They had rowed for most of the night, taking turns at the oars when they could, though for much of the latter time they had been battling the ebbing tide. The night had been bright with stars, or they would never have attempted the journey. Bright with stars and with a blue gold ring round the moon. When the keel crunched into the shingle, it was with a crackle of ice. They shipped oars and turned their heads to look at their passenger.
He moved to the bow, the grey pre-dawn light glinting on the metal at shoulder and hand and neck, and he took a slow measuring look at the cove. Above the high tide line, snow softened the shingle and boulders of the beach. Further up ice encrusted the cliffs. He shivered visibly and pulled his cloak closer around him, but nodded to the oarsmen.
“How long will you wait?” he asked.
They eyed each other uneasily, because while they waited they couldn’t be fishing. But they had taken their passenger’s silver so one, the oldest and chief, said, “Take Aemette. If it is the right place, send him back and we can leave.”
They had to hit the lad to get him over the side into the freezing surf and he followed the old man with his hands tucked into his arm pits and a scared and sullen look in his blue eyes. Man and boy staggered their way up the beach, wet leather soles sliding on icy stones the size of a child’s skull. As they reached the shadow of the cliffs the man looked back.
Dawn light was striking across the beach, bright sparks glinting on the prow of the little ship; the snow blinding. The old man grunted and looked at the boy. “There should be a path,” he said. “Aemette?”
“My name’s Eni,” the boy whispered, edging away. “They called me that when I was small.”
“And you are so well grown now.” The old man sighed. “You have nothing to fear from me. So – Eni – there should be a path beside the stream.”
There was and they followed it, breaking the crust on undisturbed snow.
At the top of the path the sky opened out above them, as clear but a paler blue now the sun had risen.
The man took two audible breaths then walked forward slowly. Ahead the snowy ground was broken by irregular mounds and, here and there, something more substantial. A couple of charred posts, snow cloaking their windward sides. Part of a rubble wall. Eni followed him, shivering, but stopped short when he heard the man groan and saw his hands come up to cover his face. Slowly Eni moved away, wincing as the wind plastered the rough wet fabric to his legs, and found a more sheltered spot in the lee of the wall to wait. Digging through the snow with an idle foot, he inspected the blackened stones, the scraps of bone, without interest or understanding.
“Stop that!” The man’s voice made him wince, raising a hand to protect his head. But the man merely made an impatient motion towards the path.
Thankfully Eni turned to run for the path but paused when he heard footsteps and realised that the old man was following him.
“I thought you’d stay,” he said. “This IS the right place. You described it.”
A shingle beach with stones the size of a child’s skull, the cliffs, the stream, the path, and above on the headland the bury, with cot and byre and a good deep stone-lined well. It made no real difference to Eni but he had listened and enjoyed the stories of the warriors, and their ring-giving lord.
“No,” the man said, his voice soft and scratchy. “No, it – can’t be,” he added. “This must be the wrong place,” and passed Eni, on his way back to the beach.