The night was cold with her absence. Dark dreams, fleeting images of a past not recalled, of a life unwillingly forgotten. A familiar shiver crawled down his spine remembering her face. Familiar agony spiked through his broken mind, the piece did not fit. Emptiness and pain were his life. Stretching the man sat. The light pierced his crude home, another dawn in the strange place. Another tally scratched into the wall. Not for the first time the man pondered what evil would allow him that function, but not his name, or those of the faces that haunt him.
His shelter was crude. No more than a shallow cave, a fire pit, and a woven wall. The land was bountiful but dangerous, survival a daily struggle. Why should I wish to survive? This world is a cruel jape indeed. Crawling pitifully from the hovel, even the heat of the morning sun could not warm his spirits. The sun is wrong, as are the stars. Each day toiling under an unfamiliar sun, each night under a starry sky he did not recognise. The man was fading.
“Wake up!” a voice called. Ruaridh groaning rolled over sullenly. Why?
Eyes opened. Her face was radiant. A smile appeared. The dream faded, cold sweat drying on his skin.
“Mornin’ sleepy,” she said grinning. No hint of sleep in her voice.
“Morning,” he replied. How can a body be this happy so early?
“You’ll miss your Da’s big meeting if you don’t get your worthless arse up” she said winking. “Billy the stable boy is bringing your gelding round.”
Bugger, he thought. He had overslept. Sighing heavily Ruaridh rose to the brisk cool of their new home. Their home, the thought made him happy. Despite the many months since their vows it felt new. They were old for their people, twenty summers old and just married.
Ailith, pleasantly curvaceous with golden hair and freckles, was the fairest lass in town by his reckoning. Dressing into undergarments he grinned. I’m a lucky bastard, he thought.
“Give me strength; I am married to a lack-wit” Ailith exclaimed catching his vacant grin.
Grinning to myself again, I should stop that, he thought.
“I’m not daft,” he insisted, “just gifted with a woman far swifter of mind than myself” Very diplomatic. The slap that soon followed was more playful than angry.
They shared a quiet moment while he nursed his cheek.
“Must my father always be so cryptic?” Ruaridh asked pulling his britches on, “The man is out to drive a body mad.”
“Him and his damn bird,” she stressed, “they’re insufferable.”
His father’s magus the Raven was hard work, as wise as a crone, big as a boulder and twice as stubborn as both. Insufferable indeed, he thought. Mocking him earned the King’s ire, not that Ailith gave a damn, having his mother’s ear earned much in the way of protection from the king’s formidable temper. Not even the Red dared displease Ælfwynn. Why else was his heir married to bailiff’s daughter, if not for the Queen’s approval.
“You might do well to respect the feathery old bastard,” he cautioned “father likes him.” The Raven was the king’s closest confident. “A wad of gorse in the pants he may be, but he keeps us safe,” a wry smile, “and Da’s Da claimed he was a hundred years old when he was a boy.”
The second slap was more playful, if a clip to the ear could be considered fun. You didn’t tease Ailith and leave unscathed.
Stepping into cold boots and sliding into a scratchy tunic Ruaridh considered himself in the glass on the wall. Bulky with muddy red hair, I could easily be the miller’s boy, he thought, not heir to the pissing throne. Snorting he mused, first son of the realm of piss, shit and ice.
He grabbed his leathers and pulled them on, following with his sword belt and cloak before turning.
“How do I look?” he asked, presenting himself with a flamboyant gesture.
“You look like the arse I married,” Ailith offered smiling, “only he didn’t have a beard and I seem to recall he stank less.”
“Positively princely,” Ruaridh joked mocking an offended pout.
She paused at the door to their home and caught his arm. “Red, make sure you come back,” she whispered, suddenly serious. “You promised me you would always come back,” she was frightened his father’s intentions all too clear. Honeymoon considered over, the king required his heir. Their fantasy of living the quiet life was just that.
“I’ll be back come spring,” he said, a kiss and a promise given seeing him out. What cruel father does this to his son’s wife?
Seething he mounted, the heavens opened and all pretence of a pleasant trip was abandoned.