“Me” Time

I’m absolutely thrilled! The Drabble has accepted my story “‘Me’ time”. This is my first publication by a third party.
A big thank you to The Drabble!

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By Penny Gadd

Jane treasured this time away from her daily routine.

She climbed the path briskly, skidding on pebbles left by the rain running through the scrub. The wind, and the bleakness, and the loneliness, scoured away the mask she’d worn during the day. Her face relaxed into a half-smile. She thought with tenderness of her children, without the distraction of needing to deal immediately with their problems.
It was her “me” time. She could be herself.

She reached the summit, glanced at her watch and sighed. It was time to go home. Time to go back to being “George” and “Daddy.”

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Friday Fictioneers – Last Rites

Every week, Rochelle Wisoff-Fields (thank you, Rochelle!) hosts a flash fiction challenge, to write a complete story, based on a photoprompt, with a beginning, middle and end, in 100 words or less. Post it on your blog, and include the Photoprompt and Inlinkz (the blue frog) on your page. Link your story URL. Then the fun starts as you read other peoples’ stories and comment on them!

FF - Treestump 180131

PHOTO PROMPT © Rochelle Wisoff-Fields

Last Rites

“Why does Grandfather Tree have to be chopped down, Mom?”

“It’s a sick tree, Chuck. It will die soon. If we left it, other trees would get sick too.”

“Poor tree. Does it know it’s sick, Mom?”

“I don’t know, poppet. Do you think trees feel things?”

Chuck stuffed his fingers in his mouth and nodded his head vigorously. Dad raised the chain saw.

“Wait a minute,” yelled Chuck, and pelted up the grassy slope to the house. A short while later he was back with Christmas decorations that he hung on the doomed tree.

“Bye-bye, Grandfather Tree. We’re sorry.”

Evergreen Memories – long version

In “What Pegman Saw” last Saturday, I wrote a 150 word story “Evergreen Memories”. Several friends were kind enough to say they wanted to read more about the young couple in the story, so I’ve written a continuation that fills in their past, and hints at their future. It’s about 600 words long.

WPS - Evergreen Memories 180127

 

Evergreen memories

College Green was our special place, wasn’t it, Peter? We often met here between morning lectures and afternoon practical classes. We sat on the grass and watched the gulls hover, soar, dive, brilliant white against the blue sky. We shared our lunch, our stories, our laughter; especially our laughter. We laughed a lot, at people, at things that happened, but mostly simply for joy at being alive and together.

Then one day you weren’t there. Nor the next day, nor the one after. You weren’t in classes either. You’d never told me your home address or phone number. I asked the University what had happened. “He left us voluntarily,” was all they would tell me. No address, no phone number; I wasn’t part of your family.

I still come and sit here occasionally, and remember, quietly.

A shadow falls on me.

“Annie?” The old man’s voice is tentative, disbelieving.

“Peter!”

We stare at each other, then I laugh and pat the bench beside me. Peter smiles and sits down.

“You can’t imagine how flattered I feel that you recognised me, Peter!”

“I couldn’t believe it when I saw you sitting there. I go this way every few months and I’ve always looked out for you – just in case.”

“How very romantic!”

The young Peter would have recognised my teasing; this Peter looks hurt. I take hold of his hand.

“I don’t live very far away, Peter, and I think of you every time I cross College Green. I like to remember the fun we had together.”

“You wear a ring,” he observes.

“I’m a widow.” A little bit of the sunshine dies; I’d been so happy with Frank.

“I’m sorry. Tactless of me.”

“Would I be equally tactless if I were to ask what happened to you all those years ago?”

“All those years ago. 1972. I had a phone call from my Mum; Dad was seriously ill in hospital. I raced back to London just in time to be with him as he died. He was only young, only thirty-nine. He’d never thought about dying, and he wasn’t insured. Mum had a breakdown.”

He paused. He looked away from me, his face full of pain. I pressed his hand gently.

“I tried to care for her, and find work to pay the bills, but all I could get were menial jobs that wouldn’t even pay the rent. Luckily for us, family stepped in.”

