…if anyone can understand, it will be you; I have always respected your intellect. I had so much to offer here. I could have achieved great things, and in time all would have thanked me for it. Yes, even the Wolfskin. That he has been the one to wrench the possibility from my grasp is bitter indeed…
Excerpt from letter
The day Thorvald’s mother gave him the letter, everything changed. Creidhe was weaving, hands busy on the loom, shuttle flying, a fine web of blue and crimson unfolding before her in perfect pattern, testimony to the skills Aunt Margaret had taught her. So industrious was she, and so quiet, that it seemed she had been forgotten. The bestowal of such a perilous gift as that letter was surely best suited to a moment of complete privacy. Aunt Margaret spoke to her son quietly, in the long room before the hearth. Creidhe could see them through the doorway from the weaving chamber. They did not argue. Voices were seldom raised in this most orderly of households. But Creidhe heard the front door slam open, and she saw Thorvald go down the three steps in a single stride, then vanish across the yard and out over the spring fields as if hunted by demons. She saw the bloodless, driven look on his face. And although she did not know it at the time, that was the moment Thorvald’s life, and her own, took a twist and a turn and set off on an entirely different path.
Creidhe knew Thorvald better than anyone. They had been childhood playmates, and they were fast friends. Thorvald had few friends; the fingers of one hand would be more than enough to count them. There were perhaps only two to whom he ever spoke freely, and whom he allowed close: herself, and Sam, the fisherman on whose boat Thorvald sometimes helped. As for Creidhe, she understood Thorvald well: his black moods, his lengthy silences, his sudden, brilliant schemes and his rare times of openness. She loved him, for all his faults. In her mind there was no doubt that one day they would marry. He wasn’t a real cousin, just as Margaret wasn’t a real aunt. The tie was one of old friendship, not kinship. If Thorvald hadn’t seen yet that he and Creidhe were destined to be together forever, he’d realize some time. It was just a matter of waiting.
The shuttle slowed to a stop. Creidhe stood gazing out the doorway across a landscape dotted with sheep, new lambs at foot. From Aunt Margaret’s house you could see all the way to the western ocean, where stark cliffs marked the margin of land and sea. Far off now, there was the small, dark figure of Thorvald, running, running away. Creidhe had seen a terrible change in his eyes.
Creidhe jumped. Margaret had come up beside her without a sound.
“N-no, but maybe I should go home. Father’s due back from Sandy Island, and I should be helping—” Creidhe fell silent. Aunt Margaret had tears in her eyes. Such a phenomenon was astounding. Her aunt was a model of propriety and restraint. She never lost control.
This household, run by Margaret’s long-time retainer, Ash, but ordered by Margaret herself, operated to a strict routine, with little allowance for errors. This approach was reflected in Margaret’s own appearance. She was a handsome woman of around six-and-thirty, her hair a rich auburn, plaited neatly and pinned up under a snowy lace cap. Her linen gown was ironed into immaculate pleats, her woolen overdress fastened with twin brooches of patterned silver polished to a moon-bright shine. She bore the accouterments of a good housewife: knife, scissors and keys hanging from a chain. Margaret was capable. Some found her intimidating. She had never remarried after her husband died in the very first year of Norse settlement here in the Light Isles, before Thorvald was born. Creidhe did not find her aunt frightening; there was a bond between them. Creidhe might not be skilled in the arts of a priestess, as her sister Eanna was. She might not be beautiful in the style of the island girls, slender, dark and graceful. But she had other abilities. Young as she was, Creidhe had the best hands for midwifery in Hrossey, and had advanced quickly from assisting the island expert to taking a full share of responsibility. The women valued Creidhe’s deft touch and cool head; these made her youth irrelevant. The same clever hands gave her a talent for spinning, weaving and embroidery. Margaret valued that talent, and over the years she had taken pleasure in fostering this buxom, fair-haired niece’s skills.
If Thorvald never comes round to marrying me, Creidhe told herself sourly, some other man surely will, just so he can say his wife’s the best weaver in Hrossey.
It wasn’t as if nobody was interested. Creidhe was never short of partners for dancing. Sam had made her a whalebone comb with sea creatures carved on it. Egil had composed a poem for her and recited it, blushing. Brude had kissed her behind the cowshed when nobody was looking. The problem was, she didn’t want sweet-natured Sam or scholarly Egil or handsome Brude with his merry blue eyes. She only wanted Thorvald. Thorvald had eyes dark as night and smooth auburn hair like his mother’s. Creidhe loved his cleverness, his wit, the way he could always surprise her. She loved his moments of kindness, rare as they were. She wished, sometimes, that he were a little less aloof; she’d heard other girls call him arrogant, and she didn’t like that. He did keep himself to himself; she was lucky to be one of those he considered a friend. Creidhe sighed. Thorvald was taking a long time to realize she could be more than just a friend to him. At sixteen she was a woman, and ready to be married; more than ready, she thought sometimes. If Thorvald didn’t wake up to himself soon, her father would start suggesting likely husbands for her, and what could she say then? As her mother’s daughter, she must wed and bear children. It could not be long before Eyvind began to apply subtle pressure.
“Oh! Sorry.” She’d been daydreaming again. “Are you all right, Aunt Margaret?”
“Well enough.” The words belied the red eyes, the tight mouth. “Go on then, if Nessa’s expecting you home. This can wait for tomorrow. The design’s coming out well, Creidhe. You’re quite an artist.”
Creidhe blushed. “Thank you, Aunt.” She paused. “Aunt Margaret—”
Margaret raised a hand. It was a gesture that said plainly, no questions. Whatever it was that had sent Thorvald out of the house like a man pursued by dark dreams, it was not going to be shared just yet.
“Creidhe,” said Margaret as her niece hovered in the doorway, small bundle of belongings in hand, “don’t go after Thorvald. Not today. Believe me, he’s best left alone awhile.”
“If he wants to tell you, he’ll tell you in his own time. Now off home with you. Your father’s been away a long while. I expect he’d enjoy some of his daughter’s fine cooking, perhaps your roasted mutton and garlic, or the baked cod with leek sauce. Off with you now.”
The tone was light, kept carefully so, Creidhe thought. It was her aunt’s eyes that gave her away. Thorvald’s had held the same shadow.
Sometimes Creidhe did as she was told, and sometimes she didn’t. Thorvald was sitting on the ground, his back to a low stone dike overlooking the western sea. He had his head in his hands, his face concealed. His sleek red hair had escaped its neat ribbon, and the wind whipped the strands like dark fire in the air around his head. He was very still. Behind him in the walled field, sheep bleated and lambs answered. Above in the sky, birds fluted songs of spring. Creidhe climbed over the wall and sat down by his side, saying not a word. She had become quite good at this kind of thing.
“Go away, Creidhe!” Thorvald growled after a while. He did not open his eyes.
There was a little boat out in the swell, coming in from fishing. The wind was picking up; the scrap of sail carried the vessel forward on a fast, rocking course southward, perhaps to Hafnarvagr, or some point closer. Creidhe raised a hand in greeting, but they did not see her.
