The Red Drifter of the Sea – Celeste Barclay

Moira MacDonnell peered around the narrow staircase leading from the family chambers into the Great Hall. Her gritted teeth felt as if they would surely crack, and she suspected deep grooves were forming around her lips from pursing them in disgust so often. She observed her brother Dónal, the MacDonnell chieftain, dribbling grease onto his sleeve before taking a healthy draught of Scottish whisky. Her gaze shifted to her sister Lizzie. “Shameless trollop,” Moira muttered as Lizzie slid her hand between her body and Aidan O’Flaherty’s to cup his groin. In turn, Aidan pinched Lizzie’s nipple, eliciting a deep moan from the willowy blonde. Moira swept her gaze across the diners in the Great Hall, but as usual, no one paid attention to the antics of those seated on the dais. Moira’s nephew Sean darted across the hall, followed by his friends and his ever-loyal Irish wolfhound. She snapped her gaze back to Lizzie and Aidan, Sean’s parents, but they were oblivious to their son as he ran wild. Aidan was in port for a few days and spent more time dropping anchor in Lizzie than being a father to Sean. Lizzie was little better as a parent, having ignored Sean for most of his life, except for when Ruairí MacNeil had visited. A smug smile pulled at Moira’s lips as she recalled the last time the Dark Heart appeared at Dunluce. Despite being a year ago, the memory of his visit burned bright in Moira’s mind. Ruairí arrived with his wife Senga on his arm, and Lizzie made the dreadful mistake of trying to—as before—pass Sean off as Ruairí’s son. She compounded her error by trying to seduce him in front of Senga.

The pirate queen nearly gutted Lizzie before the entire clan, yet not one person flinched. Manipulative as the serpent in the Garden of Eden, Lizzie had sworn since before Sean was born that Ruairí was the boy’s father. Everyone who could count to nine knew it wasn’t possible, since Ruairí had been nowhere near Ireland, let alone Dunluce, when Lizzie conceived Sean. She must think we’re a right daft lot. As though none of us knew the moment the lad was born that he’s Aidan’s. The lad has his father’s black hair, not Ruairí’s blond. It was Senga who forced Lizzie to finally admit that Aidan was the then-five-year-old Sean’s father. Since then, neither Lizzie nor Aidan—who had never been discreet—made any attempt to hide their liaison. But neither did they intend to wed. With no heirs of his own, it forced Dónal to acknowledge Sean as the next MacDonnell chieftain, despite the boy’s bastardry.

I will bear no man a bastard. I’d have to be coupling to do that, and since that isn’t in my future, I suppose I have nothing to worry about. Selfish pile of shite. Pay a bluidy decent dowry if you want me off your hands, Dónal. But then who would run this pile of cracked bricks and rotting mortar? Sure as bluidy hell won’t be Lizzie. “Moira!” Dónal bellowed before belching. “Where the devil are you, you worthless wench?” Dónal may have muttered the last words, but Moira knew plenty of people heard. She doubted any of them cared. They were far too used to Dónal’s domineering attitude toward her. Dónal didn’t care what Lizzie did, as long as the men she bedded brought more trade to clan MacDonnell.

That had been the entire point of trying to lay a trap for Ruairí. Moira slipped from behind the staircase and entered the Great Hall. She wasn’t certain if Dónal’s grimace was from indigestion or disgust at seeing her. She assumed it was both. They had never gotten along, even as young children. Lizzie and Dónal were cut from the same jib: their father’s. Moira didn’t resemble either of her siblings; she was the spitting image of their mother. She was diminutive in stature and looked years younger than twenty-two. Her light brown hair felt dull and dreary when she looked at her siblings’ thick flaxen locks. Despite being unwed, she wore her hair up since she spent most of her days toiling alongside the servants.

