PART 2: The Stones are Runes
Lord Gordon, 5th Earl of Huntly had not been wrong about the house. I found it after combing the hillside near the River Deveron. The physical exertion was good for me; it kept my mind from returning to the castle and what must be happening there. The roof had fallen in and only a timber above my head remained along with a canopy of tree limbs. I settled against the wall and ate my bread and honey.
A little later I decided it was time to take myself back to my world. I sat quietly, breathing easily but deeply, and then began picturing my backpack, the great fireplace, now in ruins at the Castle Huntly. I wanted to go back to the place where I’d disappeared. I had it all clear in my mind and I pictured myself standing there. At first I saw colors, blues and greens, grays and they seemed to fade being replaced by reds, ochers, brilliant colors and then nothing. I opened my eyes. It was as if something was blocking me. I tried again and this time I saw no colors, only a misty-looking unfamiliar landscape. That frightened me enough I opened my eyes almost expecting to see it. I was not comfortable with this newfound ability I had of time travel.
“I do need the stones,” I whispered. This meant I would have to go back to the castle and lay my hands on the outside wall near the rose carving. But not today. I was tired and I wasn’t ready to go back to the place where George Gordon died. I drew my knees up and hugged them. I allowed myself a little time to grieve for the man I’d come to know and love.
I slept soundly in the stone ruins of the house and woke early. Thirst drove me out with my tankard and I slipped down the hillside to the river and filled it, slaking my thirst. The rays of early morning sun were striking the river, brilliantly reminding me of shooting stars. I saw everything with such clarity, different shades of green across the river, the river water meeting the obstruction of the stones laid across, making a footbridge. The sky was pale gray and blue. It’s a good sign, I thought. I made my way back to the stone house intending to try again to get back where I belonged. I sat in the middle of the stone floor and tried to concentrate but things were not connecting in my mind. I let out a deep breath and opened my eyes. The sun had found a place to enter the shaded, roofless house. It picked out a flat oblong stone in the wall. I crawled towards it. Lichens covered most of it but there in the center I saw what looked to be writing of some kind. It intrigued me to the point I took my honey pot and began scraping at the lichens
I brushed my hand across the stone and felt something then drew my hand back. I didn’t want to…and yet I did. What could this stone tell me? Before I tried to find out I looked over the inside of the ruin for others that matched it. There were more of the same color but none with writing. I sat before the stone. The lettering was like runes I’d seen in a book. Norse writing.
I reached in my cloth bag and pulled out the jeweled salamander that Lord Gordon had given me. My intention was to clean out some of the groves in the stone to see if I could make out any of the symbols. Back home in my cottage in Mt. Pleasant I had a small disk on a leather thong. It had been handed down to me by my grandmother. It was old but I didn’t’ know how old it was. It had a symbol such as these engraved on the disk. As near as I had been able to decipher it, it said ‘a new life’. I could see it in my mind’s eye but none of the symbols on the stone seemed to match. I made a few attempts at scratching in the grooves and then thought better of it. I didn’t want to damage the salamander’s pin.
I moved outside and thought about going back to the castle. I’d about made up my mind to do that. I was familiar enough with the layout there that I might be able to get to the wall without being detected. After a bit I went back inside to pick up my cloth bag. Now the sun had moved and a brilliant shaft of light hit the stone. It shone in the shadowy ruin. I was drawn to it by some force stronger than me. On my knees I placed my left hand on the stone and immediately felt a strong jolt like electricity singing through my veins. Colors bright and terrible and then nothing.
I felt something crawl across my hand and I shook it, my eyes coming open at the same time. It was a lizard of some kind. I sat up, my head swimming, but the colors receded as soon as I became aware. In my tightly-closed right fist was the salamander pin. I had that but nothing else. I stood up and took inventory of myself. I was not hurt in any way. I was dressed in a gray roughly woven shift that hung from my shoulders to mid calf, over that a tunic in faded purple. Around my waist was a braided leather belt crisscrossed several times with the tails hanging loose. Attached to this was another leather piece with a woman’s necessities, a bone case holding a needle, a small knife and other things I could not identify. My feet were encased in soft leather laced to mid calf. My hair was loose and wild. I’m a ginger and the kind of ginger with unruly curly hair, the kind of hair that wants taming with product and a hot brush. I didn’t know from my dress just where in history I’d landed but definitely farther back than I’d traveled before. The house was gone and I stood in a forest of tall trees. I put the salamander inside my shift, pining it through the tunic. It was all I had to remind me of where I’d been other than my memories.
This was my third trip back in time and I wondered if this was to be my life now. Would I ever be able to return to my world? I was temporarily unemployed but I'd applied at a clinic and a hospital in Charleston and thought my chances were pretty good at the hospital. They always needed nurses and I was a RN. I’d traveled to Scotland to try and find a thread to my ancestors. I found more than that but my time for rambling about was long past. Two months I’d spent at Huntly Castle. This trip back in time came without a guide.
I was hungry and thirsty and if I was in the same place then the river was down below the sloping hillside. I skidded down on the blanket of leaves and tree debris to the bank of the river. It seemed deeper than I remembered and the stone bridge was gone. I scooped up a handful of water, several in fact before I noticed something out of the corner of my eye.
I fell back in the reeds and grass and I was afraid. I scrambled back to the tree line and stood behind a tree watching the ships come slowly up the river. Oh, my GOD! Vikings!
There were three ships and they didn’t seem to be in a hurry. I reasoned since the River Deveron was there that I was still in Scotland. The ships were full of men and their shields hung over the side. Was this a raiding party or had they a settlement nearby? Keeping to the trees, I followed them upriver. I passed where the stone bridge had been over the narrowest part of the river. It widened out and curved and I lost sight of the ships. My side of the river was nothing but woods and hills as near as I could tell. I sat down with my back against a tree. After a while I noticed how the land opposite rose up. Up there is where the castle would be built, and below it near the river the modern town of Huntly would be centered. I realized now why I’d been so disoriented. The actual village we’d visited for the fair was to the right and around the curve in the river…out of sight now.
I don’t know how long I sat there letting my mind wander and thinking about food and shelter. I couldn’t live in the woods. I even tried to think myself back to the castle. Nothing worked. I smelled smoke and stood up. Beyond the curve in the river something was burning. Smoke rose up into the sky. Vikings…if there was a settlement there it was going up in smoke. A thought came to me that there might be some making their escape. If a boat should come by I’d hail it and get away from this place.
Where I stood I was on high ground. The hillside sloped down steeply to the water’s edge, leaving a wide area unprotected by trees. I decided to backtrack and farther down the trees grew down to the water’s edge, some fallen over into the river. It would be a good place to hide. I skidded down the hill and ran into a fallen log. As if providence were looking out for me I saw a small boat floating towards the shore, a man at the tiller, “Hello, hello there!” I called out. As the boat floated towards the riverside I gasped in horror. The man at the tiller was headless. I felt bile rising in my stomach and looked away. The little boat hit the log protruding out into the lake and stayed there. My escape was there but how could I possibly… I crawled out on the log. The little boat was bloody and the man slumped over, showing his stump of a neck to me. “God help me,” I said. I was a nurse; blood was not something that I felt an aversion to but headless men…well, that was another thing. I could throw him overboard.
There was water in the bottom of the boat but that didn’t interest me at the time. I shoved the dead man into the river and watched as his body floated for a moment then sank. One paddle and I used it to push my way out into the river away from the tree. The boat spun around in the water and rocked. It was a strange little boat, peaked at both ends. I tried paddling one side then the other but it was moving with the current . I let it go where it would, only using the paddle to straighten it up from time to time. My feet were wet along with the bottom of my shift. I looked down and saw why. I was no farther than the narrows before I had to abandon it on a muddy bank. It was rather disheartening to know I was back almost where I’d started from. I climbed out of the boat and sunk up to my knees in mud. It sucked at my legs and I had a wild thought of quicksand closing over my head. I hung onto the side of the boat and didn’t appear to be sinking anymore but couldn’t move. I was fast in the mud. It was like being stuck in quick-drying cement. I was frantic but the more I moved the more my feet settled into the muck. I felt it reach my thighs. I leaned into the boat and rested the upper half of my body there. This is how I would end, maybe with my head chopped off. I thought of George Gordon knowing his own death was coming. Maybe I’d meet up with him on the other side.
Stuck in the mud with my skirt ballooned up around my middle and half conscious I was found. I heard their voices and understood what they were saying.
“Dead, leave her.”
“Not dead, she moves.”
“Only the wind. Get her if you want a corpse.”
Something bumped against the little boat and then it moved from under me. My face went in the water and I came up sputtering and flailing about. Someone grabbed my arm but I was stuck.
“Wah, she doesn’t move. Stuck in the mud, ha, ha, ha!”
I blinked my eyes and pushed my hair back. "Oh, no,” my nightmare had taken form. The wild man I’d seen across the stream at the castle was before me, leaning over the side of his ship that moved outward from the shore.
An oar was extended to me. I took hold of it but I was settled deep in the mud and only moved a few inches forward. Next a twisted rope was thrown at me and I put it around me, tying it across my breast. It took two of them pulling on the rope to break me free of the mud. They pulled me through the water like a fish and hauled me into the ship. I was handed a cup and drank thirstily and when the fire hit my throat I coughed, lost my breath and my eyes streamed. He laughed and took the cup from my hand, downing the rest of it.
Wet and miserable with mud in the bottom of my shoes and in the company of Vikings…what more could I want? The one with the cup fished me out of the water, the one that I saw in my nightmares. I tried not to look at him. He had some markings on his face and smeared blue paint. He was wet as if he’d been fished out of the river but there were still traces of blood on his clothes. It must have been a bloody slaughter…good morning's work…he revolted me.
“What are you called?” he asked.
I looked at him a moment with my mouth sealed.
“If no name I will give you one.”
It sounded like Yeen when he repeated it. How could I understand their language and they me? He stood up in the boat. “I claim her. I found her.”
I covered my face with my hands.
“You already have a thrall,” an older man said.
“Two hands more will be better.”
Another laughed. “He does not need two more hands. Thorit wants a whore.”
My captor turned on him and there was a scuffle until the older man put a stop to it. As he’d moved from in front of me I was able to look down the ship to the oarsmen. Many of them wore collars and little else. Slaves? Probably. I’d never thought about Vikings having slaves. The older man nudged me with his foot.
