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 …

 

 

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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.”

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.

*       *       *       *

 

The Bridefarer’s Choice – Part 3

Here is Episode 3 of my fantasy serial, “The Bridefarer’s Choice”.

If you missed Episode 1, you can find it here https://pennygadd51.wordpress.com/2017/11/27/the-bridefarers-choice-part-1/.

Likewise, Episode 2 is here https://pennygadd51.wordpress.com/2017/12/04/the-bridefarers-choice-part-2/

I think the story will take another two episodes to complete. 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 3

Skylarks were trilling in a cloudless pale-blue sky. It seemed a favourable omen.

Mavra, my horse, stepped out proudly, his black coat gleaming. I gloated over his harness, black leather with silver studs, knowing that the other villagers envied my wealth. I filled my lungs with the bright air, scented in equal measure by the sea and by the machair, and exulted in my strength.

My father held my bridle.

“Good fortune on your bridefaring, son.”

“Thank you, father. I shall try to make my family proud.”

A shadow fell on his face.

“If I may advise you, my son,” his voice trailed away, but then he straightened his back and looked me in the eye. “Do not be led astray by false hopes of grandeur. Mairin is a fine woman, plenty good enough for the pride of our family.”

“It is I who am bridefaring, not you, father.”

He released the harness with a sigh.

I rode steadily for two days, sometimes walking, sometimes trotting, and once – I confess it – galloping a half-mile for simple delight. I left the six villages and headed to the mountains, to Peak Town. I’d been there a few times with my father – we sold some of our catch to Michael the fishmonger.

I knew him well enough to call him friend, and we passed a merry evening in the Jack o’ Lantern Inn. On hearing I was searching for a bride, he chuckled and said “You should journey on to Merrydown. There’s a lass lives there, Scanallan, ripe for wooing. And you’re a bold chap. Red hair she has, and a big…”

“Keep it clean!” yelled someone.

“A big dowry, I was going to say” continued Michael, grinning.

“And her family?” I enquired.

“Well, that’s a thing. People say she’s a Lord’s bastard; can’t account for the size of the dowry any other way. You’ll find her serving in the Checkers Inn. And now I must be off, or Gerda will give me a black eye!”

It took me five days to cross the mountains and reach Merrydown, days that were as harsh and exhausting as any I’ve spent at sea. I was mighty relieved to reach the Checkers Inn.

But they had no room. Despite my fatigue, I had to tramp the streets, leading Mavra before I found a household that let out a room. It was not clean and it cost double what seemed fair, but it was dry and, if not warm, it was less cold than being outdoors.

The Checkers was lively, with tasty food and large portions. I could see how the inn got its name; there were half a dozen checkerboards, each one occupied. There was a constant bustle around the bar, young chaps mostly, laughing and joking with each other, and when I had finished dining I joined them.

A tall man, only a few inches shorter than me, approached me in friendly fashion.

“So, I’m Brendan,” he said. “Who are you, and what brings you to our town?”

The others fell silent, and looked at me.

“My name is Diarmid Macdiarmid. I’m bridefaring, and I heard your town is famous for the beauty of its women.”

“Bridefaring? And what might that be?”

It had never occurred to me that people wouldn’t have heard of the custom. As I explained, I could see smirks on the faces of some of the men.

“Bumpkin!” The word came from the back of the group. It was quiet, but perfectly audible. My hand sought my sword hilt, but I made no move to draw the blade.

“You have checkers. Would you care for a game?” I addressed the man who had spoken.

“Do you play checkers out in the peat marshes then?”

He sat down at a board and gestured to the seat opposite. All his friends were grinning; I guessed he was their champion.

“You go first,” he said.

As the game progressed he frowned. I won.

“Not bad – for a bumpkin.” He set up the board again, played the first move himself. He won.

“Best of three.” It wasn’t a question. He gestured that I should start. Six moves in, he made a beginner’s mistake. I hesitated and saw the sudden realisation on his face.

“Play it again,” I suggested.

He went white, his lips narrowed to bloodless lines and his dark eyes blazed.

“Don’t you dare patronise me,” he hissed.

Brendan laid his hand on the man’s shoulder.

“Easy now, Iain, easy.”

The serving woman came over quickly.

“Iain, that’s the wine talking. You’ve had enough. Time to go. Brendan?”

Brendan nodded assent, then turned to me.

“Best you make friends with some of the townsfolk before you try stealing one of our women.” He offered me his hand, and I shook it.

As the party left, I looked at the serving woman. She was indeed handsome. Now that I was paying attention I could see her hair was copper under her headscarf. She looked at me with green eyes.

“Do they allow you time away from here for relaxation?” I asked.

“Relaxation with a boy?” she mocked. “That’s the wine talking again for sure. I think you’d better go home, child.”

I thought of home that night, as I lay sleepless in the cold bed. Mairin would be a fine wife. But what if she turned me down? She’d been very upset and angry when I’d told her I was seeking a noble bride.

A noble bride! I snorted with derision at the thought. I couldn’t even persuade a serving wench to spend an evening with me. That said, if she were the daughter of a king, as the Oldest had read in my fate…I dozed, dreaming of red-gold hair and red-gold wealth.

I left the house in the morning, planning to meet some of the town’s traders. A skinny young man stopped propping up the wall of the house next door. He started whistling. I heard footsteps from behind, and from the side streets as we crossed. I glanced round. There was a group of half a dozen men. Two of them had been in the inn the previous night. I loosened my blade.

Iain stepped out from a porch, in his hand a quarterstaff that he pointed at me.

“Why do you bar my way? I intend naught but courtesy towards you.”

“If that is so, return to the hovel where you’re staying, settle your account, and leave town this morning.”

“I have business in the town.”

All the time we were speaking the other members of the group were moving to completely encircle me. Each held a quarterstaff.

“I ask you – in courtesy – to leave our town. Do you demur?” His voice was the silken purr of the wildcat; his eyes were madder than the rolling, bloodshot glare of a horse galloped to exhaustion.

“I ask you, in courtesy, to move out of my way so I may continue with my business.” I half-drew my sword.

Iain nodded.

The blow from my right caught me on the elbow. Gritting my teeth against the pain that shot up my arm, I pulled my blade fully from the scabbard and adopted a crouch position. A staff cracked across my buttocks. I hadn’t been struck like that since I was twelve! They were playing with me!

I let out a roar of rage and sprang at Iain, my sword seeking his heart. He parried expertly, easily, with his staff.

“We are in every way your betters, bumpkin. Down on your knees and do homage!”

“Like hell!”

The memory of the Oldest’s prophecy ‘You need not fear blade or fire or hemp; but beware of water, beware of the sea,’ heartened me.

“What do you say, bumpkin? Your sword against my staff?”

I nodded. If that was what he wanted. I’d aim to wound, not kill. My breath came short.

The other men stepped back a pace, still enclosing us but leaving enough room for our combat. Iain smiled, mockingly.

I raised my blade and took guard.