“I mean it, Creidhe,” snapped Thorvald. “Go home. Go back to your embroidery.”
She took a deep breath and let it out, counting up to ten. It was useful to have wise women in the family; one might not learn the mysteries, for those were secret, but one did at least pick up techniques for staying calm.
“What is it?” she asked him quietly. “What did she give you?”
“I don’t want to talk about it. Not to you, not to anyone.”
“All right,” Creidhe said after a moment. “I understand. When you do want to, I’ll be here to listen.”
Thorvald balled his hands into tight fists. His eyes were open now, staring out to the west. It seemed to Creidhe that what he saw were not cliffs, gulls, clouds, a wind-stirred ocean, but something quite different and much farther away.
Time passed. Father would be home soon; the remark about roast mutton had been true. Such simple pleasures had the power to bring a smile to Eyvind’s lips and a light to his eyes that warmed his whole family. It was not so much the good food that did it, as his daughter’s thoughtfulness and skill. Creidhe rose to her feet, picking up her bundle.
It was a dark whisper. She stood frozen in place a moment, then sat down again without a sound.
“A letter,” Thorvald said. “From my father. She kept it all these years. She never even told me.”
Creidhe was at odds to understand the bitterness in his tone. His father had died before he was born, and that was indeed sad, though surely sadder for Margaret than for this son who had never known the father he had lost. From what folk said, Margaret’s husband Ulf had been a fine, noble chieftain who had led the first Norse expedition here to the Light Isles. He was a father to be proud of. A letter was good, wasn’t it? It seemed not inappropriate that Margaret had saved it until her son was a man.
“From Ulf?” Creidhe asked gently. “I suppose that is distressing; it reminds you of what you might have had. It is a sorrow he was not here to watch you grow up.”
“I didn’t say it was from my mother’s husband, the worthy Ulf Gunnarsson.” Thorvald’s voice was sharp-edged. “I said it was from my father. The man she tells me was my real father, that is. Here, if you’re so interested. Why not find out all about it, since it seems half the island knows already?”
He drew the little roll of parchment from the breast of his tunic and thrust it into her hand. Creidhe was mute. What could he mean? She untied the cord that bound the letter and uncurled it to reveal row on row of neat, black script. It was old, the edges worn, the characters smudged here and there as if by drops of water. There was a pale line all across the outside where the cord had fastened it, as if the small scroll had lain long untouched.
“You know I can’t read, Thorvald. What is all this about?”
“I’ll tell you what it’s all about. It means I’m nobody. Worse than nobody, I’m the son of some evil madman, a crazed killer. Forget Ulf; forget a conception in the respectability of marriage, and the sad demise of my father before I saw the light of day. Ulf was not my father. She kept that from me all these years. And they knew: your father, Nessa, Grim, everyone who came here in those first days. Even that stick of a serving man, Ash, knew the truth and kept quiet about it. A conspiracy of silence.” His voice was shaking; he stared fixedly at the ground by his feet. “How could my own mother be so cruel?”
Creidhe was lost for words. She wanted to put an arm around him for comfort, as she would do if this were one of her sisters. But she did not; Thorvald would shake her off the instant she touched him. This news was indeed terrible, if true. What if such a thing had happened to her? Her own father was the center of her world, the warmth at the core of the family. Indeed, sometimes it seemed Eyvind was father to the whole community, guardian and loving protector to them all. To hear your father was not your father would be like the snatching away of everything safe. It would be like sundering the heart from the body. There seemed no way to comfort him.
“You’re very quiet,” Thorvald said suddenly, turning his head to glare at her. “No ready words of advice? No quick solutions to my problems?” His eyes narrowed; his mouth went tight. “But perhaps you knew this already. Perhaps I am indeed the last to be told the truth about my own heritage. Did you know, Creidhe?” His tone was savage; Creidhe shrank back before it.
“Of course not! How could you think—?”
Thorvald’s shoulders sagged. His anger was turned inward again. “That’s just it. I don’t know what to think anymore.”
“Who—who was he?” Creidhe ventured. “Was this letter written to you? Where is he?”
“Ask your father. He knows the answers.”
“Ask Eyvind. He was the one who exiled my father from this shore, so that he never knew he had a son. The letter was to my mother. It says nothing of me. It attempts to explain to her why her lover killed her husband. It tries to justify his murder of his own brother. You see the delightful heritage my lady mother has chosen to make me aware of now I’m deemed to have reached years of maturity?” Thorvald picked up a stone and hurled it out beyond the cliff edge. A cloud of gulls rose, screaming protest. His face was sheet-white, the eyes dark hollows.
“What was his name?” Creidhe asked, playing for time as her mind searched frantically for the right thing to say. In such a situation, there probably was no right thing.
“Somerled.” He threw another stone.
“Why don’t they speak of such a man? They must all have known him.”
“Why don’t you ask them, if you're so interested?”
She breathed slowly. “Thorvald?”
“Aunt Margaret was wise not to tell you this before. You’re grown up now. Couldn’t you see this, not as a reversal but a challenge?”
His brows rose in scorn. “What can you mean, Creidhe?”
“You could find out about Somerled. As you said, there must be plenty of people in the islands who knew him back then. Maybe he wasn’t as bad as you think. Everyone’s got some good in them.”
“And what comes after that?” Thorvald snapped. “I jump in a boat and go off looking for him, I suppose?”
The words hung between them as the silence stretched out, giving them a weight Thorvald had not intended. Blue eyes met black; there was recognition in both that this crazy idea was, in a way, entirely logical.
Thorvald rolled the letter up and knotted the cord around it. He put it away and leaned back against the wall, arms hugging his knees, eyes firmly closed. She waited again. At length, not opening his eyes, he said, “I know you’re trying to help, Creidhe. But I really do want to be by myself.” There was a pause. “Please,” he added.
It was not possible to bestow a gesture of affection, a quick hug, a handclasp, although Creidhe longed to touch him. “Farewell, Thorvald,” she said, and made her way home under darkening skies.
* * *
She couldn’t ask them straightaway. This was not a topic that could be broached amidst the general joy and chaos of her father’s return, with dogs and children jumping about making noise, with Nessa failing to hold back her tears, and Eyvind himself doing his best to hug everyone at once while burdened with axe, sword and large pack of belongings. He was not a man who asked others to fetch and carry for him, not even now he bore such authority in the islands. When he had married Nessa, he had allied himself to the last royal princess of the Folk. This had conferred a status above that of ordinary men, and Eyvind had built on it by dedicating himself to the establishment of a lasting peace between the two races that had once been bitter enemies—the Norse invaders and the Folk who had inhabited the islands since ancient times. It was due more to Eyvind than anyone that the two now lived so amicably side by side, and indeed together. It was almost possible to forget that it had all begun in blood and terror. As for Nessa herself, she had never lost the respect due to her as both priestess and leader of her tribe, a rallying point in times of terrible trial. Now Eanna was priestess, Nessa no longer enacted the mysteries nor withdrew to the places of ritual. She had her husband, her four healthy daughters, her household and her community, and played a part in councils and negotiations, as befitted her special status. For all that, there was a sorrow in it. Eanna had been the first child for Eyvind and Nessa. The next had been a son, and the sea had taken Kinart before he’d seen five years in the world. After him there were only girls: Creidhe herself, then Brona and Ingigerd. That was not as it should have been; not as the ancestors foretold it.
