett asked, walking closer to the stool where the boy had sat, his bleary eyes scanning the immediate area.
"Nothing." The lie escaped Michael's lips before he had time to censor it. He had learned years ago that lying was the worst transgression on his father's long list of offenses. Patrick McKevett was not known for his forgiving nature, and lying was the unpardonable sin. Besides, Michael had learned through painful trial and error that his father always knew when he was lying. Like the good God above, the devil below and all the saints in between, Patrick McKevett could see inside your soul. . . and he always knew.
But Michael had to take the risk this time for the horse. If his father found it. . .
Michael watched the man's work-gnarled hand reach into the basket of turf sods and pull out the horse, his horse, Princess Niav's enchanted stallion.
Retribution was swift and sure. McKevett walked across the floor and cuffed Michael's right ear with a resounding whack. "You're a liar and a scoundrel," he hissed. "Damn your lazy hide into hell and out of hell."
Michael hardly felt the sting of the time-worn curses or the pain in his ear as his heart burst against his ribs. The horse was gone now; he knew it as surely as he knew that he would be beaten.
With a sardonic grin crinkling McKevett's craggy face, he walked over to the fire and, still holding the horse in one hand, he took three turf sods from the basket, laid them on the ashes and stirred the pile with an iron poker. As the embers flickered into flame, Patrick's twisted smile widened, showing a row of broken, yellowed teeth. Carefully, deliberately, he laid the horse on the stool where Michael had been sitting.
For a moment Michael allowed himself to hope that maybe. . . just maybe. . .
But McKevett picked the horse up with a pair of long-handled tongs and held it by one delicate hoof over the crackling fire.
A puff of cold, wet wind blew down the chimney, sending a choking cloud of smoke into the room. The blaze flared beneath the horse.
A long-asleep beast named Rage woke deep inside Michael's soul. It reared on its haunches, filled his chest and burst out through his throat.
The roar could have been heard as far away as Dublin City. Its ferocity startled them both.
Michael's fists clenched at his sides and his body shook violently as though buffeted by the gale outside. "Don't!"
Patrick McKevett hooked one thumb through his galluses in a gesture that was supposed to appear casual, but his black eyes reflected his uneasiness at this change in his son. "You'd better hold the clapper of your tongue, lad. Don't show all your teeth until ye can bite." His thin whiskers twitched with a smile. "You'd best be making amends. Tell me that it's sorry you are for bein' so disrespectful to your lovin' father."
Michael's throat constricted and tears filled his eyes. It's little reason I have to respect or love the likes of you, he thought. But he kept quiet and didn't speak his mind. There was no point. The horse was lost, but the game had to be played through to the end.
"I'm sorry, Da, that I was so disrespectful," he said, the words tasting as bitter as thick milk. The fury and despair in the boy's voice belied his apology. He took two steps toward his father.
Father and son stood toe to toe, but no longer eye to eye. Michael towered almost a head above his father, a fact that neither had fully realized until that moment. Michael's eyes met Patrick's, and in that instant the boy saw something that he could scarcely believe, something that he had never thought he would see in those cold black depths. Fear.
His father. Afraid. Of him.
The knowledge filled him with courage and fueled his wrath. "You'll give me what's mine, and you'll be giving it to me now," Michael said, his voice quivering with anger instead of its usual timidity.
McKevett's eyes widened slightly and the sneer disappeared from his face. His wispy beard trembled ever so slightly and his pointed tongue darted out to wet his lips. "Say please," he said. His words taunted, but his voice shook even more than his son's. "Say please and I'll give it to you."
"Pl--" The word rushed to Michael's lips; a longstanding habit was hard to break. But it stopped there, held tightly between his clenched teeth. Michael had finally gained some ground in a lifelong battle. He wouldn't give up so easily.
But as he looked at the horse that dangled over the fire, its dainty legs, the fine details of sinew, muscle and mane, his heart turned over as a mother's would for her child. He thought of all the months of secretive, painstaking carving. He thought of his mother's sad brown eyes and how they would glow with joy when he gave her the horse. He thought of Princess Niav of the Golden Hair.
"Please, Da," he whispered. "Please. . . don't burn my horse."
In an instant the mocking grin returned to split McKevett's whiskered face. Laughter mixed with a snarl barked out of him as he dropped the horse into the flames.
Michael stood, shocked by the expected. His father's coarse laughter assaulted his ears and pierced his soul.
Then he heard another sound. The horse's death screams. No one else could hear them, but Michael could. He had created the horse, coaxed it from the depths of his imagination. It was his, and it was dying.
