There’s a story I’m trying to write. I’ve been trying for a long time now. Well, I’ve got the story – more or less – and all the characters. I know who they are and what they do. I know where it starts and where it finishes. There’s tweaks and changes I’ll make based on what people have said (thank you, good friends and readers), but all that’s fairly straightforward. What’s not straightforward is lifting it from where it is now into the better version of itself I want it to be.
Ah well, that’s my problem. If it were easier, I suppose the final satisfaction would be less. Here’s a bit in which Ardùvai, brooding by the seashore, gets mistaken for somebody else:
A seal stuck up its head in the water an arrow’s flight from land, curious as seals are to see what passed above the tideline. Little enough, Ardùvai thought bitterly: a man brooding all alone on things he’d done awry. Far better to be a seal than a man: they slipped from land to sea easy as he might from dream to waking, telling no lies and making no promises.
He heard men’s voices ’cross the shore, men’s boots rattling across the shingle. Ardùvai watched and did not move: ’twas only Elùthai’s oathsmen, harking after Kalanu for fear of sharing their comrade’s fate.
A shouting and a pointing. ‘There! The oathbreaker! Beneath the rock!’
Not all were Elùthai’s men, either; he saw then other faces in this pack and other colours knotting up men’s hair. A flash of red caught his eye. He stared at such a sight: Kalanu, amid the mob that hunted him; Kalanu, wearing the king’s cloak, red silk binding the barleystraw of his hair into the clansman’s knot, sunlight winking and glinting on the three gold eagles at his shoulder.
Ardùvai stood to meet them, his knife in his right hand. ‘What means this?’
Men crowded round, their drawn swords pointed towards him. Kalanu said, breathless and quick, ‘Take him.’
A moment’s pause, in which Ardùvai looked from one man to another, and then the swords were pricking at his throat, forcing him down onto his knees. ‘Drop the knife.’
Ardùvai put up his hand. ‘Enough, lads. You took me by surprise and I’ll own I need a watchman but the jest’s run its course.’
Elùthai’s smooth voice. ‘No jest, Kalanu. Drop the knife.’ A cold edge of bronze moved beneath his chin and Ardùvai felt a thread of pain and blood running in a warm trickle down his neck. He opened his hand and heard the clash and jangle as his knife fell to the shingle. A man reached for it and offered it to Elùthai, who took it, smiling.
Kalanu snapped out, ‘Bind him.’
Someone forced his hands behind his back and bound them wrist and elbow. He marked, as a man marks little things at times of great moment, that the seal was closer now, barely two shiplengths beyond the shore. A kick from a heavy-booted foot sent him sprawling at Kalanu’s feet and all around he heard men’s mocking laughter. The laughter of men who had sat this morning in his hall, had answered when he asked, had sworn their oaths to him by land and sea and sky. How can this be, he wondered, how can this be?
‘Look at me,’ the shoreman demanded. ‘What do you see?’
He looked up into Kalanu’s face. ‘A jackanapes in the king’s cloak.’
Another kick, to his head this time, knocked him back down. The world went briefly dark, his blood a distant rumble in his ears. He struggled ’gainst men’s laughter to his knees, spitting out blood, and heard Kalanu ask, ‘Who am I, lads?’
The roar went up, loud as thunder. ‘Ardùvai the king!’
‘And who is this?’
‘The oathbreaker! Kalanu the oathbreaker!’
‘Aye, so it is. Well, lads, you know the penalty. Where stands the tide?’
Ardùvai’s stomach lurched as he looked to the sea, knowing himself the answer even as it was shouted out. ‘Near at its trough.’
‘Well then, no time to lose. We can do this and keep our own feet dry.’
The seal was closer yet, resting at the edge of the beach with saltwater lapping at its flanks. It raised its head to look at the men from great dark eyes before it turned itself about and lumbered back into the water as they dragged him across the shingle.
The stake was oak, near a man’s girth in thickness and higher than a man was tall. Longtimes it had stood at the lowwatermark as a promise and a warning, a fitting death for one who had sworn his oath by land and sea and sky. The old wood was crusted with barnacles above the point a man could reach, its foot swathed round with slippery seagrass. Though never in his time as nightwatch had a man been given to the sea Ardùvai saw someone had, quite recently, smashed through its holes, clearing out the mussels and the winkles so a rope might pass through easily. That care, that forethought, made his blood run cold.