“Do not mind him. He is sensitive. His wife is dying.”
“Am I to be his slave?”
He shrugged. “He’s claimed you. Whether or not he collars you is another matter and for him to decide.”
Presently a sail was raised and we sailed on. Once I stood up and saw two more ships, one ahead of us and one behind. The steep hillsides had given way to rolling land, some flatland or valleys. Not a living soul, no houses, no farms, no castles…nothing, nothing to tell me what century I was in. The sun was heading west and the air was growing cooler, especially for me in my wet clothing and mud-filled shoes. My captor, Thorik by name, pushed me back down on the deck. I wasn’t to stand.
“Some of your kin may be in the other boats and think to riot. We cannot have that.”
“I have no kin here. I am not from the settlement that you ravaged.”
“Where do you come from?”
“Somewhere you’ve never been.”
“I doubt that. How came you to be in the boat?”
“I stole it from a dead man. Unfortunately someone had chopped a hole in the bottom of it. I didn’t get far. I was on the other side of the river.”
“You lie to me.”
“I’ve no reason to lie to you. If you hadn’t pulled me from the mud I’d probably be dead by now.”
“True, you would have been. When we arrive you stay behind me. Wherever I go you are to follow. You belong to me.”
I couldn’t help flashing my eyes. I didn’t belong to anyone. I quickly looked down and nodded. It would be easier that way. He grabbed my arm.
“You understand you must obey or I will be forced to collar you.”
“Right, I understand. I have nowhere else to go.” It was true I didn’t, I couldn’t take myself away. This was madness. Why had the stone sent me into slavery?
The conversation aboard turned to the approach to their settlement. I got up on my knees and looked over the side. It wasn’t what I expected to see. It looked like a well ordered settlement with houses and docking for their ships. A wide stream ran though the middle of it, emptying into the river. A crowd had gathered near the dock. I looked at these people as our ship pulled in. Some of them did look rather wild but most were there waiting to hear of the raid. Women with babies on their hips and a number of children running around…like normal people. A few white bearded men. The first ship pulled up to the dock and a man of some standing got off. He had a cape draped around his shoulders and was neither bloody or dirty. He had a limp. Several others came off and some were carried, two men injured. I didn’t see any slaves on that ship until the oarsmen came off. Some wore collars and one was fettered with a braided rope. No… I definitely did not want a collar to be placed around my neck.
Finally it was our turn. Thorik grabbed my hand and put me behind him as soon as I got off the ship. I followed him, casting my eyes right and left. It was hard to walk in my shoes heavy with mud. It dried on the laces where it oozed out of the holes. He finally let go of my hand and I went with him through the settlement to a house.
“Hallo, we’ve come.” He ducked his head going inside the house. I stepped in behind him. In the center of the room was a fire pit directly beneath a hole in the roof. I stopped beside it. There was a woman standing on the other side and she glanced at me. I judged her to be older, maybe in her 30’s. Thorik went to the bed where his wife lay.
“Has she moved all day?” he asked.
“No, only a little.”
“That’s Jean Gordon. She belongs here now,” he said over his shoulder.
I looked at the other woman, unsure what I was supposed to do.
“Is she free or?”
“For now…I don’t know yet.”
“Excuse me but what’s wrong with your wife?” I said.
“She’s dying. There is something wrong inside her…she has grown a stone.”
“A stone?” I thought of kidney stones, gall stones.
“Here.” He lightly put his hand on her belly.
Should I offer to help? I debated for a moment. “I…I’ve been called a healer. May I have a look?” I pulled the fur quilt back. The woman was pale and wasting away. I could see her skeleton in her face. There was a large lump on her belly and it was hard. I turned to Thorik. “How long has she been sick?”
“Three months like this.”
“Was she with child?”
“She was but the babe did not breech. It was too soon.”
“And so…what…nothing was done for her? She was with child and went into labor too soon? Did she bleed?”
The other woman stepped up. “She did bleed and lost her waters but the babe did not come.”
“Oh, God,” I said quietly. I could feel the woman’s body heat through her gown. “I’m afraid it’s too late to do anything now. She’s too far gone. The baby should have been taken from her.”
The woman cut her eyes to Thorik and moved away. He rested his head on his hands. “I…I wouldn’t let them cut her.”
“This is my doing.” He took her hand in his and kissed it.
I felt sorry for him now that he realized it was his own ignorance that was causing his wife to suffer so. I felt sorrier for her. “What do you give her?” I asked the woman. She showed me some herbs and I smelled them. “Sleep, it’s the best thing for her now. You have done what is right.”
“It won’t be long,” she said softly.
He made a sound in his throat and I realized he was stifling a sob. I looked to the other woman. “What’s your name?”
“What can I do, Maud?” She shook her head.
Thorik soon left us and I was able to start on my shoes. Maude helped by cutting the laces as they were never going through the holes again. The shoes came off. I think I lost ten pounds. She poured a dipper of water over my ankles and feet. Not exactly cleaning all the mud off but as I was now shoeless, what would a little dirt matter? I would have to ask Thorik for shoes. Maud came to them a slave but she’d been with them for a long time. She was a free person and chose to stay. She told me Thorik was a good and brave man. His only fault was that he loved his wife too much. I asked why he wouldn’t let them cut her. It was because that usually meant death. He was afraid she’d die.
I looked over at the poor woman. She’d been doomed from the beginning. Sad and I was sad I couldn’t do something for her. Maud was a well of information. Thorik’s older brother was the Earl. This was not their permanent home but a kind of outpost. I thought it was a well founded one. How long had they been here? A year and a month. She was from the west coast and had lived at Ork before coming here. The Vikings came down the river, taking what could not be subdued on their way. I asked about the slaves. There were not so many, she said, they were usually sold quickly. The ones that were kept served their masters. Maud told me the single women slept in a separate house as did the single men. Only married men had a house of their own depending on their status. If they were poor they lived with the wife’s parents. This was rare for the Vikings were not poor. Their plundering ways provided an income for all of them. I said there didn’t appear to be many old ones here. The old ones were left at Ork because they could not fight and would slow the progress.
Thorik would eat at the long house tonight and I might be asked to serve. Maud looked me over and said maybe not tonight since I was in such a state of filth from the mud and the river. I asked where I might bathe. That would be up to Thorik. Thorik was not in a mood to discuss my state. He came back, washed his face and hands in a bucket and changed his clothes. After he left I washed my face and hands in the same bucket and since there was nothing else for me to do followed Maud’s directions to the single women bungalow. There were only three other women in the bungalow but they fed me and gave me a bed of furs. Maude joined us later on.
The next morning I presented myself at Thorik’s house. I think Maud had spoken to him because he glanced at me and indicated I was to follow him. He took me to the bath house, a low structure made of stone next to the river. Inside timbers covered the roof except for the hole for smoke. A fire pit was lit and the room was humid and warm. A large round wooden tub was filled with water. I looked at him a moment, wondering how many bodies had been in that tub and then undid the braided belt I wore. At last he left, giving me a little privacy. I washed in the tub and also washed my clothes and wrung them out as best I could. The shift was made of a lightweight wool and I was trying to dry it over the fire pit when someone else came into the bath house. He looked at me a minute and then left. The next visitor was Maud. She brought me a cloth to dry off and scolded me for washing my clothes in the bathwater. Wrapped in a blanket I followed her back to Thorik’s house. My clothes were draped over a rope near the fire and I sat in the blanket until the shift was dry enough to wear. I noticed something in her hand.
“That’s mine.” I held out my hand for the salamander.
“Does Thorik know you have this?”
“It’s not his business. That’s mine.”
“I will give it to him and if he wants you to have it he will give it back.”
“Let me have it now. That’s very special to me.” I reached for it and she held it back behind her. We were about to get into a tussle when Thorik arrived.
“What is this?”
“She has this.” Maude gave him my salamander.
“It’s mine,” I said. “It’s all I have left.”
He held it up in the light near the doorway. “A pretty piece. Where did you get it?”
“It was given to me as a gift. Please, may I have it back.”
His hand closed over it. I knew he was not going to let me have it. My lip trembled of its own accord. In return he gave me some seal skin to make my own shoes. It was not a fair trade and I was determined to get that salamander pin back. He settled in on the bed next to his dying wife.
Under Maud’s instruction I set my foot on the seal skin and marked it with a piece of charcoal. I no longer felt she was my friend but I kept my mouth shut and tried to keep my feelings to myself.
“Am I supposed to cut this out ? I don’t know how to make shoes.”
“Take it to the shoemaker,” Thorik said.
Maud went with me to the ‘shoemaker’. He made shoes, aprons, armor, and all things leather. He took my sealskin without comment. We passed a forge where a man was hammering out an axe. There was some industry here. I noticed Maude had a knife on her belt. She’d proved herself amongst these people, however she’d given my one possession to Thorik and I was having a hard time forgiving her for that. She was also a tattle tale. For my transgression in the bath house, I was given laundry duty.
Down on the riverbank by a pot of boiling water I slaved over Thorik’s clothes, the woolens and leathers. One did not boil wool. I soaked it in the river and watched the bloodstains seep away. The leather I also soaked and then had to rub some sort of grease into the breeches. His woven clothes I soaked in warm water. I don’t know how the rest of the women were doing their laundry but I did his the way I wanted to. Unlike what I’d been led to believe, the Vikings were not dirty people. There was the bath house as evidence that they bathed and the fact that I was doing laundry put an end to their supposed filth. Sure they looked rough after their raiding party up the river but their daily appearance was clean.
When I got back to the house with my load of semi-damp clothing, there was a crisis. The older man from the boat was there along with another man and Maud. Thorik was on his knees by the bed. His wife, Lingor, had died.
“Leave her to the women, Thorik,” the older man said.
“No…I can’t let her go.”
“You have no choice, man.”
The younger of the two went down on his knees beside Thorik and said something I didn’t hear. The two of them stood up. The older put his hand on Thorik’s shoulder. Together they walked him out of there.
“I’ll do it. I know what should be done. Water, any soap?” And so I bathed her and Maud and I dressed her in her finest dress. Her jewels and her personal items were placed on her body and then we wrapped her in the fur. “What will happen now? Will there be a cremation…a funeral pyre?”