Michael lurched toward the fire and grabbed at the horse. He heard, more than felt, the cracking of his jawbone when his father's fist slammed into his face.
Fifteen years of torment exploded inside the boy. He lowered his head, ran full force, and butted his father in the stomach. His breath left him in a whoosh as he doubled over and held his belly, fighting for air.
Again Michael dove toward the hearth and thrust his hand into the fire, retrieving the horse, which was already ablaze. The flames seared the palm of his hand. Michael cried out and let the horse drop to the floor. He watched in horrified fascination as the orange tongues of flame curled around the slender legs and licked at the delicately carved saddle ornamentation. The scattered sparks sought fuel, the small pile of wood shavings, where they flared into full blaze.
Then it struck him, a blow across his back with the heavy iron tongs, sending Michael, sprawling, onto the floor amid the flames.
In an instant his father was over him, his face a lurid red from rage and the glow of the fire, which was spreading from the shavings to a stack of dried planks.
Michael choked as his lungs filled with the smoke from the burning wood and with a more pungent, rancid smell, the stench of his own hair burning. He looked up into his father's hate-distorted face and knew as blows rained down on his face and body that this was no ordinary beating. The moment that Michael had feared since birth had arrived, as he had known it would. His father was going to kill him -- as surely as he had killed the horse.
So, this is what it's like to die, Michael thought in a strangely detached part of his mind. There was no way out of this one. No way except. . .
The boy's searching fingers closed instinctively around the iron tongs. The beast inside howled its fear and rage, and Michael swung with all his might at the face above him.
A half second later, the sneer was gone. So was part of his father's nose and cheek.
Then a deluge of blood obliterated what remained of Patrick McKevett's face.
The blacksmith's hammer hovered in midair before crashing down and missing the horseshoe. Kevin O'Brien never missed unless his attention was elsewhere, as it was now. With his next stroke the hammer struck the shoe and sent a shower of glittering red-orange sparks into the air to settle and blacken on the floor of the forge.
As O'Brien pounded away at the glowing iron, he pretended, not for the first time, that it was his neighbor's face.
"That bloody, yellow-backed devil. May the curse of Cromwell be on him, and may he die the death of a kitten," he muttered through his bristly red beard as the wind bore yet another cry of fear and pain from the woodshop next door. O'Brien's hammer missed its mark again.
What he wouldn't give to have a go with his neighbor, man to man and fist to face. Patrick McKevett was no great prayer in any of his fellow townsmen's beads, but Kevin O'Brien despised the man. Nothing would have pleased O'Brien more than to grab Patrick by the seat of his breeches and land him on the back of the Old Man in the Moon above.
On several occasions Kevin had challenged Patrick to a tussle in the small field that separated the woodshop from the forge. But, every time, the bully who took his pleasure in beating his wife and son had found a way to wiggle out of an honest fight with the burly blacksmith.
Patrick McKevett may have been a coward, but he was no man's fool. Most men in the village of Lios na Capaill would have politely declined such a challenge from Kevin O'Brien. The blacksmith brooked no guff from any man. He didn't have to. Kevin O'Brien stood head and shoulders above the tallest of the villagers, and his muscular arms and barrel chest were the result of the backbreaking labor of his trade.
Few men were foolish enough to incur his wrath, and fortunately, the blacksmith was slow to anger, a decent, Christian man. With patience and charity Kevin looked for the good in all men -- except his neighbor, Patrick McKevett. Some men were evil all the way through; there was no point in looking. The Man of Horns was active in that one to be sure, always had been. As a lad Patrick had been a heartache to his parents, and a lifetime of drink hadn't improved his disposition. McKevett just got more wicked year after year.
As O'Brien picked up the horseshoe with tongs and plunged it sizzling into the dark water, another cry drifted over to be heard above the bubbling of the hot shoe.
There was a different tone in the lad's voice this time, a note of defiance. O'Brien noticed the difference and nodded approvingly. So, the cub finally roared back. Perhaps there would be an end to this matter after all.
For fifteen years Kevin had watched the rage building and simmering in the young Michael. O'Brien had thought as he watched Michael grow taller and broader of shoulder every year that he wouldn't want to be in Patrick McKevett's brogues when the lad reached manhood with all that pain boiling inside. Someday there would be the Devil to pay, and Patrick would pay dearly; O'Brien was sure of that.
