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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.
She took a shot when the song dictated, and Viking home brew sizzled through her veins. The singing grew more raucous, and the table trembled as Snorri banged the beat. Yet, it wasn’t enough to drown out the fact that Kirsty had just realised Agnes could very well be immortal.
✨ ✨ ✨
Solveig crouched down to inspect the dead man. He was tall, taller even than Solveig herself. His chestnut-coloured hair was encrusted with blood, his hazel eyes blank and staring. Sharp cheekbones stood out against sunken cheeks. It had been a harsh winter for many, Solveig thought ruefully. At least this man’s hunger was no more.
The axe buried in his skull was heavy and ornate, well-crafted of fine materials. Solveig hadn’t seen an axe of this quality in several decades at least, though many monied travellers, gentlemen and even royalty found their way to Louise’s alehouse. Neither riches nor fine manners protected a man when mad blood was stirred by ale, as Louise had discovered all too many times.
Barfights were far from uncommon, but this fatal blow was skilled, Solveig thought. It had hit the head directly at the soft temple to kill quickly and cleanly. The anger in the man’s eyes attested to the speed at which he had died. He still had fight in him. His soul would now be raging in the afterlife, searching furiously for his killer for all time. Well, that was between his killer and the gods, Solveig thought, saying a brief prayer for his safe passage to the afterlife.
‘What are you doing here?’
Solveig turned to find her friend standing behind her, her eyes flashing angrily. Louise wore her plainest dress, Solveig noted in surprise and was wrapped in a plaid of dark blue and grey. Her glossy raven hair was pulled severely back.
‘I was searching for you. You didn’t come up to my room.’
Solveig stepped aside, and Louise clamped her hand over her mouth in horror as she saw the dead man.
‘What happened? Why did you kill him?’
‘This man has been dead several hours.’
‘How do I know that?’
‘Because he is cold, and his limbs are rigid with death,’ Solveig replied. ‘The death-keeper will need to break his legs to get him in the barrow.’ She wrinkled her nose. ‘He’ll expect more than a bawbee for that, maybe even a shilling.’
‘You can’t go for the death-keeper.’
In the freeze of winter, burying bodies in the ground was out of the question, so the city’s dead was kept in a long, low hut beyond the Calton Green until Easter. Everyone knew the death-keeper asked no questions as long as the right coin crossed his palm. He was consequently a rich man.
‘The king’s men came to me only last week to remind me of the consequences of bawdy behaviour on my premises.’ Louise started to pace agitatedly, averting her eyes from the dead man. ‘If they learn a man died —‘
Solving shook her head. ‘That boy king is certainly making his authority known since his mother’s defeat at Langside.’
‘He is our divine ruler,’ Louise snapped.
‘Of course,’ Solveig said hastily. ‘But there is generally peace at your tavern, is there not? Your reputation is sound, and this man is a stranger.’
‘I can’t risk it,’ Louise whispered, her eyes wide and frightened. ‘They’ll push me from the Steeple at noon. Solveig, what shall I do?’
The barrow lurched ominously as Solveig wheeled it through the heaving market. It had taken more time — and heavier tools — than she accounted for to snap and fold the limbs enough to get the body into a barrow and covered by a heavy cloth. She understood now why the death-keeper was paid so handsomely. Despite the winter chill, she was sweating profusely when she heaved him into place.
There was a whisper of sun in the air as Solveig shoved the heavy barrow past the salt houses, and the Green came into sight. She passed the women bleaching and dyeing linen, their waulking song filling the air along with the sharp tang of sheep’s urine. Most of the Calton Green in the East was given over to grazing and consequently busy with peasants attending to their livestock.
Solveig veered a sharp right into the rougher, wooded areas that led to the Clyde. Soon, the path became too uneven to push the barrow any farther. The woods were so thick that little sun penetrated even the thatch of bare branches, and the shadows were deep. Solveig tipped the body onto the ground, where he landed with a thud. A rustling echoed in the stillness as woodland critters scampered over frosty bracken. A squirrel bounded from tree to tree, scattering icy snow in Solveig’s path.
She had wrapped the man in a clean sheet and then knotted two others around his ankles. Those she strapped across her chest so that she could use her full strength to drag his great weight to the swamp. Her muscles ached, and sweat quickly cooled on her brow and neck.
