Purple heather crackles under my mud-crusted feet as I tramp downwards towards our beloved, grey dwellings. The rain begins to fall, and thunder booms from some distance away. I know it will be with me soon, and I must make haste. I have no fear of the weather, but am fearful of the people who I've been told are following the storm to my village—bad people who want to take all that's good and turn it into all that's not.
I pick up speed, almost stumbling over stones and bumps in the ground and I come upon a sheep, forlorn and unusually friendly to me. Having no time to pet it, I shoo it back towards its herd. Then, looking up, I see the beauty of what lies below me in this summer-green valley, framed by hills and mountains of such splendour. I'm proud that this is my home and I will defend it, my kinsmen and kinswomen, with my life if need be.
I am Fionna, my Father's daughter, my Mother's mischievous spirit child and my young brother Ewan’s support at all times. Fionna Armstrong. Strong of arm but not of head, my Father would say, though many would disagree. It is of no matter. We are all strong in Darkhaven, our clan’s village. But enemies we have aplenty amongst those who covet fertile valleys and water that sparkles clear, come rain or shine.
I cross the dried-up mountain stream bed, and my feet kick against an uncommon hardness. I look down at the intrusive shape and discover the hilt of a sword, plunged deep into the peat-topped land. Is it a trap? Are there enemies at hand? It is a simple sword; simple and strong - as I am - and as I slide the blade from the flesh-like peat, it’s clear that the sharpness of the blade has not been affected from its time in the ground. The handle is plain except for two small carvings, and it is a long blade also: long and heavy. But when I fully extract it from the ground, it lightens. One hand. Both hands. I was made for this weapon, and it was made for me.
I examine my find closely and understand how it hadn't been found before now. A rock has been misplaced from the bed of the stream, uncovering the hilt of a sword not newly placed. Moss and lichen had touched the blade and handle and seasons changed the metal's colour a little, staining it in shades of heather and peat. Off the path in rarely travelled land, I was truly fortunate to have found this magnificent thing, perhaps placed here in this fertile moorland, in honour of Gods or Goddesses past.
It felt as though it was meant to be. A destiny of sorts, even? I wasn't usually given to such meanderings of the mind, but the moment I'd stumbled over the sword I felt deep in my bones that I was to move it, to take it back with me and to use as need be.
It wasn't comfortable to run with the sword tucked away deep underneath my cloak, and I knew I ran the risk of again stumbling and injuring myself. But I had no choice. I could not leave it. This sword was already speaking to me, instructing me, strengthening me... As I ran, I knew the thunder was nearing, the drums of warning banging to alert us to what the storm might bring.
I ran, with no concern for anything other than my return home. I ran with the sure feeling that if I didn't run there would be blood on my hands and pain in the hearts of all I knew.
As I neared the village, there were calls to me. I ignored all sounds and objects in my path - till I arrived home. My Mother’s usual welcoming expression transformed to shock as I sought to hide the sword and told my Mother hurriedly all I knew of the weapon and its placement, and about the clan wars soon to be brought by the wind.
‘We'd better do something, Fionna. Your feelings are always true, and we ignore them at our peril. The omen of the discovered sword is powerful, and that storm is stronger than it was. I sense something also, but…’ Mother sighed and pushed a lock of hair behind her ear.
I moved towards her, and we hugged because there was nothing more to do. Mother left the house to tell her brother, and returned, shaking her head.
Our ‘better do something,’ had become ‘nothing can be done just yet,’ because we were ignorant of our enemy and when they might arrive.
When Father and my brother returned from their working, we ate barley and mutton broth with nettle tops. And shortly after, dried apples and herbs with honey and roots from the fields. It would be a sustaining meal to strengthen us for the battle we were sure was approaching.
The rumbles came upon us harder and faster. Louder with every passing moment. And out of the mist that was gathering with the strengthening of the rain came a shout or two. It was impossible to tell who was shouting and from where. Then my uncle’s voice rang loud and clear, calling us out.
‘Do I use the sword?’ I asked the air. Both the Gods in my head and my Goddess mother answered, ‘Use it’.
My Father shouted, ‘Do it, Fionna, be grand,’ and left, his broadsword in hand.
I scrambled for my weapon’s hiding place, and the noise came to me more clearly. The sound of horses' hooves accentuated the thunder’s crashes, and through it all came the sounds of men's voices like the bellows of wild pigs. Loud and deep and rough, the noise was: shouting sounds of fear and devilment.
Mother and Ewan grabbed their swords as they made haste through the door. Mother’s hand circled my waist briefly as she passed, and she pulled me back just for a moment.
‘Be strong,’ she said.
‘I know,’ I replied, and she kissed my long red hair, flecked with straw and dust from the fields.
‘Be grand,’ I said.
‘Be grand.’ Mother ran, unbending and uncollapsed, into the throng of kinsmen and kinswomen we would protect with our lives and with our dignity.
How I wished now for heather under my heels and the soft trickle of a mountain stream from which to take my fill of life-giving liquid; how I wished for peace and harmony and whispered conversations of love in woodland clearings. But this was real. Conflict was as real and as necessary as the air was to breathe and the water to drink.
Peace was merely a lull between times of conflict, and merely a time to rest and to re-gather strength. The sword had appeared to me for a reason - and if I was to die that day then so be it. I would die with sword in hand and honour in heart.
Mother ran three paces ahead of me as we left our home behind, disappearing into the mist, unknowing of who, if any, might return.
