Here’s just a smidgen of Empire’s Reckoning, the current work-in-progress, to whet appetites!
Lost. I wrapped my cloak around me a little tighter, shivering in the night and fog. Lost, and cold, and in true mortal danger, from both the elements and men, and within a day’s travel from Gundarstorp. My father’s lands, which would have been mine now, before Fritjof, before Casil, and a treaty signed.
Not my lands, now; my brother’s, and if I died here or made it back to Ésparias – as Casil had renamed its newly-reclaimed western lands – it would make no difference. I had written a letter, renouncing my rights, signed and dated it in the presence of witnesses. Witnesses sworn to secrecy about my presence at Gundarstorp, but oaths could be forsworn. Even by the best of men, if the reasons were compelling enough.
No difference to my brother – oh, he would mourn me, if my body were ever found, if the foxes and eagles of these hills did not strip it bare – but I had a greater reason to live. I loved my brother, and I felt some attachment to his child, and to my little half-brother, but my greater love – my greater loves – were in Ésparias. Two men, one whose life had been inextricably bound to mine since I was sixteen, in ways I still struggled to fully comprehend, and one whose cheerful good humour and love of music had enriched my days since Casil. The grace note and the harmony for the melody of my life, I had called them once. Druisius truly had been the harmony; was still, I hoped. Cillian was far, far more than the grace note. I couldn’t think of an appropriate analogy. I couldn’t think properly at all. The cold fog enveloping the hill was filling my mind, too.
Move, I told myself. But move where? Wouldn’t it be preferable just to curl up in my cloak and let the cold and damp take me, rather than fall into a chasm groping my way in the fog? One would be painless. I closed my eyes. Nothing but silence surrounded me, a complete absence of sound; no owl hooted nor vixen yelped this night. Suddenly, as clearly as if she had been at my side, I heard again Lena’s words to me, from months before. If you turn away from him, you will hurt him more than you can comprehend.
I had not turned away, not in the end. But if I died here, Cillian would never know that. If I let exposure take me, I would be yet again running away. Come home, mo duíne gràhadh, if you can. His last words to me, before I fled a revelation I could not accept. Oh, I had couched my departure as the demands of my work, but he knew the truth. As did I.
I forced myself forward. It is ironic, I thought, to be physically lost in this landscape of my boyhood, when I am finally sure of my path as a man. I cocked my head. Had I heard something? I listened, intently. A faint ringing. A bell? Where would there be a bell?
Around the neck of a sheep, you fool, I thought. Think. Whose note is that? In Sorham’s highlands, each torp’s bellwethers carried a bell with a different tone, to help the shepherds locate a missing flock. I waited. At night, the sheep wouldn’t usually move much. Several minutes passed until I heard the distant ringing again. Pietarstorp’s bell, I thought. And that makes sense…
I closed my eyes again, to help me concentrate, trying to picture the hills and glens of Pietarstorp and where the sheepfolds were, against the landscape I had traversed to reach this spot. I had both walked and ridden these moors, stalking deer, flying the fuádain for hare or cailzie. Cailzie. If I was where I thought I was, there should be a wood to my left, at most half a mile away. Fog or not, at dawn, in early spring, the cailzie’s booming call would sound. What else should I hear? A stream, at the foot of the valley. Work down the hill, slowly, bearing left, I told myself. Hope, and a plan, cleared my mind.
I picked up my bag and shrugged it over my shoulders, and began the careful walk downhill. I could picture the spot now, the wood to my left, the stream, the sheepfold on the upward slope south of the stream. If there were a shepherd with the sheep – and likely there would be, with new lambs in the flock – his dog would raise the alarm if I was not careful, or maybe even if I were. But the fog muffled sound, and scent, so I might be lucky.
I slipped once, on some small stones, but I didn’t fall, and the noise did not travel. I thought I could just sense the darkness of the wood on my left when the deep boom of a cailzie on its strutting ground sounded. The bird thought it was dawn, and perhaps it was; looking up, I thought the fog brighter. I kept going to my left, and now I could make out the shapes of trees.
Inside the wood the fog seemed less dense. I found, as much by feel as anything, a tight group of pines, and as I crawled amongst the trunks I felt the ground. Its carpet of needles was dry. I gave a sigh of relief. I was safe. I would eat a little, and then I could sleep.
The barking of a dog woke me. An insistent, sharp bark meant to bring attention to a lost lamb, or a fallen ewe. I swore, but there was no sense in trying to run. I heard a voice silence the dog, and then the sound of a man beginning to crawl into the space under the trees.
“Don’t bother,” I said. “I will come out.”
“You startled me,” the shepherd said, in the soft accents of Sorham. “I thought maybe a lamb had strayed, with the dog so persistent. You are not Marai, from your voice.”
“No,” I said, standing. It was still dark in the wood, but I took a chance. “Daidh, is it not?”
“Aye,” he said doubtfully. “And who might you be, to know my name?”
“Sorley,” I told him. “Harr Gundar’s son.”
“Lord Sorley? But you are…”
“Dead? As you can see, I am not. A traitor? Perhaps. That depends on your politics, Daidh.”
“Politics? What politics can a shepherd have? My lord would call you traitor, though.”
“Private beliefs, then. I had reasons to come home, and reasons to leave again. Will you let me do that, without telling Harr Pietar that you have seen me?”
He considered. “It was a drear night,” he said eventually. “Hot tea and porridge would warm you, Lord Sorley. Come with me. You can tell me your reasons, so I can decide.”
I followed him out of the wood. He would not press me to talk until after I had eaten, the hospitality of these highlands too ingrained. Even an outlaw could be offered shelter and food in poor weather. I had time to shape my story to my audience, for some of the truth would turn him against me immediately. And, I thought, it was far too long and complex a tale to be told in part of a morning. A tale that had begun ten years before, in the hall of my childhood home, the night my father had decided to entertain the visiting young toscaire with dancing, and asked me to play.