Here is Episode 3 of my fantasy serial, “The Bridefarer’s Choice”.
If you missed Episode 1, you can find it here https://pennygadd51.wordpress.com/2017/11/27/the-bridefarers-choice-part-1/.
Likewise, Episode 2 is here https://pennygadd51.wordpress.com/2017/12/04/the-bridefarers-choice-part-2/
I think the story will take another two episodes to complete. I will publish successive episodes every Monday.
I very much hope you enjoy it!
The Bridefarer’s Choice – Part 3
Skylarks were trilling in a cloudless pale-blue sky. It seemed a favourable omen.
Mavra, my horse, stepped out proudly, his black coat gleaming. I gloated over his harness, black leather with silver studs, knowing that the other villagers envied my wealth. I filled my lungs with the bright air, scented in equal measure by the sea and by the machair, and exulted in my strength.
My father held my bridle.
“Good fortune on your bridefaring, son.”
“Thank you, father. I shall try to make my family proud.”
A shadow fell on his face.
“If I may advise you, my son,” his voice trailed away, but then he straightened his back and looked me in the eye. “Do not be led astray by false hopes of grandeur. Mairin is a fine woman, plenty good enough for the pride of our family.”
“It is I who am bridefaring, not you, father.”
He released the harness with a sigh.
I rode steadily for two days, sometimes walking, sometimes trotting, and once – I confess it – galloping a half-mile for simple delight. I left the six villages and headed to the mountains, to Peak Town. I’d been there a few times with my father – we sold some of our catch to Michael the fishmonger.
I knew him well enough to call him friend, and we passed a merry evening in the Jack o’ Lantern Inn. On hearing I was searching for a bride, he chuckled and said “You should journey on to Merrydown. There’s a lass lives there, Scanallan, ripe for wooing. And you’re a bold chap. Red hair she has, and a big…”
“Keep it clean!” yelled someone.
“A big dowry, I was going to say” continued Michael, grinning.
“And her family?” I enquired.
“Well, that’s a thing. People say she’s a Lord’s bastard; can’t account for the size of the dowry any other way. You’ll find her serving in the Checkers Inn. And now I must be off, or Gerda will give me a black eye!”
It took me five days to cross the mountains and reach Merrydown, days that were as harsh and exhausting as any I’ve spent at sea. I was mighty relieved to reach the Checkers Inn.
But they had no room. Despite my fatigue, I had to tramp the streets, leading Mavra before I found a household that let out a room. It was not clean and it cost double what seemed fair, but it was dry and, if not warm, it was less cold than being outdoors.
The Checkers was lively, with tasty food and large portions. I could see how the inn got its name; there were half a dozen checkerboards, each one occupied. There was a constant bustle around the bar, young chaps mostly, laughing and joking with each other, and when I had finished dining I joined them.
A tall man, only a few inches shorter than me, approached me in friendly fashion.
“So, I’m Brendan,” he said. “Who are you, and what brings you to our town?”
The others fell silent, and looked at me.
“My name is Diarmid Macdiarmid. I’m bridefaring, and I heard your town is famous for the beauty of its women.”
“Bridefaring? And what might that be?”
It had never occurred to me that people wouldn’t have heard of the custom. As I explained, I could see smirks on the faces of some of the men.
“Bumpkin!” The word came from the back of the group. It was quiet, but perfectly audible. My hand sought my sword hilt, but I made no move to draw the blade.
“You have checkers. Would you care for a game?” I addressed the man who had spoken.
“Do you play checkers out in the peat marshes then?”
He sat down at a board and gestured to the seat opposite. All his friends were grinning; I guessed he was their champion.
“You go first,” he said.
As the game progressed he frowned. I won.
“Not bad – for a bumpkin.” He set up the board again, played the first move himself. He won.
“Best of three.” It wasn’t a question. He gestured that I should start. Six moves in, he made a beginner’s mistake. I hesitated and saw the sudden realisation on his face.
“Play it again,” I suggested.
He went white, his lips narrowed to bloodless lines and his dark eyes blazed.
“Don’t you dare patronise me,” he hissed.
Brendan laid his hand on the man’s shoulder.
“Easy now, Iain, easy.”
The serving woman came over quickly.
“Iain, that’s the wine talking. You’ve had enough. Time to go. Brendan?”
Brendan nodded assent, then turned to me.
“Best you make friends with some of the townsfolk before you try stealing one of our women.” He offered me his hand, and I shook it.
As the party left, I looked at the serving woman. She was indeed handsome. Now that I was paying attention I could see her hair was copper under her headscarf. She looked at me with green eyes.
“Do they allow you time away from here for relaxation?” I asked.
“Relaxation with a boy?” she mocked. “That’s the wine talking again for sure. I think you’d better go home, child.”
I thought of home that night, as I lay sleepless in the cold bed. Mairin would be a fine wife. But what if she turned me down? She’d been very upset and angry when I’d told her I was seeking a noble bride.
A noble bride! I snorted with derision at the thought. I couldn’t even persuade a serving wench to spend an evening with me. That said, if she were the daughter of a king, as the Oldest had read in my fate…I dozed, dreaming of red-gold hair and red-gold wealth.
I left the house in the morning, planning to meet some of the town’s traders. A skinny young man stopped propping up the wall of the house next door. He started whistling. I heard footsteps from behind, and from the side streets as we crossed. I glanced round. There was a group of half a dozen men. Two of them had been in the inn the previous night. I loosened my blade.
Iain stepped out from a porch, in his hand a quarterstaff that he pointed at me.
“Why do you bar my way? I intend naught but courtesy towards you.”
“If that is so, return to the hovel where you’re staying, settle your account, and leave town this morning.”
“I have business in the town.”
All the time we were speaking the other members of the group were moving to completely encircle me. Each held a quarterstaff.
“I ask you – in courtesy – to leave our town. Do you demur?” His voice was the silken purr of the wildcat; his eyes were madder than the rolling, bloodshot glare of a horse galloped to exhaustion.
“I ask you, in courtesy, to move out of my way so I may continue with my business.” I half-drew my sword.
The blow from my right caught me on the elbow. Gritting my teeth against the pain that shot up my arm, I pulled my blade fully from the scabbard and adopted a crouch position. A staff cracked across my buttocks. I hadn’t been struck like that since I was twelve! They were playing with me!
I let out a roar of rage and sprang at Iain, my sword seeking his heart. He parried expertly, easily, with his staff.
“We are in every way your betters, bumpkin. Down on your knees and do homage!”
The memory of the Oldest’s prophecy ‘You need not fear blade or fire or hemp; but beware of water, beware of the sea,’ heartened me.
“What do you say, bumpkin? Your sword against my staff?”
I nodded. If that was what he wanted. I’d aim to wound, not kill. My breath came short.
The other men stepped back a pace, still enclosing us but leaving enough room for our combat. Iain smiled, mockingly.
I raised my blade and took guard.