Despite their near-royal status in the islands, Creidhe’s family dwelt in a compound that was more farm than palace, a sprawling set of low stone buildings surrounded by walled infields, somewhat east of the tidal island known as the Whaleback. The Whaleback had once been the center of power in the Light Isles. Nessa had lived there; her uncle had been a great king. When the Norsemen first sailed out of the east, Margaret and Nessa and Eyvind had been not much older than Creidhe was now. That voyage of discovery across the sea from Rogaland to the sheltered waterways of the Light Isles had begun as a search for a life of peace and prosperity. It had turned, in the space of one bloody year, into a bitter, destructive conflict that had come to an end only after most of Nessa’s folk had been cruelly slain. It was Eyvind and Nessa, Norse warrior and priestess of the Folk, who had won that peace: the two of them side by side.
What different lives they had had, Creidhe thought, watching her mother and father as they stole a quiet moment together. Nessa brushed Eyvind’s cheek with her fingers; he touched his lips to her hair. The way they looked at each other brought tears to Creidhe’s eyes. Their youth had been full of adventure: journeys, battles, struggle and achievement. Looking at them now, she could hardly imagine that. One did not see one’s own parents as heroes, even if that was exactly what they were. One simply saw them as always there, an essential part of one’s existence. Where would one be without that?
She had to ask them. But not yet. Supper first. There were men and women who lived in the household: housecarls, Eyvind called them, in the manner of his homeland. These were capable folk who seemed almost part of the family. The women had become used to Creidhe taking charge in the kitchen, especially when she wished to prepare a special meal for her father. Today someone had been fishing, and there was fresh cod; Creidhe sent Brona out to the garden for leeks, and fetched garlic and onions herself. Small Ingigerd was soon persuaded that cutting vegetables and stirring sauces and grinding herbs would be tremendous fun, and it was possible for Nessa and Eyvind to retreat to the inner room for some time alone. Creidhe told her sisters a story as she prepared the fish. It was a tale about the Hidden Tribe, those tricky spirit folk who were seen from time to time in ancient, underground places, and she made sure it was long and exciting, and allowed the children to interrupt with questions as often as they liked. It grew dark. The folk of the household gathered around the table for supper. Creidhe’s efforts were rewarded by Eyvind’s smile and Nessa’s quiet words of approval. Brona ate every scrap and carried her platter to the wash trough without being asked. Ingigerd was falling asleep even as she finished her meal.
Respecting the family’s need for privacy with Eyvind so newly returned, the men and women of the household did not linger after supper, but retired early to their sleeping quarters. It was night outside, and a sudden chill crept into the longhouse, though its walls of stone and earth were thick and sturdy. Eyvind put more turf on the hearth and they moved in closer. One on either side of the flickering oil lamp, Creidhe and Brona worked on their embroidery. Brona was making laborious progress with a row of small red flowers across an apron hem. Creidhe’s project was more complex and more personal. She called it the Journey, and worked on a small section at a time, keeping the rest folded out of sight.
It was quiet now. Ingigerd drowsed on Eyvind’s knee, held safe by the arm he curled around her. It was a shame, Creidhe thought, that the whole family could not be here together. That would happen increasingly rarely now that Eanna had completed her training as a priestess of the mysteries and retired from ordinary life to dwell in the hills alone. She must ask them tonight. This could not wait. Eyvind carried Ingigerd to her bed and tucked the covers over her. Brona pricked her finger and yelped; she sewed doggedly on for a while, then sighed, yawned, and packed her work away.
“Goodnight, Brona,” Creidhe said a little pointedly. “I’ll help you with that in the morning if you like.”
Brona flashed a grin and turned to hug first Father, then Mother. She bent to light her little oil lamp with a taper from the fire, then disappeared along to the sleeping chamber she and Creidhe shared.
“More ale?” Nessa queried. “What about you, Creidhe? Don’t strain your eyes with that fine work, daughter. You look tired out.”
“Come, sit by me,” said Eyvind. “I’ve missed my lovely girl. Tell me what you’ve been doing while I was gone. I expect Aunt Margaret’s been working you hard.”
Creidhe sat; she took the cup of ale her mother offered. Her father put his arm around her shoulders, warm and safe. If the topic were to be raised, there could be no better time for it.
“Father, Mother, I want to ask you something.”
“It’s about Thorvald.”
Silence again, though there seemed a change in the quality of it, almost as if they had expected this.
“Today—today he was very upset. It was because—because Aunt Margaret told him about his father. His real father.”
She felt the sudden tension in Eyvind’s arm, and heard Nessa’s indrawn breath.
“I tried to help him. I tried to listen, but he was too angry. He said— Aunt Margaret told him his real father was a murderer. That’s what he said. That he killed his own brother, Aunt Margaret’s husband. And he said—” She faltered.
“What, Creidhe?” Eyvind’s tone was calm enough.
“That you sent Thorvald’s father away,” she whispered. “Banished him from the islands, so that he never knew he had a son.”
“Father, why is it none of you told us that story? Is it true? And wasn’t it cruel of Aunt Margaret not to tell Thorvald until now? He’s so angry and bitter. I’ve never seen him like this. There was nothing I could do to help.”
A look was exchanged between her parents, a complicated look. Eyvind took his arm away from Creidhe’s shoulders and clasped her hand instead.
“Did you talk to Margaret about this, Creidhe?”
“No. She told me to wait until Thorvald was ready to tell me. But…”
“But you couldn’t wait.” Nessa’s tone was dry, but not unkind. “Creidhe, this is Margaret’s story, and Margaret’s secret. It was her choice to wait and tell Thorvald when she judged he was ready. Those were terrible times. To dwell on what had happened was to set a barrier between your father’s people and mine that would keep us at enmity all our lives, and would be passed on to our children and our children’s children. There had been enough hatred and cruelty. We made the decision, in those early days, to put it behind us. We didn’t forget; one carries such memories in one’s mind forever. But we chose to move on, all of us. I suppose now it will be discussed more widely. Thorvald is sure to talk to his friends, you included.”
“Eanna knows what happened, Creidhe,” Eyvind said quietly. “One cannot follow the calling of priestess without the knowledge of history. She has kept it to herself, as we promised Margaret. That was for Thorvald’s sake.”
Creidhe said nothing. It hurt, sometimes, to be nobody special, even though she had no great ambitions for herself. It hurt even more that her parents hadn’t trusted her to keep a secret.
“I had an interesting talk with a man called Gartnait at the Thing on Sandy Island,” Eyvind remarked, apparently changing the subject completely. “A chieftain from the Northern Isles, a fine-looking young fellow of around two-and-twenty, very well-mannered and courteous. He asked me about you, Creidhe. It seems talk of you has spread quite far.”
“Talk? What talk?”
Eyvind smiled. “Nothing bad, or I’d not have spoken so fair of the fellow. You were described as a model of young womanhood, highly skilled in all the domestic arts, and far from ugly into the bargain.”
