Tossed upon the Rocks
The light within the rude wooden hut behind her darkened quickly. The last light of the sun hid behind the hard rock peak of Torr Baldwin, bringing with it an early night. It was a normal evening for the lands that dwelt in the valley between the cliffs of Baldwin and the mountains of Orc Fell. “Fitting the sun should hide its face, since the darkness is coming for Fergus”, thought Jessie. She shook her head; her newly shorn strands of hair moved with a liveliness that still felt unnatural, the lack of weight jarring her out of her momentary bitterness.
“A silly fool I’ll be if I be standing out here watching the rocks grow cold while a good man dies alone inside.” Straightening her shoulders and unconsciously bracing herself as if to prepare for a physical blow, she tossed aside the raw deer hide that served as a door and entered the straw-thatched hut. As she looked upon the squalor of the room, a wave of bitterness washed over her. “These lodgings are so poor that e’en a Tyr chanter would be hard pressed to approve of them.”
A single wooden frame, crudely lashed together with more raw deer hide, lay low to the ground, heaped with heavy woolen cloths. A similar pile of woolens, much smaller, lay upon the hard ground just inside the doorframe, where Jessie took her rest. The room seemed already empty of welcome and warmth, as if the moment she had been dreading the past five days had already come, unheralded and unmourned. Her heart felt as though it were choking off her breath when suddenly the heap of woolens upon the cot broke into a fit of coughing, and the flushed, glistening face of Fergus emerged from the rags, and turned blind eyes towards the entrance.
“Lauchlin! Is that you there, lad?” the old man called out in his newly hoarse, raspy voice.
“It’s Jessie, as well you know old warrior.” Jessie let the deer hide fall across the rough opening behind her, and sat down on the dirt floor close to the cot, within a hands breadth of the fever-ridden man’s face. Grabbing a low clay bowl half filled with water and a none-too clean rag, she began rinsing some of the fever sweat from Fergus’ brow.
“I looked for the roots you described, but all the moss is barren and winter burnt on the rocks this side of Torr Baldwin clear to the slopes. I only returned to gather the tinderbox for a torch, and I’ll be back to trying my luck t’other side of Glen Sheenie.”
As Fergus heard the words that spelled his certain death, a tension passed from his brow that Jessie had not marked before, and the fever seemed to release it’s grip for a moment, allowing the old man to relax if only to catch his breath. “Ah, Jessie, give it over, lass. Truth be told, the both of us know that we’ll not see another dawn together, and no amount of river root would change that.” Fergus would clearly have kept on, but a ripping cough broke out of his thin chest, brought on by his brief words. Jessie waited in agony for her mentor to recover. But the terrible cough seemed to last forever, deepening and getting worse instead of better, until Jessie thought that such meager words would cause Fergus to see the end right there, but with a masterful effort he caught hold of himself, and with great, shuddering breaths, slowed his labored breathing back to what the fever had made pass for normal.
Instead of resting, though, the failing man gathered his breath for another go. Jessie broke in before he could speak. “You mustn’t talk, Fergus, save your strength! You know that when the shield maidens come to carry you to Valhail, you must keep enough strength to hold on!”
Jessie’s quip was well rewarded by the sudden grin that crossed Fergus’ face, but a shadow swept it off again just as quick, and shaking his head as if to fend off blows, Fergus summoned the strength to speak again. “Jesting aside, my lady, the fates have played a cruel jest on your family now. Here you be, with all the fighting spirit and skill to make the blood of the MacQuarries the bonny pride of Caer Doneghal in saga and verse. Still, you know that the moment you show that head of yours as yerself and declare for the MacQuarries, old Duke Arneghal will have you strung up and married off to the first weak-kneed fence squatter that needs his back stiffened in alliance. Yer father was a fine Laird, but he did you no service to die poor in money and with overrun lands, but rich in family titles. Nay, leave me speak! Tis but little time be left to me, and I’ll have my say before I’m done!”