The water was frigid and slimy. Solveig waded as deep as she dared before risking being caught by the fast currents of the Clyde. The man was a heavy weight to hold aloft, but his body would quickly become bloated and bob back to the surface if she didn’t weigh it down.
The waulking song grew louder. Solveig feared the women had followed her for a horrible moment, but then she realised they were singing louder to warn of the threat. A man known to them must be passing.
The axe was now stowed on Solveig’s belt, tucked safely beneath her plaid. Despite her fear, a tingle of thrill danced over her. It had been a long time since she held the satisfying weight of an axe in her hands. She froze, listening keenly, but no footsteps approached. He may have slunk upwards to the Calton Green, or perhaps the women’s song persuaded him to retreat.
Finally, Solveig tucked the final rock into the folds of the sheet and released the man. The body groaned and exhaled, bobbing alarmingly as the sheet threatened to come loose. A small fishing boat rowed past. Solveig froze, but both men were engaged in setting up lines for salmon and paid her no mind.
The body started to sink, but then a scream rose in Solveig’s throat as the man’s arm escaped from the sheet and rose from the water as though waving for help. A strange instinct propelled her to reach for his hand. Revulsion washed over her as she touched rigid, icy skin — and something else. As the man slipped again from her grasp and plunged into the shadowy depths, Solveig withdrew her hand and stared at what lay in her palm.
A small silver locket glinted in the pale sunshine. Solveig shook her head. It couldn’t be. But it was the locket she had given to Louise at Hogmanay.
✨ ✨ ✨
The moonlight cast a soft pinkish glow over the snow-covered garden. Frej spotted Kirsty sitting on the old crumbling wall next to the shed, and his breath caught in his throat. Breathtaking. So that’s what that word meant.
After taking the English for Beginners course offered for free to new Glaswegians at a local community centre, Frej found a bookcase stuffed with battered old novels in one of the guest rooms. The covers featured wistful women with long hair and large dresses and frowning men with chests of warriors. Frej’s English vocabulary doubled and tripled as he read his way through Jackie Collins, Shirley Conran and Jacqueline Susann. He carefully noted every word that reminded him of Kirsty over the long months she was away, his faith that he would see her again never wavering.
‘You are breathtaking,’ he murmured now.
Her hair looked darker in the moonlight, tumbling over her shoulders in wild waves. She wore joggers and his hoody, and she fixed him with a challenging, curious stare that made his heart flip.
He chuckled, cleared some snow to sit on the frozen wall next to her, and pulled her close. She didn’t swoon like some of the women in those stories, nor did she expose her creamy-white neck for him to kiss. However, she fit perfectly into the nook of his shoulder, and she felt solid and warm and real. He buried his face in her hair and breathed in the scent of her that he dreamt of all those months she was away.
‘Are you feeling alright, Frej?’
He chuckled. ‘Last summer, Nathan and I were in town when I smelt the scent of your hair. I knew it couldn’t be you, but I turned around and ran towards it just in case. It was a Saturday, and the streets were busy, but I charged through the crowd until I found the source of the scent. It was a stall giving away free samples of a coconut body spray. I begged them for as many as they would give me, and sprayed the pillow every night so that I would dream of you.’
‘Oh, Frej.’ Kirsty snuggled closer to him and blew a raspberry on his chest. ‘That is the most romantic and also weirdest thing I’ve ever heard.’
‘When do you plan to speak to Lailoken?’
Kirsty shrugged and started to trace little circles and swirls on his knee. He felt a stirring that made him ache for her. Snow drifted through the air, and he smiled at the thought of stripping naked to join with her then and there. At least his cock would be warm.
‘I think —‘ He tried, with little success, to keep his mind clear. ‘I think perhaps it is essential to —‘
‘They kept all this from me my entire life. They can bloody well wait until I’m ready now.’
‘I will find out whatever Solveig is willing to tell me tomorrow, and —’
‘Mmhmm.’ Kirsty reached up and gently nipped and nuzzled the sensitive spot at the base of his neck. She trailed her nails along his thigh, and he groaned as she wrapped her hand firmly around his instant hardness, making an appreciative noise deep in her throat. He needed to tell her he had to go, but somehow his hands were under her hoody, pulling aside her bra to feel her nipples harden under his touch.