“She will be entombed .”
And so she was carried to the edge of the hills beyond the settlement. A mound of earth marked the spot of an underground burial site. All of the settlement was there. Words were said and her spirit was released. These Vikings were not Christians. They still worshiped the old gods of Asgard.
Maud and I went back to Thorik’s house and he went to the long house with the other men. We cleaned the house from top to bottom and anything that had belonged to Lingor was put into the fire pit. When we finished there was no indication that she’d ever lived there. I felt very sad for Thorik. It was late when he came back, half supported by the two men who’d been in the house earlier that morning. He was drunk and Maud and I left for the single house.
“Will he have to give up his house now?” I asked, wondering since he was now single again.
“No, he has established himself and he is wealthy.”
I wondered about my own fate. “He won’t need two people to look after him and his house.”
“We shall see. Maybe he will sell you now.”
“Maybe he’ll sell you,” I retorted.
“He cannot sell what he does not own. I am a free person whereas you are not.”
Over the next few days Maud became more and more snappish with me. I didn’t belong to her and often I completely disobeyed her commands. I belonged to Thorik, though you wouldn’t know it. He spent little time in the house. My relief was coming. A ship came in from the north bringing trade items and someone Maud knew. She was all atwitter and I soon found out why. When the ship left Maud left with it, a married woman. He was a large fellow and swooped her up, carrying her aboard ship as if he crossed a threshold with her. I wasn’t sorry to see the back of her but this put me in a rather precarious position. I’d been allowed to move about as a free person, unfettered and left to my own devices, and I did attend my duties to the Thorik house. He had no cause for complaint. I can only surmise that he must have been under some pressure from others in the settlement. He collared me.
It was a humiliating experience. He left me unfettered but the collar was like a brand. It set me in place with the hierarchy of the settlement. I was the lowest of low, a thrall. The only thing I had to be thankful for is that he did not make me cut my hair. Instead I wore it braided and wound up in a knot on the back of my head.
My duties included his house, cleaning, cooking and sewing. I’ve never been a great hand at cooking but I like to eat. I was shown how to do things by other female slaves. Everything from scratch, grind the barley and rye for bread, churn the butter, and prepare the fish and meat by drying or salting as preservation. I had to grind the salt. It was hard work. One thing he did do was let me eat what I cooked. I cooked for two unless he had a guest, which was not often, for a meal. I made use of his credit at the shops. I obtained a new lidded clay pot for cooking. I was growing tired of boiled fish, boiled meat. Food was plentiful but it was boring. I began working in the communal garden for vegetables. Herbs I found on my own when I had time to go wandering about. I tended chickens and gathered eggs in return for the same. A thrall had no money and so he had to barter with his time unless he possessed some cottage industry. The only thing I had to swap was my medical knowledge. I used it, too, treating everything from a toothache to an animal bite. I was paid in things I needed, already woven fabric, leather for a belt that I had made as my braided one had disintegrated.
Two months had passed since Thorik’s wife’s death. He hardly ever said anything to me and I didn’t think he even saw me. I’d tried out my new clay pot with a chicken and selected herbs, carrots and fennel. It was a new way of cooking for him and when I served it out on his wooden trencher he looked up at me and frowned.
“Try it before you condemn the poor bird,” I said.
I tasted it before he did and it was good. It was the best thing I’d cooked. He devoured the rest of it and gave me a compliment.
“You have learned our ways well. I do not think this is food I have ever eaten before. I like it.”
“I’m glad you did.”
“We will take a ship out tomorrow. You stay here until I return.”
“I’ll be here.” He didn’t usually tell me anything. He was very reserved around me, saying as little as possible. “Is there anything I need to do for you before you go?”
“I always do that.”
He looked at me a moment. “Yes, you do and do it well.”
He was as tall as the tallest of men in our settlement, blond with a short reddish beard. His eyes were icy blue. He was broad of chest with muscular arms marred only by scars and tattoos. His face was tattooed with zigzagged lines from his temple to his jaw line on both sides. There was also a zigzag line down his neck along with some swirled patterns across his shoulders. I’d never asked him about the markings. There were others who had them, too, but not like his. They were all different. The day I’d first seen him on the boat, he’d painted blue inside the zigzags. It made me think of Native American warriors. He was clean, tidy and I could almost like him if he had not collared me and taken my salamander.
I was luckier than some I’d seen collared. My movements about the settlement were not curtailed. I pretty much did as I pleased as long as I kept up my work. It appeared to me that when there was a woman in the household, the thrall led a dismal existence. This I saw in some of the places I was called in for medical reasons. Not all Vikings were created equal. I was indeed lucky.
“I have heard your brother is an earl.”
“Earl of Orkney and therefore king .”
“Is he really…king?”
He picked up his silver cup and drank his ale. “Same thing.”
“Does that make you a noble of some kind?”
“It makes me his younger brother.”
“Not the chieftain here?”
“That belongs to Hardr. Hardr is chief.”
“The man with the limp?”
“His toes were cut off in battle. That’s why he limps.”
“Take care of your toes tomorrow.”
He smiled, the first I’d seen. “I always take care.” He was really quite handsome when he smiled.
I began cleaning up the trenchers. I did the washing up in a wooden bucket with hot water. There wasn’t dish soap but our things were clean. He watched me. I felt his eyes on my back as I moved about from the cooking fire to the bench where I worked. I did things differently and he must have noticed. The clay pot was last. After filling it with hot water and swishing it around I couldn’t pick it up to dump outside. He did it for me.
“You use a lot of water.”
“Yes, I know. I know exactly how much I use because I carry it from the well.” There was a natural spring that they’d conquered for the settlement. I made many trips a day to the well, carrying half buckets of water at a time. It was needed for washing, for cooking, drinking and cleaning. After I’d wiped down my bench I looked around to see if I’d missed anything. “I’ll say good night to you until morning.”
“Good night, Jean Gordon.”
Our eyes met for a moment and I hurried out. I can’t remember him using my name before unless it had to do with an introduction.
I was back early the next morning to feed him before he left. “We join forces with the earl this day,” he said.
“It sounds like it’s going to be a big battle.” In answer he shrugged. “Be careful of yourself.”
He looked at me intently. “What do you see?”
“See? I…I don’t see anything. Why do you ask?”
“Because you have wished me to be careful before. Will I survive this day?”
“Of course you will,” I automatically replied and I believed he would survive.
He brought out my jeweled salamander. “I have this for luck.”
“That’s mine. You may carry it but it’s mine and it knows it’s mine.”
He smiled and tucked it beneath his shirt. “Then I am assured I will return .”
I turned away from him. I saw clearly in my mind’s eye the day George Gordon had tossed it to me from his horse…something he picked up in Perth, something to remember him by. I wanted to touch it and hold it. I gave him a hard look and began gathering things from the table for washing.
After he left the house I sat down and I wanted to cry. I don’t usually give in to these feelings. I saw nothing but hard work ahead for me. I looked at my hands, red and roughened from scrubbing and grubbing. I didn’t want to be here. I tried concentrating on Huntly and wishing myself back to my world. I couldn’t get anywhere. Something was blocking me and I was beginning to fear it was a permanent block.
I spent the day sewing a new shift. The one I’d arrived in was frayed and stained. This one would be gray and over it I would wear a new tunic of black wool. I already had it made and tucked away beneath Thorik’s clothing box. I might wear a collar but I would not be going about in rags. To fill the day I concocted a stew of beef (I had to soak it to remove the salt) leeks, carrots and barley. I bartered for bread from a woman who made good bread, better than I could. Should he return today he would have a hearty meal and, if not, it would keep until tomorrow. The day wore on and like some of the other women in the settlement I walked to high ground looking for the ships. It was windy up there and the sun nesting across the river beyond the mountains shone in my eyes. There was an old man amongst the women. He had a long staff with him and he turned around and looked at me. His eyes were clouded, probably with cataracts. He took a step or two towards me.
“I am Mordir.”
“I’m Jean Gordon.”
He reached out his hand and touched my shoulder and then my face. “You are not from here.”
I felt an energy coming off him. He was the seer I’d heard about. “No, I am not from here. I come from far away, a land beyond the western sea.”
He let his fingers run down my nose and chin and then withdrew his hand. “Tell me more of where you come from. It is more than distance.”
“That’s true. I come from…the future. I don’t know what year this is here but it was 2014 when I left my world.”
“How, how did you come?”
“Through the stones.”
“The stones, ah…we must talk,” he said. He went down the hillside rather briskly and sure footed. I followed him to his house, a small place with a thatched roof. Inside a collared man left when we entered. He sat down on a stone bench and I on a pile of furs and asked me to tell him of my journey. I told him all of it from the beginning up until I was found on the river.
“It has been a strange journey and your journey is not over.” He reached in his robe and pulled out a little leather bag. From the bag he dumped a pile of stones, small rounded ones with markings. I looked over them and saw that they were runes. He spread them out and began picking them up at random and feeling the markings. “Soon you will begin a new journey.” He held onto one particular rune. “A new path will open for you. Use your powers, Jean Gordon.” He handed me the stone. “That is for you.”
I looked down at the stone and my mouth fell open. It was the same size with the same marking as the one I had at home. “I have this or one like it at home.”
“Keep it with you to remind you of where you have been and what you have learned.”
“I will and will this new path take me home?”
“You will find your place in time.”
That gave me some hope. “Thank you, Mordir. I needed to hear that.”
I left him then and was surprised to find it was pitch dark. Not even a star showed its face in the black night. I followed the stream back to the center of the settlement and found Thorik’s house. It was dark and empty. I fed the fires beneath the cook pot and the center fire that kept the house warm. Taking one of the small torches, I lit it and fixed it to the holder on the wall. A little niggling of worry was beginning to form in my chest. I ate my share of the stew and a hunk of the bread. Still he had not come back. I sat on the side of his bed and found a carved ivory pendant on a leather thong. I’d seen that around his neck. I held it in my hand and then thought about my salamander in his shirt. “Bring him back,” I said softly. I pictured the salamander crawling around on his body, over the soft vulnerable places protecting them from harm. All of a sudden the salamander jumped and it startled me. My eyes came open. That was too real and it scared me. That salamander was trying to get back to me.
