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.
I will publish successive episodes every Monday.
I very much hope you enjoy it!
The Bridefarer’s Choice – Part 8
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.”
“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.”
“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?”
“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.
“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’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.
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.” 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.