“Eyvind!” Nessa frowned at him.
“His exact words were a good deal more complimentary than that. In fact, your virtues were enumerated at quite some length, but I won’t repeat them for fear of giving you a swollen head, daughter. It was clear the young man’s interest had been sparked by what he’d heard of you. He’s looking for a wife.”
“You’d have liked him, Creidhe,” her father said. “He was an honest, open sort of man, with a ready smile. And handsome—did I say that? You will need to start thinking of this some time soon. You know how important this is, not just for yourself but for all of us. For the islands.”
“This is not the first such inquiry your father has had,” Nessa put in.
Creidhe stared at her mother, sudden hope making her heart race. Had Thorvald said something at last?
“Creidhe,” Eyvind said quietly, “we wondered how you would feel about going away for a while, perhaps with your Aunt Margaret to chaperone you. A stay in the Northern Isles would do you good, expose you to a wider circle, allow you to mix and give you some respite from your domestic duties here. You work yourself very hard, my dear. A visit over the summer would be easy to arrange. We have friends there. I’m not pushing an alliance with this Gartnait; you’d meet many folk. It would enable you to be seen, and put you in a position to get to know both him and others. You could make your own judgments then.”
“You know the importance of a good choice,” Nessa said. “If we do not nurture the blood line, the identity of the Folk is quite lost. It is your children, as well as Brona’s and Ingigerd’s, who will carry forward the royal line.”
Creidhe did know; one did not grow up in such a family without an understanding of the royal descent, and the significance of marriages. Nessa had been the only surviving kin of the great Engus, last king of the Folk in the Light Isles. She was his sister’s child, and as the royal succession came through the female line, it was vital for her daughters to marry men with impeccable credentials, since their sons would have a claim to kingship. As Nessa herself had no surviving sons, this was doubly important. It still mattered, even though the islands were governed by council now and no longer chose kings.
“You must wed wisely,” Nessa added.
There was a silence.
“I thought we were going to talk about Thorvald,” Creidhe blurted out suddenly, finding herself on the verge of tears for no good reason.
“We are talking about Thorvald, Creidhe,” said her father gently.
She felt herself grow cold; a weight lodged in her heart. There seemed to be nothing to say.
“You asked for the story,” said Nessa. “We’ll tell it, but I suggest you take Margaret’s good advice and keep it to yourself. This is Thorvald’s dilemma and hers. They are best left to deal with it in their own way. Thorvald’s father was a man called Somerled; he was indeed Ulf’s brother, and came here to the islands in that first expedition, the same that brought Eyvind to this shore.”
“Ulf wanted peace.” Eyvind took up the tale. “He made a treaty with King Engus, Nessa’s uncle. All seemed well. But Ulf died. He was murdered under very odd circumstances. My people blamed the islanders, and war broke out. There was—there was great ill-doing. Many died.”
Nessa glanced at him, a little frown on her brow. In the soft lamplight, with her pale skin and wide, gray eyes, she looked very young, not at all like a mother of four daughters. She reached out and took her husband’s hand. “My own people were all but wiped out,” she said gravely. “My uncle died, my cousin, everyone close to me save Eyvind and Rona.” Nessa paused. The loss of her old mentor, the wise woman who had taught both Nessa and her daughter Eanna the mysteries of the ancestors, was still fresh, for Rona had lived long, passing peacefully with the coming of last spring. “It grew clear to me and to your father that Somerled, who had become leader after Ulf’s death, was responsible for the wave of fear and hatred that had gripped the islands. Your father was very brave. He confronted Somerled at risk of his own life and proved him guilty of his brother’s murder.”
Eyvind smiled faintly, though his blue eyes were troubled. “As I recall it, it was your mother’s courage that tipped the balance. Without her, all would have been lost.”
“I don’t understand,” Creidhe said, struggling to make sense of this. “Where does Aunt Margaret fit in?”
“Despite what he did,” Eyvind said, “Somerled was not a wholly evil man. At least, I did not believe it of him, and nor did Margaret. We saw some hope for redemption in him, a spark of kindness, of goodness that might become more, given the right nurturing. There was a time when Margaret was very lonely. Ulf, fine man though he was, was always busy with his own projects, and I think she suffered for that. Somerled admired her greatly. Subtlety and cleverness had great appeal for him. In Margaret he saw something he found only rarely: an equal. But in the end theirs was not a happy alliance. She could not tolerate what he did in his quest for power.”
“But she bore his child. And yet you exiled him.” It seemed very cruel, even if the man had been a murderer. It seemed not at all the kind of penalty loving, generous Eyvind would impose.
“I was faced with a choice. Under the law he himself had instituted, I could have sentenced him to death. That was what Somerled wanted. He had always been fiercely ambitious. For a season he had been king here. Now he was defeated; even those who had supported his actions were deserting him. He had nobody left. He begged me to kill him. The sentence I decreed was a measure of the fact that I still had faith in him, even after the terrible havoc he had wrought. It gave him another chance to change his path: to learn to walk straight. I thought I was being merciful. To Somerled, the punishment I imposed seemed cruel beyond belief.”
“He left this shore without knowing Margaret carried his child,” Nessa said. “Rona knew. I guessed. But Margaret did not tell him, nor did she speak of it to me until Somerled was gone. That would have made no difference to Eyvind’s decision. Somerled was not fit to remain in the islands. He treated my people with contempt. Many thought Eyvind’s decree too merciful; they feared Somerled’s return. He was a man who could wield great power. He influenced people through fear, and fear is a potent weapon. But Eyvind made him promise never to come back. He made him promise to do his best to change. Whether Somerled kept to that, I suppose we’ll never know.”
“Why would he promise such a thing?”
“Because of this,” Eyvind said, rolling back his left sleeve to show the long scar that ran up his inner forearm. Creidhe had always thought this a legacy of the life her father had once led as a Wolfskin warrior; his body bore its share of the marks of combat. “Somerled and I were blood brothers, sworn to lifelong loyalty. He challenged me with that bond at the end, and at the end I held him to it. Then I sent him westward across the ocean. Perhaps it was, after all, a sentence of death. In all these years, we’ve never had any word of him.”
Creidhe was speechless. This was like something from an old saga, the kind full of gods and monsters. It was surely not real life.
“It’s true, Creidhe,” her mother said. “Those were terrible times. Eyvind and I were lucky; our love for each other made us strong. The ancestors warned us all along that our path would be hard, yet they told us we were doing right. Some very old powers stepped in to aid us in the end, but it was human courage that won the day. You must not think harshly of your Aunt Margaret, although she lay with a man who was not her husband. She’s a strong woman, and proud. Her life has been lonely because of the error she made then. She has never forgiven herself for it.”
“She has Thorvald.”
“Yes. And she loves her son, even though he is a daily reminder of the sorrows of the past. I imagine she will speak of this to him, and explain it as best she can. I hope he will listen, and not judge her too severely.”
“He spoke little of her,” Creidhe said slowly, “except to call her cruel for holding back the truth for so long.”