Preparing herself for her brother, she blew a puff of air before plastering a shy smile she didn’t feel at all. She clasped her hands before her as she came to stand in front of the dais. “Where is the rest of the meal?” Dónal demanded as he belched again. I think you’ve eaten most of the meal already. I’m surprised no one’s lost a finger from you snatching the food away. “The last dish was already served, Chieftain,” Moira forced herself to address her brother by his title, even though no one who sat at the dais did. He insisted upon it. She twisted away as a bone flew in her direction. “This slop was barely edible, and now you tell me there is nothing more?” Dónal roared. If it’s such slop, then why would you want more? Moira forced herself to keep her expression neutral.

Years of practice taught her that any reaction would end poorly for her. “I will see what I can find, Chieftain.” Moira kept her answer succinct, dipping her head before turning toward the kitchen. She would never understand how a corpulent man like her brother could move so quickly. His chair flew backwards, and he met her at the bottom of the dais steps as she passed by. He grabbed Moira’s upper arm, his stubby fingers biting into the flesh. Moira darted a quick glance over Dónal’s shoulder and found Aidan watching, but she knew the man would never speak on her behalf. He never had. Instead, he reached for his mug and drank, keeping his eye on the chieftain and sister until Lizzie’s roaming hand once more found his rod. “See what you can find? See what you can find?” Dónal spluttered.

“I expect three more courses served, back to back.” “The servants already served five, Dónal,” Moira hissed, her voice low so only her brother would hear. She would appease him when others could hear, but she wouldn’t when they spoke in private. “There is nothing else prepared. You’ve eaten it all.” Dónal shook her, but Moira stood firm. She’d learned to steel herself against Dónal’s fits of temper. He often attempted to intimidate her with his substantial height and girth. The clan council had drawn the line two years ago when Dónal threatened to drive his fist into Moira’s cheek for spilling wine on him while she trembled with fever. She recognized she lacked the size or the training to fight back physically, but she found inconspicuous ways to retaliate.

Small things like pulling out chairs in his solar that she knew he would stumble over in his drunken stupors. She placed ants on his pillow and mused that it was the leftover mead at his bedside that must have drawn them. She’d even gone so far as to dip the hems of his breeks in beef fat, leading the keep’s hounds to knock him over and bite his ankles. “You stupid sow. No wonder no man will take you off my hands. You haven’t the sense of a gnat and can’t run a keep to save your life,” Dónal snarled before shoving Moira. Despite her tiny size, especially when compared to Dónal, she had the sea legs of an old sailor. After years of Dónal’s tyranny, she no longer swayed and was able to stand her ground. She didn’t bother to hide her mutinous glare as she notched up her chin before staring at the clan council members who sat at the table Dónal abandoned. Her silent defiance dared him to lash out further, even in front of the men who could strip him of his seat as chieftain.

“Get out of my sight,” Dónal spat. Moira was only too happy to comply. Without a second look, Moira glided toward the staircase. She might not have the lithe figure that Lizzie had even after bearing a child, but their mother drilled the same grace in Moira’s movements as she had Lizzie’s. “Moira,” Lizzie called. “Don’t forget to take Sean.” Moira adored her nephew, but Lizzie knew it was salt in an open wound: of the two of them, Moira was the one who wanted children. But it was unlikely that she would ever have them, since Dónal was too stingy to pay an adequate dowry. Lizzie had flown into a rage to rival an angry sea god’s when baby Sean called Moira “mama.” The aching pain had come with a sense of satisfaction as Moira bounced Sean on her hip.

She’d shrugged at Lizzie and taken Sean to lie down for a nap. Just as she had done nearly every night of his life, Moira helped Sean prepare for bed, then laid on the trundle bed in his chamber. He’d had night terrors for years, and Moira didn’t remember the last time she’d slept a full night in her own chamber. She now went to the trundle bed by habit. One day. One day when I’m certain Sean is cared for, I will be done. I will leave and not look back. Well, mayhap one glance if I can see Sean. But then, never again. Moira’s eyes drifted closed as she drifted off.


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