The door to the forge blew open and O'Brien's oldest daughter, Annie, hurried inside, her long blond hair swirling around her shoulders. In her arms she held her baby brother, Daniel, Kevin's only son. A son was the only thing that O'Brien had desperately wanted, a strong, healthy son to carry on Kevin's blacksmith trade. Kevin had spent countless hours on his knees before his fervent prayers had finally been answered and Daniel O'Connell O'Brien was born, a strapping red-haired boy with the sturdy limbs of a fine smith. But in answering his prayers God had taken the one Kevin loved best, his dark-eyed Deirdre.
Now fifteen-year-old Annie was mother to her infant brother and mistress of Kevin's household.
O'Brien left the shoe and tongs in the bath, took the baby in his heavily muscled arms, and cradled him tenderly against the bib of his work-blackened leather apron. "What is it, love?" he asked his daughter. "You shouldn't have brought the wee one out in this storm. It's an evil wind that's brewin' out there. The fairies might have swooped right down and snatched the babe out of your arms. They have a fancy for red-haired garsoons, you know."
Annie's fair skin was pink from the sting of the cold and her blue eyes were wide with fear. "Oh, Da, I'd never let the Good People snatch Danny, you know that. I came to fetch you on account of Mr. McKevett. He's beatin' Michael again."
"Aye, McKevett is a bad one all right," O'Brien said, clucking his tongue sadly. "You could scrape the meanness off him, so thick is it on that tough hide of his."
Annie shook her head impatiently, sending her blond curls bouncing. "But I heard Mr. McKevett give Michael a terrible thump. And this time it's Michael who's yelling back at his father. I'm afraid something dreadful's going to happen, Da."
With one calloused finger the smith smoothed his daughter's tousled curls back from her forehead. "Ah, Annie, my pet. What am I to do with you? Your ears have been on the stretch again, hearing what's no business of your own. Many times I've told you -- don't see all you see, and don't hear all you hear."
Annie blushed beneath her father's gentle criticism, but continued her persuasion. "Can't you help Michael, Da? Can't you make Mr. McKevett stop?"
"No, love, I can't," he said.
"Why not? You're bigger than he is."
The blacksmith's heart twisted as he watched the tears roll down his daughter's rosy cheeks and her dimpled chin quiver. He brushed the glittering drops away with his fingertips. "Because we mustn't interfere with another man's family. Never scald your lips with another man's porridge, I always say."
But Annie had no patience with her father's oft-repeated platitudes. "If you don't help him, Da, who will?" she asked plaintively.
It was such a simple question, asked with the sincerity of innocence. A simple question that demanded an honest answer.
Kevin looked down at his infant son asleep in his arms. He couldn't imagine striking this tender babe, now or in the years to come, and he would kill any man who dared raise his hand to a child of his. Kevin O'Brien protected his own with a fierce paternal love.
But who would protect young Michael McKevett? The same person who had defended the poor lad for the past fifteen years. No one.
The blacksmith handed his son into Annie's arms, squared his broad shoulders, and marched out the horseshoe-shaped door of the forge into the driving wind. He strode past his livery where Lord Hussey's two hunting stallions awaited shoeing. They could wait a bit longer. This situation had waited too long already.
Annie followed at the heels of her father's heavy boots, sheltering baby Daniel from the wind and mischievous fairies beneath her woolen cloak. She had to run to keep up with his long strides as he crossed the small grassy knoll separating the forge from the woodshop. The wind tore at her cloak, whipping it around her and tangling her long blond curls.
As they neared the building, the blacksmith stopped and sniffed the air. The wind carried the unmistakable scent of smoke, and it wasn't the smell of a simple turf fire.
O'Brien raced toward the shop and tore open the door. Black smoke billowed out, confirming his worst suspicions. "A fire! Annie, go alert the fire brigade. Hurry!"
The blacksmith bolted through the doorway and stood, paralyzed by the assault on his senses. The swirling, acrid smoke stung his eyes and choked his lungs. He wheezed and sputtered and bent double, gasping for breath.
A half-dozen small fires blazed along the shop floor, and the front of the room was already consumed by the flames that licked hungrily at stacks of lumber and the timber beams of the ceiling.
With one hand he held his shirt collar over his nose and mouth, and with the other hand he groped through the murky darkness of eery, dancing shadows.
He had walked only a few feet when his foot struck something -- someone -- lying sprawled on the floor. Bending over, the blacksmith recognized the body and the clothes, not the face, of Patrick McKevett. "Jesus, Mary and Joseph," he whispered and quickly crossed himself. His stomach churned as he stared at the gory mass that had been his neighbor's stern features. Beside the man's head lay the bloody iron tongs.
