The Shining One
Lifting his caman high in the air and with his long auburn hair gleaming in the sun, Lachlan the Red led the Mackintosh charge, yelling the slogan of his clan. The Camerons met the Mackintoshes at the rush, shouting as they advanced. The two sides met in the centre of the field, with caman clashing on caman and body smashing against body in their pursuit of victory. Lachlan dodged a massive swipe from a freckle-faced Cameron, lifted the ball in the crook of his caman and launched it forward.
Queen Maelona of Alba led the cheers as the Mackintoshes advanced in a wide formation, with one tall forester trapping the ball and hurling it toward the goal. The Cameron goal-keeper made a valiant attempt to catch it, but the ball bounced off his elbow and in between the posts.
All around the field, the Mackintosh supporters and the neutrals cheered, while those people who followed Clan Cameron looked sullen, or took hold of the hilts of their dirks and growled revenge for this insult to their superior sporting skill.
'This could get interesting,' Melcorka said cheerfully.
Leaning against his staff, Bradan nodded. 'These big games often end up in a free-for-all.'
'That goal makes it a draw!' Queen Maelona judged the temper of her subjects. 'It's time to stop the game before somebody gets seriously hurt.'
Melcorka looked at the field, where three men lay on the ground nursing injuries of various degrees while most of the remaining players were bruised and bleeding. 'I've never seen this sport before. What's it called?'
'This is shinty,' Bradan told her quietly. 'It is a game as ancient as time.'
'It's very violent,' Melcorka said.
Maelona laughed. 'That is good, coming from you!' She touched the great sword that Melcorka wore strapped across her back. 'You are one of the greatest warriors in Alba.'
'I am not as violent as this game,' Melcorka said, as the Camerons launched an offensive that saw three Mackintoshes knocked to the ground and others sent staggering back. Now, it was the Cameron section of the crowd that was gesticulating, roaring encouragement to their chosen players, while those who supported the Mackintoshes were waving fists and sticks in return.
'Here we go,' Bradan said, as some of the crowd came onto the pitch to support the Mackintoshes, and their rivals spilt on to help the Camerons.
Maelona shook her head. 'Men take their sports far too seriously.' Still smiling, she stood up and strolled onto the pitch with her hands above her head.
'I'd better go with her,' Melcorka said.
'No.' Bradan touched her arm. 'She is the queen. Nobody will hurt her.'
Melcorka watched as the crowd parted before Maelona, until she reached the centre of the pitch. The hubbub eased as men realised that their queen stood among them. They stepped back respectfully to give her more room.
'That was an exciting game.' Maelona's clear voice carried over the hush. 'Both sides proved their skill and a draw is a fair result. Well done to everybody and now we are no longer opposing teams. We are all shinty players or shinty supporters, gathered in the one field in friendly companionship.'
Now that the initial excitement had passed, the people were calming down, with Maelona's words helping to assuage any remaining animosity.
'Maelona has the people's respect,' Melcorka said.
'She is the queen.' Bradan looked around him, smiling. Melcorka expected his sigh and the words that followed. 'All the same, Melcorka, I have had enough of all this hospitality and luxury.'
'You wish to be on the road again,' Melcorka said. 'I do, as well.'
'Well met, woman with a sword.' Melcorka did not know the broad-shouldered man who stopped in front of them. He carried a long claymore across his back, with the hilt decorated with interwoven Celtic designs.
'Well met, man-with-a-sword,' she replied coolly. 'I am Melcorka of the Cenel Bearnas, who some call the Swordswoman.' She waited for the man to introduce himself.
'Your name and fame are known, Melcorka the Swordswoman. I am MacEachern of Islay, swordmaker to MacDonald of the Isles.'
'Your name is also known, MacEachern.' Melcorka waited for MacEachern to speak next. As the hereditary swordmaker to the Lord of the Isles, MacEachern was a man of importance and entitled to respect for his position.
'You do not dress like a warrior,' MacEachern said, 'or look like the woman who killed a thousand Norsemen.'
'I have not killed a thousand Norsemen,' Melcorka said. 'I have not even killed a hundred,' she looked down at the striped arisaid she wore, 'and I am dressed appropriately to my surroundings in this beautiful and peaceful royal town.'