‘I have — umm, I must —‘ He muttered, then gasped as she straddled him on the wall, and he felt the hot centre of her even through two layers of fabric. All coherent thought left his mind as she pressed herself firmly against his cock. Clinging on by fistfuls of his jumper, she rocked urgently and sweet, excruciating pressure built in him until —
‘Hey guys, do you want more prawn crackers before we throw them out?’
Snorri stood silhouetted in the candlelight of the kitchen, holding aloft two white plastic bags like the hearthfire idiot he was. Frej growled in Norse that he would pull Snorri’s intestines out through his throat if he didn’t disappear this instant, and Snorri hastily retreated. Kirsty giggled, wrapping her arms around his neck.
She kissed the tip of his nose. ‘Shall we take this inside?’
Frej groaned, feeling as regretful as he ever had in all his earthly years. ‘I must go.’
‘Go? Go where?’
‘You have a job?’
‘We learned quickly that one does not pay for Chinese takeaway with deer hide in your society.’
‘Please tell me you found out the hard way.’
Kirsty’s face lit up as she laughed, and Frej again felt a tug on his heart. ‘I didn’t think anything could cheer me up today,’ she said quietly. ‘Thank goodness for Snorri. And you.’
He kissed the palm of her hand and pressed it against his cheek. ‘Nathan is going to the library in the morning. Before approaching them, you should be armed with as much information as possible.’
Kirsty shrugged and looked away. Frej could feel hurt emanating from her as he stroked her hair. He wished he could draw it from her like poison.
‘Agnes must have known all along how I missed the funeral, why I was asking about Mrs McCafferty. I thought —‘ She broke off with a frustrated sigh. ‘People always imagine that gangs are all about straight up violence, but Agnes’s real stock-in-trade has always been information. Half the time, she knew more about people’s lives than they did. That was the real core of her power.’
Kirsty laughed bitterly. ‘I thought I finally had one up on her, knowing the truth about Nathan, learning more about Morag’s death — can you believe I felt sorry for her, this wee old lady left out in the cold at long last. And all the time, she was making fun of me.’
Tears shone in Kirsty’s eyes. She blinked them away irritably. Frej pressed his forehead against hers, cradling her face in his hands.
‘You are a threat to her.’
‘I’m not.’ Misery wore leaden in her voice. ‘People have always said that, but it’s pish. ‘She laughed bitterly. ‘You know who told me that? Mrs McCafferty and bloody fucking Kenny. It’s like when you tell a wee kid you’re scared when it shouts boo.’
‘Lailoken was afraid of you today.’
Kirsty shook her head, but Frej gently raised her chin so that she had to look him in the eye.
‘I saw it,’ he said firmly. ‘I believe white light should not work on him.’
‘But it —‘
‘It did when it came from you. You are something that frightens them. Do not forget that.’
‘Definitely.’ He pecked her on the lips and stood. She scrabbled off his lap, and he bent to kiss her again, softer and deeper this time. His cock would ache until he was with her again, but he could live with that. ‘I’m on the nightshift.’
‘You’re on the what? Frej — where are you working?’
Frej crunched across the snow towards the back gate, then turned and called back to her. ‘Hey — remember my uncle tried to burn me alive. Families are wild, man.’ Her laughter echoed after him as he hurried to the bus stop.
✨ ✨ ✨
Why did Louise not confide in her?
A heavy feeling settled over Solveig like a cloak as she hurried back towards the alehouse. She quickened her pace over icy cobblestones as the shadows grew long. She had missed an entire day of work. Elphinstone would expect his sword in the morning, but Solveig hadn’t even begun welding the intricate design he had requested on the handle.
A ship must have just arrived from the Atlantic. Solveig breathed in the scent of fresh fish and salt, homesickness curdling in her guts as she remembered Frej diving into the wild waters around the Western Isles to wrestle a huge salmon aboard their ship. They had eaten half of it over a roaring fire on a sandy-white beach that night. The other half Frej had cured with salt, beetroot, dill and snaps, then buried under a heavy stone slab. The following spring, after their first siege of Dumbarton, they returned to the beach and feasted on the sweet gravadlax.
Frej. Her twin. The other half of her soul. His bones would be long dust in the ground. A wisp of sadness closed around Solveig’s heart, and she firmly pushed it away.
Why had Louise not confided in her?
