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.

 

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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.”

The Bridefarer’s Choice – Part 5

Here is Part 5 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

I will publish successive episodes every Monday.

I very much hope you enjoy it!

 The Bridefarer - Part 1 171127

The Bridefarer’s Choice – Part 5

The sky became gradually lighter at the horizon, and I guessed that I was close to the sea. A longing surged through me for the sound of the swell breaking on the shore. Until my bridefaring, the song of the sea had been my constant companion. It had whispered while my mother nursed me; it had stirred my soul as I learned my trade as a boy; it had screamed and shrilled in my ears as my father and I struggled to wrest a living from the ocean. Not a day, not an hour had passed when I hadn’t been within earshot of its music.

Perhaps Mavra could already hear it, for her ears pricked up. She needed no urging to trot briskly up the hill.

It was the time of evening when the sun, low in the sky, gives a light that burnishes everything it touches. The tiny flowers at the cliff-top glowed scarlet and golden against the vibrant green of the grass. The silver studs of Mavra’s harness were transformed into amber jewels. And yet I barely had eyes for this richness as I gazed on the tranquil ocean, feeling its peaceful strength cleanse my heart from the striving of my bridefaring.

As the little waves gurgled against the shingle, my thoughts turned to home. I wished with all my heart to be back there. I wished to be only a short walk from my mother’s table, and my own comfortable bed. I wished Mairin were beside me.

She was a beautiful woman, no denying it. I recalled the look on her face last summer on her nineteenth birthday, when I had kissed her, once, twice, and then many times. Why did I want more than that? What riches could a queen offer that would be more satisfying than taking Mairin to my bed? I was going home.

“Well, girl, back to Red Bay,” I said to Mavra. She whinnied in approval and moved to turn round.

But what was that on the beach? I had been staring so intently at the sea that I hadn’t noticed the figure until it started to move towards the water.

The sun, low in the sky, dazzled me, but it seemed to me that the figure moved gracefully. The thought came that it might be a selkie, a maiden of the sea, carrying her seal skin down to the waves. I shuddered; such creatures bore an ill fate for those who met them.

As the figure moved out of the direct line of the sun, my fears were allayed. It seemed more likely to be somebody in strange attire that covered the hair and most of the body. What were they doing, wading out to sea? I feared that whoever it was would drown in the deep water. Swiftly, I tethered Mavra to a tree, and ran down the cliff path. By the time I reached the shore, the person was waist deep.

Even as I threw off my cloak, I saw that the figure was swimming, kicking its legs, and undulating its body in the water. I sat down on a rock and watched in fascination. Hardly anybody in the six villages could swim – I certainly couldn’t – and I was intrigued at how fast this stranger could move through the waves.

Back and forth he went, now nearer the shore, now further away. Then, when the sun’s disc just touched the horizon, he let the waves carry him towards the shingle. I stood up and walked towards him.

The person gasped, and clasped their arms across their chest. Why, it was a young woman! I approached slowly. She raised a hand.

“Go!”

I halted.

“I mean you no harm. I come in courtesy.”

She looked at me, and raised her arms as though to push me away, although I was at least twenty feet from her.

Water was running from the strange, enveloping garment that she wore, which hid her hair but not her face. She was fair and stern, and she used her eyes like swords.

“Go!” she repeated.

“I leave you with goodwill.”

I turned, donned my cloak, and returned to Mavra without looking back.

I no longer thought of home, or Mairin, but only of my quest.

I walked Mavra up the next hill; the light was fading and the way was rough. At the summit, the path went between cairns, just as Cieran had described, and we emerged above the village.

Village! It was a sizeable town, with stone walls and stout wooden gates. It well deserved its name; Fasthaven. Torches in sconces burned on either side of the gates, which were shut.

I dismounted some fifty yards short of the gate, and led Mavra forward. To my surprise, the gates opened as I approached. I halted at the threshold. There seemed to be no-one there.

“I come in peace,” I ventured.

“Then you are welcome.”

A man of medium height emerged from behind one of the gates. His hand rested on the pommel of his sword. He looked to be a fighter through and through.

He gazed up at me.

“Welcome, Diarmid MacDiarmid. I am Donal. You are to come with me to Oldest Caitrin. Malcolm here will take care of your fine mare.”

Another tough-looking man came silently from behind me. He took Mavra’s bridle, and walked off with her without a word. I looked at her receding back with regret; my sword was in her pack.