They returned at dawn. The shouting woke me. I’d slept in Thorik’s bed. I splashed water on my face and washed my hands. Opening the door, I looked out. Everyone was down by the docks. I built up the fire in the fire pit and then took myself down there to see what it was all about. There were five ships coming in. One of them was an elaborate looking vessel with a high carved bow showing a dragon head. I heard that it was the king’s ship. I was surprised to see there were women on the ship and they were as fierce and rough looking as the men. The king’s ship docked first and a few men got off to make sure all was well before he came off. I saw him from a distance, still in his armor, and he appeared to be as dirty as the rest. He waited on the dock until the second ship tied up and then he went to the long house with a group. Now the wounded were being taken off. I held my breath and then I saw him, not walking, but being carried. I raced back to his house and set a pot of water to boil. I rummaged around assembling all that I had to treat a wounded man. Over his bed I spread a woolen sheet and I waited. I waited and went to the door. He should have been here by now…and then the possibility that he had died came to me. I took the empty bucket and ran to the well. By the time I got back he was there. They were just getting him inside the door and to the bed and he was walking. I let out a sigh of relief.
“What happened?” I asked the older man.
“He’s cut up.”
There was so much blood on his clothing I couldn’t tell where to start. “Help me get this armor off.”
He was conscious and helped them get it over his head. It was a big effort for him and he fell back onto the bed. The two men parted away from the bed and I felt someone behind me.
“I need to get his clothes off,” I said and turned. I reacted immediately. “Oh,” I got out. Something about this man gave me a jolt. “Can you help me undress him?” I heard the other two men’s “awww”.
“I will help you,” the man said. He began undoing the wide leather belt and I pulled his tunic up. The salamander fell into my left hand and my fingersclosed on it. At the same time something else fell out and the man took it in his hand. He frowned slightly and held it up near the torch. My thumb ran over the salamander. It was missing a stone, the stone that the man held in his fingers.
“Interesting,” he said. My fingers closed tightly over the pin. His did the same with the stone. It was only a moment that our eyes met and it was if he knew and I knew and nothing was said. I slipped the salamander into my little leather bag of woman’s things. Now I was focused on Thorik. With his tunic off I saw a wound near his breast bone. With his belt and leggings off I saw the real one on his hip. There were others on his arms and hands, nothing serious. I began giving directions. Thorik kept strong spirits in the house. This I used for disinfectant. I sent my silver tweezers, which I still had, into the pot of boiling water along with a silver needle. I began washing the blood off him to see how deeply he was cut.
“I need more light, another torch.” It appeared and was fastened over the bed. The two men built up the fire pit and the cooking fire. They’d looked in the pot.
I cleaned the wound, flushing it out and pulling out a piece of leather from his leggings. It was deep and I was going to have to sew it up. I went for my needle and noticed the man’s knife laying in the fire.
“Use this,” he said.
“No, it needs stitches.”
“It closes the wound, seals it.”
“Not this one. It’ll fester. I know what I’m doing.” I turned around and took a small bag from the shelf over the cooking fire. It held catgut that I’d bartered a chicken for. I threaded the needle and went back to the bed and had to push the man with his knife away. “You’ll not brand him with that,” I said. He blinked and stepped back. “If you want to do something, give him a drink of that…that alcohol. This is going to sting."
With my patient properly dosed with the strong spirit, I poured some over the wound and began to stitch it closed. It took me some time to finish. I padded the wound with folded wool and wrapped a piece around his hips. All this time he’d not let out a whimper. With the most grievous wound taken care of I went to work on the rest. They needed cleaning some needed bandaging. I used the herbal ointment I’d made. When I was done I leaned over him. “You smell of mint.”
He smiled a little. “Little wonder that I do. I told you I would come back.”
“Yes, you did. Now you should rest, no moving about for awhile.”
When I straightened up and turned around the two men were at the table having some stew. The other man sat on a stool. I had a feeling his eyes had not left me. “I’m sorry I yelled at you.”
I heard Thorik chuckle behind me. “You put down the King of Skotlund.”
My eyes widened. “I didn’t know.” My collar felt heavy around my neck. I dipped my head. “Sire.”
He stood up. “Not the king of Skotlund, at least not yet. You have done a fine job with my little brother.”
“It’s what I do, among other things. I’m a healer.”
“You’re a thrall.”
“Not by choice. I was not born a thrall.” I felt the threads of my being reaching out to him and the threads of his being touching. I tried to pull them back. This was madness, and this may get me killed. The connection was made and I did not know where it would lead. I fingered my woman’s bag where the rune lay. Was this my new path? He wasn’t as tall as Thorik, dark haired, green eyed and sturdily built.
He moved abruptly and looked at the two men eating the stew. “You there, that food was not cooked for you. Get out.” They left and he moved over to the table and picked up the trencher and smelled it. “Would that it were cooked for me.”
“You’re welcome to it,” I said.
He stuck a finger in the food and tasted it and then he left. When the door opened I noticed the armed men standing outside of the house. I turned back to Thorik. “Have I put my head on the block?”
“No…no, I do not think you have.”
“Do you feel you could eat something?”
“It smells good.”
I fed him and gave him ale. He then went to sleep. I cleaned up after the meal and left the remaining stew in the pot. For myself I fried an egg and had it with bread and butter. I put his bloody clothing into a barrel to soak, checked on him and left with my bucket for the spring. There I met Mordir.
“Speak wisely, use your words carefully.”
“I’m afraid it’s too late. I yelled at the earl.”
“A good start,” he replied.
On the way back a woman met me and asked if I would see to her husband. He’d been injured badly. She took the water from me and I entered their house. He had a broken arm. And so my day went. I was called out twice more to tend to battle wounds. One I could do nothing for except relieve his pain with herbs. He would die and I told his wife to make him comfortable. I hate things like that. In my world of emergency rooms he would have had a chance.
At Thorik’s I mixed up some herbs and bark for his tea when he awoke. He was surprisingly compliant, drinking the unfamiliar tea and having two poached eggs, fried bread and some carrot and parsnip fritters I made. I told him since he was in bed he didn’t need a heavy meal. The tea put him to sleep. It’s what he needed to do while his body healed. He’d been hacked with an axe.
I cleaned up again and sat down with a cup of herbal tea, nothing medicinal for me. I thought about where I might sleep for the night. I could make a bed on the floor with the furs from my single house. While I was contemplating this the door opened and the earl came inside.
“How does he go?”
“He’s doing fine. He ate well and I gave him a sleepy time tea. He needs rest.”
“Are you his bed thrall?”
“NO! No, I’m not. I keep his house and his cook pot. That’s all.” I took the last drink of my tea.
“I had to ask. How long before he can move about?”
“He can move about tomorrow but he won’t be ready for battle again for awhile. I’ll take the stitches out in four or five days if all is well.”
He sat down at the table and leaned on his arms. “I think to move him to Orkney. The Picts are rallying against us here.”
“The Picts…am I to think that the battle you just fought didn’t go well?”
“It went well enough but there will be more. This settlement is not safe. Once we had the river to the sea but not anymore, not this far inland.”
“Do you plan to move everyone out?”
He looked away towards the bed. “There are too many. I brought two ships here with me to bring the wounded and the thralls. Hardr has three. Not enough.”
“I suppose you could leave all the thralls and then maybe there’d be room for the real people.” After all they were sub-human and of no consequence.
“The thralls will be sold. You have no need to worry. You are an intelligent woman. I see this with my own eyes. How did you become a thrall?”
I told him about being found on the river.
“Where did you come from if not from the settlement?”
“If I told you, you would not believe me.”
“If you tell the truth I would believe you.”
“There was a ruin of a stone house on the hillside. I spent the night there and when I woke I found a stone slab in the wall with markings on it. They were runes. I imagine the stone was from another dwelling. Often things are built on the ruins of others, stones are reused.”
“This is true.”
“I laid my hand on the stone and when I came to myself the house was gone and I lay on the ground on the hillside. I tell you the truth. Stones speak to me and sometimes they take me places. That’s how I got here.”
He sat back and looked at me warily. “I see in your eyes that you speak the truth. Where did the house go?”
“Back to its time. Back to the year 1576 to be exact. The house was older, from another era.”
“You come from another time?”
“This is not possible.”
“I never would have dreamed it was until it happened to me. No one else here knows except Mordir.”
“Mordir is still alive? I must see him.” He looked me over closely. “Seior.”
“I don’t know that word.”
“No, I’m not.”
“Mordir is seior. He sees things others cannot see. He will advise me on this move.” He hesitated a moment, looked towards the bed, then left with his two guards who waited outside.
I was amazed that he would sit and talk with me…me, a thrall, collared, the lowest of the low. I reminded myself that was only my outward appearance. I knew who I was inside. Was it possible he’d looked beyond the collar and found me?
Thorik woke me the next morning. I’d slept on the floor of his house.
“What are you doing here?”
“I…fell asleep. I thought you might need something during the night.”
“I need to get up.”
I found him a clean tunic and helped him get it over his head. Thus dressed, I helped him from his bed. He insisted he could walk outside. I know his hip must be painful but he never indicated that it was. He came back in a little later, looking somewhat pale.
“Back to bed with you.” I was taking liberties now that he was under the weather.
“Yes, sir.” I made his breakfast the way I’d make breakfast with a fried fish instead of bacon or sausage. He got scrambled eggs and fried bread. I know he liked the way I cooked for he never left a morsel on his plate. He asked for water and I had to go to the well for it. Looking down the stream on the way back, I noticed the king’s ship was still at the dock.
“Your brother came by last night to check on you.”
“Did he? Is he still here?”
“Yes, I saw his ship just now.” I thought to keep the conversation the earl and I’d had the night before to myself. It was up to him to decide what to do about moving the people out and to spread the word “I’d like to have a look at your hip.”
“You like looking at my hip?”
“It’s a fine hip, Thorik, but I’m afraid it’s beauty will be marred now by a scar.” His lips twitched and he rolled over on his side and pulled his tunic up.
I put a fresh pad on it and wrapped him up again. The stitches held and it looked good. “You’ll do.”
“You take much upon yourself, Jean Gordon.”
“I take what I need to and I take what I can. Opportunities don’t come often for me. Don’t worry, once you’re back on your feet I’ll start groveling again.” He laughed.
Later in the day the two friends of Thorik came by to see him and tell him there was to be a council. They wanted him to go.
