Erin Quinn Books, December 2018
Standing on the deck of the small fishing vessel, Áedán watched the dark opening of the sea cavern at the base of the jagged shoreline. From here, it looked smaller than he knew it to be, but it called to him, a black hole that was at once ancient, threatening, and expectant. So many turning points of his life had played out in that cavern. In his mind, it had become a great, yawning beast waiting to devour what was left of him.
Even at this distance, he felt the dark power of it. In the short time since he’d come to this place, it had gnawed at him, taunting him to face it. So far, he had resisted, but now he sensed that something had changed within that hollow abscess. He could feel it in his bones though he couldn’t identify it.
High above the cavern, castle ruins teetered in crumbled disgrace, the desolate remains adding another layer to the menace that shrouded the cliffs. Slowly, he scanned their stark solitude before his gaze returned unerringly to the arched opening at sea level, where the icy tide surged in and out, in and out. Each suck and pull begged Áedán to come closer and impelled him to flee until he felt mad from the conflicting urges.
He’d been too long without emotions, without the trappings of humanity. Now the influx of so many disagreeing reactions left him feeling bound and burdened.
He forced himself to look away and focus on the fishing net in his hands. Since they’d docked in the bay an hour ago, he’d been cutting away the rotted sections and replacing them. It was a tedious, loathsome task—something he’d never imagined one such as he would be reduced to. He refused to consider that his present circumstances might be anything but temporary, though.
“Sure and isn’t it like a woman,” Mickey said, stepping out of the cabin and joining Áedán on the deck.
Confused, Áedán looked up at him.
“The cavern,” Mickey went on pointing with his chin. “The way it hovers there just above the tide line, like a whore raising her skirts, teasing a fellow with little peeks of what’s inside. Making him thinking there’s a treasure there for the taking.”
The bitterness in Mickey’s tone hung as thick as the sea air. Mickey had no respect for women, especially his own pretty wife.
“Have you been inside the cavern?” Áedán asked.
“Aye. Couldn’t resist it, could I now? Hadn’t been on the island for a week before it had me slipping and sliding down to its mouth.”
Áedán scrutinized the sharp features of Mickey’s face and the flinty gleam in his eyes. “And? What did you find?”
“Not a fecking thing. Like a woman,” he repeated cryptically and spat over the railing into the murky waters. “Lures you into a black nothing that pretends to be more. I couldn’t wait to get out of there.”
Áedán caught his bottom lip with his teeth, watching Mickey mask something that looked suspiciously like fear despite the dispassion of his words. He wanted to probe, to pry the tight lid off and see what lurked beneath his indifference. Had he sensed the inherent enmity of the place? The dark history that made it more than simply a sea cavern carved by time and nature?
“You’re looking peaked, Mr. Brady,” Mickey interrupted his thoughts. He eyed Áedán critically. “Are you under the weather, then?”
Mr. Brady. Áedán hadn’t known where he was and—at first—couldn’t remember how he’d come to be there when Mickey Ballagh had found him five days ago, washed up on the rocky beach. Mickey had asked his name and Áedán answered without thought. For too long he’d been known only as Brandubh, the Black Raven, the Druid, and he’d nearly announced to this stranger that he was the powerful entity of the ancient Book of Fennore—the being that had been feared by humans for thousands of years.
“Bra—I mean, Áedán,” he’d amended quickly, using the name given to him at birth instead of Brandubh, his Druid name. “My name is Áedán.”
Mickey had stared at him with narrowed eyes. “And would that be Brady, you were about to say?” he asked, knowing he hadn’t gotten it right but inadvertently offering Áedán the cover he needed.
Áedán nodded. “Yes. Brady.”
“You’re a tad south, aren’t you?”
Áedán shrugged, not sure what was meant by that.
“Ah, well. What’s it matter? You speak a bit odd, but I won’t be hiring you for your elocution, will I now?”
To that, Áedán said nothing. Mickey had put him to work on The Angel and questioned him no more. From that point on, he became Áedán Brady, and every day since then, he’d toiled like a slave for the privilege of sleeping in the surprisingly tidy berth below deck and taking meals with Mickey, his lovely, pregnant wife, Colleen, and his infant son, Niall.
It was incomprehensible that this had become his reality. That he, Brandubh, had come to this miserable existence.
“I am fine, Mr. Ballagh,” Áedán answered Mickey’s question now, looking into the big fisherman’s ruddy face. “Just a bit seasick, I suppose.”
“Aye?” Mickey frowned. Mickey was more at home at sea than on land.
The choppy tide roiled and then surged suddenly, tilting the boat to a dangerous angle, halting any other comments as Mickey hurried to check the lines securing her. “I can’t say I’ve ever seen the bay like this,” he said, eyeing it distrustfully before cutting his gaze to the manmade barricade—which usually subdued the fierce waves enough to create a safe harbor—and then back to the cavern for a drawn moment.
At last Mickey tilted his head back and studied the sky. “Would you look at how fast that storm is moving in? Best batten the hatches, else it will be on us before we’ve a hint of what’s in store.”
It was much more than a storm approaching, but Áedán didn’t say it. He didn’t know what came under its guise, even though it rasped against his senses like the scales of a serpent slithering through the night.
