The man lying upon the shore was as naked as the day he was born.
Cairenn stood amid the boulders on the far edge of the beach, shading her eyes against the midday sun. When she’d first headed down the hillside, she’d thought the thing cast upon the shore was nothing but driftwood. As she came closer, what she’d assumed was a branch resolved into an arm, what she’d guessed was the trunk of some ship’s mast turned out to be his broad, muscled back.
Now, standing only a dozen yards away, she no longer doubted that a full-grown man lay face down on the sand.
Her young companion, Seamus, clambered down the rocks to stand beside her.
“That man,” Seamus said, “he must be cold, don’t you think?”
The boy blinked up at her with close-set eyes, all innocence.
“I imagine he is, Seamus.”
“Why is he out here like that?”
She wondered that herself. Finding a body upon the shore wasn’t so rare a thing for Inishmaan, since the island felt the full brunt of the North Atlantic Ocean. But generally men washed up only after a gale, when ships sank beyond the horizon and the tides washed the bodies onto the nearest land they could find. There’d been no gale recently. She couldn’t imagine what tide had brought him here.
“I think,” she said to her young friend, “that the sea just gave him up.”
Cairenn knew he didn’t really understand. Seamus was a special boy, different from his brothers and sisters. Small in stature, and with a face that caved in a little by the bridge of his nose, everyone dismissed him as the village idiot. But she judged people by a different measure. Seamus’s mind was as pure as the ringing of a harp’s string. It worked in straight, simple lines, shrugged off tangled complications, and favored sunshine and laughter.
Now she glanced back at the man exposed on the sand and, contemplating what she had to do, felt a strange mix of anticipation and unease. On this very strand, several years before, her own sister Aileen had been kidnapped by an outsider and swept away to Wales. It would be too much of a coincidence for such an event to happen twice—but she couldn’t ignore the possibility that this man might be sleeping or even playing dead.
But no man could play dead around her, for she had the power to read minds.
So she cast her thoughts out in the way that no one else could. In the next cove, she sensed a lone fisherman coming in with a haul of mackerel. Around the cut of the cliff, an O’Dunn boy felt grumpy because he’d been forced to haul seaweed up the cliff. She sensed anger in the caws of the birds and, just off shore, the curiosity of a herd of seals bobbing in the surf.
But in the body of the naked man only yards away, no life flickered.
“Seamus,” she said, drawing his attention away from the corpse on the strand, “I need you to tell my father about this.”
“But we’re going on an adventure! I’m going to show you how I row my boat over the waves!”
Her gaze drifted to a nook between two rocks where a little skin-covered boat was stowed. It was Seamus’s own coracle, gifted to him by his father when the boy finally learned how to navigate the dangerous surf. Seamus had been bursting with pride that he’d passed his test. She’d used his enthusiasm to convince him to show her this new trick, and to take her on an excursion, maybe as far as Galway.
Now she wondered if the entire world conspired to keep her from ever stepping off the island.
“We’ll do it another time, Seamus.” She reassured him with a smile. “For now, we have to take care of the man who washed up here.”
His brow crumpled. “Will the doctor make the man better?”
“No, but he’ll see that he’s tended to.” The islanders bore witness for any seamen who washed on shore, speaking a few words and then burying them above the high tide line. “I’ll keep watch over his body so that the sea doesn’t pull him back. Can you do this for me?”
A bright light filled his mind, the joy of helping others. He was already halfway to the slope when he shouted, “I’ll run fast!”
The sand sank beneath her leather boots as she headed for the body. The booming crash of the ocean echoed against the backdrop of the cliff. Spray misted her cheeks, caught in billows in this hollow carved out by the sea. As she came closer, she realized how big the man was, far bigger than he’d looked from afar. He had shoulders like a bull.
Over the years, several bodies found on this strand had been of strange, different kinds of men. There were fantastical, lushly mustached people that Da had called Spaniards, heavily-bearded pale creatures he called Vikings, and once a tall, unnaturally thin man with skin the color of peat that Da had called a Nubian. Now as she looked upon this man’s water-slick hair, the wonder of his back, and the long, strong length of his legs plastered with seaweed, she thought he looked like a selkie who’d clawed himself up to land in order to take human form.
She glanced around the cove in search of his black sealskin, realizing the moment she did so that she’d been listening to too many of her brother Niall’s stories.
She leaned over to peek at the man’s face, but first she saw his wound. She dropped to one knee and plucked away a thick piece of seaweed that clung to his shoulder, revealing an angry, ragged slice and purple, mottled skin.
She wasn’t a doctor’s daughter for nothing. She recognized a stabbing when she saw one.
A terrible chill shot through her. Da had always warned her that outsiders were a strange, violent folk. Proof frequently came by boat when men wounded by sword or mace or axe found their desperate way to his sickroom. Still, she couldn’t help but feel some sympathy for this outsider who’d had his life shortened before its natural time.
For he was not an older man. She could see that in the smoothness of the skin around his eyes. To better see his face, she came around to his other side. She wondered what kind of strange work he’d done to have built a body such as this. She wondered if, somewhere far away, a young woman stood staring out at the sea, pining for him.
Crouching down, she dared to slip her finger under a lock of hair that covered his brow, relieved to see that the rest of his face was untouched by the ravages of the sea. She pushed his hair aside to see his features better.
For a breathless moment she gazed upon him. A snatch of her brother Niall’s poetry came to her, from the story of Deirdre of the Sorrows.
I would have a man like that
Hair like the raven
Cheek like blood
His body like snow
As handsome a man as she’d ever seen lay before her. His brow was painted with salt-stains, his lashes sand-flecked.
Then he opened his eyes.
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