Even in his dazed state, the blacksmith knew what had happened. . . and why.
O'Brien thought of the times he had pretended to do this very thing to McKevett's face, and he felt a sharp stab of guilt, as though his fantasies had somehow become reality, a reality far more grim than his imaginings.
Could the man possibly be alive with his face torn like that? he wondered. O'Brien knelt beside the body and laid his hand on the front of McKevett's shirt to check for a heartbeat.
The quiet voice came from behind him. The blacksmith spun around and saw the lad huddled in a smoke-filled corner, his arms wrapped tightly around his knees, which he had drawn up to his chin. He was trembling violently. His green eyes stared from hollowed sockets, oblivious to the flames that snaked through the pile of shavings at his feet.
O'Brien left the fallen man and hurried over to Michael. With one hand beneath each of the boy's arms, the smith lifted him from the floor and pulled him toward the center of the room, away from the flames. The lad was heavier than O'Brien had expected, and when he released him, he sagged against his chest.
Kevin's eyes traveled over the boy's battered face, the swollen eyes, the split lips, and stopped on the bloody, torn shirtfront. He ripped the shirt open to discover the wound that had caused such terrible bleeding, but he found only bruised ribs.
He looked back at the father's torn face and into the boy's haunted eyes. The full horror of the situation smote O'Brien, adding to his burden of guilt. If he had only interfered minutes earlier, maybe. . .
The loud crackling of a burning beam overhead jarred Kevin back to reality. The fire had nearly surrounded them. Soon the path to the back door would be blocked.
O'Brien glanced back at the body on the floor with its ever-spreading black pool of blood. Had he felt a heartbeat when he had laid his hand on the man's chest? Yes, he had. There was no denying it. Death had not yet visited Patrick McKevett.
O'Brien looked down at the boy, his battered face, his bloody shirt. The blacksmith was torn with indecision. Could he live with his conscience?
Kevin O'Brien decided that he could.
With an effort he lifted the lad into his arms, tossed him over his broad shoulder, and carried him from the burning building.
"Here, Annie." Kevin lowered the boy onto a straw pallet next to his fireplace. "You and your sister tend to the lad's wounds, and don't let anybody see him until I say."
Annie and her younger sister, Judy, knelt beside Michael, clucking over him like two hens with a single chick. "Saints have mercy," Judy breathed, pity shining in her dark eyes as she touched the purple swelling beneath his eye. "What happened to him? Did the wind bring the chimney down and him there to meet it?"
The blacksmith hurried to the door. "Don't ask questions now, girl," he said. "Just peel that shirt off his back and burn it. Keep him here and don't let a soul into the house. I'll tell you both all about it when I get back."
But as Kevin left his house and fought his way through the wind toward the burning workshop to help his fellow villagers fight the fire, he knew that he would never tell his daughters what he had seen. Or what he and Michael McKevett had done.
He would never tell anyone.
"Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. . ."
A chunk of sodden turf and straw tore loose from the roof and fell to the floor, narrowly missing Annie and her sister where they knelt in frantic prayer beside their bed.
"Blessed art thou amongst women. . ."
Thirteen-year-old Judy clasped her baby brother tightly against her small breasts, despite his wailing protests. Annie gripped her rosary, her eyes squeezed closed, her cheeks deathly white.
"And blessed is the fruit of thy womb--"
"Jaysus Christ!" O'Brien exclaimed from the loft of the three-room cottage as yet another hunk of his thatched roof took wing and soared into the night. Rain and sleet poured through the open hole, soaking him from his copper hair to his heavy leather brogues. He hurried down the ladder and stood in the kitchen as water ran from the loft down the lime-washed walls to the flagstone floor of the cottage. "God Almighty," he said, shaking his head, "Have you ever seen such a night as this? Pray faster, girls, or we'll all perish for sure, for sure."
Annie and Judy complied, but with no immediate result. As though to mock their prayers, the wind smote the cottage window and shattered it, spraying glass across the room.
Judy screamed and hunched over, curling her slender body around the babe in her arms. Annie prayed louder and faster.
Kevin hurried over to young Michael who sat motionless on the bare hearth. Shards of glass sparkled in his chestnut hair and a thin line of dark blood trickled down his pale cheek where the glass had cut him.
"Are ye all right, lad?" Kevin asked as he bent over and placed a beefy hand on the boy's shoulder. Kevin could feel the frail body tremble beneath his touch. He quickly removed his hand. "Are ye daft and your senses fled entirely? I asked if you're all right," he repeated as he knelt on one knee beside the boy.
