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Chapter 1 —The Journey
The marshlands were full of waterfowl at this time of year, and sometimes it seemed to Neil that their island was more suitable for these creatures than it was for humans. So much water reflected the blue of the sky that his horse's hooves often seemed to wade through clouds at the edges of the meres.
It was a good day to start on a journey . . . a good day to be alive. He sang. The birds sang. The clouds scudded above and below and a cool, clean breeze lifted the silky threads of the bog-cotton and set them drifting to far away places.
The rumour that there was a pure white mare for sale in the village of Kirkoway on the eastern shores of Loch Roag, of exactly the kind Fiona, his sister, had set her heart on, had reached their farm only two days before. Neil's father, Lorn, had at first intended to fetch it himself, but had found that he was too busy. So Neil was chosen as the best horseman of the family to ride to Kirkoway. He was delighted to leave behind his daily chores and to ride out into the world.
'I will never be a contented farmer,' he thought, the hills riding beside him, reflected in the mirror-smooth pools.
When he was a young boy he had run away to Iceland with a Viking sea captain called Baldur, and had returned home exhausted after Baldur's death, satiated with dangerous adventures and only too glad to settle down to the quiet of his father's farm. He had sat at the feet of Durston, the hermit who lived on the headland near his home, and tried to learn everything he was prepared to teach. He remembered how he had contrasted the active, violent life of the Viking, moving from one place to another as thoughthe moving was an end in itself – with the quiet, contemplative life of the hermit, deeply aware of the rich adventures available to the spirit while the body remained in one place.
Neil remembered how he had said he was sick of the farm and the Island.
'There is nothing here but wind and water and sheep and cows!' he had grumbled.
Durston had smiled quizzically and replied: 'Have you not seen the lichen and moss more beautiful than the finest tapestries in the royal palaces – heather crisper and richer than the thickest carpet – butterwort and flowering cotton grass, bog asphodel and lily clad more grandly than the finest ladies? Have you not seen the cunning sundew outwitting the dragonfly? Have you not seen the marshland and the green coastal hills teeming with birds: the winchat, the whitethroat, the neat sandpiper, the agile dipper turning pebbles over at the bottom of clear running streams? Have you not seen the rocky crags, castles of the golden eagle, the merlin and the buzzard? What sickness has blinded you to the beautiful golden plover, the blue-black raven, the red grouse and the courageous storm petrel? The thickets are teeming with animals: the otter, the hare, the red deer . . . The rivers . . .'
All that Durston had said that day was true – his island world was beautiful, rich, exciting, but nevertheless . . .
Suddenly a bird sprang up from almost under his horse's hooves and hurtled to the sky. Neil's heart stirred. If only he could travel that far and that fast. If only he were not bound by the earth – by flesh and bone . . . He had learned much from Durston and he was not the foolish boy he had once been – but he had never achieved the far and free-ranging spirit the hermit seemed to have. Physical journeys and physical places still called to him.
Digging his heals into his bronze-red stallion he set off at a gallop.
'Go, Flame! Go.' he cried, and as though he too was excited at the thought of freedom, Flame responded to his master's mood and was away over the dark, soft moss and peat, shreds of it flying up from his hooves, his mane streaming out behind his head like the flame he was named for.
Neil's eyes shone, his breath came in short, joyful bursts, his heart pounded with the same rhythm as the hooves. Earth . . . air . . . water . . . and the fire of his horse! All the elements! He was master of all the elements!
Having left at first light on a long summer's day, Neil could have reached Kirkoway before night-fall, but he had no wish to end his journey: he and Flame were enjoying the sense of freedom and the possibility of adventure too much. The wild galloping, alternating with quiet walking and a considerable period of dreaming beside the silver waters of Little Loch Roag meant that when evening approached he was still some distance from his destination. On the near shore of Loch Ceann Hulavig he found a fisherman who gave him shelter for the night and shared his meal of fish and ale. They sat for a long while beside the quiet water exchanging stories while the colour of the sky gradually deepened into purple and then into black, and the peninsulas and islands of the sea-loch gradually disappeared in the shadows. The man remembered how he had escaped to the sea when the fierce Norwegian king, Magnus Bareleg, had devastated the Island with fire, destroying every last tree and most of its people. Neil knew that his own father, as a young child, had narrowly escaped death at this time, though he never talked about it. To Lorn the important things in life were the slow rhythm of the seasons, the growth of crops from seed to harvest, and the love of his family. Wars might come and go and so might storms. He weathered both as best he could and lived his own life his own way in spite of them. But the fisherman was a born storyteller, and before it became too dark to see he pointed out to Neil all the hills that had been covered with trees before the Norsemen had set torch to them. And he described with relish the screams he had heard before he had pulled away from the shore, the terrible scenes on the beach as too many people, frantic with fear, had tried to clamber into the few little fishing coracles, and how he had had to push them away, clubbing a woman because she would not let go of the edge of the boat when it was already over-loaded.
Neil shivered and looked up at the immense dark sky above them, seeded with stars. He hoped such power over life and death would never be in his gift.
The fisherman gave a great yawn at last and said that he was going to sleep. Neil paused at the low door and took one last deep breath of fresh air before he entered the man's dark hovel, and cast one last awed look over his shoulder at the vast heavens. Suddenly it seemed to him that one of the stars detached itself from its fixed and ancient place and crossed the sky. It happened so quickly and was so soon over that Neil was not sure it had happened at all. A slight chill ran through his limbs. Stars were so much a part of the eternal changeless background to man's ephemeral life it made him uneasy to think that they too were temporary and could fall from the sky as easily as apples from a tree.
He lay awake a long time on the rug the fisherman had flung on the floor for him, listening to the sound of the old man's breathing as he wallowed deeply in sleep. At last he drifted off himself. Wherever he stepped in his dream there was water, and in every sheet of water was the reflection of a star falling.
As the night progressed he began to feel more and more uneasy as though the star falling was a warning in some way that he should not take his own bright and easy life too much for granted. He woke depressed and was not surprised to find the sun had gone and that heavy grey clouds hung low and obscured the hills. By the time he came to take his leave the wind had brought a steady driving rain. He unstrapped his sheepskin jerkin from Flame's back and put it on, thinking ruefully back to the warm and golden sunlight of the day before. He wished now that he had hurried and been well under cover at Kirkoway.
He thought about his sister, not much more than a year older than himself, and yet about to be married. The year before a party of young noblemen from the Scottish court had been on the Isle of Lewis, guests of the Norse jarl at Stornoway. Some of them had ridden west – one in particular, Sir Kenneth, from a local family, seeking childhood memories though his own parents were long since dead and he had lived most of his life on the mainland. Neil's parents had made them welcome and Sir Kenneth, the nicest and least Normanized among them, had paid particular attention to his sister. Just before leaving he had asked for her in marriage, but her father had said that the romance was too sudden and that he must wait a year. Messages had gone back and forth, the last announcing that Sir Kenneth would be with them by the end of June, hoping that Fiona's family would now accept him as bridegroom.
Copyright © 2001, Moyra Caldecott.