I shook my head. “He can’t walk that far today.”
“We’ll carry him then.”
“You’ll not be carrying me,” Thorik said. He was bound to go and I got his clothes for him. He walked out of the house favoring his right side.
I knew we were going to have to leave this settlement. Whether the population was moved or not, Thorik would be and I would go with him. They returned hours later and Thorik was not a happy man. The three sat down at the table and I dished out food for them. The earl intended to take only the fittest warriors and their families. Already the thralls were being transferred to one of Hardr’s ships. All nonessential thralls, which meant some that had been living in the settlement, would be taken to the west coast and sold. I fingered my collar and hoped I continued to be essential.
“It’s a death sentence for those to be left behind,” Thorik said.
“Unless they might offer no resistance. There is a chance they might be spared. The Picts will take the women and children.”
“I’d rather die than live under their rule,” the younger man said.
“You might get that chance, friend.”
“What about the wounded that will be left?” I interrupted. Thorik frowned at me but he answered.
“The wounded will be useless to the Picts. They will be slaughtered.”
It seemed so unfair but then I thought the earl had a hard decision to make, risk everyone or save those he could, those that would be of use to him. Ach! I was thinking like a Viking! The next morning the settlement was strangely quiet. There were no children playing about in the stream. Those that had business seemed to hurry along without acknowledging their neighbors. I came back from the well without speaking or having been spoken to. Word had spread quickly and I’m sure behind the thatched roofs there was much lamenting going on. Who would go and who would stay?
Because Thorik was second in command of the settlement and presently injured, Hardr and the earl came to him.
“It is an unfortunate thing,” Hardr said, taking a seat at the table.
Thorik eased out of his bed and sat with them. He looked from one to the other.
“It is not up to me to decide who stays and who goes. I do not know these people as you do. I do not think Raynor will return in time with his ship, therefore, we have 4 ships available. All thralls not needed for special duties have been sent with Raynor. I believe you say there are 125 people here?” The earl clasped his hands before him on the table and looked at Hardr.
“Counting children, yes, 125. My ships can carry no more than 20 each, considering they will want their belongings.”
“We cannot ship households,” Thorik said. “Take what you must but no furnishings.”
I glanced around the room, which was richly furnished for the settlement. It wasn’t a problem for me. I owned what I wore and my bedding, which consisted of two fur-lined skins.
“What about her?” Hardr said, pointing at me. “Why is she still here?”
“She belongs to me,” Thorik answered.
I glanced at the earl, who had a thoughtful look on his face.
“I sent my own servants, my thralls away,” Hardr continued.
“Yes, but you have a wife to look after your needs,” Thorik said.
“Ha, your needs could readily be taken care of by…”
“Do not continue in that thought, Hardr,” Thorik warned.
“She is a healer, Hardr,” the earl added. “We are much in need of such at Orkney.”
“A thrall! Who would welcome the attentions of a thrall?”
“You forget yourself, Hardr. I am under her care and have no reason to complain.”
Hardr lost the battle. He pulled out two stones, one black and one white. “Black stays.”
“Wait, you have not considered the wounded and lame. If unfit for travel then they cannot be counted.”
“You are correct, my king.” Hardr took a piece of charcoal from the fire and unrolled a skin. “I will call a name and Thorik, you will throw the stones if he be fit.”
Thorik called his own name and threw the stones. The earl picked them up and dropped the white one on the table. "You are my brother.”
Thorik turned away on the bench. Clearly he did not like this at all. Hardr sighed and sat back. The earl called them both back to the job at hand. The stones were marked on one side with what I guessed was yes or no. I watched them for a moment. Sometimes they threw the stones twice to get an answer. I walked to the door and looked out. The woman whose husband had a broken arm was hurrying down the stream with a chicken by its legs. That was the only noise I heard, the squawking of that chicken.
Once the list was made, things moved quickly. Sixty-five people would be leaving on crowded ships for the king’s men were to return to Orkney too. I followed Thorik down to the docks with my bedroll. I was dressed in my new shift and tunic. I also carried some of Thorik’s things so it wasn’t apparent that I was going until one of the women saw me put down my bedroll and recognized it from the single house. Voices were raised and rightfully so, I thought. They were leaving friends and family members behind so that I might go?
The earl approached and, hearing the raised voices and understanding the atmosphere, he looked at me for a moment. “Turn around.”
I turned unsure what he was about. I felt cold steel on my neck and then the collar fell to the boards by my feet. I was facing Thorik and not at all sure what this meant.
“She is a free person by order of me, King of Orkney and of lands in Skotlund.”
Thorik’s eyes flashed but he said nothing. He was helped aboard the ship and I got on by myself. I didn’t know what to do so I followed him to the prow of the ship. There I stowed my furs and the things of his I’d carried in a bag. I sat on my fur bundle and rested my face on my arms. I didn’t want to see the ones left on the dock that had come down to say goodbye. One of them was Mordir.
The ships began to move out into the river and once in the current, the sails went up. Thorik’s leather trunk was stowed beside me and he sat down on it.
“You are a free woman now.”
“So I understand.” I looked up at him, his eyes were on the passing scenery.
“Will you no longer look out for me?”
“If I can, I will. I certainly will look after your wounds. I didn’t ask for this any more than I asked to be made a thrall. I have no idea what my status is or where I belong…I suspect nowhere.”
He looked down at me. “I suspect Jorl will decide.”
Jorl…he had a name. “I don’t belong to him, Thorik.”
“He has dominion over you. “
“We’ll see about that,” I said more to myself than to him. “How’s your hip doing? You’ve been up and about all morning.”
“It is well.”
“I should check it.”
“I’m not going to bare my arse here on the ship.” He got up and moved, slightly leaning to his right as he made his way down along through the throng and stood by his friend at the side of the ship.
I resumed my position. The motion of the ship was enough to put me to sleep. I felt it gradually taking me until someone sat down on the trunk next to me. I turned my head sideways, thinking it was Thorik but it wasn’t. It was the earl. I raised my head.
“You set me free.”
“Is that a good thing or no? I thought it was at the time. It will make it easier for you at Orkney.”
“What’s Orkney like?”
“No one thing. It is a string of islands, some small, some of good size. You will live in the fortress. It sits high with a good view of all islands, the Clough of Birsay.”
“Does everyone live in the fortress?”
“Certainly not. There are farmers and herdsmen spread out all over the islands.”
“So, the fortress is like a…castle…like a ruler’s house.”
“Exactly so. The business of the kingdom is conducted there.”
“I’m not…like a prisoner or anything, am I?”
“Why would you say that when I have given you your freedom?”
“Thorik said you have dominion over me.”
“As I do all men on this ship, as I do him until he accepts joint rule. Our father meant for us to rule together. Thorik had other ideas.”
“Will I still take care of him?”
“Do you want to?” He looked down at me, catching my eye and holding it.
“I’d like to tend his wound.”
“Then you shall do that but as for grinding his meal and washing the blood out of his clothing…no. There are thralls for that. You are no longer a thrall.”
“Thank you…I think.”
“I do not know what his intentions are towards you but I must tell you that marriage is forbidden.”
“Excuse me but he hasn’t asked me and if he did I would say no. I have no desire to marry any of…you people.”
“What I meant to say was that we do not marry out of our class.”
“Good for you. I’m from a classless society so forgive me if I’m not impressed. I understand perfectly. The collar is gone but the scar remains. It might interest you to know that before I came here to this wretched place I tended an earl, an earl who commanded an army if he wished. He was the Lord High Chancellor of Scotland, all of it…the whole country of Scotland.” I was fired and it was this man who lit the fuse. How dare he look down on me. “I also tended a simple stonemason, a good man with a family who did not wish to die. Before that I was ruler of my own world. I went to school, I have a trade. I’m a Registered Nurse, a certified herbalist and damn good gardener. I own my own house.”
There was a twinkle in his eye that infuriated me. “You have lost me in your words, Jean Gordon. I did not mean to offend you.” He stood up and touched the top of my head before moving away.
That was just like a man, I thought. They get you all fired up and then walk away. There was no one to kill. I buried my head in my arms. I’d meant to ask him how long a journey we were about. Of course I had no thoughts of marrying Thorik. He hadn’t made any advances to me and I didn’t think of him in that way. There has to more than a nice package…more and Lord Gordon had it. I shook my head. It would do me no good to start down that path again. I was supposedly on a new path according to Mordir. I felt sorry for the old man.
The ships sailed on through the night. The Vikings were very familiar with this river and its twists and turns. Come morning we put into a settlement. The smell of fish was almost overpowering but there were hungry men aboard our ship. The fishermen of the settlement were smoking fish in the open along the river banks. Everyone went ashore but stayed close to the docks. It was a chance to be fed and stretch our legs and a chance for the earl to gather news. At the noon hour we boarded again and I heard that we should reach the sea by darkness. I’d secured some of the smoked fish and a kind of flat bread while we were on shore. When darkness came and the earlier feast on shore was forgotten, I brought out the bread and fish. A barrel of fish and a stack of bread. I paid for it with one of Thorik’s knives. He had many and this one was in the bag of his belongings I carried aboard. I doubted he’d miss it as I’d done most of the packing up of his house. I handed the earl his fish wrapped in the bread. He looked at me for a long time and took it from me. I was beginning to think I’d put my foot wrong again.
Thorik took it from me as it was his due.
I’d spent most of the voyage huddled beneath the bow of the ship in the space there. It was about twilight when the earl came in my direction.
“Come and look before it is too dark to see.”
He led me to the side, pointing up to the high cliffs above on both sides. We glided between them and ahead was another dark shape.
“When we pass that spit of land we are at sea.”
“Oh, I can smell it.”
He smiled. “Soon you will taste it.”
I stood there in the curve of his arm which he braced me with while we passed the spit of land and the waves took over, nearly sending me to my knees. Indeed I did taste the salt spray. The wind filled the sails and our speed doubled. It was wild and exhilarating after the cramped space I’d confined myself to. I laughed out loud and turned to look at him. He was smiling and I felt his arm tighten around me. His warmth and the warmth of his fur cloak warmed me. Something inside me fell into place. I felt the threads of my being entwine with his. This was right. He was my path.