'I have heard of your sword,' MacEachern said. 'May I hold it?'
Melcorka nodded. 'You may, MacEachern.' Flicking it from the scabbard, she held it out, hilt foremost. MacEachern accepted the sword with reverence and examined it with an expression that altered from critical to awe. 'It is a blade beyond compare,' he said. 'This was not made by the hand of any craftsman I have known.'
Melcorka thought back to the moment when Ceridwen of the People of Peace described how her sword, Defender, was made.
Derwen made this sword,' Ceridwen had said. 'It came from long ago, long back, and Derwen made it for Caractacus, who was betrayed by a woman. It was the blade of Calgacus, the swordsman who faced the iron legions of the south in the long ago days of heroes.' She ran her hand the length of the scabbard, without touching the steel of the blade. 'It was the sword of Arthur, who faced the Saxon and now it is the sword of Melcorka.
'In Derwen's forge,' Ceridwen had said, 'it was a sword well made with rich red ore, with Derwen tramping on bellows of ox-hide to blow the charcoal hot as hell ever is. The ore sank down, down through the charcoal to the lowest depth of the furnace, to form a shapeless mass the weight of a well-grown child.
'Derwen carried the metal to the anvil and chose the best of the best to reheat and form into a bar. He had the bar blessed by the druids of his time, and by the holy man who came from the East, a young fugitive from Judea who fled the wrath of the Romans.
'Derwen cut his choice of steel into short lengths, laid them end on end in water blessed by the holy one and the chief druid of Caractacus, and drew them long and long before welding them together with the skill that only Derwen had. These operations working together equalised the temper of the steel, making it hard throughout, and sufficiently pliable to bend in half and spring together. Derwen tested and retested the blade, then hardened and sharpened it with his own touch and his own magic. At the end, in the final forging, Derwen sprinkled his own white powder of the dust of diamonds and rubies into the red-hot steel, to keep it free of rust and protect the edge.'
'The People of Peace were involved in the making of it,' Melcorka said to MacEachern.
MacEachern started and nearly dropped the blade. 'The People of Peace? The Daoine Sidhe?' He said the name with reverence. 'The fairy folk? Take it back, Melcorka, and may the grace of God protect you.'
Melcorka smiled as she slid her sword back into its scabbard. 'I call her Defender,' she said and frowned when she realised that MacEachern had already hurried away.
'MacEachern has gone,' Bradan told her. 'Mention of the People of Peace has that effect on even the bravest man.'
'Does it have that effect on you?' Melcorka asked.'
'The People of Peace terrify me,' Bradan admitted frankly.
'Yet you did not run when we met them,' Melcorka said. 'You are a man of courage.' She looked down at herself again. 'I don't suit these clothes, do I, Bradan?'
Bradan smiled. 'You suit whatever you wear, Melcorka, including that arisaid.'
'It feels constricting – as if I am on display.' Melcorka touched the fine material she wore. More used to a simple linen leine and her long-hooded travelling cloak, the white plaid of the arisaid with its thin black and blue stripes felt too ornate. The leather belt, complete with great inlaid silver buckle, had been a gift from Maelona, as had the intricately designed silver brooch that secured the arisaid in place. As Melcorka looked at herself in some dismay, the sun reflected from the golden cairngorm in the centre of her brooch.
'I do not feel comfortable in this dress,' she said and touched the hilt of her sword. 'Not while I have unfinished business.'
Bradan sighed as he looked around the ground. 'You have no unfinished business, Melcorka. You have done more than any woman or any man to free this land from war. Embrace peace now and be content.'
With bunting decorating the red stonework of Inverness Castle, wooded hills around and the fast-flowing River Ness only a hundred paces away, this was a place of beauty. 'The queen has chosen a good place to site her royal dun.'
'Maelona has a fine eye for position,' Melcorka agreed, knowing that Bradan sought to change the subject of her conversation. 'Inverness is at a crossroads here, with Glen Mhor leading south-west and the coastal plain stretching to Fidach in the east and then beyond, all the way south to Dunedin. It is a fine starting-point for my journey when I complete the circle and finish this thing.' She glanced over at him as they sat on the grassy banking beneath the dun. 'Will you be coming with me?'