“I understand, Peter. It must have been awful for you. I’m not surprised you didn’t have time to make contact.”

“Well it was very difficult, but the real difficulty was that all my family are South African; Mum only came over to England because she married an Englishman. Before I knew where I was, I was on the plane to Jo’burg. I tried so hard to contact you before I left.”

He shook his head – and then he smiled.

“And before you ask, I’m divorced.”

“So lunch wouldn’t be out of the question then?”

He chuckled.

“I’d forgotten how impulsive you were. It was one of the things I loved about you.”

“Did you love me then, Peter? Did you?”

“Oh, Annie, how can you ask? I doted on you; I adored you; I worshipped the ground under your feet. Here, look – I wasn’t going to show you this, but…”

It was a rich man’s wallet that he pulled out, fine leather holding platinum credit cards – and there, protected by a transparent plastic cover, was a photograph of me, aged twenty, laughing.

“I remember you taking that photograph!” I exclaim with delight.

Peter rises, and, still holding his hand, I rise too.

“Where’s the best place for lunch?” he says.

 

The Bridefarer’s Choice – Part 9

Here is Part 9 of my fantasy serial, “The Bridefarer’s Choice”. This is the final episode!

If you are new to this story, you can find the earlier parts here.

The Bridefarer’s Choice – Part 1

The Bridefarer’s Choice – Part 2

The Bridefarer’s Choice – Part 3

The Bridefarer’s Choice – Part 4

The Bridefarer’s Choice – Part 5

The Bridefarer’s Choice – Part 6

The Bridefarer’s Choice – Part 7

The Bridefarer’s Choice – Part 8

I very much hope you enjoy it!

The Bridefarer's Choice - Part 9 - storm 180129

The Bridefarer - Part 1 171127

The Bridefarer’s Choice – Part 9

The work on fortifying the Six Villages is too slow. Try as I might, I’ve failed to persuade the citizens of Red Bay to complete their defences against the Danes. When Lord Robert summons me to his High Hall, I feel more than a little apprehensive. He is not a compassionate man.

“My Lord!”

I kneel before him.

“Arise, Thane Diarmid.”

Lord Robert has a beardless face, short brown hair, and a tall but stooping frame. If it wasn’t for his eyes, you would think him a holy man or a scribe. Those cold eyes, the eyes of a man who is not sentimental about the value of life, are resting thoughtfully on me.

“Tell me about Red Bay, Thane.” His voice is soft like the crackle of a fire on the hearth.

“My Lord, the work goes well. Both the ditch and the earth bank have been completed. We have stakes in place on the bank on the seaward side.”

Lord Robert’s mouth tightens as he interrupts.

“Roderick tells me that the Danes would overrun the place easily. He tells me that you need stakes on the bank around the entire perimeter. Why has that not been done?”

“My Lord, the Village Elder tells me he cannot obtain sufficient timber.”

“Thane Diarmid, there is ample timber in Peak Town. If the Village Elder cannot obtain it, replace him with somebody who will.”

“Very good, my Lord.” My heart sinks. The last thing I want is to become involved in a political struggle within the Six Villages.

“Perhaps you feel that your status as my Thane is not taken seriously?”

“No, my Lord, – that is, I don’t feel that.”

“I have heard unpleasant tales told of your bride, how she is a selkie, how she swims in the sea.” There was a look of distaste on his face. “That will not help you win respect. Respect must be earned, Thane. Get your house in order.”

“Yes, my Lord.”

I look to him, wondering what he will ask next.

“That is all, Thane. You may leave.”

I feel my ears burning red. My blood runs fiery in my veins. Criticism always hurts more when it’s justified.

“Thank you, my Lord.”

Roderick steps out of the hall with me.

“Thane Diarmid!”

He grasps my elbow, halting me. His face is unconcerned and placatory.

“No ill-will I hope, Thane.”

I shake off his hold on me.

“You were asked by our Lord to report. You reported. You were right. Red Bay’s defences are pitiful, and, as Lord Robert pointed out, that’s my fault.”

Roderick purses his lips.

