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.
I very much hope you enjoy it!
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.
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.
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.
“Yes, I’ll support Taras.”
“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.
“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.
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 …