The crowd were singing now, with Maelona's voice soaring above the rest. Camerons and Mackintoshes were arm-in-arm in comradeship, all rivalry forgotten as they discussed the finer points of the late match.
'I will be coming with you,' Bradan said. 'Somebody has to look after you, after all!'
'You don't approve, do you?' Melcorka sighed. 'I don't like it when we disagree, yet I have to do this thing.'
'You do not have to do this thing,' Bradan said quietly. 'Your mother advised you not to, as did Ceridwen of the People of Peace.'
'I know that,' Melcorka said.
'Defender, your sword, will not avail you if you pursue this matter,' Bradan said. 'And without Defender, you are only an island girl. Brave, tough and agile, but without any magic.'
'I know that as well,' Melcorka agreed.
'And yet you still wish to continue?' Bradan tapped the end of his staff on the ground. 'You could be killed.'
'I also know that,' Melcorka said. She looked around, appreciating anew the beauty of this peaceful place, where men and women lived in harmony, contests of shinty were more important than war, and there was neither killing, nor hatred, nor fear. If King Arthur's Camelot had ever existed, it would have been like this.
'So why pursue a thing that is wrong?' Bradan asked.
'Egil killed my mother,' Melcorka said simply.
'I know that,' Bradan said. 'And you wish to kill Egil in revenge. I shall ask you a question or three, Melcorka, and you will reply honestly.'
'I am always honest,' Melcorka said.
'That is true,' Bradan agreed. 'Then tell me, will killing Egil bring your mother back to life?'
'It will not,' Melcorka said.
'Will killing Egil make your mother any happier?'
'She is happy enough in the Isle of Avalon,' Melcorka said. 'Or perhaps in Heaven, whichever is better.'
'Just one more question. After that, if you make up your mind to pursue Egil, I will come with you, and carry your head for you after Egil removes it from your body, and what a waste of a beautiful head and body that will be!'
Melcorka smiled at the less-than-subtle compliment. 'Ask your question, Bradan the Wanderer.'
'Before you leave this place of peace and seek death, will you come with me to speak to Fitheach and seek her knowledge?' Bradan's eyes were level as he held Melcorka's gaze.
'If you tell me who Fitheach is, I will consider doing so,' Melcorka replied.
'Fitheach is a seer and a witch,' Bradan said. 'The name means Raven, as you know, and she may tell you if you will kill Egil, or if he will kill you.'
'It could be useful to know when I die,' Melcorka said. 'I'll come with you to meet this Fitheach, and then we shall discuss what we will do.'
'That is a good plan,' Bradan said, standing up. 'She is waiting for us.'
'How does she know?' Melcorka asked.
'She is a seer,' Bradan said and smiled. 'Also, I told her to expect us.'
Melcorka laughed. 'That would help! Take me to your all-seeing seer, Bradan, and let's see what she sees for us.'
'It is a short walk,'
Bradan led them around the heavily-wooded hill of Tom-na-hurich, inside which the People of Peace were said to live, and to the banks of the River Ness. Even although it was midsummer, the water was high as the Ness surged along the grassy banks, foaming as it washed against half a dozen small, green-treed islets in mid-stream.
'They say there is a water horse in this river, or some kind of dragon,' Bradan said. 'I have never seen it.' He glanced over his shoulder at Tom-na-hurich. 'I'd prefer to meet a hundred water horses than a single creature from that place.'
'The People of Peace are not all bad.' Melcorka touched his shoulder. 'Ceridwen is of their number, as you know, and she cared for Maelona, the queen and helped us when we fought the Norse.'
'I do know that,' Bradan agreed, 'but I still think it best to keep clear of such creatures.' He closed his mouth and said no more on the subject.
The nearest of the Ness islands was close to the shore, yet too far to jump and the water too deep to ford. Instead, there was a double length of rope along which they pulled themselves. In the middle of the passage, this precarious bridge dipped beneath the surface of the water, soaking them both.
'I hope this seer is worth it.' Melcorka stepped onto the island and shook the excess water from her clothes.
'Oh, she is,' Bradan assured her.