Warrior's Princess BrideBy: Meriel Fuller
Dunswick, Scottish Borders, AD 1157
‘God preserve us! They’re coming again! Run and save your souls!’
Tavia of Mowerby wheeled around in astonishment as frightened screams broke from the far side of the market square.
‘Keep going, Tavia!’ Noticing her lack of movement, her father growled at her, the fleshy lines of his face mottled purple in the early morning light. ‘We’ll not make any coin if the cloth is still in the cart!’
He had woken her before the sun had risen, shaking her shoulder roughly before pulling her up from her wooden pallet, glowering at her as she stirred the embers to life, put on the pot to boil the water. He was never in the best of moods on market day, especially as her mother had been too ill to make the journey into the city this week.
‘But…what is happening…?’ Tavia’s fingers stilled once more on the smooth nap of the material before she caught her father’s scowl. She lifted the bolt of cloth hurriedly from the ox-cart on to the trestle table, the brilliant hues of blue, purple and green glowing in the sunshine. She still remained awed by the process that turned the matted coats of their humble collection of sheep into such beautiful cloth. Pulling a length of the roll out across the trestle, she allowed it to fall in gentle pleats in order to show the cloth’s drape to the best advantage. Her father nodded grimly at her actions; it was the closest he would come to approval.
Glancing up, high up to the thick stone walls that en circled the city, Tavia could see the soldiers of King Malcolm, resplendent in their green-and-gold surcoats as they fanned out along the walkway, or crouched in the turrets of the gate-house, arms bent back as they drew their bows. A frisson of fear shot along her veins. Something was not right.
Her father answered the worried look in her wide blue eyes with a brisk shake of his head. ‘It’s nothing, it’ll be another false alarm, just like all the others,’ he grumbled. ‘Ever since Henry took the English throne, this town has run scared. Bunch of lily-livered mice, the whole lot of them!’
‘It’s no secret that King Henry wants these lands back…’
‘And what would you know of it, girl?’ Coughing roughly, Dunstan spat on the greasy cobbles. ‘Malcolm has promised that Northumbria will remain in Scottish hands. We have nothing to worry about.’
Tavia eyed the hunched positions of the soldiers between the grey stone battlements, her eye dropping down to follow the scurrying towns people as they nipped down alley ways, flicked behind shut doors. Usually at this hour, the marketplace would be crowded with people, merchants and tradesman, eager to do business with the people of Dunswick. Carts would jostle for space, merchants would argue over the best places to sell their wares, and the sound of music and laughter would fill the air. Now all she could hear were warning shouts, shouts renting the tense hush of fear.
Tavia made a determined effort to draw some strength from the waxy solidity of her father’s face. At nearly sixteen winters, the young king of Scotland, Malcolm, had done little to inspire his people, people who had been used to the wise and powerful hand of King David. It had fallen to Ferchar, earl of Strathearn and regent to Malcolm, to assure the people that the border lands with England were safe.
An arrow, lit with flame, hissing and spitting, thumped into the pile of woven fabric. ‘Sweet Jesu!’ Dunstan hauled himself up on the table, grabbing at the arrow with his bare hands. ‘Save the fabric!’ he bellowed at Tavia. She grabbed at the top layers to pull it into a heap on the ground, watching the beautiful colours shrivel and scorch on the cobbles. What a shame. All her mother’s hard work disappearing in a moment. She caught her father’s arm. ‘We need to leave, ’tis not safe.’
‘Nonsense, I’m not going to pass up an opportunity to make coin, my girl. We need every penny we can get.’
‘Aye, but with no custom, ’tis hard to make anything at all.’
Her father’s eyes reddened with anger. ‘Just watch your lip, maid, or you’ll see the side of my hand.’
‘At least let me go and see what’s happening.’
Dunstan shrugged his shoulders. ‘If you must,’ he agreed, grudgingly, grunting heavily as he reached down to gather up the ruined, singed fabric from the cobbles.
The smell of burning filled her nostrils as she ran towards the gate house, past town houses where the shutters had been closed. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see the thatched roofs on a row of cottages, alight, flaming, thick, charring smoke flowering into the sky. The sturdy leather of the soles of her boots gripped decisively on the slippery cobbles, as she leaped over the street’s central ditch stinking with dirty water. At this time of year, as the weather started warming up to summer, the city began to reek with the foul smells of so many people living in one place. How different it was to her family’s simple cottage on the hillside, a few miles outside Dunswick. There, she could breathe in the sweet, fresh air, hear the lambs bleating on the fells behind her and drink the spark ling cold water from the stream.