It’s been a wee while since I last posted. I’ve been teaching at St Andrews, and trying to finish up my dissertation. And we’ve just moved down to London, so life has been a bit mad. But I’ve been meaning to post this, so here it is.
It’s a short excerpt I wrote about a year ago that introduces two main characters from my novel – but it’s not actually in my novel. It takes place about a year before it starts, and I’m not sure if it will ever be part of the novel, so I thought I’d put it here for now. I guess you could call it “the prologue-that-wasn’t”. Hope you enjoy it (and – as always – feedback greatly appreciated.)
Eamon stepped onto the gangplank and the knot in his chest tightened. He paused, taking in the roiling mass of sailors and merchants spilling over the docks, the smell of smoke and tar heavy in the air.
I should never have returned…
He stepped back, deciding he would much rather hide in the rotting depths of the ship, but the disembarking sailors shoved him forward and he found himself on dry land for the first time in months. He shifted his pack and hunched his shoulders to blend into the throng. He swayed in his boots as the solid earth fought back against his sea legs. On the deck of a ship there was constant motion beneath the timbres, a continuous give and take between the ship and the sea. On land, beneath the mud, there was only unforgiving earth.
The dull rain poured in rivulets from the slate roofs. Eamon weaved through the salty mob, keeping an eye out for English soldiers. He glanced at a nearby ship readying to depart, wondering if he could stow away on it, when he felt eyes on the back of his head. He feigned interest at the ship and noticed an old man staring at him. He wore a hooded cloak of stained white, and his long beard was tied with a cord.
Eamon continued down the wharf – with his hand on his jewelled hilt – until he saw a tavern sign swinging on one rusty hinge. The Harpoon. He ducked inside, and was greeted by a blast of humid air and the tang of spilled beer.
He moved around the bar, keeping one eye on the entrance. He ordered an ale and waited, expecting the old man to come through the doorway any second. But he didn’t. Eamon sipped the beer and slowly started to relax. He had been on edge ever since they had neared the port of Dundee, and long-buried memories of the last time he was in Scotland began to resurface in his mind. He swallowed another mouthful of ale, trying to force down the guilt and anger in the pit of his stomach. He glanced around the murky tavern, with its covered windows and dark wood, and for a brief moment it seemed he was below decks again. Sailors huddled around tables set into shadowy niches, filling them with smoke and gossip.
The door opened. Eamon tensed, his hand on his hilt once more, but it was another sailor. He went to a table in the corner, so Eamon sighed and swallowed another sip of his ale.
“A bit watered down, is it not?”
Eamon’s grip tightened on the mug. The old man slid next to him at the bar. He threw back his hood to reveal a grinning face, wrinkled by the passing of many years and smiles. He was missing a few teeth, but they weren’t the most distinctive thing missing from his face – for he had only one eye. The skin of the empty socket had sunk inward while scars spread outward from it like rays of the sun, and his remaining eye seemed to hold the radiance of sunlight, as it was the brightest shade of amber Eamon had ever seen. The old man stared unblinkingly at him, and the hairs on Eamon’s arms and neck lifted. He glanced at the barman and other drinkers. No one paid them any attention.
“Who are ye?” Eamon muttered.
“Brahan,” the old man said. “I hope I am not intruding?” He gestured to the empty space around Eamon.
A half-smile flitted across Eamon’s face before his suspicion quashed it.
“Which ship?” Brahan asked, leaning back against the bar.
“The good ship Eliza.”
“Bonnie. Will ye be stayin’ in port for long?”
“I…cannot say for certain,” Eamon said, and it was true. “What ship bore ye here?”
“Oh I didna come by ship. I’ve journeyed here from the south.”
“Hmm,” Eamon murmured as he took another sip. Before the old man could speak again, Eamon set his tumbler down and turned to him, standing up to his full height. “Why are ye following me?”
“Ye seemed like the only man in the whole port who was not glad to be on dry land. I thought there must be a story behind that. And I do love a good story.”
Eamon shook his head. “I’m no storyteller old man.”
Eamon rolled his eyes and gulped the last of his ale. “I dinna have time for stories. Now, if ye please.” He tried to push past, but Brahan put a hand on his shoulder.
“Lad, forgive me. I only wanted to speak with ye. I am a seannchaidh, a seeker of tales and a teller of lore. And the sea is full of stories, is it not?”
“Aye, full of cutthroats as well,” Eamon said, shaking Brahan’s hand off.
But he paused to consider the old man more closely. Seannchaidhs were rare these days, as legendary as the tales they told. They were respected in Scotland, but also feared. Some of them, it was said, even clung to the pagan ways of old, practicing in the deep woods and glens of the north, or the hidden dales of the southern borders.
“What is yer name lad? Or should I say Sir, perhaps?”
“Eamon. Just Eamon.”
“Eamon,” Brahan repeated. “It is an eminent pleasure to make your acquaintance.” He bowed, and a series of pendants swung from underneath the neck of his cloak. They were all the same kind of greenish-grey stone, smoothed to a shine. A pinecone fell out of his pocket, which he quickly snatched up. His hands were dotted with tattooed symbols, and a few strands of his long silver hair and beard were plaited.
“And yours,” Eamon said slowly.
Though he could see wisdom in that beacon-like eye, and kindness as well, Eamon had learned long ago to never trust anyone completely. And though Eamon didn’t believe in witchcraft, this old man certainly had the bearing of one in possession of otherworldly wisdom. The very air around him was whispering with secret knowledge. And the gaze of his one eye seemed to bore through Eamon, seeing through to his deepest held secret, the one that had forced Eamon to flee Scotland, but also the one that had brought him back. The hairs on his arms lifted once more. He cleared his throat and averted his eyes, trying to break the trance.
“Where did ye come from?”
“As I said, the south-”
“Nay, I meant, how did ye get in here? Some kind of sorcery perhaps?”
Brahan smiled once more, then jerked his head towards the rear wall of the tavern. “There’s always a back door, lad.”