Here is Part 6 of my fantasy serial, “The Bridefarer’s Choice”.
If you are new to this story, you can find the earlier parts here
I will publish successive episodes every Monday.
I very much hope you enjoy it!
The Bridefarer’s Choice – Part 6
Malcolm looked at my sword with dismay.
“You might as well carry a bodkin. You couldn’t kill a cat wi’ that thing.”
He took out a dirk, held it gently, easily, in his right hand
“Kill me wi’ your sword,” he invited.
“Aye.” He grinned. It was not an attractive grin.
I took a deep breath, and took a swing at his left upper arm. It wouldn’t kill – I hoped.
There was a rattle. The dirk was now in his left hand, my blade caught by its hilt.
“My wee lad could do better than that. You might at least aim for somewhere vital.”
He released my weapon. I chopped vertically down at his head.
My blade hit the ground. Very shortly afterwards I followed it. Duncan had stepped aside from my blow, leaned forward and unbalanced me, helping me on my way.
“The only way you’ll kill a Dane, laddie, is if one of them dies laughing.”
I picked myself up, snarling.
“As you wish.” He balanced on the balls of his feet. This time he was at least paying me the compliment of taking me seriously.
I thrust as fast and hard as I could at his heart. My blade turned against the hilt of his dirk, and he disarmed me, and stood on my sword.
“My dirk will take any number of blows from your bit of tin – and look at the state of it now.” He showed me the two weapons. His dirk, unmarked. My sword, bent and blunted.
“But I couldn’t do that if you were wielding a Dane’s sword. It’s three times the weight, and much stronger. What I would need then is a Dane’s shield, like this.”
And so the day passed. By its end, I was bruised, bloody and aching in every limb.
“Well, laddie, you’re learning, but you’re no warrior. The best advice I can give you is to stay away from any Danes. The second best is to use your shield before your sword. Good luck.”
Staying away from Danes it would have to be.
I’d reached Fasthaven by the high road, but there was another route through the mountains.
“Freya will guide you,” Oldest Caitrin told me. “She knows the way. You will travel to the mountains by night, and start your crossing at first light. The way is narrow and stony. How will Mavra fare on such a path?”
“She is sure-footed enough.”
“Hm. She’s a strong beast and you’ll need such. We’ll just have to risk it.” She turned to Freya, and smiled at her.
“Are you happy, dear heart? I shall miss you, my daughter.”
“I shall miss you too, Mother. Perhaps when times are easier I shall see you again? Or you may come and visit.”
Oldest Caitrin shook her head.
“I fear this is forever, beloved child.”
They embraced, and Oldest Caitrin’s face was wet with tears.
“I am a king’s daughter, Mother. I must be about his business.”
“Take care of this precious jewel, Diarmid MacDiarmid.”
“I will protect her with every ounce of strength, every breath of courage, with my life and with my honour.”
“Then go with peace and honour.”
Malcolm helped Freya mount her palfrey, Alba. I climbed onto Mavra, somewhat impeded by the borrowed shield slung on my shoulder, and the long, heavy, borrowed sword.
The skylarks were a-bed. Mavra was scarcely visible in the dusk. I had removed the silver from her harness for concealment and silence. Alba gleamed like a wraith. The gates of the town opened silently and our journey was begun.
Freya rode on my left, and we trotted easily enough. The sound of our mounts’ hooves was muffled by the turf. Occasionally we would pass cattle, sometimes sheep. We said nothing.
There was no moon, only a great band of stars. I looked up in wonder. The night sky had never sparkled so sharply. My heart sang. I was riding with my bride-to-be, and she a king’s daughter – why, I’d heard her say so herself! She was beautiful, and she would bear my children.
Her hand reached out gently, and just touched my sleeve. She pointed, and placed her finger on her lips. It was just possible to see the outline of some dwellings. Awake now to the danger, I listened carefully. There was a lowing of cattle. A chain rattled; a dog, perhaps. We stole past.
The sky began to grey behind us, and grey shapes loomed up at us. Ahead, the path began to rise. My gaze followed it as it climbed into the peaks. I glanced at Freya. She sat very upright, staring intently up the slope. She pointed, and I saw a twinkling red-orange light, with a faint plume of smoke. Someone had a fire.
“Could it be a shepherd?” I whispered.
“It’s more likely to be warriors. There’s no pasture up there.”
“Is there a way around them?”
“No. The track broadens for about twenty yards, then the real pass starts. They’ve camped there. There are some trees at this end of the broad way. That’s why it’s hard to see the fire.”
‘I will protect her with my life.’
I took a deep breath, dismounted, and tethered Mavra.
“Stay here, Freya. If I don’t return by the time the sun is fully risen, you must return to Fairhaven as quickly as you may.”
“I shall do the king’s business, not your bidding.” She raked me with grey eyes that picked up the faint trace of blue now visible in the dawn sky.
The way was steep, and I went as quietly as I could. Whatever hope I had would lie in surprise. At every moment I expected a yell and a rush of men. Or worse, a feathered arrow from a hundred yards, that would pierce me through and cut off my breath.
I reach the trees, and I’m still undiscovered. They keep a sloppy watch.
I pause, then advance under cover as silently as I can. There look to be two men. Danes. One is sitting by the fire, the other is standing with his back to me, about ten yards away. I must kill him, unawares if possible.
Unawares. Murdering him in cold blood. Not in the heat of battle. Murder.
‘I will protect her with my honour.’
I stride forward, drawing my loaned sword as I go. He half turns, but he’s too slow, I strike at his neck and the blade slices through skin, through flesh, blood spurts, fountains of it, he gurgles, tries to shout, blood gushes from his mouth, his legs buckle. I stand gasping, wanting to retch.
But the other man has heard. He’s risen, he’s seizing his sword but it’s behind him. I run forward as he stands up, sword half lifted. I beat down his defence, but now he’s grasped his shield.
Shield. Use your shield before your sword.
Growling, I raise my borrowed shield. The other makes a sharp intake of breath, gesturing at his own shield. My shield bears the same device as his. I rush him, shield raised, using my weight and height to press him back and back to the edge, and he falls backwards, but I stumble, my sword catches and he’s rising and…
Freya steals up behind him, jabs a dirk into his neck, drags it across his throat. He jerks a few times and then lies still. Freya is looking around.
“There’s only two packs.”
I nod, heaving. Freya looks at me.
“They were soldiers. They served their lord with honour, but you bested them.”
I nod again. Then I turn away and vomit until I am empty, until my stomach muscles cry out and hot tears stream down my cheeks.
“Come, husband! We need to move.”