The fortress was built on a natural rock cliff high up on the western side of Clough Birsay. Clough Birsay was an island, roundish, looking like a large disk rising up from the sea. The earl told me at low tide one could walk across to the other island, the mainland, as it was the largest of the scattered islands. At the foot of the cliff before the island disappeared into the sea, was a village of sorts. There was docking for ships and all things a mariner might need to supply his ship for a voyage. We disembarked here under a moonlit sky. The way to the actual fortress was as I feared. We entered a cave and began climbing the stone steps. We went up and up a dizzying spiral, only stopping for Thorik. I knew he must be in agony. By the time we reached the top he was white-faced, sweating, and silent. I carried my fur bundle and inside of it was my bag of medicinal herbs and tools. The fortress was made of stone and timber, a large house with a central long room and rooms off to the sides.
I came up beside Thorik. “Where can we go where there will be water and fire? I need to tend to you and don’t say you don’t need it.”
He looked around for a moment. “In there.”
A small room with a plain bed and a fireplace. He looked out and summoned a servant. “Tell him what you need.”
“A fire built here, water and pots for boiling, cups for drinking. Oh, and bandaging material.”
I unrolled my bundle and took my things out, making a neat row on the dresser. Thorik was lying back on the bed. “You’re going to have to undress. I want to see all your wounds.”
“You like me undressed.”
“Only when I’m about to work on your body. You’re a great one for not showing your distress but you don’t fool me. I’m surprised you made that climb."
With the fire going and the other things coming, water came first with a kettle for the fire, I began to clean all his cuts and examine his bruises.
“Where did you get that? Give it to me.” He reached for the glass bottle of spirits I had.
“Oh, no, this is my antiseptic. If there’s any left you may have a swallow but not right now.”
“You are a bossy woman!” he said angrily.
“I heard you say that you trusted me with your care, that you had no complaints. You can stop complaining and turn over on your side. I looked at his hip closely. “Ah, Thorik, you’ve got to take it easy until I say different. Your stitches look angry and red.”
“My feelings are expressed even to my hip stitches.”
“So they are. Still, it’s not infected.” I dabbed at it with the spirit and smeared some of the ointment I’d made. Fresh bandages and he was done for awhile. His tea had seeped long enough and I strained a cupful for him. “Drink this all down.”
“What is it you give me?”
“Something for pain and fever and something to help you sleep.” I handed him the cup and he grabbed my wrist.
“I regret that you no longer belong to me.”
“I belong to myself. Thorik, I’m not that far away.” He lay back on the bed and I covered him with my fur and reassembled my medical supplies in my bag. I left the wooden bowl full of dirty water on the floor near the door and stepped out into the long room. There were torches burning along the walls and at one end, the end with the great stone fireplace, sat the Earl and his men, some women I recognized from the ship and others I’d never seen before. Not knowing what was expected of me or where I should be, I sat down on a long high-backed bench along the wall. I was hungry, tired and sleepy and before long I was stretched out on the bench.
I woke with something tickling my nose. The Earl was squatted down by the bench with a lock of my hair in his fingers. “Are you hungry?”
“Yes, I am and thirsty. I must have fallen asleep.”
“Come with me.”
I gathered myself and stood up. “Thorik is in there. I left him sleeping.”
He glanced into the room and continued on. I followed him up the stairs to a second level with a gallery overlooking the main room. At the far end of the gallery was his chamber. It was as wide as the long room. A fire was lit and a table set. My stomach rumbled. Such delights! Better bread than the outpost had, butter, and cheese. There was something cooked in a pastry. It had been boiled but when cut open it turned out to be a rabbit dish of some kind with leeks and other vegetables. There was wine to drink. He left me before I’d finished and came back with a woman and three children. I should have known. My heart sank and the bread went dry in my mouth. I got it down and stood up to meet his wife, Helgad, and his two sons and daughter.
“This is Jean Gordon. She is a healer…a real healer, not a chanter. Thorik found her on the river stuck in the mud.” He laughed and Helgad laughed a little too.
I held my breath, wondering if he would mention the thrall bit. He didn’t. Helgad came over and sat at the table and asked about my family and where I was from.
“My family…well, my father is of Scottish descent and my mother’s family was Scandinavian, we think from Holland or Denmark.”
“A Dane?” The Earl raised a brow.
“We’re not sure.” It was enough to satisfy her. She seemed very nice and was a lovely woman to look at. I envied her. Then I realized how foolish that was. It was all that ‘path’ thing that Mordir put in my head. The Earl was taken just like the last one. Earls were not for me. I nibbled at a piece of cheese while they talked softly. I wanted to be away from here…far away.
“Excuse me, but it’s been a long day. I wonder where I might lay my furs?” Then I remembered that I didn’t have them. I’d covered Thorik with them.
“Of course, I forget myself.” The Earl stood up and called a servant and spoke to her. “She will lead you to a suitable place. “I will see you tomorrow.”
I did my half curtsey and followed the stout woman down the stairs to the great hall and then through a passageway leading off from one end. The place must be like a maze, I thought. Eventually we came to a room, actually two rooms. There was an anteroom, sparsely furnished, and then a bedchamber with a high bed draped in furs. For heat there was a brazier, unlit. I turned to thank her but she was already through the door. I tested the bed and wondered who’d lain in it last. At least she’d left the torch and I lit a candle, the only one, and surveyed my accommodations. A window sat high on the wall, useless for anything other than air circulation. The floor was stone and a skin rug of some kind lay by the bed. The rest would wait until daylight. I slept and dreamt of the motion of the ship rocking me back and forth.
Morning brought a thin veil of light filtering down from the window across the bed and touching the brazier, which had been lit. I was glad to see it and dressed quickly in my shift and tunic. The sealskin boots felt good on my cold feet. There was also a bowl of water and a towel. I will say that so far I have been lucky as to my own health and well being. After finger combing my hair, my head began to itch. I thought of two things…fleas or lice. Either one was a horrible thought. At Thorik’s house I never thought of such a thing. He was very clean. No one had ever slept in his bed except for himself and his wife. I very much wanted to bathe and wash my hair.
My first duty, as I saw it, was to see to Thorik. After several wrong turns I found the great hall and went to the room where I’d left him the night before. He wasn’t there. Back out in the great hall I could see that it was empty. Knowing nothing else to do, I climbed the stairs to the gallery and knocked on the Earl’s door. A servant answered and I asked for Thorik or the Earl. “It’s Jean Gordon,” I said.
It was Thorik who came to the door and out onto the gallery. “What is it you want?”
“Three things. Number one, I went to check on you and you were gone. Are you all right?”
“Yes, you see I am.”
“Number two, I’d like to know where I’m to be fed and where I can bathe.”
“Go on, you said there were three.”
“Number three is that my bed is infested with…something.” At that moment I felt a stinging and scratched my head.
“You are no longer my responsibility.” He turned around and went back though the door and closed it.
I was ready to bang on the door again when the Earl opened it. I just had time to lower my fist.
“If you will wait here for a moment, all your wishes will be taken care of.”
“Thank you.” I waited and soon two women came out. I was taken to the bath, my head washed, oiled and combed out with two ivory combs, one with wide teeth and the other with the teeth carved so closely together not even a nit could pass through. I bathed and dressed in my clothes, which had been carefully inspected for vermin. Afterward, I was taken to a room where others were having a meal and I sat down amongst them and ate.
It was Helgad who came to my rescue. I was summoned to her rooms and given the option of one of her outfits or fabric to make my own. I went for the blue wool, flax and a heavier wool for a cold weather tunic. I’d make my own. As for accommodations, she thought I should live in the fortress.
“I don’t mind it but not in a room infested with vermin.”
“There is another without the walls, a small place but if you would like it, it can be yours. Jorl tells me that you are a healer. It might be best if you were not within this house.”
“Is it a place where I can cook and tend to my own needs?”
“Yes, it is quite complete.”
I agreed to take it. I’d much rather be on my own. She and two servants accompanied me to the place. It was a small A-framed thatch near the walls of the fortress with a wall of its own separating it from the force of the wind coming off the sea cliff. It had possibilities. A stone center fire pit built up knee high and an opening in the roof for the smoke, a bed, a table and a cooking fire. It would no doubt be smoky but I’d have to learn to live with that. My fabric was laid down on the table and the servants stepped back.
“I think I can live here,” I said. “Thank you. There are some things I’ll need and I’ll need to know where to get water and food.”
“You are to have anything you need to get started. All can be found in the fortress.” She lent me her servants to carry my goods back to the house. As she was leaving she said, “You will need a servant and the price can be discussed with Jorl.”
“Thank you for everything. He has been very generous with me and I appreciate it all.” I would not be purchasing a servant. After they left I looked at the two large buckets of water and then around in my new home. Two buckets would not be nearly enough. I would scrub it from top to bottom. I’d learned Viking housekeeping while at the outpost in Thorik’s house.
I was still getting settled in my new thatch when Thorik and the Earl came by.
“I came to get the stitching out,” Thorik said by way of greeting. He cast an eye over my dwelling place. The Earl had not yet entered.
“Oh, yes, I’d almost forgotten.” That wasn’t true but I decided I would not seek him out but wait until he came to me. I spread a sheet over my bed and bid him to lie down. It was awkward without scissors but I had a small knife that I used to pick them out. I was glad to see he’d healed up nicely, despite his disregarding my pleas to take it easy. “You’ve got a nice new scar but at least it isn’t what it would have been with a searing blade laid across it.”
“I bow to you, Jean Gordon. You have different ways and I am not averse to learning them,” the Earl said from across the room. I hadn’t noticed he’d come in.
Thorik sat up and rearranged his clothes. “She is good at what she does.” He glanced over at my cooking fire. I had to smile for I knew his appetite.
“It’s not ready, “ I said and indicated my pot. He ignored me and walked to the door. He gave me a last look and departed.
“And you, sir, do you have an ailment I can minister to?”
The Earl smiled. “I am well. How goes it for you here? I was surprised you moved from the fortress walls.”
“I do very well here. You are correct in that I have different ways. Here under my own roof they are not questioned. I do have a request. I am in need of certain herbs and plants.”
“Tomorrow I am to inspect my islands. If you would like to accompany me, such things might be found.”
“Thank you, I would like that.”
“We will assemble after the day meal. Join us in the hall.”
