“If you’d seen what I had, you’d be terrified.” Duna Terin dumped the last of the tanned hides onto the pile, then turned and placed her hands on her hips. “I promise you, Father, you’d be running for the hills.”
“You’re being histrionic, lass,” Ronan Terin said, stoking the hearth fire. “As usual.”
“I’m not, I tell you, there was a longship on the horizon again. The Nordic savages are sailing past us right now. Right this very day.”
“Exactly, past, we have nothing to offer them here on our small island.”
“Nothing to offer? We have goats and hens, fertile land that we use well, and look, hides of the finest quality.”
“You have many there.”
“There are orders in from the Laird and villagers. Also Esca needs a new saddle.” She brushed her palm over her woolen dress. It was getting old; she needed to earn a few coins to buy another.
Ronan raised his eyebrows. “Esca is not that rich.”
“Maybe he is.” Duna glanced up at the thatched roof. It was windy again, coming from the east, which didn’t bode well. They needed to replace the thatch, but that was costly and her father wasn’t the young man he used to be. Maybe she should take Esca up on his marriage proposal. Another man in the house would ease the burden of running their croft, and Esca did seem to have coins in his pocket if not a big farmstead of his own.
“Here, you should eat,” Ronan said, taking a seat on a hard wooden chair. In his hand he held an earthenware bowl full of steaming broth. “There’s no meat in it.”
She hadn’t expected there to be. The goats were too precious to kill, at least while they were producing milk. “That doesn’t matter.” She tightened her shawl around her shoulders. Despite it being early summer she was cold. Some meat in her dinner and on her bones would have been good for her.
She took a bowl and filled it, the scent of sage and onions filling her nose.
“Any eggs this morning?” Ronan asked.
“I am pleased.” He nodded and slurped from his wooden spoon.
“And I will make bread.”
“You’re a good girl, Duna.” Her father smiled. “I thank God every day for you. I wouldn’t have survived without you after your mother passed and…”
“Shh, you don’t have to say that, you know I’ll always be here for you.” She stared at the flames licking up from the iron grate and thought of her beautiful, kind mother. She missed her too, but the past could not be undone. Sickness was a terrible thing. “I’ll always be here for you.”
There was nowhere else for her to go. The Shet Isles were home. Admittedly a cold, blustery home, which threw many challenges their way. But she loved it, and the people in it.
There was a sudden loud knock on the door.
“Enter,” her father called.
Duna stood and set down her bowl with a rattle. A shard of panic rushed through her. What if it was the Nordic savages she’d seen in their dragon boat? Maybe they’d landed on the beach to the west and come to pillage their home.
She swallowed down the bolt of fear. It was only Esca who stepped into their humble abode, ducking a little so his tall, lean frame could fit through the doorway.
“Duna.” He smiled, then it dropped. “You’re eating, I’ll return.”
“No, please, come in.”
“Would you like to join us?” Ronan said. “It’s not much, but it’s warm.”
“No, thank you.” He inclined his head. “I have been to Rockslewn Beach.”
“And.” Duna held out her hands. “Did you see it too?” If only someone would take the threat seriously, and not dismiss the barbarians who came so close.
“See what?” He frowned.
“The Norsemen in their boat? The prow was so high, the sail so big, it couldn’t be missed.”
“I saw no boats, and definitely no Norsemen. The wind is whipping through the trees and chopping up the sea. It would be a foolhardy fisherman to be out on the water now.”
“They are not fishermen. They are warriors, expert mariners. I keep telling my father we should be preparing for them. It’s only a matter of time before they don’t sail on past and decide to come and see what they can steal from us.”
“Duna, please do not concern yourself.” Esca stepped close and took her hand in his. His pale skin was cool, his fingers slender, delicate almost.
“Do not concern myself? These are not men, they are monsters. They will rape and pillage, ransack our homes, destroy our stores and livestock. If we don’t die at their hands on a raid, we will die when winter comes.”