“He’s a hard man, Diarmid. He was made Lord when he was seventeen years old. And if you think being a Thane is tough, I can tell you, being a lord is ten times tougher. He had to learn fast and brutally. His own sister tried to have him assassinated – can you imagine?”

“I’ve never heard that. What happened to her?”

Roderick shrugs. “Dead, of course.”

*       *       *

I ride straight from Lord Robert’s High Hall to Red Bay. I ride faster than is wise, at a pace that tires even Mavra, and go straight to Taras’s house.

“Greetings, Thane Diarmid. Enter, be seated and be welcome.” His quick little tongue makes the conventional greeting sound insincere. His quick little eyes dart over me, scanning me, trying to gauge whether my visit can be turned to his advantage.

“Elder Sean has told me there is no suitable timber available to complete our defences. What say you?”

Smooth as a snake, Taras says, “I’m sure the Elder must have reason for saying so.”

“Lord Robert tells me there is ample timber in Peak Town.”

“That may be so, Thane, but that is two days away. We don’t have the money to have that timber brought here.”

“I have the authority to replace the Village Elder, if I deem him unsuitable. Surely you can think of a way we could acquire suitable timber?”

“Let me see.” He makes a show of thinking, and I control my impatience. “Well, of course, the timber for the defences need not be seasoned. We’re not worried by warping. Michael has a copse less than a mile away. If that were felled…he’d want recompense of course.”

“One gold piece from me, another from you and the village will provide the labour to cut and move the stakes. And you will replace Elder Sean as Village Elder.” Taras looks at me.

“You are quick to spend my gold, Thane.”

“Not so quick as the Danes will be to loot it, if they come before our defence is complete.”

“Ah yes. The Danes. Very well, Thane. Let it be as you say. I shall speak to Michael immediately. We’ll have the defences finished within a fortnight.”

“A week, Elder, a week. The defences will be finished within a week.”

“Very well, Thane.”

Sean scowls when I tell him that I’m replacing him with Taras. I can see that he’d like to pay me back, but doesn’t have the nerve to say anything to my face.

Then he says, “Danes, Danes, Danes. What proof is there that these Danes will come raiding anyway?”

I look him straight in the eyes.

“There is no proof at all. But they have come to the west of our country, and there is nothing to stop them from coming here in their longships. And if they do come, Sean, then we lose everything.”

I draw my sword and Sean flinches and backs away. I point the blade at his heart.

“Where do you think this blade came from, Sean? I didn’t go to Denmark for it. I took it from a Danish warrior after I’d killed him.”

I raise the blade until the point tickles his Adam’s apple.

“I expect you to give your full support to Elder Taras. Will you do that?”

He nods, very carefully.

“Say it!”

“Yes.”

“Yes, what?”

“Yes, I’ll support Taras.”

“And?”

“Yes, I’ll support Elder Taras, Thane.”

Slowly I lower the blade. “See that you do.”

I turn away. I imagine I hear him whisper, “Seal-shagger,” but he wouldn’t dare. Would he?

My path back to where I’ve tethered Mavra takes me past Mairin’s cottage. I look at her door as I pass, just as she comes outside. She jumps, startled. I move to greet her, but she presses one hand to her lips, and raises the other, palm outward, to tell me not to approach her.

“Mairin?”

“Oh no, Diarmid. Oh no! Don’t say anything, don’t greet me.“

I stop, look at her. She is weeping. My heart yearns for her, to hold her, to comfort her. But I may not.

Silently, I go on my way. The image of her weeping face, the sound of her sweet voice so full of sadness, will not leave me. I shall carry them to my grave.

Mavra is tired and the journey to Closeharbour is slow. Freya is heavy with our child and has gone to my mother. My cottage is cold. I eat some stale bread, swallow a beaker of wine and sleep like a dead man.

Next day dawns fiery red.

“I’ll not be venturing out in the boat today,” observes my father when I call to collect Freya. It certainly looks as though we can expect a storm.

As Freya and I walk back to my cottage, I try to make her understand how much it matters that she behaves like a thane’s wife.

“You want me to slave in your house, and stay out of the sea?”