Michael said nothing, only stared at him with enormous green eyes that made Kevin's heart turn crossways in his chest.
The wind shrieked through the broken window, sounding like the wail of a tortured soul. Kevin felt the hackles rise along his nape, a fear that had little to do with the fact that his house was falling apart over his head.
"It's him," the boy whispered, his voice as dry as a dead oak leaf. "It's my father. He's going to kill me because I murdered him."
O'Brien shuddered, then gripped the boy by the shoulders. "You'll not say that ever again, lad. Do you hear me?" he said, scolding the boy for echoing what had already crossed his mind a dozen times that evening. The wind did, indeed, sound like the crying of a lost soul, and Kevin O'Brien didn't need any priest to tell him whose soul it was crying out for vengeance. Patrick McKevett wasn't a man likely to forgive. . . on either side of the grave.
The wind shook the house again, rattling the china in the dresser. Judy quickly rose from her knees, handed the baby to Annie, and hurried to the dresser. "I'll take Ma's china down and wrap it in a blanket," she said.
"Come back here and get down on your knees, Judy O'Brien," Annie rebuked her sister with righteous indignation. "Imagine, you worrying about dishes when all heaven and earth's comin' together."
"Leave her alone, Annie," Kevin said as he watched his youngest daughter wrap the family china lovingly in an old quilt. "Those dishes were her ma's and they're Judy's treasure."
"Our treasures should be in heaven, not here on earth," Annie protested, repeating the message of last Sunday's sermon. To illustrate her point, she laid baby Daniel in his cradle beneath the pictures of Christ and the Virgin, then she knelt before the cradle and resumed her prayers.
Judy stowed the dishes beneath a heavy table, then turned to her sister and baby brother. She shook her head in dismay and snatched the holy pictures from the wall.
"What are you doing?" Annie demanded. "What kind of blasphemy is this, ripping the Virgin's picture from its place of honor over the babe?"
"Use the mind the good God gave you, Annie," Judy snapped. "The wind could blow the pictures down on the baby's head and where would we be then, I ask you? In the cemetery burying the poor wee one next to his mother."
Another shattering blast silenced the disagreement, sending both girls to their knees in rapid prayer.
O'Brien whispered a prayer of his own, though he feared that God wouldn't listen to him after the mortal sin he had committed this day.
Young Michael shivered and ducked his head into the thick guilt that Kevin had wrapped around his shoulders. "Ma," he cried, his voice broken with sobs.
Kevin took the lad in his arms and cradled him as though he were his own child. "Hush now, Michael," he said. "Don't worry about your ma. I checked on her earlier and she's at the church with Father Murphy and some of her friends. They're giving her comfort in the hour of her sorrow."
"Does she hate me for what I did?" the boy asked. "Is she glad that he's dead and won't hurt her again, or does she hate me?"
Kevin cast a furtive look toward his praying daughters. "She doesn't know, lad. Nobody knows. They all believe he died in the fire. You must never say that you kilt him. Never say it again."
"But I did--"
The sharp pain in the boy's voice pierced O'Brien's conscience. He couldn't let this child go on thinking that he'd murdered his own father, but he couldn't tell the lad the truth. . . that he himself had allowed Patrick McKevett to burn to death. No one must ever know. Even if it meant that Kevin must add lying to his sin of murder.
The smith's soul felt as black as bog oak. God would punish him somehow. There would be a frightful price to pay. And if, by some miracle, God had mercy on him, Patrick McKevett wouldn't. McKevett would see to it that he paid.
Outside a terrified horse whinnied and a cow bellowed. The old oak beside the cottage groaned, its mighty limbs creaking as the wind twisted them with a ruthless hand. Wet straw, sodden clumps of turf, and splinters of lath rained down on Kevin and the children as the gale ripped away the remainder of the roof.
Icy rain sliced through the decapitated cottage. The glow of the candle lantern was snuffed out, plunging Kevin and his family into a wet, shrieking blackness.
"Da!" Annie screamed. Baby Daniel wailed.
"Be still, love. I'm coming!" Kevin shouted as he stumbled through the dark. "I'm coming."
Then he heard it. A tearing, rending crackle. The moan of the giant oak as it was ripped from the ground by its roots.
Kevin's scream was lost in the roar of the wind and the death groan of the tree as it plunged downward, crumbling the south wall of the house.
In the darkness Kevin couldn't see but he heard the screams of his children. And he knew that he had paid the ultimate price for his sin.
Copyright © 1989 by Sonja Massie