Behind closed doors

This story is about 1600 words long, and will take about ten minutes to read.

Behind closed doors

Making a break for it 180220

Milly enjoyed housework, even ironing. She especially liked cooking. It was how she nurtured her husband and her daughter. The thought that she was providing what they needed was almost as good as the cuddles that she longed for so much. Still, she was luckier than some of the women she used to know, who were divorced, or never married. No man to take care of them. She looked at her rings: the engagement ring with its large sapphire set between two diamonds – “Each diamond is a whole carat,” Gideon had boasted, “You’re a lucky woman” – and the thick band of twenty-two carat gold that was her wedding ring.

She polished the dining table first, so that Gideon wouldn’t notice the smell of lavender and beeswax at dinner; he was fussy about that. She gazed at the mirror finish with satisfaction. Even Gideon would struggle to find fault, she thought.

Before going into the lounge to dust it, she trotted upstairs, and rummaged in the chest where she kept spare pillows. There, at the bottom, was a photograph of Abigail in last year’s school play. Milly’s breath came fast, and her face flushed as she took the photo into the living room.

She hesitated a moment at the door, looking at the picture currently in pride of place at the centre of the mantelpiece. It was a professional portrait of Gideon standing very tall between Abigail and Milly. She slid it to one side, and set the battered frame holding Abigail’s picture in its place. It would have to be hidden away again before Gideon returned, of course.

Over her bread and cheese lunch, she pulled out a much-folded letter from the school, an invitation for Abigail to visit Italy in the summer. They planned to rehearse a play for performance in Milan. Milly looked again at how much it would cost.

“£750,” she murmured.

She had no idea how much Gideon earned, but she thought they could probably afford to send Abi. So why had Gideon been so much against the trip?

Milly had quaked when she had rung the school and made an appointment for a meeting with the Head of Drama. She had known Gideon wouldn’t be happy.

He hadn’t been.

“You stupid woman. Of course she can’t go. She’s far too young. That teacher probably wants to take advantage of her when she’s vulnerable, and we won’t be able to do anything to stop him.”

Greatly daring, she had ventured, “Is that really likely, dear?”

Gideon’s eyes had narrowed.

“I hope you’re not questioning my judgement, Milly. You know where that leads.”

He frowned.

“We’ll have to go, of course, now you’ve made the appointment. It would be discourteous if we didn’t. But you must tell him that we’re concerned that she’s too young, and we’ve decided that she would be better not going.”

“The Head of Drama’s a lady teacher, dear.”

Gideon raised his hand. Milly flinched.

“Just do as you’re told. And try not to get tongue-tied. I know you’re not the sharpest knife in the box, but there’s no need to show us both up.”

As Milly turned the school’s letter over and over, she thought carefully about what she would say. Gideon was right; she did stumble over her words; she got all worried and flustered, and somehow what she wanted to say just wouldn’t come out. She blushed as she remembered one occasion when all she’d been able to manage was “Er…er…er.” How scathing Gideon had been! This time, she had to be clear – for Abi’s sake if not for her own.

She was thinking about Abi and the meeting all afternoon, as she washed clothes, scrubbed floors and prepared dinner. She didn’t forget to remove Abi’s photo and hide it, but before returning it to its place in the chest she kissed it and hugged it to her bosom.

“Whatever’s best for you, my darling,” she whispered, “no matter what.”

The Head of Drama was tall. Her hair was dark and cut long, with a fringe. Mid-thirties, she looked somehow anachronistic, a hippy from the sixties perhaps.

“Good evening, Mr and Mrs Sharpe. I’m Cathy Thomson, the Head of Drama. I’m glad you were able to come in to talk about Abigail. She’s so very talented! I hope she’ll be able to come on the trip – it would be so good for her.” She looked from Gideon to Milly and back again.

Milly cleared her throat. “We, that is, I, um.” She slithered to a halt, clenched her fists, and tried again.

“Could you tell us a little more about the trip, please?”

Gideon looked at Milly with hard eyes.

Cathy was only too happy to share details of the trip; it was her initiative, and she felt that Abi would benefit enormously.