“Would Thorvald have dealt with it better last year, or the year before?” asked Eyvind mildly. “He’s still a boy, for all his eighteen years. He’ll come to terms with it in time. The lad still has some growing up to do.” His expression was thoughtful.
“Father?” There was a question Creidhe knew she must ask, although she did not want to hear the answer.
“I would not like to think folk would judge Thorvald on the strength of what his father did. It seems—unfair—that people might think him—unsuitable—because his father performed an ill deed all those years ago. It seems to me—I think a person of good judgment should disregard that, and assess Thorvald on his own merits.” This was very hard to say. “That is what I plan to do. He’s still the same person he was yesterday.” Tears were close; she blinked them back. “I hope you will remember that, when you speak of sending me away to the Northern Isles.”
“Oh, Creidhe,” Nessa said with a sigh. “We wouldn’t be sending you away; don’t think of it like that. It’s an opportunity. Your circle is so narrow here in Hrossey.”
“Daughter, I am taken aback that you would think me capable of such prejudice. You should know I always judge a man on his own merits, not on his lineage or the deeds of his kinfolk. Thorvald is not Somerled; he is his own self, and far more Margaret’s son than anyone else’s. I do not weigh him with the burden of the past on his shoulders.”
“And yet you want me to go to the Northern Isles and make friends with some chieftain I’ve never met?”
He smiled. “And yet I want you to go, although I’ll miss that roast mutton terribly.”
“I have to think about it,” Creidhe said, swallowing hard. It was as good as an edict, what they had said and what they had so carefully not said. We do not think Thorvald a suitable husband for you. She almost wished they were not so sweet and tactful, the two of them, so she could scream and yell and stamp her foot at them. Inside her head was a jumble of feelings clamoring to be released, and there was no way to let them go. Creidhe rolled up her embroidery and rose to her feet.
“Goodnight, Father. Sweet dreams, Mother.”
“Creidhe—” Nessa began. But Creidhe had turned her back, heading for bed. It was only when she had snuffed out the lamp and wriggled under the covers next to the sleeping Brona that she let her tears fall. It wasn’t fair. None of it was fair. The ancestors played tricks sometimes, and turned things all awry. If she’d been at all interested in Gartnait from the Northern Isles, this would have been simple, since the fellow seemed to view her as a catalog of feminine virtues without so much as meeting her once in the flesh. Gartnait was probably exactly as her father had said, a fine specimen of young manhood and utterly suitable to father a future king. Why did she have to love the one man in the world who hardly seemed to see her on some days, and on others treated her as if she were no different from a boy? It just wasn’t fair.
“Creidhe?” Brona’s voice was muffled by layers of blankets. “What’s the matter?”
“Nothing,” sniffed Creidhe, moving closer to the warmth of her sister’s body. It might be spring, but the air was bitterly cold, and even in this well-made house, little drafts stirred in corners. “Nothing. Go back to sleep.”
* * *
It was like a curse, a darkness that would hang over him for the rest of his life, shadowing every step he took. It was one thing to have a heroic dead father whom one had never met, a man who was remembered, still, as leader of the first bold voyage from Norway to the Light Isles. It was quite another to discover your father was a crazed murderer, a tyrant who had unleashed a tide of blood and terror on the islands. Thorvald did not want to acknowledge, even to himself, what that seemed to mean. Striding along the track toward Stensakir with a violent wind whipping his hair out behind him and tugging at his cloak with insistent, cold fingers, he shrank from the terrible truth that had hit him like a hammer blow after the first numbing shock of his mother’s news. But he could not shut it out. This made sense of everything. His legacy was not Ulf’s but Somerled’s, not light but darkness, not order and sanity but discord and chaos. This was the missing piece of a puzzle. It told him why he had always felt outside the world of other people, why he could not smile and clasp hands readily, why he turned on those who tried to befriend him, despite himself. It gave the reason why, some days, he felt as if he carried his own gray cloud of misery with him, which nobody else could see. No wonder he’d never fitted in. No wonder he’d never felt a part of things. No wonder he had so few true friends.
Thorvald shivered. As his father’s son, by rights he did not deserve friends, most certainly not loyal ones like Creidhe, who could always be relied upon to listen and wait by him even when his dark mood made him snap and snarl like a feral cur. Creidhe would be better off staying right away from him. Who knew when this bad blood would surface? It was not safe for any man to befriend him, nor any woman, least of all a guileless girl like Creidhe with her cozy domestic pursuits. She was a child, and knew nothing of the world. She was innocent of such destructive forces as those he bore hidden inside him. From now on nobody would be safe. Unless…unless, against all evidence, what they told of Somerled was somehow wrong. If the tale had been twisted and changed, as is the pattern of stories over so many years, if that were so then maybe there was a glimmer of hope. If his mother said Somerled had killed Ulf, that fact must stand. But perhaps there was a reason for it, a justification. Why had Somerled acted as he did? And what had become of the man? He’d been cast out to sea from the west coast, near the Whaleback. Trackless ocean was all that lay before him then, until he reached the rim of the world. What a punishment that was, a penalty grand and terrible enough to belong to an ancient saga, like a burden imposed by a vengeful god or thwarted monarch. That it was Eyvind who had determined it was unbelievable. Creidhe’s father was widely respected in the islands, not just as husband of a royal princess of the Folk, but also as a mainstay of the group of landholders who assembled twice yearly at the Thing to maintain order and administer justice. Eyvind was known as scrupulously honest and absolutely fair, a model of strength and honor. But he was most certainly not a man of devious imagination or cunning irony. To devise such a method of exile seemed to Thorvald quite out of character. Maybe there were parts of the story Margaret hadn’t told him.
Asking Eyvind was just not possible. Pride forbade it. He couldn’t talk to his mother. The thought of what she had done disgusted him. If she had such a model husband as Ulf, why lie with some misfit wretch of a brother-killer? And how could she not tell her own son, all these years? It was this that hurt Thorvald most. Up till now, when he was angry or upset, he had relied on Margaret’s grave advice, her calm words to soothe him. When he could see his mother was lonely or out of sorts he had done his best to divert her with a game or a walk or a tale of what he’d been doing. It had been thus ever since he could remember: mostly just the two of them, unless you counted Ash hovering silently somewhere in the background. Why his mother kept Ash, Thorvald couldn’t comprehend. It was quite clear to him the fellow wanted a bit more than the relationship of trusted servant to mistress of the household, and that Margaret was not in the least interested. A man who would hang around like a stray dog for years and years, waiting for table scraps that never came his way, seemed to Thorvald a lost cause. But silent, poker-faced Ash stayed while other servants came and went. All the same, they were a small family of two, Thorvald and Margaret, neither much given to open displays of affection, yet trusting and depending on each other. Until now. That closeness was destroyed forever now. She might as well have thrust a blade through his heart, Thorvald thought, kicking savagely at a stone that lay on the track in his way. She might as well have cast him out like his father, away from the paths of right-thinking men and women, so he could be conveniently forgotten. How could he ever forgive her for this?