I take a deep breath. “Yes. That’s what you must do.”

“I suppose that’s what Mairin would do?” There is a sneer in her voice. The image of Mairin’s weeping face returns, vividly.

“That, and a lot more besides.”

Freya looks at me. “You saw her yesterday, didn’t you?”

“Ay, we met. In the street. A greeting, no more.”

“If I thought there was anything more, I would kill her, Diarmid!”

“Och, don’t make foolish threats. She’s worth ten of you.”

“So that’s what you think of me.” Her face flames with anger, and she strikes me across the face, there, in the street, where the neighbours can see everything. I grab her arm.

“Ow. Let go. You’re hurting.”

“Ay. I shall hurt you a good deal more if you don’t start to behave yourself properly.”

I march her back to my parents’ house.

“Mother. Talk some sense into this woman. I canna do it.”

Mother and Freya exchange glances.

“Sit down, Freya,” says my mother. Freya looks at her briefly, then sits.

“Now, Diarmid, away you go about your business. When you come home tonight, there’ll be a fire on your hearth and hot food on your table.”

How she’ll accomplish that I have no idea, but I feel sure she will.

I go to the harbour, to our smaller boat.

“Oldest?”

Our wise woman, the Oldest, is calling me from the jetty.

“Diarmid. Beware of the sea. Don’t put out today. There is a storm coming.”

I wave impatiently. “I’ll be fine. I’m not going far.”

I bend to the oars. The sea is calm and the boat is sound. I have a net. I’ll row about half a mile up the coast, staying close to the shore. I’ll see any storm clouds in plenty of time to put ashore if it looks as though it will be too rough.

By mid-morning I’m in position. I cast the net. Immediately it starts to fill. Why there are dozens of fish! Perhaps my luck is changing! I pull in the net, stow the fish, and cast again. Another haul. I count thirty large fish.

I think of Mairin and Freya. I was a fool to marry Freya. And then, as clearly as though I had the Sight, I remember Freya this morning. I can see her in my mind’s eye taking my father’s largest knife, the one he uses for gutting fish, with its wickedly sharp blade. She had dropped it into her basket, thinking I hadn’t noticed…

Swiftly I empty the net and stow the catch.

What does she want with that knife? Why, she told me herself! ‘If I thought there was anything between you and Mairin, I would kill her!’

The wind gusts in my face as I seize the oars. Red Bay is only another mile up the coast. I’ll be quicker rowing there than going home and taking the long road overland. I must get to Mairin, protect her from my wife. I groan. My wife! What have I done? Why did I not choose Mairin?

The light is fading fast. Black clouds are racing across the sky. Lightning flickers on the horizon. The waves are tossing the boat from side to side. Never mind. I’ve been out in worse than this, and I’ve covered half the distance already.

I glance out to sea. About three hundred yards away is a great wave, and the wind is so strong it’s blowing the top off it. I row on as hard as I can, glancing left every few seconds, watching that monster. As it nears me, I hear the strengthening wind, and then that’s all I hear, the wind screaming and the rush of surf. I jam the starboard oar into the water, and pivot my craft to face the sea.

We rise, and rise. The boat tilts backward until I think we’ll topple over. The water is black, full of bubbles like the last exhalation of a drowning man.

I remember my words to the Oldest, all those months ago before I set out on my bridefaring. “All men die,” I had said. “I do not fear death.”

I don’t want to die. I want to reach Mairin, do what I can to make amends.

We crest the wave and the boat tumbles forward. The waves behind the monster are big, but not killers. I swivel the vessel, and row with all my might. The wind is so strong, it feels as though it is dragging the air from my lungs. The spray stings fiercely, and I can hardly see. I look over my shoulder. I’m hardly making any progress. Perhaps I’d better turn and run before the wind? I probably won’t make the harbour, but I might avoid breaking up.

The boat starts to rise. I’m closer to the rocks than I thought and the waves are surging up like sea-serpents from the abyss. If I can’t somehow get some sea-room I shall be smashed to pieces. I row furiously straight out to sea.