He picked up the knife he’d been using, intending to sheath it so he could help Mickey, just as a more violent surge slammed the boat. The knife jerked across his other hand, cutting it deeply. Immediately blood began to spill from a long slice on his palm and drip to the deck beneath his feet. It caught him by surprise, the sight of his own blood. He could not recall the last time he’d seen it.
His involuntary curse had Mickey hurrying to his side. “Ach, looks bad, lad,” Mickey said, whipping a soiled handkerchief from his pocket. He gave it a dubious glance and then wrapped it around Áedán’s hand anyway. “You best go on to the house and tell the missus to patch you up. She’s not worth much, that woman, but she can stitch as well as any doctor.”
Áedán shook his head. The ship still needed to be readied before the storm.
“Don’t worry on that,” Mickey said, following his thoughts. “I’ll finish it up and you’ll have your meal and your bed just as if I’d had a full day’s labor from you. It will all come out right in the end.”
Áedán held to that thought. Yes, it would all come out right in the end. When he was restored, when he was once again as powerful as he’d been, Áedán would remember Mickey’s act of kindness.
Gratitude. He frowned in disgust. Another emotion.
With a nod, Áedán stepped onto the weathered dock and strode away in the direction of Mickey’s small house. With each step, the lure of the cavern intensified until he found himself turning toward it.
No, a voice of reason spoke sharply in his mind. Do not go there. . . .
But denying the cavern’s silent summons seemed pointless and too cowardly—too human—to tolerate.
No matter that he answered to the name of Áedán Brady now, inside he was still Brandubh. The Black Raven. The most powerful Druid to ever draw breath.
As soon as he crested the first hill and was out of Mickey’s sight, he veered off, his feet moving faster of their own accord as he headed to the ruins that landmarked the place to descend. The sky darkened and lightning split it into a thousand gray white pieces as rain began to pelt him with fury.
Filled with urgency, he fought down the pervasive dread that battered him like the sea against the cliffs. He did not know what waited in the cavern, what new turning point it had in store. But he refused to let fear control him. Never again would he allow anything—anyone—to rule him.
By the time he reached the point where he could see the ruined castle, he was drenched and out of breath. For a moment, he stilled, quaking inside as thunder exploded above. Emotions he couldn’t begin to comprehend churned into foam and flotsam, miring any logic that might have surfaced.
Pausing at the top of the stairs, he gazed at the deteriorated slope of steps down to the rocky beach below. He knew it had been millennia since he’d hacked them out of the granite cliff, but seeing the eroded decay somehow made the sense of an eternity come and gone more real than ever. Yet he could remember clearly the feeling of dangling over that abyss, of laughing at the danger, the peril of a fall as he’d carved each descending tier. The stone had sparkled with hidden crystals, and the sun had favored them, favored him. He’d been Brandubh, the bold Druid. Powerful. Feared.
The steps were nearly worn away and caked with moss and slime. Treacherous in this storm, and yet he made his way down, trying to convince himself that his actions were his own. That he came because he was ready, not because he was compelled. The throbbing pain in his wounded hand kept him alert, kept him here and now when it felt like a thousand hooks had embedded in his skin with the lines attaching them stretched taut and towing him forward.
The storm had arrived with all the stealth and vehemence of his perdition. It whipped the sea into a tempest, and huge waves slammed against the beach, trying to shuck him out from between the rocks. They did not dissuade him. He was set now—determined to reach the cavern and face whatever it was that made a Druid fear.
He breached the point where giant boulders made rebellious sentries to the entrance, withstanding the rage of the tides. Then at last he stood in the small passageway that led into the cavern.
A shudder shook him from inside out, like the thunderous storm unleashed. Power crackled around him as he stood on the threshold and peered into the blackness.
By degrees, his eyes adjusted and he saw the shadows inside heaving and lulling with the fearsome waves, splashing a black tide pool up against the guard stones that surrounded it. For a moment, he took it all in, comparing every detail to his memory of them—the rough walls, the uneven floor, the oily pool that glittered like a thousand mirrors reflecting and refracting the waning light from outside. But it was the runes on the walls—endless spiral symbols that had burned into the stone—that struck him to the core.
Those symbols covered the Book of Fennore, had flowed over each of its cursed pages. Those symbols were embedded in his soul like scars upon scars.
It was here, in this cavern, that Áedán had breathed life into the Book of Fennore. Here, that it became a sentient being. Here, that the first, greedy, grasping human had sought it out in hopes of wielding its terrible power.
And here, that Áedán became its slave. . . .
He took a deep breath, wary now as he surveyed the cavern without crossing from the passageway into the interior. Eons had passed since he’d last stood on this brink. Time so endless that he’d forgotten the reason he’d been so determined to stay away. Now, as if under the beam of a spotlight, Áedán faced the truth.
This cavern wasn’t merely a place to him. It was a cage, a prison, where memories of the hell he’d survived for millennia still lived, still breathed . . . still sought to bring him back into the fold.
What pierced him now was not a pervasive dread that might be shaken off by turning away. It was terror, bone deep and sharp as splintered glass.
The shock of it held him hostage for a moment. Terror. From the mighty Brandubh.
Sickened by the realization, he allowed his self-disgust to propel him forward when self-preservation fought to hold him back. Breathing deep of the wet salty spray, he advanced into the cavern.
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