“What are you…are you doing…to make sure the children are safe?”

Gideon gave a tiny nod of approval. A few more minutes, and he could draw matters to a close. The teacher would know that Abi’s absence from the course was down to her parents’ natural concern for her welfare.

Cathy carefully explained the safeguarding procedures.

“Well, that sounds fine,” said Milly. Somehow the words came out clear and positive. “I think Abigail should go, don’t you dear?”

Gideon jerked in his seat, and glowered at Milly.

“Oh, I don’t know,” he began.

“It’s not as if we can’t afford it, after all. And the safeguarding sounds fine to me.”

“You’ve no idea what you’re talking about!”

Gideon turned to Cathy.

“I’m sorry. I’m afraid Milly has let herself be carried away. We won’t be allowing Abigail on the trip. That’s settled. I’m sorry.”

Cathy stared at him, and then turned to Milly.

“Is everything alright, Mrs Sharpe?”

“Yes, yes. F…fine.” Her lower lip trembled, but she held her head high.

There was silence in the car on the way home.

Later that night, when Abigail was sound asleep, Gideon thrashed Milly. Tight-lipped with fury he struck her over and over again. Desperately she fought to stay silent. This time she was in the right; Abi should go on the trip. She wasn’t going to cry out, or beg. She bit the pillow. Her fingers clawed at the bed covers.

“Don’t you ever disobey me like that again!” snarled Gideon, eventually. He slammed the door of the spare bedroom behind him.

Eventually, stifling a groan, Milly pushed herself up from the bed. She turned on the light on the bedside table, and looked at herself. Her clothes were bloody; they’d have to be soaked straight away or they’d stain. She stripped, took them into the en-suite bathroom and dumped them in cold water. She sponged herself with warm water. It stung.

Reaction had set in. She was shaking. She swallowed two paracetamol tablets and huddled under the duvet.

She woke early next morning, and crept down to the kitchen in her dressing gown. She made a cup of tea and took it up to Gideon.

“Don’t let Abigail see you like that,” was all he said. Her wounds stung as though with acid as he watched her dress.

She cooked him breakfast, and sat with him while he ate it, and then, by seven o’clock, he had left the house.

Milly sat at the kitchen table. She felt exhausted. The door creaked.

“Mum, can I have a cup of tea, please?”

Milly stood up. Her legs buckled, and she sat down with a bump.

“Are you alright, Mum?”

As Milly slumped back in the chair, Abigail ran over to her.

“Mum!”

Milly opened her eyes with difficulty. “I’m alright, love. Just a bit under the weather.”

“I’ll make us both that cup of tea shall I, Mum?”

Abigail put a mug of tea in front of Milly. It was the mug with a picture of a giraffe on it; her favourite. She smiled, and took a sip. A few more sips and she was starting to feel stronger.

Suddenly, Abigail said, “There’s dark red marks on your blouse, Mum. What are they?” Then she leaned forward and pulled up Milly’s sleeve. There was a gash and a long purple-black bruise right up her forearm. Abigail looked up at her mother, concern and horror mixed on her face.

Milly looked back, half defiant, half relieved.

“Your dad didn’t like what I said at the school last night.”

“What?”

“Your dad hit me last night.”

“No. He can’t have! I mean, he’s Dad, he doesn’t hit people.”

Milly pointed to the bruise on her arm.

“He did that, and more on my back.”

Abigail gazed in silence at Milly. Great tears welled up.

“That’s awful!”

Milly held her close and let her weep for several minutes. Then Abigail pulled away.

“What are we going to do, Mum?”

“What can we do, dearest? This is just how things are. It’s not like this most of the time.”

“Well, I don’t think we should stay here. He shouldn’t hurt you like that.”

They stared at each. Slowly resolution crystallised between them.

“I want you to go to the same school.”

“Mum, I don’t need to if we have to go far away so he…” Abigail stumbled over the words, but pressed on, “so he can’t find us.”

“We could go and stay with my brother for a few days.”

Abigail nodded.

“Good idea. And we’ll go to the police.”

“The police?”

