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The Swordswoman

The Swordswoman

Book excerpt

Prelude

Silhouetted by the setting sun, the sennachie lifted both arms toward the sky and addressed the gathering.

Long ago when I was younger, and most of you were not yet born, there was a need for great warriors in the world. Warfare burned the land of Alba from south to north and west to east; blood soured the rivers, and broken bones salted the fields. Flames from burning townships glimmered on every horizon while the soot of smoke caught in the throats of those men and women who survived the slaughter.

He looked over his audience, allowing the tension to grow, although he knew that they had heard this story a hundred times before.

It was the dearth of grace with all the sweetness of nature buried in terror's black grave and the wind singing a sad lament for the departed joys of life and hope.

The land screamed for peace.

After years of horror, when crows feasted on the corpses that lay unburied in the glens, kings and lords gathered to seek solace from the constant devastation. There were weeks and months of talk, while the piles of dead rose as high as the length of a spear from end to end of the land, until eventually the kings came to a decision.

Marriage would terminate the fighting between the Northmen and the people of Alba. The daughter of the King of Alba would marry the son of the Queen of the Norse, and the firstborn would rule both lands in perpetual peace. The warriors of the North and those of Alba would lay down their arms and take up the plough and fishing net instead. And the people of both realms agreed through mutual exhaustion. The kings and lords disbanded their forces and burned their battleships. Rather than immense armies fighting on land and fleets of dragon ships ravaging coasts and islands, the people became peace-loving. Olaf, prince of the Norse and Ellen, the princess of Alba met and married and, as is the way with nature, the princess became with child. As people grew used to the strange ways of peace, the princess blossomed and bloomed, and when her time was due, the royals and nobility gathered.

Midwives and wise women were summoned from Alba and the Northlands to attend the birth; lords and councillors met at in the royal palace in the shadow of the great white mountains of the North, and the nations held their breath to await their new ruler.

'It's a boy,' came the news and then: 'No, it's a girl.'

And then: 'It is both a boy and a girl: we have twins!'

And such was the confusion that not even the wisest of the wise women or the most experienced of the midwives could tell which of the two babies was the firstborn. They argued and debated and threw the bones to decide, until nature intervened and sent an eclipse that spread darkness across the world. When it cleared, the problem was solved, for the girl-child lay dead in her cot and the boy-child squalled in health and vitality.

There were some who said that the Daoine Sidhe, the People of Peace, the fairy-folk whose name should only be mentioned in a whisper, if at all, had spirited the real princess away. The people said the Daoine Sidhe had substituted a changeling in her place, but there are always some who blame the People of Peace for everything they wish had not happened.

With no rivals, the prince sat secure on his throne and spread peace around his twin kingdoms of Northland and Alba. He became the High King with Chiefs and Lords beneath him and since he took the throne, there has been no blood spilt in Alba or the Northlands.

The Sennachie lowered his hands exactly as the sun sunk beneath the horizon. Only the surge and suck of surf sweeping the shingle shore of the island known as Dachaigh spoiled the silence.

Sitting at the front of the audience, between her mother and old Oengus, Melcorka listened with her mouth open and her eyes wide.

The Sennachie allowed the peace of the night to settle upon them before he continued.

We must remember our past and respect those who guard the peace we all enjoy. Without that union, a red war would ravage the two kingdoms, dragon ships would reive the coasts, and we would taste blood in the sough of the breeze.

He lowered his hand, his face old and wise in the reflected light from the ochre-tinted horizon. A rising wind dragged darkness from the east as an owl called to its mate, the sound echoing eerily in the darkening bowl of night. The audience rose to return to their comforting hearths beside warm peat-fire-flames. They did not see the sennachie turn to the west or the salt tears that wept from his eyes. They did not hear his muttered words: God save Alba from the times that are to come. And if they had seen, they would not have understood, for they had not known the curse of war.