“Be calm.” He frowned. “That’s not going to happen.”
“There are tales from the mainland, and I know that is exactly what happens.”
“Tales and fables,” Ronan said. “Your imagination is too wild, daughter of mine. Concern yourself with the tasks around our home and your leather sewing.”
“Of course that’s what I do and will continue to do.” She tugged her hand from Esca’s. “I’m merely pointing out that we should be prepared, our men should have axes to hand, day and night. We should have lookouts posted around the island.”
“Would it make you feel better if I discuss it with the Laird?” Esca asked.
“Yes, yes, it would.” She nodded.
“Then I will.” Esca puffed up his chest. “When I see him.”
She frowned. “Why don’t you pay him a visit now? It’s the third longboat I’ve seen in a month.”
“He’s a busy man.”
“He’ll be a man with nothing, no tenants, no livelihood if the Viking conquerors decide to pay us a visit. If he’s lucky he’ll be left with his life.”
“Duna, will you stop,” Ronan said. “Esca has said he’ll attend to your fears, now leave it at that, daughter of mine.”
His stern tone created a bubble of anger and a shard of embarrassment in Duna. Upsetting her father was the last thing she wanted to do, or make him ashamed of her. But her dreams of a longboat racing toward Shet Isle, with a great serpent head at the prow, were becoming more vivid and more frequent.
And Duna knew her dreams often came true.
“And don’t tell me about the dreams again,” Ronan said. “Which is what you’re going to do next?”
“What dreams?” Esca asked.
Ronan set down his empty bowl. “My child here has dreams which she is convinced see into the future.”
“She does?” Esca turned to her.
Duna bowed her head. She was convinced her dreams were visions of the future. She’d seen her mother’s grave, dotted with daisies, three months before she was buried. And when she was younger, she’d dreamt of her own arm, twisted at a sickening angle, blushed with dark bruises; then two weeks later fallen out of a tree and broken the bones within it.
And now, the longboat with its red and white striped sail, snake’s head complete with forked tongue and popping yellow eyes, caused her to wake in a cold sweat. Not least because he was on it; some kind of Viking monster wearing a helmet with horns as if he were the devil himself on some mission from hell. His sharp blue eyes reminded her of the snake he’d chosen for his boat, and his body, so big and broad and strong; surely he was some kind of freak, a creation designed for war, carnage, and brutality and nothing else. And to the right of his face was painting, dark and swirling, as if he’d been stroked by the pointed finger of a witch.
She shivered and turned away.
Esca cleared his throat. “I brought you these.”
“Mussels, that’s kind.” Ronan clapped. “Thank you.”
Duna looked with relief at the hessian sack full of glossy blue mussels still attached to their threads. Her stomach rumbled. She’d get them cooked up quickly, while they were fresh. She and her father would go to bed without hunger tonight.
“Can you spare so many?” she asked.
“For you, yes.” Esca set the bag on the cold stone floor. “I must go.”
“I’ll see you out.” Duna followed him through the low door and into the weakening sunlight.
Shadows stretched over the grass and a large oak tree had put the goat pen into the shade.
Esca turned to her and ran his hand through his hair. It was vibrant red, much like the fluff that grew on his chin. “Have you thought about my proposal, Duna?”
She’d known this was coming. “Yes, I have.”
“So what’s your answer?”
She turned to the west, looking out over the rocks and then the ocean. Marrying Esca made sense; he was kind and loyal and would be an asset to her and her father on their small plot of land should he move in with them.
But her heart… it made no sense to her heart. Her mother and father had loved each other from the first day they’d met, and until death parted them. She wanted that too; love, not practical solutions.
Esca was a practical solution.
“Duna.” He cupped her elbow and stepped so close she could feel his body heat radiating onto her shoulder. “Please say yes. I will be a good husband to you. I promise.”
“I know you will; you’re a fine man, Esca.”
“So the answer is yes?” There was hope in his tone.