I could see them now as well as hear them, those enemies and tribesmen without honour. The men and women we must fight to ensure the safety of our own. And, with my feet on my native land and with sword in hand, I was granted power I could not explain.
I shouted ‘Ewan,’ and ran to catch him up, our swords raised, our hearts pumping, strong and fearless. We were fearless, even of death. And I wasn't mistaken, but a green-gold light glowed from the tip of my weapon. I closed my eyes, lifted my arms in simultaneous submission and attack and shouted to the skies - ‘Protect. Honour us. We will be grand’.
We would be grand.
There was dark when we returned, much depleted in numbers, and much wounded in bodies and souls. But we had achieved a victory of sorts. Our village was whole and still standing low but strong against the glow of the moonlight. Tired, hungry and hurting, we knew our words would come, but for now, those words were caught tight within our throats, straining against our tense yet weary muscles. The time for talk would be the next morning.
Once our door had been opened by Ewan, from inside our croft, the sweet scents of mutton-broth and fresh grasses welcomed us and gave us peace. We each lay silently and slept till the morning sun was truly risen, and the cattle’s lowing was becoming more urgent, for need of milking and need of feeding.
I could hear Father preparing bread and cheese and apples for our breaking of the night’s fast, and hear Mother’s light coughing as she also rose. The silence of words would soon also be broken, alongside our fast.
Mother limped to her place on the bench, shaking Ewan’s shoulder as she passed. He yawned and sighed. For a boy of merely eleven summers, his need for sleep was deep and intense. My fourteen summers had been kind, and I was now a young woman, already courting and ready for the responsibilities of life.
As Ewan struggled onto the bench alongside Mother, his eyes sparkled with the energy gained from his first battle. He’d been training well, and it showed. The first words of the morning came from my mouth. I held his arm as he sat.
‘You did grand, Ewan. That was a fine first battle. One to be proud of’.
Mother and Father nodded in agreement then looked over to me with pride.
‘Your contribution was strong and mighty, daughter,’ said Father, and I knew this to be the truth. Mother nodded, and we all sat to eat.
I had been wrong. I’d assumed that this meal would herald analysis of the battle’s highs and lows, but instead, we ate in silence. We rose in silence also, each attending to our usual duties.
What had, at first, felt as moments of togetherness, now was confusing. Why the silence? Had we done what we should not?
I was thinking to speak and to question when came a deep friendly voice shouting from outside, and at our doorway appeared Rory, a man of more than fifty summers, and the head of our village. We all rose from our benches, but he gestured to us to continue with our tasks.
‘Rory,’ said Father.
‘Brother,’ said Mother, for she was his blood.
‘Angus. Morag. Please eat. You’ve strength enough, but need building further.’
I looked up at my Uncle Rory, and he smiled, moving over to ruffle my hair.
‘You were grand.’
‘And Ewan too. Angus and Morag must be proud.’
‘Indeed we are,’ my Father replied. ‘Indeed, we are.’
I knew from the times of other battles that had rudely interrupted our peace, that success would bring a visit from Rory. Father called such times ‘Tidings’ - when Rory brought battlefront news of those who’d died and those who’d lived.
‘So…’ Mother said. ‘Will you tell us more?’
‘I will,’ Rory nodded. ‘Indeed…’
He sat in a bench space I made available for my uncle and began to talk.
‘We’ve thirteen losses. Of the village’s forty-three, it’s a large number.’
Mother sighed. ‘Who?’
My head went down into my lap. John. Not my John.
‘I am sorry, Fionna. John has not returned.’
‘But he may still be…’
‘He may. But we do not think so. Our enemies were many and were strong. We believe the sword slash to have taken him, as it did twelve others.’
I raised myself from the table.
‘I must go.’
My legs strong, but without direction, my chest rumbling with rage.
I left my home with speed and urgency and forced myself up Stony Crags, till I’d climbed half-way: to where the landscape plateaued and softened into a small misplaced copse. Exhausted and heart-sick, I rested my head on my usual stopping place against the beech tree. Its bark, silver and fresh, brought John’s white-fair and glossy hair to mind. He had been my intended one, as I had been his.
Of all of us, he had been the brightest, shiniest star, with the strength of three men, though he was neither Darkhaven’s tallest nor its broadest young man.
But he was my young man, and we suited each other just fine.
As I rested, I felt a tear run its path down my pinkened cheek. Another and another followed. I was not alone, and I knew that. I was blessed to have my family around me still, but John had been a blessing too. He was one I could not and would not lose easily.
Our handfasting was to be held two summers hence.
I wiped my eyes and rubbed my cheeks with the cleanest part of my cloak, then stood to survey the battle’s scene - so many lost warriors.
I felt something. Being too young to name such feelings, I allowed them to overtake me. Perhaps I felt merely anger, but it was different somehow, and more powerful - but whatever it was surged up inside me and I stared towards the sky and screamed.
‘John’ I yelled. ‘Don’t be gone. Be here. Be with me.’
The skies wept and screamed along with me.
It was only then that I realised how the rain was soaking me through to my skin, and just how heavy my sword had become, held as it was by my leather and flex strap by my side. It was time to return home and time to consider how best to avenge my John.
The sword tingled in my hand, and raindrops steamed off its gleaming metal as I ran, ready to embrace the comfort of family, once again. And ready to embrace any challenge the Gods might set for me.