I said I would. His gaze held my eyes. I cannot explain it…the connection there. I felt it and wondered if he did too. Yes, I had removed myself from the fortress enclosure but not entirely due to my different ways. I cleared my throat. “Your wife was most generous in helping me to set up my house. I am in her debt.”
He waved his hand as if to dismiss such thoughts. “Until tomorrow morn.” He rose from the bench, glanced into my cooking pot and left. I had beef, onions, wild garlic, carrots and beans, simmering. Later I would add yesterday’s bread to thicken the stew.
Along our journey I saw fields of grains and other foodstuffs, cattle, sheep, wood and great meadows. There was everything here amongst the islands to sustain the population. As far as I could tell, they lived well. Everywhere we stopped goods were loaded into the king’s ships. I had more seeds and plants than I needed but I’d make use of them. I also found wild herbs growing on some of the islands. The Vikings didn’t make use of them. I gathered mushrooms, too, which raised some suspicious brows. All things were given to me as one of the king’s party. I was thankful for that for I had no idea how to pay for my bounty. I had yet to acquire any coin, though that would change in the coming weeks.
It was the growing season and I planted my finds near the wall behind my thatch. The wall protected the plants and the warmth of the stones helped them take root and grow. I planted seeds and reckoned I’d be there at harvest time. I was resigned to living in this place and time. None of my efforts had brought me to my world. My world began to seem like a dream, something remembered but not real. My reputation as a healer also began to grow. It began with a small boy’s broken foot. I was paid in coin or whatever the patient had to pay with. Sometimes it was smoked fish, which I liked, a bag of vegetables, a hare, and different things. I was particularly happy with skins and fabric for I did not weave. I was handy with a needle and thread and knitting needles.
From time to time Thorik paid me a visit. He never stayed long but if I had something to eat he wasn’t bashful about sitting down at my table. I think he missed the life at the outpost. I remembered something the Earl had told me about him.
“Have you consented to rule with your brother?”
He looked up at me with surprise in his eyes. “I am not a ruler, Jean Gordon. I am a warrior.”
I sat down across from him. “A warrior. Is that the answer to the tattoos on your face and body, the markings? I’ve noticed some men have them and some don’t…most don’t.”
“I am a Berserker.” He looked up at me as if I knew what that was. “I lead in battle.”
Hmm, berserk…I got a mental picture of him going berserk. I can imagine he could be quite frightening. “What do you do when you aren’t, um, berserking?”
“I bide my time as with all things.” He swabbed out the trencher with a piece of bread.
“Yes…time.” What a convoluted thing it was.
He looked at me a moment and then got up, heading out, but he stopped and turned. “Has he come to you yet?”
“Who?” As soon as I spoke the word I knew who.
“Time,” he nodded. “Give him time.” And then he was gone, leaving my heart picking up a beat.
I’m not naïve. I know Thorik would be in my bed if given any encouragement. I don’t encourage him for that reason. He needs a wife and according to his older brother, that can never be me. I also know him well enough that if he wanted me as his wife or lover, he’d take that step and thumb his nose at convention. If I were still his thrall, I’ve no doubt he’d claim me for his bed thrall. Something holds him back and now I know what that something is…Jorl.
I rarely use his given name when thinking of him. He is so removed, so distant that I find it hard to think of him as Jorl. That would change. It began to change the day he brought me something beneath the cape he had around his shoulders and pined with a silver broach. “For you…kettu.”
I took the small furry bundle from his hand. It was a kitten probably about 10 weeks old. Already it had a heavy coat. “Oh, a kitten…it’s mine?”
“You live alone. It is good to have a companion.” He watched me closely to see if his gift was appreciated.
I’m a cat person and I immediately fell in love with the baby. It climbed my shoulder, seeking my hair which was loose at the time. I pulled it away and sat on the side of my bed petting it. “What did you call it?”
“Kettu.” Kettu was Norse for cat.
“Little Kettu,” I said and that became her name. “Thank you. I love her.”
He came often after that to presumably see how the kettu was coming along. I offered him herbal tea or whatever I had at hand. Kettu was either curled in a ball on my bed or to be found in my walled garden. She would become a good mouser in time and I needed one. He sat at my table one day while his two servants or thralls or guards, whatever they were, stood outside my thatch in the rain. We had a cup of wine together. He told me of a successful hunt he’d been on with his falcons. While he was talking I noticed his hands. My attention went directly to a silver ring. It was heavily carved and in the center was a green stone. I recognized it as the missing stone from my salamander. I couldn’t very well ask for it back now. However, its absence from my pin stopped me from wearing it. I suppose I could have had another stone set along the salamander’s back. There was a silversmith in the fortress that made beautiful things. For some reason I had not done so. Eventually he stopped talking and followed my gaze. He turned the ring on his finger and met my eyes with a look I couldn’t fathom.
“I was admiring your ring,” I said and took a drink from my cup. “Is it still raining?”
“It is a new piece,” he said and looked at it for a moment. “An unusual stone. I admire it greatly. I wonder from where such a stone came? Unusual.”
“You know very well where it came from,” I answered quietly.
“A gift from a goddess,” he answered.
The sound of the rain splashing into my rain barrel outside the door, the spit of the fire as a raindrop came through the hole in the roof. Nothing else except the sound of my own heart . Finally I found my tongue. “Strangely enough it was a gift from an Earl to me so that I’d remember him.”
“From your other world.”
“I know of a magical place. It is very old. I will take you there sometime.”
“What has that to do with an emerald?”
“It is stone.” Our eyes met and held for a minute. He then stood up abruptly. “Soon,” he said and then went out into the rain.
The power of physical attraction. It hung heavy in the room after he left. Why did he attract me so? There was a vibration that came from him. Though I’d never actually put my hand on him, I could see it and feel it when he was near me. He was powerful. I’d never in my…normal life…been attracted to powerful men until now. I thought back on the Earl of Huntly. They were completely different men but there’d been that aura around him that also surrounded Jorl.
The weather was turning colder. From my estimation, by no means accurate, we’d arrived in spring and this far north summers were short. It was not yet harvest time and already there was talk of the men going Viking, in other words, raiding. They did not call themselves Vikings. They were men of Orkney or Shetland. In truth, they were Norsemen. I learned from Thorik that their grandfather had come from Norway. They spoke a language called Norn, which miraculously I could understand. I don’t doubt that it has to do with the stones. Evidently I also spoke it since no one had a problem understanding me. I would often stand on the cliff and look down at the sea. Down below men were smoking fish and drying kelp. Kelp would be burnt in the wintertime for heat when the weather became too treacherous for trading timbers. There was a ship building operation going on down there too. Mostly it was smaller vessels used for fishing. The great ships were built elsewhere. For me it was a time of peace and plenty. I can say I was content, having long passed the need for modern conveniences. My house was neat and cozy. It smelled of smoke and drying herbs and whatever was in my cookware. To me that was not an unpleasant scent. The work was hard but I had no one to please but myself and so if the bathwater sat in the tub for two days before I emptied it, it didn’t bother anyone, least of all Kettu. I had a round wooden tub large enough for me to sit in with my legs bent. I sat in it once a week, Saturday being bath day for most Vikings I knew. My rain barrel provided enough water for my bath since it rained almost daily for an hour or two.
Not all my time was spent in my thatch. I was able to go with a party to Shetland. Shetland lay about 60 miles to the north of Orkney and was part of Jorl’s kingdom. The difference was interesting to me. The houses were partially underground so that you had to go down steps to enter. The roofs were sod and it was not unusual to see sheep or goats grazing on the roof of a dwelling. I was told it was due to the harsh winters and lack of timber on the island we were visiting. We were there for wool. I looked around for some new plant that I might not have. We came home loaded with the goods of Shetland that were due the king. Jorl did not go with us. He sent his emissary and a woman of some high rank that judged the wool we took.
I was also frequently to the fortress to attend some ailing person. After tending one of Jorl’s sons for an upset stomach, I was presented with a breast plate. Helgad attached it to the shoulders of my apron dress. An apron dress was a woolen garment that hung from my shoulders in two pieces, front and back and attached, in my case, by ties on my shoulders. Usually there would be some sort of silver broach for that purpose. The breastplate was made of tortoiseshell with two concave cups and secured together with a silver chain. From this chain hung my woman’s things. She included these new items and two silver broaches for my shoulders. I thanked her for her generosity and silently thought my little leather pocket attached to my belt was a better idea for carrying these things around. I guessed it was the style of the day and noted that the women of the fortress all wore them. Outside the walls where I lived, they may have possessed them but they were not practical for one who actually worked. I didn’t realize at the time that it also spoke of one’s rank. However, I consider myself without rank. I just am.
Not long after that I was called to the fortress again in the middle of the night. Jorl’s youngest had the croup. I sat with him until daylight over a steam pot. He’d coughed and coughed and was finally able to breathe. He was a cute little boy with a thatch of blond hair. He had his mother’s coloring. I made ready to go and it was Jorl who walked me back to my thatch in the midst of a heavy fog.
“You truly have saved his life.”
“His ailment was not life threatening and now Helgad knows what to do for him should it happen again.”
“She did not know before you came. I did not know. You are a special woman, Jean Gordon. I do not yet know how to repay you for this gift of my son’s life.”
“Payment is not necessary from you. You gave me my freedom once. I haven’t forgotten that.”
“Nor have I and neither has Thorik.”
“Ah, Thorik,” I said. “I hope it has not caused friction between you.”
“There is always friction between us.”
We reached my door and I opened it. “Thank you for seeing me home.”
“I have not forgotten about the sacred place. I will come for you soon.”
He stood very close to me and leaned in, not to kiss me but to inhale my breath. A strange thing and it unnerved me. His fingertips touched my lips and he turned quickly and disappeared into the fog. I wanted to run after him and ask him what he had done. I even took a few steps and then retreated into the warmth of my house. I undressed and lay in my bed. Sleep finally came and with it strange dreams of fog and the feel of bearded lips upon my body. I woke midday feeling feverish and looking up into Thorik’s face.
“You are alive,” he said.
“No one has seen you today.”
“I…I was up all night with Signor.”
“Whatever. What are you doing here?” I pulled my fur up and sat up in the bed.
“I was going hawking and wondered if you’d like to go with me.”
“Hunting with the hawks.”
“Uh, no, I…obviously, I’m not fully awake, Thorik. I’ve not eaten or bathed or…”
“I can wait.”