She turned to him, suppressing a sigh as she did so. “I need to sleep on it, overnight.”
“Why?” He paused. “To see if you dream of me in the future, as your husband?”
That wasn’t why. She simply couldn’t bring herself to say yes and was stalling for time. But now he came to mention it, she’d never had a dream about Esca in her future. Her dreams were packed full of Viking brutes and terrifying dragon boats. “Yes, I will see if my dreams tell me what to do, Esca.”
He released her elbow and held her cheeks in both of his palms, then stared down at her with earnestness in his pale eyes.
She wished her heart would skip a beat. That her body would lean into his, search for his kiss, be delighted when she got it. But none of that happened. Esca wasn’t the one for her.
“I’ll see you tomorrow,” he said softly. “There’s wild garlic over by the river, I’ll bring you some.”
“You are too kind.”
“Only the best for my love.” He brushed his lips over her brow, then released her and stepped away.
She watched him round the single story cottage, his strides long and his arms swinging. A hen pecked around her feet, obviously hoping she’d dropped some crumbs. Esca was a nice, kind man, there wasn’t anything to dislike about him. Her situation could be worse.
Wrapping her arms around herself, she turned back to the ocean.
There was the longboat again, way out in the distance.
Or was it another longboat slicing through the waves, sails aloft, and packed full of Vikings with their iron swords and sharp axes? Were there scores of longboats out there?
Nausea clenched her belly. These were bad men, with bad intentions. They had no respect for people, or for land that wasn’t theirs. The stories she’d heard about war and rampage, theft and slavery were true, she knew it, in the very core of her.
Quickly she turned away. Perhaps if she didn’t look then it wouldn’t be true; they wouldn’t be getting closer each time they passed by.
“Duna, come in. Let’s cook these mussels to go with the broth,” her father called.
“I’m here now.” She stepped back into the house and tried to push thoughts of the menace out at sea to the back of her mind.
But as she feasted on the mussels, she couldn’t shift the frustration that no one was taking her seriously. She’d heard a few of the villagers talking about the gossip from the mainland. So why did Shet Isle believe itself to be immune?
It was only a matter of time.
With her belly full, she started on a leather tunic she’d been commissioned to make for the Laird. She was an expert at her craft, a skill passed on from her mother. It was enjoyable, creating clothing, bags, and occasionally shoes, boots, and tack. Also, Dougal McBray, the tanner on the island was exceptional at his job. The hides always came to her soft and pliable; getting the needle and thread through the leather didn’t make her draw blood from her fingers.
Her father threw another log on the fire, beech this time, then drew the curtain at the small window. “Have you shut away the hens?” he asked.
“I’ll do it.”
“Then put a coat on, it might be early summer but it’s cold now the sun has gone.”
“I’m not that old and delicate, don’t fuss.”
She looked up and raised her eyebrows at him.
“Well, I’m not.” He chuckled then shook his head. “You have to stop worrying about everything, Duna. We might not be rich, and we both carry our grief, but we’re surviving. We have a roof over our head, food on the table, and a fire to keep away the chill.”
“I know, Father, we’re surviving.”
He slipped from the cottage.
She sighed. Surviving. Was that the best she could hope for in life? What about happiness, thriving, and dare she even think of it… love?
“You’re a fool,” she muttered. “Love and happiness isn’t for girls like you.” She pulled her thread taut. “That’s for the daughter of the Laird, for the fancy women in their castles on the Borders, not for you.”
Listening to her father cajoling the hens past the window, she tried to beat down the sense of wanderlust that often gripped her. She’d heard of the Highlands and the Borders, and great settlements where people flocked to trade. What would they be like? How would she feel to be around so many others? What delights would she see?
Esca had told her, when she’d brought the subject up with him, that it was natural to wonder about far-off lands, but it wasn’t natural to travel to them. She was born here, this was her island, and where God wanted her to stay. And of course she knew she must always do what God had planned for her.
Even if it was a destiny that didn’t hold any excitement.