Jessie drew back a bit; as a welcome fire entered Fergus’ words, and his strength seemed to grow instead of fade.
“Now listen to me, my lady. As long as the fever left me my eyes, I watched your new play acting, and you’ve got the trick down good, with the walking and talking and holdin’ yer shoulders like a man. It’s a blessing you’re built for speed or no amount of acting would hold, but as it is, no man will suspect ye on first sight, nay, nor on second neither. And if one should be foolish enough to start trouble with ye, I’m thinking you’ll be having his guts on a pike before he draws scant breath for screaming. But keep it clear in your mind what you’re doing out there, for it’s no game you be playing. You have it in ye to be great, but whether it be a great bloody villain or a bonny brae hero, that I cannae say. There be a deep lot o’ hatred in you fer someone all alone, and nothin’ good ever came of letting hatred fester down deep. There be something o’madness in ye too, and unless yer a fool you know it yerself, for it’s no sane plan you be holdin’ to. I’d hoped to be with ye at the start, but it seems Tyr has other plans, so the best I can do is see to it there’s at least one friendly face waiting for you when you get to Caer Doneghal. In my spitkit there’s a letter of sorts fer ya, by way of introducing ye as my god-nephew. Show the letter and the coin it’s wrapped around to Lord Michael Finnegan of the Green Adders. The Green Adders is a fighting school; leastways it was last time I was through Caer Doneghal. It was just outside the Main Wall near the south tower, and it’s got it’s own palisades and courtyard, so look for a damn big place. That was ten years ago or more, last time I laid eyes on it, and it had a strong reputation among the more sensible lads, so it might have moved on and gotten bigger since. But seek Michael out, for he can finish yer training the way I would ha’ done had the lord Tyr granted me just a few more months. And mind you that you don’t backtalk him, for he’s a proud man, and a mean hand to those that show him disrespect, especially on his own grounds. He saved my life once, in the old days, and aye, I might have saved his twice or more, but still if you bear me any love you’ll keep a civil tongue in yer mouth while yer in his company. For my sake he’ll finish yer training, but if you can win him over to yerself, then he’d prove a valuable ally in yer quest. The true Border Lands aren’t like this valley that you’re used to. Out there, it’s the responsibility of each family to secure proper training for their young lads, and for the poor and landless, that means serving as a Border Guard, or as a Footman for the local Laird, or maybe serving a hitch as a Caravan Guard. Whatever training they learn on the job is what’ll have to serve them all their lives. For the well settled families, the most of them have their lads train with their own home Guards. But for those that can afford it, those who want or need to be the best go off to a school that specializes in all the little tricks of the killing trade, and among those schools, the Green Adder is somethin’ special.”
As the darkness in the little hut grew deeper, Jessie soon found herself as blind as Fergus, unable to see her mentor and friend. As he neared the end of his speech, she reached out to steady his shoulder and comfort him, and found that the strength in his voice was at a dire cost, his entire body shaking as if with palsy, and a true wonder that his voice remained as steady as the rock beneath.
“Just a little further to go together Jessie, before I leave you behind. Never you mind about where I got it or what it may have cost, but the price was mine to pay, and paid it I did in full. It’s a present I brought for thee, which I was going to give ye when we met the night those bloody Orcs brought the hall down. It’s buried out behind this hut, two paces sunward of the stump. I know how proud you are of the part yer ancestors played in the ancient Imperial Army, and yer great great grandsires’ place as one o’the elite Pathfinders. Well, I found ye a rain cloak, one of the very same ones those Pathfinders wore, and it was my intention to gift it you to wear for feastday. Instead, I’d be proud if you wore it in memory of me. And don’t be thinking it’s a stupid thing to do, cause I guarantee the best time to be thought of is with a fond memory for the old fool that had the sense to keep ye from getting yer ears any wetter than they already are!”