Louise had feigned shock and fear this morning at the appearance of the man’s body in her brewing hut. But she had been wearing her locket the night before. Even if the man stole it before his being murdered, surely she would have recognised him?
Few knew of the existence of the brewing hut. It was deliberately disguised, and Louise often spoke loudly of premises in the country village of Balornock to deter thieves. The chances of a patron finding the hut without Louise’s help were negligible, Solveig thought, hurt slithering through her guts.
She could understand the secrecy if she were a stranger. Most people appreciated women’s need to defend themselves occasionally. Still, since the Witchcraft Act was passed some thirty-odd years earlier, their actions were more likely to be regarded with suspicion. It was impossible to know who to trust — but surely Louise knew she could trust Solveig?
Louise and Solveig had worked together in a tavern in the village of Partick, well used by travellers heading to Dumbarton and the Western Isles. Louise was barely more than a girl, and Solveig appeared to be only a little older. Solveig often covered both of their chores while Louise worked on perfecting her recipe of herbs and spices to create her now-famous ale.
‘My ale will bring me more riches than marriage ever would,’ Louise whispered as they curled together in the loft above the tavern.
There were several holes in the thatched roof overhead, and stars twinkled through the gaps. Solveig watched the stars as she stroked Louise’s glossy black hair and remembered navigating the seas via the stars with her father and brother.
‘What will you do?’ Louise continued. ‘You won’t marry, will you?’
‘I would,’ Solveig murmured into the darkness. ‘If only I could find a man greater in statue than I.’
They both sniggered. Solveig was a head and shoulders taller than just about every man in Scotland. Men tended to give a woman who towered above them a wide berth, allowing her greater freedom than most women enjoyed. The few, crazed on gin or mead that had gone bad, who decided to try their luck anyway, soon discovered that a Viking shield-maiden did not take kindly to men’s liberties.
The market was closing, and lanterns were lit as Solveig finally approached Louise’s alehouse. It would already be filled with traders, tanners and cobblers from miles around. Masters and students from the university at Rottenrow would be hotly debating philosophy. The two girls Louise hired would serve overpriced stew while the young boy collected tankards ready to be filled for new patrons. Sometimes he rinsed them in the well in the yard, but most often, he did not.
Louise would be holding court, laughing and teasing her adoring crowd, in her element as she extracted gold coin after gold coin and slipped them into the lining of her skirts. Solveig would have no opportunity to question her about the morning’s events until gone midnight. Remembering that, she hesitated, ignoring the irritated harrumph of the man forced to sidestep her.
Perhaps she should go to her forge and get what she could do by candlelight? If she at least had something to show the young nobleman Elphinstone when he came in the morning, maybe he wouldn’t report her to the powerful Blacksmiths Guild and run her out of town. She could retreat to plenty more professions for a few decades if necessary, but none that gave her the backbreaking satisfaction of pounding oxygen from iron.
Prickling unease draped over her as she dithered on the darkening street. No — she would work better if she saw her friend even briefly. Most likely, Louise had acted impulsively out of fear this morning and would be ready with a sheepish explanation for her odd behaviour.
So decided, Solveig made her way to the alehouse door, then stopped in surprise as she realised it was shut and bolted across. She had never known the door to be locked at any hour. Silence throbbed inside as Solveig backed away — could she have approached the wrong door?
‘She’s away,’ a man in an ill-fitting, sheep-coloured tunic announced mournfully.
‘Away? Where has she gone?’
The man shrugged. ‘I know not. I seen her pack up a cart this afternoon. Mebbe she went to brew more ale at Balornock or visit relatives?’
Solveig shook her head. The Balornock premises were fictitious. Like Solveig, Louise had no family and nowhere else to go. And yet, all the same, she was gone.
✨ ✨ ✨
It was obnoxiously cold, Kirsty decided as she stood outside the police station. She was almost sure that frost was settling on her windpipe as she breathed. Bloody hurry up, Harry, she thought.
Kirsty didn't know what to do with the burning hurt coursing through her. Everything happening now was in the past for the Morag Kirsty grew up with. This meant that Morag knew about the time holes for Kirsty's entire life. Not to mention the truth about Kenny and Agnes's involvement with him.
