Days Gone Next Episode One
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It seemed almost a shame to kill her when her talent for brewing ale was so great.
Thom could still taste the ale on his lips as he waited in the yard behind the tavern. Despite the ice, his hands were clammy. He gripped the broad sword he had stolen from a gentleman leaving the Blythswood Estate two nights earlier. It was unusually heavy and thick and felt pleasingly solid in his hands. Thom liked his new possession very much.
Snowflakes drifted lazily through the night air, dusting the straw-covered ground. A goat kicked at its wooden post, and a few hens cooed softly from their perches. The crowd inside the alehouse was packed tight, laughing and shouting stories over the din, clapping one another on the back with self-satisfied grins. It was the same every night, Thom thought sourly.
Gentlemen and fishermen, magistrates and farmers, they came from all over the Clyde Estuary to sample the Briggait Alewife’s wares. She still brewed the old style, real ale, sweetened with herbs and a secret ingredient rumoured to be a thimbleful of her piss. Thom would happily drink a whole tankard of piss before touching that new continental beer made bitter with hops.
It was said that the Briggait Alewife was so rich that some days she could barely move from all the coins sewn into her skirts. Her skirts were wide, and her vibrant scarlet-and-green plaid was flung over her shoulder like a man’s and cinched at her waist with a thick, leather belt. Even out here in the dark, Thom could hear her raucous laugh as she greeted some new patrons.
Resentment churned in his guts like bile. What gave her the right to have so much when Thom had so little? With half of what was sewn into the bitch’s skirts, Thom could take a room with a roaring fire for the rest of the winter. He could feast on stew as gales battered outside, fattening himself like the calf before moving on again when the days became longer.
Thom had been on his feet all day, selling the meat of the wolf he had trapped in the Arrochar Alps. Or, trying to. It had been a mangy old bastard with ribs protruding from its dusty, matted coat. Several folk at the market laughed uproariously when he tried to tempt them to his stall.
He’d finally managed to offload a few hulks to a wee wifey too desperate to turn her nose up at the greying meat, then walked up to Market Cross just in time to witness the final body of the day pushed from the window of the Tollbooth Steeple. It tumbled out and hit the side of the tower with a satisfying thwack. Rumours had abounded for many summers that Glasgow would build actual gallows at the Cross, but Thom hoped not. He would miss the thud of bodies hitting the tower.
He’d stood for several minutes, watching thoughtfully as the condemned man writhed and struggled at the end of the rope. The handful of folk watching half-heartedly jeered, but it was all a pathetic show.
The murderers would have all been sent off at noontime when the crowd stretched as far as the Drygate and were full of the joys of the day. Those villains met their Maker with the baying of the mob ringing in their ears.
Thom didn’t hope for much out of life but prayed that when it was his turn, he would be shoved from the Tollbooth Steeple at noon.
He heard shouts disappearing into the distance, and his heart hammered. The crowd was thinning out. Soon it would be empty, and the Alewife would be alone.
Or at least, she would believe she was alone.
Chills darted down Thom’s spine, and blood pounded in his ears as he imagined slicing her throat so cleanly she would be still speaking as she died. Just a few more moments now, and every coin she had accepted this night would be his. Perhaps, he would even avail himself of her body before tossing it into a gutter.
He would definitely get to hang at noon then.
✨ ✨ ✨
‘Shut up, Kenny.’
Kenny, Kirsty’s pal of twenty-odd years, was Lailoken, an ancient being who inspired the legend of Merlin the Magician. Agnes, her horrible great-grandmother, was on his team. Uncle Martin was alive.
Kirsty couldn’t breathe.
A heavy clamp, as solid and unyielding as the locks on Owen’s cage, closed around her windpipe, crushing her chest. Her every cell zinged on edge as though she had been gut-punched by a steam train. Uncle Martin. Kirsty stared, blinked. Willed her eyes to make sense of the sight.
Uncle Martin had taught her to ride a bike. He’d caught her one evening on the back steps, hugging her knees to her chest and hiding her tear-streaked face. He’d sat down next to her and not said a word until Kirsty blurted out it wasn’t fair that everyone had a daddy to teach them how to ride a bike, and she didn’t.
She buried her face in her knees as she felt him get up, frightened he was angry with her for being selfish enough to care about riding a bike when it must be worse for her dad to actually be dead. But then he’d come back a moment later, pushing the bike Jaqueline had just grown out of and told her to hop on.