“Yes. Look what he’s done to you. That must be against the law.”

“Well, I suppose so, but he’s your dad, Abigail.”

“He shouldn’t have hurt you like that. It’s alright, Mum, I’ll come with you and give you moral support.”

Milly looked at her left hand. She pulled off her rings and looked at Abigail. Abigail looked back. Tentatively, tremulously, they smiled at each other, the first smiles of their new life of freedom.

“I shall sell the engagement ring,” declared Milly.

 

 

 

 

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The meaning of life

Today’s story is an excerpt from the draft of my novel “Mrs Nightingale’s Song”, slightly edited to ensure that it makes a standalone short story. It’s about 2,000 words, and takes about 15 minutes to read. I would be very grateful for any comments! (PS please don’t think the novel is about religion, because it isn’t!)

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The Meaning of Life

The church was gothic, not unpleasing in silhouette, the tower thrusting heavenwards above the town. Immediately inside the gate a notice board proclaimed that this was the Parish Church of St Luke, Rector Reverend James Malton (Cantab.).

As she entered the churchyard, Liz Nightingale noted approvingly that the board gleamed with freshly renewed paint, that the grass was neat and properly edged, and that the path to the south door was free of moss and weeds. Her spirits rose further as she heard cheerful, if amateurish, music from inside the building. She didn’t recognize the melody – it was one of those new pop hymns with guitars – but the enthusiasm of the singers struck a chord in her.

The misgivings she had felt about coming to church receded. She wasn’t going to have to defend her stance as a non-believer (well, that had been her position since she was a teenager, hadn’t it?). She was here to discover whether the teachings of the church could shed any light on the mystery of her life and death (‘because I am going to die soon,’ she reminded herself, and that in turn reminded her that the mystery was not so much her imminent end as the astonishing fact that she was alive and suddenly, desperately, wanted to understand why). She pulled off her gloves decisively, put them into her shoulder bag, and walked through the porch into the back of the church.

The woman who greeted her was charmingly plump, and in her forties. Liz noted that she wore a warm smile, a neat knitted top with a plain skirt, and flip-flops on her feet, and was immediately disposed to like her.

“Good morning. Welcome to St Luke’s. I’m Sue. This is your first time here, I think?”

Liz smiled back. “It’s certainly a long time since I last came. The Reverend Overbeck was the Vicar. It must be, oh, fifteen years ago, I suppose.”

“We’ve changed quite a lot since then. I hope you like it?”

Mrs Nightingale looked approvingly down the nave. “It’s the chairs,” she said. “They’re so much better than those old, dark pews. It looks much lighter – and more friendly.”

Sue looked pleased. “I’ll introduce you to a friend of mine, so you’ve got someone to sit next to,” she said. And so Liz spent the service sitting next to Diane, Sue’s friend. Liz had taught Diane’s children it turned out, and she listened with interest to their progress. She was particularly pleased to hear that Matthew, whom she remembered as diligent but uninspired, was now leading a project team at CERN. Her congratulations and good wishes were heartfelt.

The Rector was a big man (a rugby player surmised Liz, correctly as it happened), and there was something quiet about him – not the furtive, faint shuffle of stealth, but a peaceful sense of being (like a great tree, she imagined). His speaking voice was beautiful. The church had a sound system, but he didn’t need it; his resonant baritone was clear in the furthest corners of the building. When he mounted the steps of the pulpit, Mrs Nightingale settled herself comfortably. ‘Even if the sermon is tosh, the sound of that voice will be a treat,’ she thought, and then admonished herself. How could she expect to make sense of the sermon, much less her life’s purpose, if she was just going to wallow in sensation?

And, in fact, the sermon was an excellent exposition of the parable of the Good Samaritan, each facet in turn being gently burnished and then illuminated for the congregation. The Pharisee was presented as a man whose sense of vocation to a high calling blinded him to the urgent needs of the world. The Levite was a man who couldn’t see the moral imperative to help an injured man because of the blinkers of human convention. “How understandable,” said the Rector, of both men. “How human. How forgivable. And yet, here they are, held up to us as a warning – almost an eternal ‘naming and shaming’. Our sins of omission have consequences not just for those around us, but for us too.”