It seemed that Fergus had something more to say, but his hearty chuckles gave way to deep, throat clenching coughs that grew worse with horrifying suddenness, each keeping the old man from having the slightest chance to draw a decent breath. After a brutal final spasm that drew the wasted body rigid, the old man finally released his grip on her hand and slid into the final darkness. Jessie could only sit and hold the hand of her last and only true friend, as the warmth went out of it in the dark of true night, and the tears traced their silent paths down her face.
Though the full force of night lay upon the cold valley, Jessie hurried to attend the tasks that must be done if Fergus were to get a proper chance at Valhail. Working through the darkness, with only the sense of her fingertips to guide her, the young woman prepared the body of Fergus, cleaning and shaving him as if he were on his way to Tyrsday feast at the hall. After she had prepared him as best she could, she attended the most arduous part of her duty, gathering enough dry wood and rope to lash together a proper funereal pyre. In the darkness, with the piercing chill of the early damp all about her and the cutting wind hurting as it tore through her hair as it bore down the valley, the task and it’s urgency seemed to last forever, as Jessie strove to outrace the dawn.
However, when the first faint traces of the Sun began to creep up the side of Torr Baldwin, the morning found Jessie standing beside the finished pyre, the body of Fergus properly laid out upon the thin reeds that made his final bed. His sword lay to hand, and his last present to Jessie sat wrapped in her blanket, tied into a bundle upon her shoulder.
Setting brand to wood, Jessie stood silent watch as the pyre went up, the powerful wind fanning the flames to a roaring height and setting a beacon light that blazed orange upon the sheltering peaks of the valley. The roaring flames grew so high that the reflected light threatened to outshine the sun’s advance upon the top of Torr Baldwin.
With tears streaming down her face, Jessie watched as the smoke and ash were carried by the wind high into the gray sky, but when she spoke the traditional final words to a warrior greeting dawn, no trace of tears were in her voice, and her eyes watched proudly as his remains graced the rosy clouds.
“May the blessing of light be on you – light without and light within. May the blessed sunlight shine on you like a great peat fire, so that stranger and friend may come and warm himself at it. And may light shine out of the two eyes of you, like a candle set in the window of a house, bidding the wanderer come in out of the storm. And may the blessing of the rain be on you, may it beat upon your Spirit and wash it fair and clean, and leave there a shining pool where the blue of Heaven shines, and sometimes a star. And may the blessing of the earth be on you, soft under your feet as you pass along the roads, soft under you as you lie out on it, tired at the end of day; and may it rest easy over you when, at last, you lie out under it. May it rest so lightly over you that your soul may be out from under it quickly; up and off and on its way to Tyr. And now may the Lord Tyr bless you, and bless you kindly. Amen”.
Standing beside the scant remains of the great fire, listening briefly as the smoking wood hissed at the intrusion of the first of the mornings’ light rain, Jessie added a last promise to herself and Fergus. “Goodbye Fergus, I’ll see you again one day. I have cried my last tear. Jessie MacQuarrie died with you in the night. The dawn has risen on Lauchlin MacQuarrie, and Lauchlin MacQuarrie I shall be until Caer MacQuarrie is cleansed of foulness and a MacQuarrie rules there anew. To this I dedicate myself, witnessed by the spirits of my family. No man or beast will stay me from this path.”
Turning with grim finality from the sight of the pyre, Jessie gathered up her sword and baldric, and headed north up the valley, away from the Orcs that were surely already on their way from Caer MacQuarrie to investigate the blazing fire. With a reckless wildness in her eyes, she nearly wished to have the orcs discover her, right here and now, that she may show them the fury of a MacQuarrie prepared for a fight. But already she could hear the voice of Fergus in her head, grumping at her about her lack of caution, a failing she had heard of to endless lengths. Gritting her teeth, she quickened her pace, to escape the orcs she wished to kill, and the voice that she would only ever hear again in her memories.