A savagely hissing bolt of lightning blinds me, and the thunder deafens me even above the noise of the wind. The vessel pitches about. It’s filling with water, but there’s no time to bale. Just keep hauling at the oars. “Mairin!” I cry, in despair, and the boat is tossed ashore, and I am tossed out of it.

*       *       *

And so, just as I began this tale, it falls to me, the Oldest in Closeharbour, to end it. I huddle near my fire; my only comfort.

The night Diarmid was lost, his wife Freya, gave birth to a boy, a bairn with red-gold hair. She nursed him for a few months, then she came to me. She gave me a package for safe-keeping.

Her wee bairn was wrapped snugly for travel. She saw me notice, and said, “Yes, I’m going to Mairin. She will be mother to the child. My duty is done. I can please myself what I do now.” She told me more besides, but I’m not going to share that, except to say I have never seen a more powerful passion than the one she felt for Diarmid.

She rode to Red Bay on her palfrey, and left the babe with Mairin. She and Mairin walked together to the place where Diarmid had been lost. Freya dressed for swimming, then set off straight out to sea; the selkie returning to her own underwater realm. She was never seen again.

I don’t have many more days left to enjoy the warmth of the fire, but that matters not. Mairin has the Sight, and she will be the Oldest for Closeharbour when I have gone.

An infant starts to wail. It doesn’t matter; Mairin will take care of him. I shall just close my eyes and doze …

 

 

What Pegman Saw – Evergreen Memories

“What Pegman saw” is a weekly challenge based on Google Streetview. Using the location provided, you must write a piece of flash fiction of no more than 150 words. You can read the rules here. You can find today’s location on this page,  from where you can also get the Inlinkz code. This week’s prompt is Bristol in the UK.

 WPS - Evergreen Memories 180127

Evergreen memories

College Green was our special place, wasn’t it, Peter? We often met here between morning lectures and afternoon practical classes. We sat on the grass and watched the gulls hover, soar, dive, brilliant white against the blue sky. We shared our lunch, our stories, our laughter; especially our laughter. We laughed a lot, at people, at things that happened, but mostly simply for joy at being alive and together.

Then one day you weren’t there. Nor the next day, nor the one after. You weren’t in classes either. You’d never told me your home address or phone number. I asked the University what had happened. “He left us voluntarily,” was all they would tell me. No address, no phone number; I wasn’t part of your family.

I still come and sit here occasionally, and remember, quietly.

A shadow falls on me.

“Annie?” The old man’s voice is tentative, disbelieving.

“Peter!”

Friday Fictioneers – Courtesy Car

Every week, Rochelle Wisoff-Fields (thank you, Rochelle!) hosts a flash fiction challenge, to write a complete story, based on a photoprompt, with a beginning, middle and end, in 100 words or less. Post it on your blog, and include the Photoprompt and Inlinkz (the blue frog) on your page. Link your story URL. Then the fun starts as you read other peoples’ stories and comment on them!

FF - Courtesy Car 180124

PHOTO PROMPT © Sandra Crook

Courtesy Car

“When I get back from the garage you’ll tell me who your lover is, or I’ll kill you!” John yelled, as he slammed the door.

Panicking, Sue phoned Robert, owner of the garage. “Darling, he’s threatening to kill me!”

John drove up the motorway in a ‘courtesy’ car. It was filthy, and rattled.

“Courtesy car?” he exclaimed. “It’s the ’I don’t give a stuff’ car!”

No, it was worse than that. The ‘Blow you, go somewhere else’ car?

As the brakes failed, he had just time to realise it was the “I hate you and wish you were dead” car.

The Bridefarer’s Choice – Part 8

Here is Part 8 of my fantasy serial, “The Bridefarer’s Choice”.

If you are new to this story, you can find the earlier parts here.

The Bridefarer’s Choice – Part 1

The Bridefarer’s Choice – Part 2

The Bridefarer’s Choice – Part 3

The Bridefarer’s Choice – Part 4

The Bridefarer’s Choice – Part 5

The Bridefarer’s Choice – Part 6

The Bridefarer’s Choice – Part 7

I will publish successive episodes every Monday.

I very much hope you enjoy it!