He moved on to consider the innkeeper, the ‘forgotten character’ as he described him. “When he left, the Samaritan paid some money to the innkeeper, not just for the care already given to the injured man, but for care into the future. And with it, he gave a promise that if the bill came to more than he had left, he would settle it on his return. It’s clear that we are meant to understand that the innkeeper was prepared to accept this – an open-ended commitment to take care of the victim. And that says two things. Firstly, the innkeeper was trusting, he had faith, and because of that he was prepared to take on a task that he probably wouldn’t otherwise have tackled. And secondly, the Samaritan was trustworthy; his words, actions and demeanour had convinced the innkeeper that any debt would be honoured.

Well, as we all know, Jesus himself is the Good Samaritan; and I propose to you that we can all play the part of the innkeeper. By trusting in Jesus we are empowered to do good, that is to say, we can do something to heal the hurts of those around us. We don’t need to feel a vocation; that can even get in the way, as it did for the Pharisee. We don’t need book-learning and consecration like the Levite; again, that may sometimes be an obstacle. All we need is trust, and the willingness to care for those who come to us in our normal, everyday, humdrum lives.”

Mrs Nightingale looked narrowly at the Reverend James Malton MA (Cantab.). Did he find simplicity elusive, she wondered? Did he fear that his knowledge of theology made him less able to help others? Maybe not. It had been a simple message, simply delivered. But what did it say about her own efforts? Were they any less valid for her lack of faith, indeed, her active opposition to everything superstitious? Why was she now looking to religion for answers? Was she subconsciously hoping to be reassured of life after death? ‘Bunkum!’ she thought, but immediately the contradiction came that, whether or not organized religion was bunkum, the Christian tradition represented two thousand years of largely humane thought, and might reasonably be expected to shed some light on the mystery of life. “You’re just a woolly liberal, Liz,” she muttered to herself, as she rose to keep silence while the rest of the congregation recited the creed.

“I wonder whether I could come and ask your advice about something, Rector?” enquired Liz Nightingale, as she shook hands after the service.

“I’d be pleased to see you; although I’m not sure I’m qualified to give you advice about anything.” The little smile accompanying the words gave them a humorous emphasis, but Liz sensed that, actually, he was in earnest. She appreciated, too, that he had been tactful enough not to suggest a home visit, thereby patronising her as elderly. “Is it an urgent matter, or will it wait until Wednesday? – if that suits you, of course.”

Liz calculated quickly. The cycles of weakness that seemed to characterize her condition came about every ten days, and lasted for about two days, so her next bout was due on – let me see – Friday. “Thank you, Rector, that’s most kind of you.”

Concerned. “I could talk to you sooner, if that would help?”

“No, Wednesday will be fine. I appreciate your seeing me so quickly.”

“Shall we say two o’clock, then?”

Mrs Nightingale nodded firmly. “Two o’clock will be ideal. Thank you.” She made her escape quickly. Making the appointment to discuss her mortality had been a little like arranging to talk to Death himself. ‘I hope that I’ll be brave enough to examine everything that’s troubling me when Wednesday comes,’ she thought.

*       *       *       *       *

Just before two o’clock on Wednesday, Liz Nightingale hesitated on the Vicarage doorstep. She felt – frightened. Of course, as soon as she realized this she shook herself mentally. “This will never do!” she exclaimed, and rang the bell firmly.

She accepted coffee and a biscuit and made small talk as she gathered her courage. James Malton smiled, nodded, and sipped at his own drink, watching her gradually relax.

“Your grandson, Oliver, sounds great fun. He must be quite significant in your life?”

If fifty years of amateur dramatics had taught Liz anything, it was how to pick up a cue.