It was late afternoon when he came down the hill past the small settlement at Stensakir, where smoke from cottage fires was whipped sideways by the wind, and the heather thatch shivered, straining at its bindings. Thorvald could see the Sea Dove making a steady course back to shore, the red-striped sail taut before the gale. His timing was perfect. He must talk to Sam; must tell him as much as he needed to know. He’d have preferred to keep his news to himself, but this was necessary. Thorvald needed a boat. Sam had one. He just hoped Sam would be able to keep his mouth shut.
It would be a while before his friend reached the jetty, doubtless with a good catch from the treacherous waters between this northeastern shore of Hrossey and the rising ground of Hrolfsey, which the old folk called Queen’s Isle. It was most certainly not the safest place to fish, but Sam was an expert sailor and an astute judge of currents and tides. He had prospered and built his own cottage in Stensakir; he talked of marrying and starting a family. Thorvald thought that ridiculous, and had told his friend so. Being an equable sort of fellow, Sam had only smiled.
Not only was this waterway a perilous fishing ground, it also housed the strangest of dwelling places. On the level ground of Holy Island, situated halfway between the larger isles, lived a community of Christian hermits. The brothers had traveled across the ocean from a land far to the southwest, in tiny, frail shells of boats. This small isle with its weight of lore had been their chosen home. Folk had shunned the place for generations; it was known to be a dwelling place of the Seal Tribe, a dangerous people at home both in water and on land, the women of unearthly beauty, the men so fearsome they could scare a person to death with a single glance of their dark green eyes. Shielded by the courage of their faith—or by blind ignorance, depending on how you looked at it—the brothers had settled on Holy Island nonetheless, and now lived in a well-ordered though simple fashion, running a few sheep, a goat or two, some chickens. As far as anyone knew, the Seal Tribe had never bothered them, though it was said that the sea folk were immensely patient and had long memories. Say someone offended them, or received a favor. Generations might pass and all seem forgotten, and then suddenly there they’d be, demanding vengeance or asking for payment. Because of that, there were very few visitors to Holy Island, and those who made the trip always carried a piece of iron with them for protection. If you forgot this essential item, there was no saying you’d ever get home safely. Sam was one of the few who put in regularly to the brothers' small jetty, with a message or a gift of bread or fresh fish. Sam was a big fellow and not easily frightened.
Thorvald waited on the shore, watching as the Sea Dove bobbed closer. This was a superior kind of craft, a vessel such as a young fisherman like Sam might dream of all his life and never hope to own. Sam had built her for a man called Olaf Egilsson, who had wealth enough to buy in the fine oak from Rogaland. The Sea Dove was perfect in every detail, from her eye-sweet lines to the sturdy strength of her keel. The lower strakes were of oak, the sheer strake of lighter pine. She was a haaf-boat, an ocean-going craft, though small. The two pairs of oars she carried were seldom employed, for she went far better under sail, with one man stationed near the stern to handle the steering oar, which was mounted on the starboard side, the other adjusting the trim as required. Sometimes they rowed in and out from the jetty; that was all. Sam had made the sail himself, not trusting any other man in Hrossey with such a critical piece of craftsmanship. On the day she was finished, Olaf Egilsson had taken sick with an ague, and within seven nights he was dead, but not before he told every one of his kin that nobody was getting their hands on his boat but the man who had made her with such love. If he were to die, the Sea Dove must be Sam’s, for only Sam would use her as she deserved.
The haaf-boat was as well maintained as any vessel in the islands; her master had a reputation for thoroughness, for all he was barely twenty years of age. The boards that formed the small decks fore and aft had been replaced last autumn when squalls drove a handy supply of pine trunks up on the beach at Skaill. The mast could be lowered to rest on a low, crutch-like frame, though Sam never undertook this maneuver at sea; the mast remained in place save when the Sea Dove was hauled up for work in winter. Every year Sam’s pride and joy was recaulked, her hull scraped clean, her thwarts rubbed down with coarse sand then oiled against the saltwater. In the right conditions the boat could be handled comfortably by two, at least in the coastal waters around Hrossey, which were not without their challenges. All in all, Thorvald thought the Sea Dove seemed up to a longer voyage. He hoped very much that his friend would agree.
Sam had a passenger today. The gray-haired priest stepped out neatly onto the jetty while Sam and the deckhand tied up the boat and began to unload their catch in a seamless sequence of well-practiced moves. Of all the brothers, it was Tadhg who was best known in the islands, for it was his practice to travel widely, telling his tales of the Christian faith. Tadhg was an old friend of both Eyvind and Nessa. A long time ago he had known Nessa’s uncle, the last great king of the Light Isles. His appearance now was remarkably convenient; Thorvald must make the most of the opportunity it offered.
“Go on up to the house, Thorvald!” Sam yelled as he hefted a crate of fish onto his shoulder. “Take Brother Tadhg with you, and stir up the fire for me. I’ll be done here soon.”
Thorvald made his way up to the settlement and let himself into Sam’s neat cottage, main room open and light with a shuttered window to the east so you could read the moods of the sea, back room housing sleeping platforms and a separate small hearth, and a snug little shelter beyond for stores of various kinds. Today there appeared to be a broody hen in there, grumbling to herself in a cozy basket of straw. Brother Tadhg came in behind Thorvald, the skirts of his brown robe blown crazily about him by the fierce wind. He shut the door with some difficulty. Thorvald raked out the embers of the fire, fetched turf, set a kettle to heat. Because there was limited time, he decided to dispense with the niceties.
“I want to ask you something.”
“Go ahead,” said Tadhg, seating himself by the fledgling fire and reaching down to warm his hands.
“I found out about Somerled. That he was my father. My mother told me. You must have known him back then. I want you to tell me what sort of man he was. I want to find out why he killed his brother. And…”
“And what, Thorvald?” The brother did not sound at all perturbed by this volley of difficult questions.
The fire was starting to pick up now. Thorvald put on more turf. “And I want you to tell me where you think he would have gone, when Eyvind set him adrift. On Holy Island you’ve got men who sailed here from far away, men who must know the pattern of the currents out there in the western ocean, and where the islands and skerries lie. Tell me what you think. Could he have survived?”
Tadhg did not reply immediately. It looked as if he were rehearsing the words in his head, choosing each one with care.
“Tell me!” Thorvald demanded. “Don’t bother to couch it in comforting terms. If you think he would have died, just say so. If you think he was evil and depraved, tell me straight out. My mother held back the truth for eighteen years. I’ve no patience for falsehoods nor for polite half-truths. Whatever you have to say, it can be no worse than finding out I’ve lived a lie my whole life.”
“You’re a young man, Thorvald,” Tadhg observed, regarding him gravely. “You have many years ahead of you. It is those years that matter, not the ones that are past. What your father was, and where he went, makes no real difference. It’s your own life you are living, not Somerled’s.”
“Spare me your philosophy!” Thorvald snapped. “Give me facts. Why did my father kill Ulf? Is it true that he single-handedly wiped out most of the islanders before Eyvind stopped him?”
“You wish me to answer before your friend arrives home? These are big questions, Thorvald.”
“Please.” It took some effort to get this word out; still, he saw understanding in the priest’s gray eyes, and heard compassion in his voice. It was expedient to take a deep breath and attempt calm if he were to have a chance of getting the answers he needed.
