by Lucy Bignall
The skies are turning to a grumbling darkness again, the birds fleeing in shrieking, honking, chattering flocks, away across the seas to other worlds where they will be born anew. Many times, I have wondered wonder whether they will meet with my Lord as he makes his journey, whether they will travel the same paths as he.
The last time the birds fled, before they returned to clamour and squabble along the cliff tops, filling the sky and the heather with their cries and their wings; that was when he started out on his journey.
The ice and snow and darkness of the winter have fallen on us since, then the unfurling of the flowers amongst the grass and the springing of the blossom on the trees, the warmth and glitter of sunshine on the waves and the blooming of the purple heather, the bursting of the berries: all these things have come and gone, without the sight of his eyes.
What horizons does he look upon now? Is he, perhaps, still travelling across the Great Sea, his ship swept on by the waves, drawn over the depths, where roiling sea serpents and ravenous monsters coil and glide and spurt, up towards the light? Or has he arrived, safe on distant shores and, is, even now, feasting at tables of bounteous plenty?
When the soft breezes of summer were here, bringing with them all the scents of warm grass and rich earth, and the sea and the hills were plentiful with meat – then I felt my heart beat with hope. I knew that he must have found land. We all did. The faces of the old people softened and their eyes warmed. The men joked more and drank less, the women sang at their work and were kinder to their children. The children themselves laughed and ran and played freely once more, and all eyes were turned to the horizon, not just once a day, but whenever the wind blew the clouds towards us.
I myself was able to turn my eyes away from the hills of the West then, I was able to walk around the walls of our city, out into the fields, down to the rocks and the beaches at the water's edge, without my heart turning to those hills, or to the memories that bring a thick ache to my stomach.
But now that the sky piles with thick clouds and the wind is sharp and strong and salty, full of the scents of the sea and the green forests of the rocks and the foul smell of the seals who roll and wallow and grunt at each other in the waves below – now those memories come sharp again and with them a dragging ache.
When I gaze into the fire at night, I see again the flames of the torches, flickering against the dark walls of fresh, earthen tunnels. I see the gleam of torchlight on the sweaty backs of men, heaving and pushing the ship along its rollers. I smell again the scent of fresh carved wood, I see the curl and sweep of the carvings in the hull, the shine of the goods heaped into the prow. Arrows, sharp pointed and deadly, swords – my Lord's sword, the one he kept by his side at all times – and then more, for what is to come, all made by Kerin Blacksmith, who has magic in his fingers. (I saw his eyes linger on the handle of my Lord's Serpent Sword, on the spiralling tracings of gold and silver, on the keen edge of the blade, as it ran strong and true. I saw his eyes linger with longing, saw him reach out a broad finger and run it down the blade, one last time, before sealing it, with a sigh, in its scabbard and placing it with the others and I knew that his heart ached at the thought that he would not see it again.) Jewellery too, we sent with my Lord – necklaces and bracelets of copper, the bracelet which he had given to me on the day of our binding, in the shape of the Goddess and the wind and the stars, the necklace my mother gave me when she died, a simple cord with a stone that came from deep within the earth. Weavings as well – blankets, rugs, dresses – some woven from the wool of our own sheep, dyed and worked with ceremony and sweat, others which came from other lands and Kings, gifts of respect or supplication. Then the furs, skins of seals and stags, wolf and fox pelts, layered over and over. And all the pots and jars of honey and oil, herbs, dried meat. All these things to protect him, to help him on his journey and to use as gifts, as supplication to the Great Lords, in his turn.
When the wind howls around the stones of my house and the flames of the fire writhe and twist and streak up the chimney, my eyes will not close and I think back, remember all those treasures. Were they not enough? Have they not kept him safe from the perils of the journey and from the anger of the Great Lords?
He told me – he told all of us – that he would send messengers and soon. That he would make a surety of our kingdom here, that he would not leave us unprotected. And yet we have heard nothing from him, we have seen no messengers, no assurances in the waves or the sky or from the earth, and even the eyes of Jarra, sitting in his cave below the edge of the cliff, are turning grey and anxious over his bones and his smoke.
For we have heard other whispers on the air, and from the mouths of traders who come past in their small ships; from a man, a small, dark man, with the marks of strange gods inked into his skin, who came riding to us with the last of his strength and collapsed, giving up his soul at our feet, as soon as the whispers had left his mouth.
They are dark, cold whispers of Red Men who come racing across the sea with the glitter of murder and lust and greed in their eyes. Whispers of whole villages devoured by flame, animals stolen, crops burnt or pillaged, of men with their throats slit, women taken as prisoner or stamped with their evil seed.
When the night is black, I sit in my bed and watch the fire, though the memories torture and taunt me. In the dawning, I find myself drawn outside to walk, to walk and walk along the cliffs, down to the wet sands and black rocks. Sometimes I walk inland, along the paths through heather, though the scent of the blooms, still half-purple in the fading of the summer, fills my stomach with queasiness, bringing back other memories which I must forget above all others – the heaping of heather in the boat, heather we burnt, heather which was fresh, but which could not hold back that sweet, terrible odour.
This morning I found myself walking towards the Western Hills. I tried to turn away, but my feet would take me, against my will. They took me right up to the rocky door of the tunnel, with its heapings of rocks and stones that will forever block the entrance and I stood and stared at those rocks and I could not breathe. I looked at my hands, so small and weak and wondered what I would find, if I were to start to dig through all those rocks and stones. If I were to pull them all away, forge my way through, would I find that the tunnel was still there, cold and damp in the dark? And if I were to walk along, through the tunnel, following the path we took, all those long days ago, right into the depths of the icy hillside, would I come to his chamber? What would I find within? Would I find that the ship in which my Lord lay, with all his treasures, all his comforts, all the gifts for the Great Ones, has gone, subsumed by the earth, taken by spirits of the Underworld to the Land that Awaits? Or would the ship and the treasures, the weapons and jewellery, Kerin's swords, my binding bracelet, the necklace from my mother, the pots – would they all remain, just as we left them, that dark, flame filled, grief stricken, hopeful night?
I stared at the jumbled rocks and I saw through them, my eyes made the journey through the tunnel and I saw the ship and the treasures, lying in the chamber, all cloaked with dust and cobwebs, the furs nibbled by moths and moles. I saw my Lord, his clothes worn and eaten too, the bones, yellow and crumbling, thrusting through the ragged flesh, I saw his eyes staring into the darkness, sightless now and burrowed through by worms.
I did not even know that I was scrabbling at the rocks, pulling at them, heaving at them, digging with hands and feet and teeth, until the blood started to run in scarlet streaks down my arms and then I could not see for the tears that ran from my eyes and the sobs that racked my ribs like hammers. I knew that I was too weak, that my arms and fingers, legs and feet, were useless in the fight against stone and mud and the deep power of the earth.
I turned and walked away towards the cliff tops.
So now I stand and stare at the grey thundering of arrowed waves below, whilst my cloak and hair are whipped and shredded by a wind that is full of ice and hatred.
For there is a ship, out past the bay, of a shape that is not familiar to me. I know that it is one of the ships of the Red Men and that it will be here before nightfall.
And I know that My Lord's messengers will not come now, there will be no such surety for us all, for he has truly left us.
He has left us alone.
Lucy Bignall grew up in Africa, Saudi Arabia and Australia and has now settled in a hairy cottage in Buckinghamshire, where she works as a violinist and writer. She has had short stories published in several magazines, including Litro Online and Writer's Forum, and is seeking representation for two novels. @
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