The doors were closed and barred behind me.

“Come,” beckoned Donal, lifting a torch from the wall of the gatehouse.

I followed him down the main street. The street and the houses seemed in good repair although the guttering torch showed little.

We turned left. It was even darker, the houses close together squeezing out the light of the moon. At the end of the road was the stone wall of the town, and pressed against it was a cottage. Donal rapped at the door.

The sudden light as the door opened dazzled me, and I blinked.

“Well met, Diarmid MacDiarmid. Enter, be seated and be welcome.”

“Reverence, Oldest One. I come in courtesy and peace.”

“Leave us now, Donal.”

Her voice was sharp.

“Yes, Oldest.”

The fire blazed. The room, set with lamps, was almost as bright as day. Oldest Caitrin led me to a chair by the fire.

“So…” she said, and looked me over, from feet to head.

She wasn’t, in fact, particularly old, possibly forty-five, no older than fifty.

She met my eyes with hers. They were the colour of treacle. I couldn’t look away. I became more and more uncomfortable, as she probed with her gaze. I could hear her voice, questioning. I could hear my own voice answering. The fire beside me seemed to swell and shrink, swell and shrink, rhythmically. I thought of the ocean, I thought of my family, I thought of Mairin.

It was as if I had slept. I forced open heavy eyelids. The fire had died down, leaving glowing embers. Oldest Caitrin was placing new logs on them, neatly, systematically. I mumbled an apology, but she waved it away.

“It is I who should perhaps apologise to you, for questioning you,” she said, “but I needed to be sure you were who you appeared to be. Our enemy is both cunning and treacherous.”

Not without apprehension, I looked her directly in the eyes once again. She smiled faintly but whether with amusement, or encouragement I could not tell. She gestured to a door at the back of the room.

“Diarmid MacDiarmid, behold your bride.”

As I gazed, the door slowly opened. There was the whisper of silk brushing skin. I rose from my seat and she entered the room.

She was beautiful. Her hair was red-gold like the setting sun in October; her eyes were blue-grey like the ocean after a storm; and she used them like swords.

 

The Bridefarer’s Choice – Part 4

Here is Episode 4 of my fantasy serial, “The Bridefarer’s Choice”.

If you missed any of the previous episodes, you can find them here

The Bridefarer’s Choice – Part 1

The Bridefarer’s Choice – Part 2

The Bridefarer’s Choice – Part 3

 

The story is proving longer than I expected. I will publish successive episodes every Monday (except for next Monday, of course, which is Christmas Day).

I very much hope you enjoy it!

The bridefarer's choice - part 3

The Bridefarer’s Choice – Part 4

I wondered who was tolling the church bell, and who had died.

I wondered who was sitting so heavily on my chest, until I could hardly breathe.

I wondered why I felt so cold, so icy cold, as cold as death, and yet my right arm burned as though in fire.

I forced open my eyes to the sight of mud. I was lying in it. The tolling of the bell became quieter as I realised that it was my pounding head. There was nobody sitting on me, but my ribs ached all round.

Carefully – very carefully – I raised myself so that I was propped on my left arm. The pain made my eyes water.

Wait! What’s this?

There was a note tucked into my belt. Slowly I edged around until I could lean against the wall, freeing my left hand to hold the note. My right hand was useless; just too painful to move.

“Dear Bumpkin,

In a fight, a good man with a quarterstaff will beat a master swordsman every day of the year. There is no charge for this lesson.

However, you know what to do. I suggest you’re quick about it.”

With the note to remind me…

I cringed with embarrassment. I hadn’t come anywhere near him, and he had toyed with me. He hadn’t even bothered to disarm me, simply used the staff to – hell, yes, there’s no other word for it – he’d used the staff to chastise me. And when he grew bored, he lured me into a rush and clipped me behind the ear as I lunged. No wonder my head was throbbing!

My pride suggested I shouldn’t allow the beating to drive me out of Merrydown. Groaning, I forced myself to stand. ‘Which is worse,’ I asked myself. ‘Limp out of town in humiliation, leading my horse because it’s too painful to ride, or stay here and take another beating with perhaps an even worse ending.’ Put like that, it wasn’t a hard choice to make.

I didn’t cover many miles that day, or the next, but the pain in my right arm was gradually easing. When I came across an inn on the second evening, I started to hope that my luck had changed.