“Only Somerled could tell you why he killed his brother,” Tadhg said. “There seemed obvious reasons: the lust for power, jealousy, frustration that there was no real role for him here. His feelings for your mother, perhaps. There were older reasons, which he brought with him from Rogaland, matters of the distant past. You’d need to ask Eyvind about those.”
“The two of them were close friends: blood brothers. It was in a sense of responsibility for Somerled’s ill deeds that Eyvind banished him. He could have killed him. Instead he chose a way that gave his friend a second chance. It was a wise and generous decision.”
“A second chance! A chance to sail over the edge of the world and perish.”
“That is one possibility,” agreed Tadhg evenly.
“You think there are others? Tell me!”
“I will, Thorvald. One answer at a time. Somerled brought a weight of trouble with him when he came here with his brother’s expedition. Ulf was a friend of mine; we spoke much during his all too brief season as chieftain here. For all Somerled was his own brother, Ulf feared him greatly. It was not on his invitation that Somerled came here, but at the behest of the Jarl back home. Ulf was under pressure to agree, since the Jarl had financed his venture. The result was catastrophic. Somerled did terrible things as leader here. He was a clever man, subtle, ingenious. He was also completely ruthless. It seemed to me he had no awareness at all of the suffering of others; it was as if some essential part of a man’s understanding were closed to him, and always had been. It is troubling to consider that, had it not been for Eyvind’s intervention, and Nessa’s, he would have remained king here, and none of the island folk would have survived. Your father believed the Norse people to be superior in every way, and far better fitted to rule. He saw no place here for folk he believed to be primitive, weak and ineffectual. He’d have wiped them out entirely. Somerled never understood them; he never understood the islands. He’d have killed Nessa; she was too influential to be left alive. Eyvind, too. At one point both the Wolfskin and myself were imprisoned and on the verge of execution. Somerled did not take kindly to hearing the truth if it happened not to suit his own purposes.”
There seemed to be nothing for Thorvald to say. He had asked for answers, after all. Too bad if it hurt to hear them, when he had believed nothing could hurt much after what his mother had told him.
“King,” he said finally, his tone hollow.
“Indeed. That was his lifelong ambition, so Eyvind told me. For a short while, he achieved it. The cost was high.”
Thorvald felt a bitter laugh escaping from his throat. “Hah! Just think, if he’d stayed on here, I might have been king after him. King Thorvald. Very amusing, that. And Eanna would never have been born, nor Creidhe, nor the others. Thank the gods he was sent away. As ruler here I probably would have turned out just like him.”
“We must concern ourselves with the path that was taken, not the one abandoned,” Tadhg said, using an iron hook to lift the kettle’s lid and see if the water was boiling. “You want to know where he might have gone. Why?”
This one must be answered carefully. “He was my father. It is of some interest to me whether he lived or died.”
“I can speak of possibilities, Thorvald. But nobody can say what happened. Your mother told you, I imagine, that there has been no news of Somerled since that day, no sign at all that he ever reached safe shore. All I can give you is surmise.”
“That’ll do,” Thorvald said, trying not to sound too interested. It was important that nobody got any hint of what he intended to do.
“Very well. Under conditions such as were apparent that day, my guess is that the boat might have traveled somewhat north of due west. Perhaps sharply north. We have no proof that there’s land of any significance to the west, but there are some very strange tales. I heard that a fellow came in to the Northern Isles some time back, in a state of shock so severe it was almost as if he had lost his wits entirely. He was one of our own kind and had sailed the same path as I did, but was blown off course by contrary winds and failed to touch shore in the Light Isles. His words were a stream of nonsense, but he seemed to be telling of a sojourn of two or three seasons on another group of islands further to the northwest. They’d be several days’ sailing from here at least, and maybe considerably more, since we’ve heard so few reports of such a place. One or two other accounts do seem to confirm their existence. That would be the last land to the west, a marginal place. It would be easy to miss it. Should your father’s craft have drifted somewhat northward, it is possible he may have reached that shore.”
Thorvald’s heart was thumping. “Why was the man in such a state of mind?” he asked eagerly. “Was he deranged by the journey itself, or something more?”
Tadhg frowned. “My account is third-hand, of course. The fellow was terrified out of his wits; they could get little sense from him. He was frightened of staying by the seashore, as if he expected an enemy to come from the water. He spoke of stealing children, and of some kind of singing. It was quite odd. Very probably his long voyage and the isolation had caused these waking nightmares. It’s not the easiest experience. A man’s faith can be sorely tested.”
“Yes, well, that’s why you do it, isn’t it?”
Tadhg smiled. “Indeed. And I will be honest with you, I have often wondered whether such a voyage would change Somerled for the better, as Eyvind hoped it would.”
“Perhaps he was unable to change,” Thorvald said. He could hear the crunch of Sam’s boots on the path outside. “Maybe he was so evil that he could never redeem himself.”
“Ah,” Tadhg observed, “while we cannot say what did happen to your father, I can tell you one of God’s most profound truths, and you would be wise to ponder it, Thorvald. No man is quite beyond salvation. God’s grace is in all of us. If nurtured well, that little flame may grow into a radiant goodness. We are all his creatures; we are part of him. To change, all we need do is learn to love him. Even Somerled could do that. You must believe it possible that he did so, in his own way.”
The arrival of Sam with a string of pale-bellied fish dangling from one hand and his bundle of gear grasped in the other put an end to that conversation. Cups were filled with ale, a meal was cooked, and easy talk flowed: of the weather, of the arrival of new lambs on the brothers’ small farm, of a forthcoming wedding and the death of an old man down at Hafnarvagr. That was where Tadhg was heading: quite a way. Sam offered him a bed for the night, but the priest refused. He’d a lift arranged with a local farmer; indeed, he’d best be heading over there now, before it got too dark. They’d sleep at the fellow’s house and take the cart on in the morning with a load of vegetables and some chickens for the market. Tadhg wiped his plate clean with a scrap of bread, then rose to depart.
“Remember what I told you, Thorvald,” he said mildly. “Take time to consider. On reflection, a monster can become no more than a fleeting shadow, an unassailable mountain a gentle rise. You are young; you rush to seek answers, heedless of the cost. If you allow time, you may find that all you need to do is wait.”
Thorvald let him finish. There was no point in arguing. The truth was simple. He bore his father’s legacy, and it marked him as surely as Eyvind’s courage and goodness had marked his small son Kinart. If that child had not been snatched by the sea, he’d doubtless have grown up into the sort of leader folk followed to the ends of the earth. Tadhg had missed the point. To know himself, to look into his own spirit, Thorvald must find out what kind of man his father truly was. And there was only one way that could be done. It was perilous. His mother wouldn’t like it. Sam would take a lot of convincing. Nonetheless, he must attempt it, or forever live with the knowledge that he had not faced up to the truth. If his father still lived, he would find him. It was a quest: grand, challenging, heroic. Do this, and his life might come to mean something after all.