From the corner of her eye, Kirsty spotted Frej getting to his feet, gingerly stepping away from the shattered window Kenny had flung him against. Blood dried on his cheek and neck as the cuts from broken glass healed instantly. He stood a little behind Kirsty, shielding Morag and Nathan from Agnes’s view.
‘How long we gonnae staun’ aboot here, Kirsty? Pure freezin’ my baws aff, here.’
‘You’ve been cutting about for centuries, Kenny. You can gie me five minutes now.’
He sounded freakishly like the Kenny she knew. But he wasn’t the Kenny she knew. There was no Kenny she knew.
Once, she’d asked him where his bit of the city was, and he’d shrugged he was from all over. The city’s establishment had an unfortunate habit of uprooting families in council housing from pillar to post, so Kirsty had thought nothing of him being from nowhere in particular. But now it occurred to her that though hunners of folk knew Kenny, she’d never met anyone who knew him from school. Everybody had a random pal from school who’d stagger up at the most inopportune moment to remind them of the time they wet themselves in PE and cried.
But not Kenny.
He’d always had a quiet stillness about him. He could be chatty and good-humoured to a point, a good laugh when he had a drink in him. But he never said a word more than he meant to. He never lost control.
Kirsty had put it down to his martial arts training. Some mad part of her nearly laughed. More than once over the years, she’d accused him of Jedi mind tricks when he’d stopped a fight between a pair of raging bams with a single glance. Little had she known Kenny had been older and weirder than Yoda all along.
The clamp in her chest twisted tighter, and an icy wind shrieked, threatening to knock over a row of wheely bins. No. Kirsty forced herself to take a slow, calming breath. No more storms.
Solveig said something then, in a language Kirsty had never heard before. It wasn’t the Norse Kirsty had got used to hearing the Vikings chatting, nor was it Gaelic she would vaguely recognise from gloriously odd children’s programs. Kenny snapped back, and Kirsty didn’t need to know the ancient tongue to grasp that he was telling her to watch it.
Snow started to fall thickly, billowing in a soft, eerie wind like a whisper of a storm.
Somewhere, just beyond them, Glasgow was getting on with its morning. A double-decker bus braved the snow, slithering past as passengers sat staring resignedly forward, hoping for the best. Ambulances sounded in the distance, and construction just out of sight thumped and clanged. A wee drunk guy staggered by, trying to fight a bin bag.
Solveig stepped forward, her tone turning sharper, more accusing. She was confronting Kenny about something, and he wasn’t having it. He spoke quietly, a chilly warning tone Kirsty had known to work on the maddest nutters who’d tried to start trouble at the gym over the years.
‘Solveig, if you’re wanting to have it out with Kenny about something, you’re gonnae need to get in line,’ Kirsty said firmly. ‘He can get his pelters one at a time, but —‘
Solveig lunged, and in an instant, Kirsty saw Kenny’s fingers twitch. He was going to white light Solveig. Without thinking, Kirsty raised her own hands and zapped Kenny in the chest.
He flew backwards and lay crumpled against the wheely bins. Agnes screamed, and Martin paled.
‘How did you do that?’ Solveig whirled to face Kirsty.
‘You know I don’t know,’ Kirsty snapped. ‘You’ve seen me do it a dozen times.’
‘No — to Lailoken —‘
Kenny stirred. Kirsty zapped him again. He flinched and lay still.
‘Behave yourself, Kenny,’ she hissed. ‘There will be no turning my pals to dust on my watch, you get me?’
Kenny slowly turned to look up at her, terror flooding his pale blue eyes.
‘I asked if you get me,’ Kirsty snapped.
‘Good. Now I’m going for breakfast rolls, and I will talk to you when I feel like talking to you. Okay?’
‘Yes — mistress.’
‘Oh, away tae fuck with all that ancient pish.’ The clamp loosened. Kirsty felt light-headed and almost as if she were floating above her body. She had about seven seconds' worth of gumption left, and she prayed her voice wouldn’t crack. ‘I will text you when I’m good and ready to talk to you, and you’d better be ready with answers for me.’
Kirsty turned and strode towards town, praying she’d escaped sight before her trembling legs gave way.
✨ ✨ ✨
The man was gone when Solveig awoke, leaving behind only the faint scratch of his stubble along her neck and collarbone, and a delicious ache between her thighs.
She rolled over on the straw mattress that was toasty warm from her body heat and listened to the stirrings of the alehouse below. Louise kept a few rooms up here for any of her patrons who had travelled far from home, and she allowed friends to stay when they needed a bed. Solveig gathered her plaid around her shoulders and scuttled the short distance to the grate to shove a log on the fire.