The bridefarer's choice - part 3

The Bridefarer’s Choice – Part 8

“Freya!”

There is no answer.

Our cottage is empty, the fire just embers. There are no savoury smells of food, only a mustiness as though the place has been shut up all day. I nurse the fire back to life, then pile on logs so that it roars cheerfully. It should burn well now for a couple of hours while I look for my wife.

The November drizzle is closing in as I walk down to my parents. I’m home early; it wants an hour yet to sunset. When I ask my mother if she knows where Freya is, she looks pained.

“That’s a young woman won’t listen to reason. I told her what a man needs is hot food on his table and a warm body in his bed, and she just tossed her head and walked out. You’re welcome to eat with us this e’en; I did double portions.”

“Did Freya say where she was going?”

“Oh, I don’t doubt she’s swimming from the cove. Swimming!”

I smile at my mother’s exasperation.

“I’m sure she’ll listen to you in time, Mother. Thank you for the invitation. I’ll ask Freya; she may have something planned; grilled fish maybe.”

“Aye, well you don’t need to let me know; just turn up. It’s mutton stew wi’ tatties an’ carrots.”

My tummy rumbled.

“Aye, well you just made up my mind for me. We’ll come. That’s my favourite.”

“Your Dad’ll be pleased to see you. He misses you in the boat, you know.”

Nobody goes to the cove of a November evening, but I stroll there anyway. My heart lurches as I see Freya a hundred yards out, swimming strongly. She is so beautiful, such a prize. Even as I think this, I realise she’s seen me and has turned shoreward.

“You’re home early,” she says, taking off her swimming garment. It feels wrong that she should be naked out here, where anyone could see, but I say nothing. Last month we had a bitter row about it, and she laughed at me. Dad said I should take my belt to her, but I couldn’t do that, I couldn’t hurt her. She dries herself and dresses.

“Modest again!” she mocks.

“People talk, Freya. I need respect to do my job. I had a man today say ‘You canna’ run your own household. Dinna’ tell us how to run the villages’”

“I’m sorry. That must be hard.”

“And there’s a story going around that I’ve married a selkie.”

She laughs.

“Folk are so stupid. Now don’t you think of hiding my sealskin, or I’ll swim naked! Do you fancy fish for your tea tonight?”

“We’re eating with my parents. Something hot from the pot.”

As we climb up the cliff path, she slips her hand into mine.

“I’m sorry I’m not a better wife for you, Diarmid. You deserve a nice girl who’ll feed you well, and keep you happy. Like Mairin.”

I sigh.

“Have folk been gossiping to you again? I wish they wouldn’t. Who’s been rude this time?”

But she doesn’t answer, just grips my hand more tightly. Instead, she says fiercely, “You’re mine. If any woman tries to steal you, I’ll kill her.”

*       *       *       *

Fasthaven has given me more than a bride; it has given me an awakening. If I want to hold my bride, I have to be ready to fight for her. If I want to live at peace in my own land, I have to be ready to defend it. The Danes recognise no boundaries of ours; no authority of our rulers. What they want, they take – unless we stop them by force.

Fasthaven have done it. They have fortified the town, and trained the men as warriors. They couldn’t turn back a full-scale invasion, but they could ward off raids by one or two longships, perhaps more. And by combining with other towns, they were deterring Danish attacks.

Where will the Danes go now? Lord Robert thinks they will come here, and he’s put me in charge of preparations for the six villages.

I set off for Salting before first light. The sky has cleared and the sun rises over the sea in a frenzy of golden fire, like Freya’s locks scattered free over the bed last night. My whole body sings. Mavra catches my mood, tugs at the bit, and we canter.

Since my bridefaring I have new eyes for the landscape in which I live. I no longer see only the beauty. I see where Danes might land; the paths they might take to loot isolated homesteads. I see which farms might be defended, and which must be fled as soon as there is news of a longship. And, as I canter up to Red Bay, I see that nobody is working on the defences.