Sam was not easily surprised. He listened calmly to the story: Margaret, Somerled, Ulf, battles and blood, murder and exile. From time to time he sipped his ale and nodded. Once or twice he frowned. One of the reasons Sam had remained a friend for so long was his talent for calm. He was almost as good a listener as Creidhe, and a lot less inclined to make helpful suggestions when they weren’t wanted. When Thorvald came to the end of the tale, Sam did not comment at once. He poked the fire, topped up his friend’s ale and let a cat in the back door, all in complete silence.
“You want to borrow the Sea Dove,” he stated eventually, his blue eyes thoughtful.
“Not exactly,” replied Thorvald, a wave of relief sweeping through him that Sam had understood this part of it without needing to be told. “I’m not enough of a sailor to take her there myself. You’d have to come with me. I could pay you, if that would help.”
Sam’s brows lifted a little. He took a mouthful of ale. “How long do you plan being away? From full moon to full moon, or maybe a season? Perhaps more if the wind carries you astray? There’s a lot of fish to be caught in such a time, enough to pay for a fellow’s wedding and furnish his cottage nice and snug: best woolens, fine linens, a piece of seasoned wood for a cradle. Enough to cover his hand’s wages. What if the boat’s damaged? That’s my livelihood down there, Thorvald. She may be a sturdy craft, but she’s not made for that kind of ocean voyaging.”
The words were less than encouraging. On the other hand, there was a certain note in Sam’s voice, and a certain glint in his eye, that showed his interest had been sparked.
“It needn’t be long.” Thorvald leaned forward, elbows on knees, keen to press what little advantage he had. “Brother Tadhg didn’t seem to think it was very far. We could be there and back again almost before anyone knows it. We could tell them—”
Sam raised a hand, cutting off the flow of words. “Not so fast. What about when we get there, if we get there? You planning to pop in, announce that you’re this fellow’s son, then sail right home again? What if you can’t find him? What if you do and he wants you to stay? Where does that leave me?”
The smile that curved Thorvald’s lips felt like a mockery. “I can assure you that won’t happen. I’m not expecting to be greeted with open arms, even supposing we do find what we’re looking for. I’ve no intention at all of staying there. All I want is the answer to a question.”
“And what question’s that?” Sam asked, stroking the cat, which had curled itself on his lap in a ball of gray-striped contentment, purring like a simmering kettle. But Thorvald did not reply, and the silence lengthened between them.
‘I’ll think about it,” Sam said eventually. “But I’ll be straight with you, Thorvald. I can’t see much in it for me, beyond helping an old friend.”
“One last adventure before you settle down?” Thorvald suggested. “One last foray as a single man? You worry me with your talk of cradles. I did say I’d pay.”
Sam nodded slowly. “If I agreed, it’d be as a favor to a friend. I’d expect that to be returned some time.”
“Of course. I’ll do whatever you want,” Thorvald offered eagerly. The fact was, such a favor would be easily repaid, since Sam never asked more of him than a day’s help on the boat or a hand with laying thatch. His friend was easily pleased.
“Mmm,” Sam said with a funny look in his eyes. “I’ll hold you to that, Thorvald. Give me a day or two to think about this. One thing, though. In open water you’ll need a crew of four, at least. We’d have to get another couple of fellows in on it. And they’d certainly want to be paid.”
“No.” Thorvald had wondered when Sam would get to this; he had known there needed to be a good answer to it, but the look on his friend’s face told him none of those he had thought up was going to be sufficient. “I can’t have anyone else. Asking you to come along is one thing, getting other men to do it is another thing altogether. As soon as we started asking about, the whole island would know. This is secret, Sam. It has to be just you and me. You’ve told me often enough how well the Sea Dove goes under sail. And it’s not very far. We could do it easily. Don’t you go out every day with just your deckhand to help you?”
“You’re crazy,” Sam said flatly. “I wouldn’t so much as consider it, not without one more man at least. You seem pretty confident about how far it is. I thought we didn’t know that for sure.”
“Brother Tadhg said a few days’ sail. Folk would hardly get the chance to miss us.” A lie, that, almost certainly. “Come on, Sam. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity: a true adventure.”
“An adventure isn’t worth having if you never get back to tell the tale,” Sam observed flatly. There was a brief silence.
“So you won’t even consider it?” Thorvald asked, watching his friend closely. “Not as a test of your boat, or of yourself? Not at any price?”
Sam’s mouth stretched in a faint grin. “At any price? You’re not as rich as that, Thorvald, however good a farm your mother runs. Now tell me, did you mean what you said about returning the favor? Say I do it, and then what I ask you isn’t to your liking? Will you stay true to what you promised?”
Thorvald’s heart leaped; evidently there was still hope. “Of course,” he said with complete confidence. He could not think of a thing Sam could ask for that he would not be prepared to deliver. “I gave you my word, didn’t I? I know how much you’ll be risking, Sam. If you do this, I’ll be in your debt forever.”
“If I do it, I’ll be as mad as you are,” Sam muttered. “Well, I’ll give it some thought and let you know. Maybe we could pick up a crew in the Northern Isles, fellows that don’t know you, if that’s what matters. There’d be a lot to organize.”
“It must be kept secret,” Thorvald put in quickly. “I’d be stopped if they knew—my mother, Eyvind, any of them. You mustn’t tell Creidhe.”
“You’re a grown man,” Sam observed, rising to his feet. The cat, dislodged, fell bonelessly to the floor and strolled away unperturbed.
“All the same. They’d think this foolish, dangerous. They chose not to speak of my father all those years; they made a decision to forget him. It’s hardly likely they’ll want him brought to life now, when he’s so conveniently faded into the mists of memory.”
“Still,” said Sam, “your mother did tell you.”
Thorvald shivered. “So she did,” he agreed. “More fool her.”
“A bit hard on her, aren’t you?”
Thorvald did not reply, but later, while Sam slept as tranquilly as a babe, he lay awake pondering this, wondering if he had been entirely fair to Margaret. There was no doubt in his mind that she should have told him the truth earlier, not saved it for now, then expected him to absorb, understand and forgive as if this were a small, everyday matter. On the other hand, she’d been young back in those days, younger than he was now. And perhaps Somerled had not been what people said. Perhaps there’d been reasons for what he did, reasons nobody else understood. Maybe he’d been like Thorvald, an outsider, a man with few friends, a person too clever for his own good.
Thorvald lay staring up at the roof thatch, listening to the purring of the cat as it kneaded the blankets behind Sam’s knees. The fisherman sighed, turning over. Thorvald considered the implications of his plan. There was no doubt he would hurt people he cared about, his mother and Creidhe especially. It was a long voyage, almost certainly longer than he had given Sam to believe, and there were no guarantees of safe landfall. Somerled might not be there; might not ever have been there. He might have perished long since, somewhere out at sea alone in his little boat. When she learned what he had done, Margaret would be horrified. Creidhe would be hurt that he had not confided in her; she was accustomed to sharing his inmost fears, his frustrations, his schemes and plans. This he could not tell her. He must hope she would forgive when he returned. If he returned. One thing was certain. This was a journey he was bound to undertake: bound by his blood.
Copyright © 2003 by Juliet Marillier