A low, morning sun shone through the narrow window, and the noise from the Briggait below suggested that the day had long begun. The air was filled with shouts of traders setting up the market for the day. A couple of drunk sailors staggered over the cobblestones singing bawdy songs at the top of their voices. Children screeched, a small dog yapped, and a warning call sounded just before someone tipped the contents of a family’s pot onto the street below.
Solveig needed to hurry back to her blacksmith’s forge over Bishop Rae’s Bridge in the lands of the Gorbals — she couldn’t afford to waste any of the short daylight hours. She was already behind on her commission to make a broad sword for George Elphinstone of Blythswood, who’d had his stolen days earlier. Her reputation as a blacksmith was forever precarious. It wasn’t uncommon for widows to take over their husband’s profession — but every time Solveig incited the wrath of a client, she risked them demanding proof of this misplaced husband’s existence.
Where was Louise? Usually, her friend came up for an early morning gossip, bringing porridge and weak breakfast ale. If it was as late as Solveig feared, Louise would probably already be in the brewing hut, pressing the fermented barley mash ready for the evening’s festivities.
Solveig braced herself to splash frigid water beneath her linen shift, squealing aloud as the ice hit her skin. Over three hundred years of existence, and Solveig had never made her peace with the cold. Many of Louise’s patrons were newly staggered off tall ships come up the Clyde from distant lands. Solveig loved to listen to their tales of places where the sun warmed the air from dawn to dusk, even at Yuletide.
Solveig had often toyed with gaining passage on one of those ships. She was strong, used to labour, and once upon a time she had sailed much smaller vessels across the North and Atlantic seas. Seafaring was in her blood. But this city held answers. What had happened to her, what had become of her brother Frej, her husband Halfdan and their comrades. She couldn’t leave until she knew.
Solveig briskly tucked her shift into her britches and arranged her plaid in a manner that gave a vague nod to a dress before leaving the room. Downstairs, it was unusually quiet. Even at this early hour, there was normally a lively group debating and storytelling over porridge and ale. Louise would be presiding like a lady of a manor, tossing witty remarks and acerbic comments into the mix to roars of laughter.
But the alehouse was almost empty, save for an elderly fellow with long, white whiskers who snored loudly at the bar, cradling his wooden tankard to his chest like an infant. Two travellers who could not afford rooms sat silently on a bench, their eyes bloodshot and drooping. The fire was barely glittering coals, something Louise never allowed. Solveig tossed a few logs to get it roaring again, then stepped out into the yard.
The angry bleats of Louise’s goat filled the air as he stamped and strained at his tether, and unease prickled over Solveig. The hens, who should be asleep, soft and fat on their perches, strode around the straw, cooing and clucking their agitation. Where was Louise?
Solveig approached the brewing hut at the back of the yard. It was cleverly disguised by a low thatched roof as a goat shelter. She ducked below the lowest part of the roof and stepped into the cool, dark hut. The air was heavy with the sour, almost sickly, scent of barley at various stages of fermentation.
Solveig’s stomach clenched with dread as her eyes adjusted to the dim light. The scream escaped her lips before she could stop it.
✨ ✨ ✨
After much heated debate, it was decided on Chinese takeaway for dinner. The Vikings had a majority block, and they were mad for a prawn cracker. Nathan and Morag held out for fish and chips but eventually accepted the democratic vote.
The Vikings’ home brew appeared to be about 99% proof and nearly blew Kirsty’s head off. Which, she realised after a moment of reflection, was precisely what she needed. She steeled herself and took a healthy gulp as the huge table all but disappeared under steaming cartons, and the candlelit air filled with a general din of chatter. She belatedly noticed that nobody appeared to have connected the electricity in the past two and a half years.
Frej banged his mug on the table, apparently the Viking equivalent of tapping a wine glass for attention. Quiet fell, though Snorri continued to eat fried seaweed by the handful, and Morag was getting to grips with wrapping shredded duck in a pancake. Frej stood, one hand warm and firm on Kirsty’s shoulder as he raised his mug with the other.
‘We drink to Kirsty,’ he thundered. ‘And all of us, for a triumphant mission. Owen is her prisoner, and for this, we give thanks.’
Oh yeah, thought Kirsty dimly as everyone cheered their successful capture of an ancient serial killer. That happened. The moment of victory had been somewhat undermined by the appearance of Kenny and his crew.
