Beorn the Proud - Madeleine A. Polland
The sudden breeze before the dawn stirred the rushes round the island, rocking the small boat which lay among them. In the bottom of the boat a girl moved and woke, confused first at where she found herself. Then she remembered clearly and all the happenings of the previous day came back to her as in a dream of terror. She lay still, looking backwards to the moment yesterday when she had crept happily among these same rushes on the other side of the island. Thigh-deep in water, she had searched for the nests of wildfowl, to surprise her mother with the brown, strong-flavoured eggs which she so valued for the table.
The monastery bell had startled her, clanging violently in the quiet air, but she was not yet frightened—perhaps it was a fire among the island huts or a pack of wolves marauding from the forest by the abbey on the lake shore. Idly, she had parted the tall rushes and peered out between them, only to see great white and scarlet sails spaced all across the lower lake, billowing above long-boats which bore down upon the islands in speed and silence, like huge and brilliant birds of death.
She had not been able to get back to the village in the centre of the island. She had splashed and clawed her way in panic to shallower water, only to realize that the mighty ships were closing even faster than she upon the shore. There had been nothing left to do but hide among the rushes and watch in helplessness as the dark invaders swarmed from their beached ships and poured yelling up the shore to fall upon her father’s village.
Now she could no longer bear her thoughts and sat up abruptly in the boat. Only then did she see the boy, a few feet from her at the water’s edge. He had not seen her and she stared at him in silence; he was one of the invaders and she knew well who they were. She had often heard her father tell of how they had been raiding Ireland now for many years; of how they had come to the homestead when he was a youth in our Lord’s year of 826. That time, however, the people had had warning of their coming and fled to the forests, taking all they could carry, leaving only their crops and homesteads to the pillaging invaders. They came from a far land beyond the sea to the north; the Dubh Gaills they were called. The Black Strangers.
The boy was not tall, but vigorously built, standing braced on his strong brown legs as his eyes followed a flight of duck across the paling sky. She could not see his face but his skin seemed darker than she had ever known, and the hair falling to his shoulders was straight and black. He wore a tunic of grey linen, long-sleeved, and striped with blue and scarlet at the hem. In the leather belt around his waist was the sheath of a long knife.