It was pleasant to eat hot food after a diet of bread and cold meats. A glass of wine eased the discomfort of my bruises. There were a few sidelong looks from men at the bar, and I wondered whether word had reached them of my business.

A small, wiry man with grey hair approached my table, and asked if he might join me.

“Be my guest.”

“Perhaps you will instead be my guest? I hope so anyway. Let me buy you another beaker of wine.” He gestured to the serving man at the bar, who brought two beakers.

“Sláinte mhaith”

“Sláinte agad-sa”

The wine was good, much better than I’d received with my meal. What would this stranger want in exchange?

“You go bridefaring I hear?”

“What is that to you?”

“Ho! I rush in too quickly. My wife always says so. My name is Cieran.”

“And mine is Diarmid.” I took the hand that he extended and shook it, trying not to let him see how painful the action was. “Yes, I’m bridefaring. I ask you again; what is that to you?”

“Let me tell you a story,” countered Cieran. “There was once a man, a poor man, who came into possession of a magnificent jewel, worth ten thousand times the value of the whole village in which he lived. A lucky man, yes?”

“Most certainly.”

Cieran nodded approval of my answer.

“That was what he thought too. He hid it somewhere very secret and very safe. He told nobody, not even his wife. He was a patient man, and for several years he gloated over his great good fortune but did nothing.

Then, one day, a nobleman came to the village with a dozen soldiers. He asked questions, many questions. With a shrinking heart, the peasant realised that the nobleman was trying to find the jewel. He thought, ‘I shall take it to the town and sell it.’ And then he thought, ‘But which town? Who will buy such a gem? How could I spend the money, even if I could sell the stone?’ He shuddered with terror, hid the jewel even more secretly, and cursed his evil fortune.

The nobleman toured all the villages, and, not finding the jewel, came back to the village where the peasant lived. He took five elders of the village, and announced “Tomorrow I shall flog these curs until they are half dead, unless whoever holds the jewel brings it to me before midnight tonight.”

The peasant dug up the box holding the jewel, opened it, and gazed at it for a long time. It was so beautiful. He wanted it more than anything in the world. But it wasn’t worth the torture of his friends. At last, he wrapped it in a kerchief and took it to the nobleman.

The nobleman took it, examined it and declared himself satisfied. He gave orders for the release of the elders. Then he drew his sword, and lopped off the peasant’s head, as casually as a young boy knocking conkers from a tree.”

I looked at him, trying to understand what he was telling me.

“Some more wine?” he asked.

I held out my beaker and he filled it.

“You see,” he said, “in our village we have the priceless jewel, and already the nobleman is searching.

Ten years ago, in the dead of night, a woman all clad in silk and velvet came to the Oldest in our village. She brought her daughter, nine years old, a beautiful child with hair the colour of the morning sun, and eyes that changed like the northern sea. The daughter of the King of Denmark, she told us, who had been driven out of his kingdom by his brother. She begged that we would look after the girl, keep her safe and keep her hidden.

For ten years, Freya – for that is her name – has been cared for by our Oldest as though she were her own flesh and blood. She has guarded her, and taught her the virtue of purity. But now the young men are watching her, courting her.”

He shook his head.

“A Danish thane and his warriors came to our village two weeks ago, asking questions. We kept Freya hidden, for the thane owed fealty to the old king’s brother; he meant nothing good to Freya, we felt certain.”

He looked at me, with a wry smile. “You begin to see my problem, I hope?”

Indeed I did. If Freya married within the village, either she would draw the Danes like hawks to a lure, or she would have to take her husband into exile with her.

“You come from over the mountains,” said Cieran. “That is far from our village, far from the danger of the Danes. You could safely take her home and make her your wife.”

“If she’ll have me,” I laughed. “I’ve not been lucky in love so far.”

Even as I said the words, I thought of Mairin. Had I really not been lucky, or had I made a poor choice when I passed by her dwelling on my bridefaring?

“Oh, she’ll have you. Our Oldest has the Sight, and she told me where to meet you, what you looked like and what your name is. She says that Freya will go with you out of love and bear your child.”

A rage of ambition boiled up within me. A king’s daughter, beautiful, more beautiful than I could imagine! Why, if I could offer my sword to her father, who knows what I could win?

“Where is your village, Cieran?” I demanded.

*       *       *       *