The memory of Agnes and Uncle Martin standing there on the Gallowgate, bold as brass, as though one of them hadn’t gone to prison for the other’s murder a decade ago, ricocheted endlessly around Kirsty’s mind. Somehow, Kenny turning into an ancient shimmery bone-thing paled in comparison. Kirsty nodded awkwardly, not really sure how to react to the cheers.
‘Is Solveig okay?’ Nathan murmured to Frej as Kirsty tried to tuck into her beef in black bean sauce. Solveig had barely said a word all day, chopping wood in the back garden as everyone else dozed off the evening’s drama. She was now tucking into king prawns, ignoring Snorri, who was slurring a story in her general direction.
‘I am not certain,’ Frej replied around a mouthful of chicken satay, watching his sister through narrowed eyes. ‘She told me not to ask her about what happened.’
‘Have a prawn cracker,’ Kirsty interrupted, shoving the bag at Nathan and Frej.
‘We need to know what was going on between her and Lailoken,’ Nathan pressed.
‘Kenny,’ Kirsty snapped. ‘His name is Kenny.’
‘Okay, but —‘
‘It can wait until morning,’ Kirsty said firmly. ‘All of it. Tonight, we’re getting pished.’
‘I said no, Nathan.’
‘That was my mother?’ Morag slipped into the chair next to Kirsty. ‘The old lady?’
‘What did I just say?’
‘She didn’t see me.’ Morag reached for a spring roll and chewed it thoughtfully. ‘I made sure of it. Nathan and I stayed behind the van. She didn’t even look in our direction.’
‘Very good.‘ Kirsty reluctantly swallowed some egg-fried rice. There was nothing like discovering your only family had lied to you your entire life to make a person lose their appetite. ‘Look, Morag, I don’t want to talk about Agnes right now.’
‘Do you think this Lailoken fellow is a McIvar Boy?’
‘Kenny? No way, he — hold on a minute.‘ Kirsty frowned, her attention caught despite herself. She pointed at Morag with a chopstick. ‘You can’t have told her you were here.’
‘My mother, you mean?’
‘Yes — if Agnes didn’t look for you today, then you can’t have told or won’t tell her. You must return to your own time before she knows you’re missing.’
Morag shrugged. ‘Even if I’m missed, I’ll come up with a good cover story. I’m good at that.’
’Yeah, but — that’s the point. What happened today, whatever is about to happen in the next few days or weeks or however long — you will have more than fifty years to tell that you were here, and you don’t.
‘If she had a clue you were there, she would have looked for you or taunted me about you. Even if Kenny told her to keep quiet — she wouldn’t be able to resist crowing.’
Morag nodded. ‘That’s why I don’t tell the old bitch anything. I love having a secret from her,’ Morag stuffed a sweet and sour prawn in her mouth.
Their relationship changed, Kirsty thought. The Morag Kirsty knew wasn’t under any illusions as to the reality of her mother, but she always defended her. She’d only allow Kirsty to rage against Agnes’s latest cruelty for so long until she firmly insisted Agnes meant well. It was the only blot on their otherwise close relationship.
As an adult, Kirsty understood that Morag thought she was helping, but it seemed she was taking Agnes’s side at the time, and it made Kirsty feel desperately alone. A tiny part of her had never quite forgiven Morag for that, she realised now — which made it doubly confusing to hear this Morag casually announce that Agnes was an old bitch she’d never confide in.
‘I’m surprised she lived this long,’ Morag commented, abandoning the dumpling for more prawn crackers. ‘She must be raging.’
‘Raging about being alive?’
‘It’s the greatest of insults for someone in my mother’s line of work to see old age. She had dozens of enemies. Hunners of them. Dark, dangerous men just waiting for their chance. There’s good reason she rose to the level she did, she’s good at what she does — but I’m amazed if she killed every one of them before they got to her. She can’t have.’
‘The scene changed a lot in the past twenty or so years,’ Kirsty said slowly. ‘There was a big outreach movement to tackle violent crime in the early 2000s. With so much less fresh blood, many of the mobs just scattered. Some of them crept back here and there, but it’s more random teams of toerags than the organised armies of Agnes’s day. More of that old guard died of natural causes than you’d think — wee wizened men fading away, forgotten in prison. Suppose it’s just the luck of the draw Agnes didn’t join them.’
Morag made a face. ‘I suppose.’
Snorri and Leif launched into a drinking song. Kirsty got to her feet to join in, even though she didn’t know the words or the language. Frej joined her, his arm firm and solid around her waist as though he could transfer strength and calmness through osmosis. Kirsty threw back her head and sang gobblygook at the top of her voice.