Kirsty had always told Morag everything. As a child, she'd followed Morag about incessantly, blethering nineteen to the dozen about every iota of wee girl drama she had going on. Even as an adult, she knew she'd chatted about joining Kenny's gym and palling about with him. Morag had never reacted one way or another. She'd had sat there, over endless pots of tea and cakes and lied to Kirsty's face, again and again.
And yet, Kirsty couldn't be upset with the Morag who was in her house because she hadn't kept the secret from her yet. The Morag who had betrayed her was dead. Escaped from Owen in 1968 to be murdered by him fifty-odd years later.
A headache tugged at Kirsty's temples, and she was almost certain smoke was coming from her ears. It was too much to wrap her head around. She felt gut-punched at a cellular level, and the only thing she knew for sure was that she had to tell Harry the truth.
Kirsty had only ever seen easy-going, happy-go-lucky Harry break down at his father's funeral. Hatred of Agnes had thundered through Kirsty as she listened to her pal's dry, heaving sobs filling the church. The minute the service was over, Kirsty had marched straight to the nearest police station.
And the whole time, Martin had been alive. The pounding at Kirsty's temples grew as she tried to figure it out. Had the coffin been empty? Had Agnes paid off the funeral directors — but what about the police? Agnes had plenty of influential police officers in her employ, but Kirsty was sure there had been a post-mortem — could Agnes really have arranged for that to be faked? And most of all, why? What reason could Agnes possibly have for going down for a murder that had never happened?
The doors of the police station slid open, and Kirsty's oldest friend emerged. He was in joggers and a hoody, a woolly hat pulled low over his brow. He looked for all the world more like a criminal than half of those he'd probably arrested that night. Kirsty ran to meet him.
'Awright, pal?' she grinned, falling into step with him. 'Can I tempt you to a wee bevvy and a blether?'
'Kirsty?' Harry's voice sounded a bit odd. Maybe he had a cold.
'Away tae fuck, eh?'
Kirsty stepped in Harry's path, forcing him to stop. 'I beg your pardon?'
'Where have you been?'
Ice washed over Kirsty at the fury in his voice. 'What are you talking about? Nowhere.'
'Sure about that?'
Too late, Kirsty remembered the small matter of her having been in 1968 for two and a half years. 'Oh, aye,' she began sheepishly. 'Well, mind about the time holes?'
'Fucks sake,' Harry snapped, striding towards the road.
'What? You said you believed us —'
'Aye, I've believed a lot of stupid shite over the years. Good old gullible Harry, that's me. Whole world thinks I came up the Clyde in a spam tin.'
'I don't. I never have, you know that —'
'You said you'd help. I telt you my job was on the line wi' they lassies getting murdered, and you said you were on it —'
'I was —'
'No, you were away in fairyland, as usual.'
'Have the murders stopped?'
Harry flinched. 'You stopped them, did you?'
Kirsty hesitated. Harry or not, he was polis. She wasn't sure it was fair to tell him she'd locked the killer in an iron cage deep in the city's bowels.
'Aye,' Harry laughed bitterly as her silence stretched too long. 'Right enough.'
'I tried phoning you, and you never answered, by the way —'
'Two missed calls isnae the same as nearly three years of silence,' he spat. 'Never mind the year and a half when you missed Morag's funeral. And aye, I know what you're gonnae say, but it's just a wee bit convenient how whenever folk are counting on you, you're lost in the mists of time, Kirsty. After my dad died —'
'This is the thing, Harry —'
'You were GONE,' he yelled, his voice cracking.
Kirsty shrank back, her heart hammering. 'I'm —sorry.'
'The worst time in my life, and you jumped on a plane to live it up on some beach somewhere. I kept thinking you'd come back. I was too feart to ever fall asleep because those few seconds when I woke up and forgot he was gone, only for it all to come crashing back — they tore me open all over again every morning. I'd lie staring at my phone, knowing that any minute you'd ring, or text, at least, to see how I was doing. I was waiting for you to distract me, or make me laugh, or just fucking let me know you were thinking of me, and you never did.'
'Harry —' To Kirsty's horror, hot tears sprang to her eyes. She didn't want to cry. It wasn't about her. 'I never meant to —'
Harry laughed cynically, the fight gone out of him. 'You never do, Kirsty.'
'Harry, please can we —'
'No.' He started to jog as a car pulled up on the road outside the station.
