It was dark night when we returned, much depleted in numbers, and much wounded in bodies and souls. But we had achieved a victory of sorts. Our village was whole and still standing low but strong against the glow of the moonlight. Tired, hungry and hurting, we knew our words would come, but for now those words were caught tight within our throats, straining against our tense yet weary muscles. The time for talk would be come morning.
Once our door had been opened by Ewan, from inside our croft the sweet scents of mutton-broth and fresh grasses welcomed us and gave us peace. We each lay silently and slept till the morning sun was truly risen, and the cattle’s lowing was becoming more urgent, for need of milking and for need of feeding.
I could hear Father preparing bread and cheese and apples for our breaking of the night’s fast, and hear Mother’s light coughing as she also rose. The silence of words would soon also be broken, alongside our fast.
Mother limped to her place on the bench, shaking Ewan’s shoulder as she passed. He yawned and sighed. For a boy of merely eleven summers, his need for sleep was deep and intense. My fourteen summers had bade me well, and I was now a young woman, already courting and ready for the responsibilities of life.
As Ewan struggled onto the bench alongside our Mother, his eyes sparkled with the energy gained from his first battle. He’d been training well, and it showed. The first words of the morning came from my mouth. I held his arm as he sat.
‘You did grand, Ewan. That was a fine first battle. One to be proud of’.
Mother and Father nodded in agreement then looked over to me with pride.
‘Your contribution was strong and mighty, daughter,’ said Father, and I knew this to be the truth. Mother nodded and we all sat to eat.
I had been wrong. I’d assumed that this meal would herald analysis of the battle’s highs and lows, but instead we ate in silence. We rose in silence also, each attending to our usual duties.
What had, at first, felt as moments of togetherness, now was confusing.
Why the silence? Had we done what we should not?
I was thinking to speak and to question, when came a friendly deep voice shouting from outside, and at our doorway appeared Geld, a man of more than fifty summers, and the head of our village. We all rose from our benches but he gestured to us to continue with our tasks.
‘Geld,’ said Father.
‘Brother,’ said my Mother, for she was his blood.
‘Angus. Morag. Please eat. You’ve strength enough, but need building further.’
I looked up at my Uncle Geld and he smiled, moving over to ruffle my hair.
‘You were grand.’
‘And Ewan too. Angus and Morag must be proud.’
‘Indeed we are,’ my Father replied. ‘Indeed we are.’
I knew from the times of other battles that had rudely interrupted our peace, that a success would bring a visit from Geld. Father called such times ‘Tidings’ as uncle Geld would bring news from the battlefront, of those who’d died and those who’d lived, and of the results of our battles.
‘So…’ Mother said. ‘Will you tell us more?’
‘I will,’ Geld nodded. ‘Indeed…’
He sat in a bench space I made available for my uncle, and began to talk.
‘We’ve thirteen losses. Of the village’s forty-three, it’s a large number.’
Mother sighed. ‘Who?’
My head went down into my lap. John. Not my John.
‘I am sorry, Fionna. John has not returned.’
‘But he may still be…’
‘He may. But we do not think so. Our enemies were many and were strong. We believe the sword slash to have taken him, as it did twelve others.’
I raised myself from the table.
‘I must go.’
My legs strong but without direction, my chest rumbling with rage.
I left my home with speed and urgency, and forced myself up Stony Crags, till I’d climbed half-way: to where the landscape plateaued and softened into a small misplaced copse. Exhausted and heart-sick I rested my head on my usual stopping place against the beech tree. Its bark, silver and fresh, brought John’s white-fair and glossy hair to mind. He had been my intended one, as I had been his.
Of all of us, he had been the brightest, shiniest star, with the strength of three men, though he was neither Darkhaven’s tallest nor its broadest young man.
But he was my young man, and we suited each other just fine.
As I rested, I felt a tear run its path down my pinkened cheek. It was followed by another and another. I was not alone, I knew that. I was blessed to still have my family around me, but John had been a blessing too, and one I could not and would not lose easily.
Our handfasting was to be held two summers hence.
I wiped my eyes and rubbed my cheeks with the cleanest part of my cloak, then stood to survey the battle’s scene. Our lost warriors would be missed.
I felt some kind of something. Being too young to name such feelings, I allowed them to overtake me. Perhaps I felt merely anger, but it was different somehow, and more powerful – but whatever it was surged up inside me and I stared towards the sky and screamed.
‘John’ I yelled. ‘Don’t be gone. Be here. Be with me.’
The skies wept and screamed along with me.
It was only then that I realised how the rain was soaking me through to my skin, and just how heavy my sword had become, held as it was by my leather and flex strap by my side. It was time to return home and time to consider how best to avenge my John.
The sword tingled in my hand, and raindrops steamed off its gleaming metal as I ran, ready to embrace the comfort of family, once again. And ready to embrace any challenge the Gods might set for me.
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