Winter, 368 AD—The Winged Isle
The fort of Dun Ringill
donnel went to his wife’s cairn at dawn. He walked alone, leaving the outer walls of Dun Ringill and climbing up to the hillock east of the fort. Mist drifted in from the loch, giving the wintry landscape an otherworldly feel.
It was an eerie morning—it felt almost as if the Fair Folk were looking on.
Mid-winter was approaching, and the earth lay dormant. The caw of a raven was the only sound in the still, silent dawn as Donnel climbed the slope toward a row of stacked-stone burial mounds.
He stopped at the brow of the hill, before the cairns. There were a few new ones of late—too many. There was his father's, who had been slain in a skirmish with The Wolf just two years earlier. There was Alpia’s, who had fallen in battle last spring.
And there was Luana’s.
A year ago to the day.
Donnel exhaled slowly and lowered himself to his knees before the cairn. The stack of stone rose before him, its entrance guarded by a slab of rock. Inside lay his wife’s body.
It hardly seemed a full turn of the seasons since the gods had cruelly taken her. Much had happened since. He had gone south for a time, joining warriors from An t-Eilean Sgitheanach—The Winged Isle—and other mainland tribes. They had marched on the Great Wall. There, they had beaten the Caesars and returned home victorious. During that campaign, Donnel had proved himself as a warrior of no equal. He had slain many centurions during the siege, and the other warriors had hailed his bravery.
But none of it mattered. Without Luana his world was cast in shadow.
It was bitterly cold this morning, and the chill drilled into his bones. But Donnel did not care. It matched the ice in his heart.
He reached out and placed a hand on the door to his wife’s tomb. “Luana,” he whispered, his voice low and broken. “My love, my life.”
His eyes burned, but he did not weep. He had wept upon her death but had not shed a tear since. Instead the grief had burned inward, had grown into a seething rage.
Memories of Luana assailed him, and he closed his eyes. Her laughing blue eyes and her lovely face. Her long raven hair and gentle touch. She had been a kind soul; the best woman he had ever known.
He hated The Reaper for taking her from him.
Donnel dropped his hand from the tomb, his fingers curling into fists. She had borne him a son, Talor. He knew it was wrong to hate the lad—yet every time he looked upon him he was reminded of her. Folk said Talor had his father's coloring and bone structure. But those eyes, the bright blue of a summer sky, were Luana’s.
Donnel kept away from the lad. Talor was still too young to know or care who his father was. In the meantime his son was in the care of Luana’s sister, Mael, and her husband, Maphan. They were bringing Talor up with their daughter, Ailene, as their own. He was grateful to them. Donnel could not raise a child. He was too angry—too bitter. He would just poison the lad, and his son would grow to hate him.
Another raven’s caw, close by now, jerked Donnel back to the present. His knees were beginning to ache, pressed against the hard stone. He pushed himself upright, drawing his fur mantle close to ward off the bone-numbing chill.
“I failed you, my love,” he whispered. He had told Luana he would protect her with his life. But on the day she had given birth to Talor, the day the birthing sickness had taken her, he had been helpless. He had done nothing as his lovely young wife died in his arms. He had hated himself since—every moment of the day—for his failure to save her.
And yet at Dun Ringill life went on. That angered him too—for he had wanted the world to stop after Luana died.
Donnel turned from the cairn, casting his gaze back to the fort, to where a large squat tower rose into the mist. He could see smoke drifting from its roof. There would be folk awake now, rousing the embers of the great hearth. His eldest brother, Galan, was likely to be among the first up, especially since he and Tea shared their alcove with a wailing infant.
Galan had recently become a father. At Gateway, Tea—his brother’s fiery wife—had given birth to a son. They had named the boy Muin—after Galan, Tarl, and Donnel’s father. Muin would grow up alongside Talor; they would both be warriors one day.
Meanwhile Donnel's other brother, Tarl, had found love. Last summer he had wed Lucrezia, a Roman woman he brought back from the Great Wall. Tarl and Lucrezia had not begun their story well—for Tarl had initially taken her as his slave. But after Galan had given Lucrezia her freedom, Tarl had set out to win her love—and he had succeeded in the end.
Donnel did not wish either of his brothers ill. Next to Luana they were the two people he loved most in the world. Yet their happiness only served to highlight his own misery. He was hollow inside. Despite the biting cold, which made his breathing steam before him—and had already numbed his fingers and toes—Donnel was in no hurry to rejoin his kin in the broch. He and Galan argued often these days; indeed, there was little they agreed upon.
Turning back to the row of mounds, Donnel’s gaze rested upon the most recent: Alpia’s. The warrior had fallen during a skirmish. A Boar warrior had thrust a pike into her belly, and she had died shortly after.
Alpia had been young and brave. Like Luana she had been taken before her time. Donnel clenched his jaw at the memory. He wanted vengeance against the people of The Boar, but Galan would not hear of it—the topic was one of the main sources of discord between them. Galan’s quest for peace, once something he had respected in his brother, now galled Donnel.
Anger, an old familiar friend by now, warmed his belly, obliterating the ache of loss he felt whenever he thought about Luana.
Enough. He turned from the cairns and strode back down the hill toward the fort. This won’t bring her back. Nothing will.
He would grieve no more over his dead wife. But he would make the world pay.