Kirsty flinched as the car door slammed shut. A beautiful, dark-haired woman leaned over to kiss Harry. Then the car was gone, and Kirsty was alone.
She sprinted to the top of the hill in Bellahouston Park and then screamed with frustration. She wasn't even puffed. The one thing that kept her sane was burning away jaggy emotions with sweat, and she couldn't even do that any more.
She leapt to the top of the tallest tree she could see, dangled from the highest branch then dropped, landing harmlessly on soft bracken. Bolting back down the hill, she punched the elephant statue in the face, then shrank back, mortified. What had that elephant ever done to her? She was behaving exactly like the selfish child Harry said she was.
Maybe he was right about her?
No. He was angry and hurt — but he didn't get to take it out on her. She'd left after his dad's funeral because she had no choice. She'd committed the ultimate betrayal against Agnes — for Harry's sake, by the way — and every minute she hung around the city she was in danger of making things worse.
It wasn't just about her own safety. Agnes could have declared actual war if she'd thought it would bring Kirsty down. Harry knew this. Harry knew who and what Agnes was. He'd told her he understood. And now here he was, nearly fifteen years later, deciding he was raging at her?
Away an' bile yer fuckin' heid, Harry.
Kirsty had done what needed to be done. She'd only disappeared for two and a half years because it was the only way to find out how to stop Owen. And she had stopped Owen. For the first time in centuries he was locked up, unable to be a danger to women or anyone else. Harry should be thanking her.
And it was more than two missed calls. By the way.
She raced five rounds of the park in seconds, then galloped through snowy woods to Pollok House, shot along the icy banks of the White Cart Water and scrabbled up the side of the long-derelict Sir John Maxwell School. Finally, she felt the tiniest touch fatigued, and fury drained out of her like treacle as she balanced along the roof edge of the three-storey building. She watched snow silently cover Pollokshaws and remembered that she probably could have texted Harry once or twice without starting World War Three.
Trees grew through cracks in the ceiling, and beams sagged and rotted beneath her feet. The lift-falling-too-fast-feeling was faint as she heard Victorian children screaming in the playground as a stern master called them to attention. Maybe she could try to talk to him again in the morning. If he wasn't too busy with his new girlfriend.
Fresh snow twinkled in the moonlight. The sky gleamed with dazzling stars, celestial fireworks twinkling a hundred colours, the universe glittering, shimmering, and snapping. A plane crossed the sky, and Kirsty wondered if she could leap up and grab it, ride its tail to Costa Rica, Zagreb or the Isle of Man.
Or, she could grab Frej and head for the airport like a normal person, she thought ruefully. Either way, she was done with all this pish. Owen was safely locked away, and the rest was way over her pay grade. She'd done what she said she would do, and now she was done. The whole bloody immortal shower of them could go hang. Maybe she would apologise to Harry before she went, and maybe she wouldn't.
Kirsty started to slowly climb back down. The sandstone crumbled here and there, and at one point, a wee Edwardian boy popped his head out a window and nearly gave her a heart attack. She dropped onto the frosty ground and leapt over the fence surrounding the condemned building. She would head home, she decided. Wait up for Frej to get home from work and talk to him about blowing this popsicle stand. He was a Viking, after all — wasn't exploring the world their whole thing?
Kirsty paused on a mound of rubble where a shopping arcade used to be, considering the Shawhill Road high-rise flats and deciding whether she fancied trying to run up over the top of them. Surely twenty-odd storeys would knacker even her? She'd just decided to go for it, when something caught her eye.
Crumpled at the bottom of the construction site pit was a dark shape. Could be a pile of bin bags, she thought, knowing full well it was not.
The young man was heartbreakingly boyish, with a shaving rash and one of those half-shaved, half-floufy haircuts that were all the rage amongst the youth of today. He wore a dark tracksuit, and his icy fist still clutched a packet of supermarket own-brand crisps. He must have come out to get a late-night snack, Kirsty thought, a lump forming in her throat as she took in his dark, blankly staring eyes.
The axe buried in his skull was heavy and ornate, well crafted of fine materials. Kirsty had never seen anything like it in her life. But she had a horrible feeling she knew who had.