The ditch is deep enough, but it doesn’t surround the settlement. The earth rampart and wooden palisade are hardly started. Work should have started at sun-up. Salting needs my presence before noon – Red Bay needs my boot up its backside. I’ll have to stop and then ride like a hooligan to make up time.

I pound on the door of the Village Elder’s cottage. The door opens a few inches, reluctantly. I jam my boot into the crack.

“Oh, it’s you,” mumbles Sean.

“Yes. Your Thane.”

Sean sniggers. “Thane, my arse.”

“If the village defences aren’t finished on time, it won’t be me holding you to account; it will be Lord Robert. If the defences aren’t finished by spring, it may even be the Danes who make us pay. Is there a problem with the work?”

“Everybody’s busy.”

“Sean, if you’re not able to persuade people to do the work, I can replace you as Village Elder. Taras would do it better, I’m sure.”

Taras is prosperous. Taras has a fine house. Taras is ambitious.

Sean scowls.

“It’s none of my doing that people don’t believe in these Danes. They’ve never seen them! Have you?”

“I’ve killed two.” I rest my hand on the pommel of my sword. “I’m coming back this way tomorrow. Make sure that the ditch is finished.”

“It can’t be done.”

“Sean, it will be done. Or Taras replaces you.”

The door opens wider, and he shuffles out, muttering.

I mount Mavra and ride quickly to Salting. I like speed as a rule, but the joy has gone out of the morning.

At least the Salting folk are working on the defences. Padraig is a good leader, and in his prime. Wherever the work is hardest, there you’ll find Padraig, doing more than his share of the heavy labour. And, when things are at their toughest he starts the men singing, and the work goes faster and smoother.

“As we agreed,” he tells me, “this year we’re making the walls of loose stone. But we’ve decided to build a proper gatehouse with dressed stone.”

“You’ve someone who can dress stone?”

“Aidan’s pretty good. We’re giving him a wee bonus in whiskey.”

There is a noise behind me. When I turn round, I see three smirking men.

“Is something amusing you?”

The biggest of them steps forward. “Ay. You are. Standing there so high and mighty, as if you knew what you’re talking about, when you’re just a seal-shagger!”

“I hope you’re prepared to back your insult with steel?”

I draw my Danish blade, swing it lightly.

“Easy for you to wave a sword at me. Doesn’t make you a man. You’re still only a seal-shagger.”

I shrug.

“I’ll kill you with my hands then.”

I pass my blade to Padraig.

Even as I turn back to the man, he swings a punch, and the blow stuns me, briefly. I raise my arms in front of my head, and take several bruising blows on my forearms, until my head clears. I watch him carefully. The next blows I deflect, then land one of my own. Malcolm’s words come back to me. ‘Watch their eyes as well as their hands. The eyes will tell you when and where the blow is going.’

It works. I take fewer punches. The man’s arms drop briefly, and I’m in, hugging him to me. I’m much taller than he is. Let’s see which of us is the stronger. I tighten my hold, then squeeze with all my might.

“Apologise,” I demand.

He looks defiant, struggles to free his arms. I don’t think he can breathe at all. My arms burn with fatigue but I don’t slacken my grip. I must win this one.

“Let him go, Thane. He’s just a lad!” I hear the words but they make no sense. The man is going to apologise or die.

I see his eyes flick back and forth, panic-stricken.

“Apologise,” I snarl.

There is a strong arm on my shoulder.

“Thane! Thane!” It’s Padraig. “Leave him go. You’ve made your point. You’ll answer to Lord Robert if you kill the man.”

I look round at Padraig. I look back at the man. He’s no longer struggling and his eyes have rolled up into his forehead. I release him and he crumples. Padraig is immediately on the ground beside him.

“He’s breathing.”

Padraig rises and together we watch the man. Every breath he takes is stronger. Soon his eyes open. He groans, rubs his ribs, pushes himself up into a sitting position.

“Get yourself to the Eldest, Eachann. Let her give you something for the bruises.”

Eachann rises.

“Eachann.” Padraig is stern. “Apologise to the Thane.”

It’s snarling, grudging, surly, and late but there is an apology. Of sorts.

As Padraig tells me later in his house, that was emphatically not my finest hour.