“Ah, yes, well, significance. How astute of you, Rector.” Liz was silent a moment. “You see,” she said, “I’m not a believer – quite the reverse – but I felt that two thousand years of Christian thinking probably had some profound things to say about the human condition. And I’m puzzled, Rector. You see, my doctor tells me I shall die quite soon. Now, I’m not puzzled that I’m going to die – that seems entirely natural. Everything wears out, so why should I be any different? No, what puzzles me is why I’m alive. It just seems so unlikely, somehow, that I can consciously appreciate my own existence. The world is such a beautiful place.”

The rector paused for a moment, and then asked, “I suppose, as you’re an avowed non-believer, that neither the beauty of the world nor the unlikelihood of your conscious existence, persuade you of the existence of a creator God?”

“I don’t see how a creator answers the question. If he exists, where did he come from? If the answer is just that he exists, then why shouldn’t the universe just exist?”

“I could suggest that He might explain consciousness in a way that the physical universe doesn’t appear to, but I don’t think you’d accept that. Besides, it wouldn’t be very honest of me, as I’m aware of work being done to explore possible physical causes of consciousness.”

The rector smiled at Mrs Nightingale. “You’ve asked a big question, but is it the right question? To put it bluntly, do you have the time to even begin to make a small contribution towards its solution?”

Liz stared rather blankly at him. He waited, silent, still, alive. Then she laughed. “I’m trying to duck the issue, aren’t I? I don’t want to lose the world. I don’t want extinction – but as I can’t avoid it, I’d like to find some sort of assurance that my life has had some sort of meaning.”

“Now that’s a question which does fall within my sphere of professional competence. I’ll tell you what my faith teaches me, and you can see whether you think it helps.

Our physical universe was created by an intelligence that we call God. Part of His plan in creating the universe was that self-contained, self-aware intelligences should come into being – and, theologically speaking, evolution is a perfectly respectable way for that to happen. These intelligences would share something of His nature, and, ultimately, be able to share in His joy in His creation. He communicated with them, teaching them as much as they could accept at the time, and eventually He caused a great mystery to happen. He, Himself, came to live with His created beings in the form of the man whom we call Jesus Christ.”

Liz, listened in silence, struggling to keep an open mind – but it’s hard to quieten the scepticism of more than sixty years.

The rector continued quietly. “Jesus showed us that it is possible to lead a joyful and fulfilled life no matter what obstacles we face. He participated fully in every aspect of human life, including birth and death.”

Mrs Nightingale couldn’t resist the opportunity. “And sex?” she queried.

The rector laughed out loud with delight. “The bible is silent on that point. Church tradition inclines to celibacy but, you know, that would have been very unusual for a rabbi in first century Judea. Anyway, the bible makes it plain that He knew what human love was like by telling us about His close friendships with people, both men and women.

But I need to come to the point. The key fact of the life of Jesus was that it showed that God wants His creation to be perfected by the actions of his created beings as they follow the example of Jesus.

So our lives have a meaning in that we can align ourselves with the Creator’s purpose.”

“You put it very clearly, rector. Thank you. Unfortunately, the significance hangs on the premise of the omnipotent creator.”

“It does.”

The rector waited for Mrs Nightingale to express even the slightest interest in discovering the truth of his faith. She sat there, thinking, then “What a pity,” she said.

The Reverend James Malton (Cantab.) hid his disappointment as he said farewell to Liz Nightingale; and then wondered whether he was right to have done so.

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 …

 

 

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.

 

The Bridefarer’s Choice – Part 7

Here is Part 7 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

I will publish successive episodes every Monday.

The Bridefarer's Choice - Part 7 180115

I very much hope you enjoy it!

The Bridefarer’s Choice – Part 7

Freya and I had barely reached the plain before we were apprehended by a troop of Lord Conor’s men. They bound my wrists behind my back, and made me ride all day without reins. My legs burned with the fatigue of controlling Mavra like that.

I hadn’t realised that Lord Conor would maintain a guard on such a little-used pass through the mountains. I glanced across at Freya. She rode serenely, ignoring our escort. At least they were treating her with courtesy.

“Here we are – the High Hall of Conor. Down you get!” I nearly fell as I dismounted.

The soldiers manhandled me beneath the portcullis, across the pebbled yard and through the strong stone entrance to the Hall. The mighty oak door thumped shut behind me, trapping me in a place of shadows.  Even in my exhaustion I realised that the building had been newly strengthened and fortified.