✨ ✨ ✨
Solveig hurried past the sailors unloading cargo from a creaking tall ship at the port in front of St Teneu’s Croft. The worn planks of Bishop Rae’s Bridge creaked as she paid the toll and crossed over to the Gorbals and her forge behind St Ninian’s Croft. Every step was weighed down by hurt and confusion, but she desperately wanted to be in familiar surroundings.
A large log quickly had the vast fire at the centre of her small stone workspace roaring again, and her feet and legs stung pleasantly as feeling flooded back into them. She would need to control the temperature with bellows and an iron shutter before she started work, but for now, she just wanted to banish the cold of the day. She hung the blackened kettle on an iron hook over the fire to brew tea, and a generous helping of bread and cheese satisfied her stomach.
Finally, she donned her heavy leather apron and sat down to work by candlelight. Even when the sun was high, she kept her forge as dark as possible, all the better to judge the temperature of the metal by the shade of red it glowed. The demanding work calmed her mind, focusing all her thoughts on the task. If she worked straight through the night, she might even be able to deliver the finished article by morning as arranged.
And then she would be free to begin her search for Louise.
She had already forged the basic shape of the sword, measuring the length three of her own feet. By request, the weapon was fatter and weightier in the Viking style rather than the comparatively delicate claymore favoured by most warriors these days.
Elphinstone had described the shape he wanted in such feverish detail that, for a moment, Solveig had lost her breath. She still didn’t understand how he could have described a style so familiar to her — that he could never have laid eyes on. There was something unusual about the young nobleman’s manner, an intensity about his gaze that put Solveig on edge in his presence, but he paid handsomely. The patronage of such a prominent citizen mostly kept the guild from paying her unwanted attention — as long as she did not displease him.
Solveig soon lost herself in her work, and a sense of calm washed over her. There would be an explanation for Louise’s behaviour this morning, and her disappearance. Louise had been a loyal friend for over two decades, the truest companion Solveig had known in almost four centuries.
She had said she was afraid of the king’s men — what if they had heard about the dead man and come to question her that afternoon? Chills dashed over Solveig as she realised they could have taken Louise — then she remembered the man saying he had seen her loading a cart. They would hardly have allowed her to pack if they were going to hang her.
The handle of the sword glowed in the dim light. Shadows danced around the forge as Solveig worked quickly with fine tools to carve the intricate Elphinstone coat of arms before the metal hardened. She was so engrossed in her work that she didn’t hear horses approach until her goose honked a startling warning.
Someone strode across the yard — deeply unusual at this time of night, but perhaps a messenger sent by Louise? Solveig placed the handle on a metal plate by the fire and hurriedly stood to greet the visitor. Elphinstone stood in her doorway. He was tall and slim, his red hair shimmering in the firelight.
‘Sir.’ Solveig bowed to her distinguished guest. ‘The sword is almost ready. I just need to —‘
‘Forget that,’ he snapped, his eyes almost glittering as he stared intently. ‘I have another assignment for you, and you must complete it immediately.’
‘I — of course, though the sword —‘
‘I don’t care about the sword. I need you to make me shackles for a prisoner. Strong ones. They must be attached to chains and be able to be tightened at will.’
Solveig nodded. ‘Will the chains be attached to a wall?’
Since purchasing St Ninian’s Croft from the Archbishop, Elphinstone had ordered a grand home to be built on the land where the leper hospital once stood. It would take years to complete, and until then, young Elphinstone remained in residence at his father’s estate on Blythswood Hill. Solveig wasn’t aware of a dungeon in that particular house, but most noblemen had means of taking care of those who displeased them.
’No,’ sniffed Elphinstone. ‘I shall drag him from my horse.’
‘So the chains should be lighter?’ Solveig was already considering how she might forge smaller links that would still be strong enough —
‘I suppose.’ The young lord was already bored by the details. ‘Hold on. I’ll get him, and you can measure his wrists.’
‘May I know his crime?’
‘You may,’ Elphinstone called from the yard. He reappeared in the doorway, shoving a sullen man by the scruff of his neck. ‘Indeed, you may wish to thank him. He stole the sword I commissioned you to replace.’
The air seemed to disappear from the room as Solveig locked eyes with the man she had buried in the Clyde that morning.
END EPISODE ONE
😎😎😎!! Days Gone Next Episode Two will be released next Friday March 24. In the meantime. head over to my Instagram to discuss this week! xx