Chapter One

There had always been the ocean. It surrounded her, stretching as far as the hazed horizon in three directions: north, west and south. To the east, on a clear day, she could see a faint blue line that Mother had told her was another place called the Mainland of Alba. Someday, she promised herself, she would go to that other land and see what was there. Someday: but not today. Today was an ordinary day, a day for milking the cow, tending the hens and scouring the shore to see what gifts the sea had brought. She looked again, seeing the rough grassland and patches of heather dotted with the lichen-stained rocks that lay scattered all over Dachaigh, her home island.

High above, the blue abyss of the sky was cool with the promise of coming spring, fresh as the ever-mobile sea, decorated with frisky clouds blown by the ever-present breeze.

Melcorka mounted a grassy knoll and her gaze, as so often before, wandered to the east. Over there, on that side of the island, was the Forbidden Cave. It had been a temptation ever since Mother had banned her from even going close, and she had ventured there on three occasions. Each time, her mother had caught her before she got to the entrance.

'Some day,' she promised herself, 'someday I will see what is inside the cave and find out why it is forbidden.' But not today; today, other more urgent matters demanded her attention.

Lifting her skirt, Melcorka ran across the belt of sweet Machar grass that bordered the beach. There was usually some treasure to pick up: a strangely shaped shell or a length of driftwood that was invaluable on this nearly treeless island, or perhaps a strange fruit with a husky skin. As usual, she ran fast, enjoying the sensation of the wind in her hair and the shifting crunch of the shingle beneath her bare feet when she reached the beach. A shower of cool rain washed her face, seabirds swooped and screamed overhead, and the long sea-breakers exploded in a rhythmic frenzy around her. Life was good; life was as it had always been and always would be.

Melcorka stopped and frowned: that mound was new. It was on the high tide mark, with waves breaking silver around the oval lump of dark-green seaweed. It was no seal, no strayed animal of any sort; it was long and dark, with a drag mark where something had hauled itself out of the sea and up to the edge of the shingle. Now it lay there unmoving on her beach. For a second, Melcorka hesitated; she knew, somehow, that whatever this was, it would change her life. Then she stepped forward, slowly, lifted a stone to use as a weapon and approached the mound.

'Hello?' Melcorka heard the nervousness in her voice. She tried again. 'Hello?' A gust of wind whipped her words away. She took one step forward and then another. The mound was longer than her, the length of a fully grown man. She bent toward it and dragged away one of the trailing strands of seaweed. There was more underneath, and then more again. Melcorka worked on, uncoiling the seaweed until what lay beneath was visible.

It's only a man, Melcorka thought, as she stepped back. It's a naked man, lying on his face. She had a second look to ascertain if the man was fully naked, looked again out of interest's sake and came cautiously closer. 'Are you still alive?'

When the man did not answer, Melcorka reached down and shook his shoulder. There was no response, so she tried again with more force. 'You crawled from the sea, naked man, so you were alive when you arrived here.'

A sudden thought struck her, and she checked his feet and hands. They were all equipped with fingers and toes. 'So you're not a merman,' she told the silent body, 'so what are you? Who are you?' She ran her eyes over him. 'You're well-made, whoever you are, and scarred.' She noticed the long, healed wound that ran across the side of his ribs. 'Mother will know what to do with you.'

Lifting her skirt above her knees, Melcorka ran back home across the shingle and Machar, glancing over her shoulder to ensure that her discovery had not risen and run away. She ran through the open door. Her mother, Bearnas, was busy at the table.

'Mother! There's a man on the beach. He might be dead, but he may be alive. Come and see him.' She widened her eyes and lowered her voice. 'He's naked, Mother. He's all naked.'

Bearnas looked up from the cheese she had been making. 'Take me,' she said, touching the broken pewter cross that swung on its leather thong around her neck. Although her voice was soft as always, there was no disguising the disquiet in her eyes.

A couple of small crabs scuttled sideways as Bearnas approached the body. She looked down and pursed her lips at his scar. 'Help me take him to the house,' she said.

'He's all naked,' Melcorka pointed out. 'All of him.'