Onward they urged me, past flaring torches, until we stood in the Great Hall, in the presence of Lord Conor.

“Here’s the man, my Lord, and this is the shield he was carrying,” grunted one of my captors.

Lord Conor eyed it.

“A Danish weapon.”

“As was the blade he was carrying, my Lord.”

“This man is not a Dane.”

I dropped my eyes before Lord Conor’s stare.

“Bearing arms in my territory without my approval is forbidden. Bearing arms carrying a foreign device compounds your crime. The penalty is death. Do you have anything to say?”

I raised my eyes to his.

“My Lord, I crave pardon for a crime committed unwittingly. May I say too, that both shield and sword were packed on my beast, with the device concealed? I have no wish to offend, my Lord; I am a liegeman of Lord Robert, your ally.”

“Is he telling truth, Roderick?”

“Aye, my Lord. The shield was packed as he said.”

Lord Conor’s gaze seemed to pierce me.

“How did you come by the shield?”

“My Lord, I was journeying from Fasthaven through the mountains with my bride. The folk of Fasthaven provided me with the weapons lest we meet with Danes on the road.”

“And did you meet any?”

“Yes, my Lord.” I hesitated. How much to tell? Lord Conor’s expression became grim. “My Lord. We met two Danes, warriors. I killed them.”

Lord Conor’s eyes opened very wide. He climbed down from his high seat and walked around me, looking intently at me. The top of his head just reached my shoulder.

“You’re no warrior, lad. You killed two Danes? I think not.”

The men around us sniggered.

“Do you think you could best me, lad?”

“My Lord, you are the ally of my liege lord. I would not raise blade against you.”

“Cut his bonds. Set him free.”

Roderick cut the thongs binding my wrists. My hands felt dead.

“Give him the blade and the shield.”

Roderick fetched both. I fumbled them with my numb hands. The soldiers loosened their blades.

“No!” Lord Conor’s voice was harsh and full of authority. “If he bests me in fair fight, release him and let him go where he will with his bride.”

I looked him in the face. He had a faint smile.

“My Lord. I will not lift blade against you.”

“Then you will die.”

He raised his sword high.

The blade was long and dark in the shadows. The steel looked very sharp. I looked at his eyes and read death there. I forced myself to keep looking. I saw him tense, saw the minute flicker of the muscles that presages a blow. That would have been the instant to raise my shield to parry. Instead, I remained perfectly still.

The heavy blade sang as it passed my ear, ripped the elbow of my jerkin, nicked the skin of my ankle.

“Ha! You’re no Dane. You’re loyal. Stupid, but loyal. Roderick – we’ll take care of him and set him on his way.”

“Very good, my Lord.”

I was shaking, but pulled myself to my full height.

“Thank you for your gentle courtesy, my Lord. Insofar as I may under my own liege lord, I pledge my sword and my life to your service.”

The warriors around me smirked, but Lord Conor looked grave.

“Insofar as I may without breaching my alliance with the Lord Robert, I accept your sword and your life. You are a brave man, Diarmid MacDiarmid, and I have need of such.”

I started. How did Lord Conor know my name?

“Lord Robert, that matter we were discussing earlier; I think we have the man for the job?”

A tall, pale-faced man, whose demeanour would have fitted more a scholar or a monk, emerged from the shadows. I had only seen him once before, but I recognised him immediately. I bowed my head, sank to one knee and proffered the hilts of my sword.

“My Lord!”

He accepted the weapon.

I remained kneeling. He touched me with the flat of the blade, first on my right shoulder, then on my left, then on my right again.

“Arise, Thane Diarmid.”

I stood, and he smiled at me, without warmth or humour.

“You will need this honour if you are to accomplish what we need.”

“Come,” said Lord Conor. “We will eat and plan. Thane Diarmid, you will join us at table.”

 

The Bridefarer’s Choice – Part 6

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

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

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 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.

“Kill you?”

“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.

“Again?”

“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.

Freya shrugged.

“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.”