“You might be waiting for awhile.”
He got the message. “Some other time.”
“Yes, some other…thank you for thinking of me.” I rubbed my hands over my face. I’d forgotten to bar my door.
Later in the day I was down at the bakery waiting for my loaf. The baker had tattoos on his face. I managed to get a word with his wife while she was showing me how her burn had healed.
“Tell me, Astrid, what is a berserker?”
Her eyes rounded. "You should know.”
“Yes, I thought I should but I don’t…exactly.”
She pulled me away from the hot ovens. “They are the first to go in during a battle or a raid. They are of Odin. They are sons of Odin.”
“What do they do?”
“They, um, I have never seen it, you understand. I would not want to see my husband like that. I understand they are entranced. They do not know what they do.”
“Whatever it is…it must be bad,” I said.
“Not so bad as…wild like a bear or a wolf.”
“A bear…I see, I think I understand.” In other words…they go berserk. “This is only during a battle and it doesn’t happen any other time, does it?”
“There are stories, of course. I do not believe them.”
“Hmm, thank you for telling me.” I took my fresh loaf home to digest that information. Maybe I was right to be a little wary of Thorik. He’d never given me any reason to fear him. I wouldn’t fear him. I’d sent my salamander over his body to protect him. I remembered how he’d mourned his wife. He was capable of deep love. I wished he’d find someone that could return it. The berserkers were an elite group. We’d be okay.
It was harvest time and the men had left us to go inland and harvest the corn and oats that grew on our island. The smell of smoked meats and fish wafted up the cliff from the seaside village. Preparations were being made for the hard winter ahead. I harvested my own little garden of herbs and vegetables. A hole had been dug out inside my house and lined with stones. I packed my vegetables in straw and stored them there. I was not looking forward to the cold weather but I was trying to prepare. I spent time sewing heavy clothing and knitting mittens, scarves and thick socks. I made Kettu a warm bed near the fire. He was a good companion and his antics gave me a lot of pleasure. I no longer worried about coming upon a mouse when rummaging around in my thatch.
A thrall, one of the king’s thralls, came to me one day while I was tidying up my garden.
“You are to make ready. Tomorrow morning before light. Prepare to be away, bring furs and dress warmly.”
“Why, what’s happening?”
“The king requests it. I will come for you. Be ready.”
He came for me in the fog and carried my bundle of furs. Not sure what was afoot, I also packed my medical bag and slung it over my shoulders. We went around the wall behind my house and over to where the steps were cut into the rock leading down to the fishing village below. I’d never gone down those steps and they were wet and slippery. I had a strong hand to steady me and eventually we made it down. I was taken to one of the smaller ships, not a fishing vessel but a small ship. Jorl was on board along with oarsmen and his two thralls, one of which stored my fur bundle and handed me over to the King of Orkney.
“You are well?”
“I’m well. What’s this mystery about?”
He laughed. “I’m taking you to the sacred place.”
“Oh…is it…a secret?”
“Does it bother you that it is?”
At sunrise we pushed off in the fog. I stood close by Jorl, straining my eyes over the gray sea that appeared to disappear into the gray fog. I wondered how they could possibly navigate. By mid-morning the fog had drifted ashore and lay about the cliffs. He was dressed warmly but not in his usual finery. He could be anybody. It only piqued my interest…why was he going out incognito?
We passed many islands before turning in towards one I’d visited before when he’d taken me around to gather plants. However, we did not put into the docks but skirted around the island to the other side. Here on a deserted beach they brought the ship in, unloaded a few things, his two thralls, and then they pulled away leaving us. Jorl took my arm.
We climbed a hill, passed by a house where an old man sat outside watching us but saying nothing. There was a low road and we followed it, soon coming to a mound.
“It’s a burial mound,” I said.
“It is but it does not hold our people. It is ancient. The old ones built it.”
We went to the entrance but as it was low and we would have had to crawl to get inside we did not enter. “Is this the sacred place?”
“Not to me. Sacred to the ancients that built it but not to me. This is Brodgar.”
“Who is your god?”
“Odin.” He looked at me as if there were no others.
From the mound we followed the road to another place. It looked to be ruins of an earlier settlement. He led me to a house, sunken in the ground with turf over it then down a few steps into the dark place.
“We will stay here.”
I stood near the entrance not sure exactly what this was all about. His thralls built a fire and brought out foodstuffs from the baggage they carried. My furs were put aside. The house began filling with smoke before it found the exit. I had to move. After awhile the smoke cleared somewhat and the heat from the fire began to fill the small space. We ate something like a boiled dumpling filled with mashed meat and vegetable. We drank ale and after the meal was finished the thralls built up the fire and left us to find their own hole in the ground.
I sat on a stone bench. “Are you going to tell me what this is all about?”
“I have wanted to get you alone to a place where I can honor you. This is…primitive but I think you do not mind it. You are not of this world and I do not wish to offend you. You may tell me if anything I do or say causes offense.”
“All right.” I felt my pulse quicken. I had a rough idea of how he planned to honor me.
“I believe that you are a goddess, Jean Gordon. You have been sent to me for a reason.”
“Oh…I’m not…no, sir.”
He smiled. “Of course you cannot say. Since you have been with us there have been no deaths to report. I saw you save the life of my son and your healing hands upon my brother. I have had a vision…a vision of my own death. I have told no one of this. Have you foreseen this event? Have you come to prevent it?”
“I have seen nothing.” This wasn’t what I expected. I didn’t know what to say. “Do you often have…visions?”
“I have them. That is why I brought you and Thorik and the others back to Orkney. I saw the settlement being destroyed. Word has come to me that it was.”
“I’m sorry.” I closed my eyes. “All those people, they were good people.”
“It happens to good people. Perhaps I am not so good.”
I touched him, laying my hand on top of his. I felt a jolt, a humming in my blood. I quickly removed my hand. His eyes were on mine.
“What did you feel?”
“I felt a movement…a shifting…a humming. Did you?”
“Yes. From the first time I touched you…I knew you were not as others.”
“This doesn’t happen to me when I touch other people…only you.”
“There is something between us…something that should be joined.”
I wasn’t sure I could physically stand it. “I think I understand your meaning.”
“It does not offend you?”
“I’m not offended.”
“Then I shall honor you in the only way I know.”
His hand went behind my head and drew my lips to his. I tingled all over with desire for him. I know for a fact that I am not a goddess but I’m not so sure he wasn’t a god. If our ‘joining’ did not produce an earthquake or a volcano eruption somewhere, I’d be very surprised.
He was ready to take me to the sacred place. We dressed and came out into light. It was almost blinding after the dark underground house.
“Why is this a sacred place to you, Jorl?”
“I have had visions here many times in my life. Some I do not understand and may never know their meaning. Others have come true. Because of who and what you are I wanted to bring you here.”
I let the goddess thing go by.
“I believe you see what others cannot. You do have visions too.”
“I have had them since I was a child. I could see things but after trying to tell my parents about it and seeing the reaction in them, I kept my visions to myself. People think you’re crazy.”
“I have never told anyone but Thorik. He understands and does not speak of it.”
After crossing a causeway of stepping stones, we came to the place and at first I did not see it. I saw the loch beyond. It was Jorl who pointed out the stones standing upright in a huge circle.
“It’s a henge!” I exclaimed. “It’s huge.”
He watched me as I took it all in.
“I wish I knew what it stood for. Do you know?”
“It is ancient. That is all I know. It is powerful. There is one I will show you. I have named it.”
There appeared to be a moat like ditch around the stones. We crossed over and he took me to the stone. “This one is the Odin stone. This is Odin’s eye.”
I looked up and was made miniature by the height. “It’s amazing.”
“Do you feel the power here?”
Honestly, I was afraid to touch a stone. I could be sent reeling back into the stone age, to the builders of this place, whoever they were…possibly bronze age people. I moved within the circle and I did feel something, an energy, a strong energy. “I feel it,” I said.
He stepped inside the circle with me and caught me around my waist. All of a sudden I felt the ground fall out from beneath my feet. I looked at him with unseeing eyes and without his support I would have fallen to the ground.
“Do not go to Moray,” I said and repeated it like a chant. “Do not go to Moray...do not go to Moray.”
He held me tightly against him. “You have seen my fate.”
The ground came up to my feet again. “Don’t go there, Jorl. You can avoid it…just don’t go.” I tried to shake the image I’d seen out of my consciousness. “Don’t go…you don’t have to go there.”
“I will try but one cannot always avoid what the fates have laid out for you.”
I looked up to him and my words came spilling out. “From the first time I saw you, I felt a connection as if something inside of me some thread of what I am and who I am connected to you. I felt the threads touch and knot together. I know that sounds impossible. Mordir told me of a new path that awaited me. I thought that path was you…and then I get here and you belong to someone else.”
“Why do you think I brought you here to Orkney? Was it to save a thrall’s life? I saw you for what you are, not what you appeared to be. You speak of threads as if we are woven together…and so we are. If not in this life then in the next. I cannot help what is with me. Even a goddess would not be so cruel to change my life as it is. You spoke to me of stones. I do not know of a more sacred place of stones than this.”
I suddenly realized why he’d brought me here. It almost took my breath away. “You want me to go…go back where I came from.”
“I have honored you with my body. It is the only sacrifice I have to give. You have given me yours in return. We have become one, Jean Gordon. In another world we will live. Can you stand alone?”
“Yes, but I don’t want to.” My eyes filled and over flowed. He held me and kissed me and then pulled back.
“Do not move.” He went around to the other side of the Odin Stone. “Give me your hand and we’ll make a pledge.”
He wanted me to hold his hand through the hole in the stone. I reached out for him and our hands joined. I felt the earth begin to spin. I fought it, trying not to lose consciousness…the colors…the wind…the stone beneath my hands…
I slowly became aware of voices.
“We didn’t move her…only checked to see…you know, if she was alive.”
An American voice and then another…female.
“What luck finding a doctor on the bridge. Who would have thought that could happen?”
I stirred then, moving a leg. I was touched and my eyes came open. A spark of recognition.
He leaned over me and took my wrist feeling for my pulse. “Don’t be alarmed. I’m a doctor. What happened to you, miss?”
ON TO PART 3: A CIRCLE OF STONES
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