Her mother gave a small smile. 'So are you, under your clothes,' she reminded her daughter. 'The sight of a naked man will not hurt you. Now, take one of his arms.'

'He's heavy,' Melcorka said.

'We'll manage,' Bearnas told her. 'Now, lift!'

Melcorka glanced down at the man as they lifted him, felt the colour rush to her face and quickly looked away. The man's trailing feet left a drag-mark in the sand and rattled the shingle as they hauled him home. 'Who do you think he is, Mother?' she asked, when at last they lurched across the cottage threshold.

'He is a man,' Bearnas said, 'and a warrior by the look of him.' She glanced down at his body. 'He is well-muscled, but not muscle-bound like a stone mason or a farmer. He is lean and smooth and supple.' When she looked again, Melcorka thought she saw a gleam of interest in her eyes. 'That scar is too straight to be an accident. That is a sword slash, sure as death.'

'How do you know that, Mother? Have you seen a sword slash before?' Melcorka helped her mother place the warrior onto her bed. He lay there, face-up, unconscious, salt-stained and with sand embedded in various parts of his body. 'He's quite handsome, I suppose.' Melcorka could not control the direction of her gaze. What she saw was less embarrassing this time, and just as interesting.

'Do you think him handsome, Melcorka?' There was a smile in her mother's eyes. 'Well, just you keep your mind on other things. Have you no chores to do?'

'Yes, Mother.' Melcorka did not leave the room.

'Be off with you then,' Bearnas said.

'But I want to watch and see who he is…' Melcorka's protest ended abruptly as her mother swung a well- practised hand. 'I'm going, Mother, I'm going!'

It was two days before the castaway awoke. Two days during which Melcorka checked on him every hour and most of the population of the island just chanced to be passing and casually enquired about the naked man Melcorka had found. For those two days, Melcorka's household was the talk of Dachaigh. After the man had awakened, Melcorka's household became the centrepiece of the community.

'We've seen nothing like this since the old days,' Granny Rowan told Melcorka, as she perched on the three-legged stool beside the fire. 'Not since the days when your mother was a young woman, not much older than you are now.'

'What happened then?' Melcorka folded her skirt and balanced on the edge of the wooden bench that was already occupied by two men. 'Mother never tells me anything about the old days.'

'Best wait and ask her then.' Granny Rowan nodded her head, so her grey hair bounced. 'It's not my place to tell you anything that your mother doesn't want to share.' She lowered her voice. 'I heard you found him first.'

'Yes, Granny Rowan,' Melcorka agreed in a hushed whisper.

Granny Rowan glanced over to Bearnas. Her wink highlighted the wrinkles that Melcorka thought looked like the rings of a newly cut tree. 'What did you think? A naked man all to yourself… What did you do? Where did you look? What did you see?' Her cackle followed Melcorka as she fled to the other room in the house, where a crowd was gathered around the stranger, all discussing his provenance.

'Definitely a warrior.' Oengus waggled his grey beard. 'Look at the muscles on him, all toned to perfection.' He poked at the man's stomach with a stubby finger.

'I was looking at them,' Aele, his wife said with a smile and a sidelong look at Fino, her friend. They exchanged glances and laughed together at some secret memory.

Adeon, the potter, grinned and sipped at his horn of mead. 'Look at me, if you wish,' he said and posed to show his sagging physique at its unimpressive best.

'Maybe twenty years ago.' Fino laughed again. 'Or thirty!'

'More like forty,' Aele said, and everybody laughed.

Melcorka was first to hear the groan. 'Listen,' she said, but adults who are talking do not heed the words of a girl of twenty. The man moaned again. 'Listen!' Melcorka spoke louder than before. 'He's waking up!' She took hold of Bearnas' arm. 'Mother!'

The castaway groaned again and jerked upright in the bed. He looked around at the assembled, staring people. 'Where am I?' he asked. 'Where is this place?' His voice was hoarse.

As every adult began to babble an answer, Bearnas clapped her hands. 'Silence!' she commanded. 'This is my house, and I alone will speak!'

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