“This is Viking land now. It is ours to play with. You would do well to remember that.”
The words bit him deep and Cuan awoke suddenly and savagely from his dream like a wounded animal. He glared around him as the small boat rose on the swell, the rhythmic creak of the oars reminding him of his mission. Cala was alive and he must rescue her. He stood up and shook the lifeless sail as if to rouse the wind from its midday slumber; but there was no wind today. He bellowed at his men to pull harder. They bristled at their prince’s command and heaved on their oars, feeling the angry cliffs of Mull drag them ever closer. This mountainous island had hidden the Vikings for many weeks. Somewhere within its enfolding arms Cala waited for him.
He looked up at the granite sentries which towered above them. “Arrogant fool! This land will not be yours and you shall not have my daughter.” Only the seagulls answered the prince’s rebuke. Soon his men were battling against the tidal race that swept past the coastline and threatened to swamp them. Cuan gripped the mast tighter, struggling to keep his balance, fearing he was too old for such an impetuous and dangerous raid. He had supposed she had been killed, for that was what Vikings normally did: they destroyed without thought and killed for the sport of killing. But Lord Thorlak was a new breed of Viking chief. He would enjoy the spoils of war rather than seek their mindless destruction. Thorlak was arrogant too, for he must have known that Cuan would find him eventually.
“There! Over there!” Cuan’s shout was nearly drowned by the roar of waves crashing against the rocks but his men responded, turning the frail craft towards the sheltered cove that had now appeared. As the cliffs cast a foreboding shadow over them, the tide released its grip, the sea calmed and even the seagulls watched in silence as the warriors drifted into the bay, scarcely breathing for fear of being heard.
The crunch of pebbles announced their arrival. They had barely hauled the boat out of the water when rocks fell around them, hurled by a Viking patrol high above them on the cliffs. “Follow me! Now!” Cuan shouted to his men and ran up the beach into the gnarled undergrowth of Mull. This was not the time to stand and fight. Cala was waiting for him and nothing would distract him from finding her. He knew he might be killed but what did that matter if she was safe. Cuan drew strength from these thoughts. His legs found the speed of his youth and together the warriors hurtled through the heather and over the tussocks like mountain hares startled by a sea eagle.
Instinct led them on, chased by the Viking patrol. Soon he saw one of them, sprinting faster than the rest, bearing down towards them. Cuan stopped and raised his sword, ready to strike the screaming figure that even now lunged towards him. The Viking fell, brought low by one of the younger warriors whose instincts were quicker than those of his prince. Relieved, Cuan resumed the race.
The undergrowth now gave way to an open valley littered with massive boulders. Still they kept running, following a track that weaved between the primeval lumps of rock. Then, almost by accident, they came upon them. The Viking chief and his lightly armed retinue were walking in the warmth of the afternoon, unprepared for such a sudden and spirited assault. Lord Thorlak stood bemused, wearing a helmet so grand that some god must have forged it, watching as Cuan’s men surrounded the Viking bodyguard and claimed victory. Cuan did not see him. He saw only Cala. Her golden hair lit up the darkening sky and she stood beside the Viking chief not as a captive, cowed in pain and fear; but defiant, tall and proud, her self-respect unshaken.
Cuan’s joy was short-lived. A heavy blow struck him to the ground as the Viking patrol fell upon the Scots, turning their brief victory into humiliating defeat. Cuan’s men were too weary to retaliate. They looked up, dejected, and saw a smile appear on the chief’s face, as if he was faintly amused by the entertainment laid on especially for him.
Order was restored and Lord Thorlak gazed down upon the crumpled figure groaning in pain. “Prince Cuan,” he said with a civility that surprised both the prisoners and their captors. “You have found us at last. I rather hoped you would. As you see I have not harmed her.”
With failing courage Cuan struggled to his feet. “I have come for my daughter,” he thundered. “You shall not keep her.” He watched the Viking closely, unsure whether this defiant gesture had moved him or merely irritated him. Then Cuan noticed the man he feared most of all. He could smell his vile reek even before that pitiless, monotonous drone broke the silence: “Let him fight me, if he wants her so much.”
It was Vandrad. Lord Thorlak’s younger brother was a ruthless thug who clung to the old Viking ways of death and destruction. It was he who had led the Viking raiding parties and invaded Cuan’s island home all those weeks ago, seizing Cala as she kicked and fought against the beast that so easily carried her off. Thorlak must have had a stronger influence over Vandrad than he imagined.
Cuan’s tired body sagged. He knew that his cause was lost and that his life would soon be over; but anger still raged in his heart. This would be more than a defiant gesture. He could not let Cala watch him die like some exhausted animal, cornered, cowering and resigned to its fate. Somewhere deep within his soul he found strength. He seized his sword, wielding the heavy metal as if it were a flimsy branch, driving it down hard against Vandrad, who parried the violent blow with the ease of one who had devoted his whole life to the skill of combat. The Vikings cheered, drowning any encouragement the Scots might have given to their foolhardy prince.
“No more!” Her high voice, echoing loud through the hills, pierced the men’s animal chants as lightning cuts through blackened clouds. “There will be no more bloodshed.” Her words demanded to be heard and all the men fell silent before her. She stood above them, head held high, her blue eyes shining with the confidence she had found. Even Vandrad stopped, his sword falling to the ground in meek obedience. Cala turned to her father, her determination no less softened by the tear that now glistened in her eye.
“This is my home now,” she said gently. “I must live here. Lord Thorlak has treated me with kindness and he will grant you safe passage home.” Silence filled the air as all faces remained fixed upon her. Cuan stood exhausted and stunned. His mind raced to make sense of her simple words. He watched as Thorlak stepped towards her and took her hand, well pleased by this display of strength and loyalty worthy of a chieftain’s bride. Cuan looked again at his daughter, no longer the spirited girl he had known before, but a strong and proud woman embarking on a new life; and his heart burned with pride.
Cuan could not remember the journey back from the Viking camp down to the boat on the pebble beach. Nor could he tell how long they had been at sea, his own emotions churning within him as the boat rose and fell in the choppy waters. His men leaned against their oars, bringing him home.
Their small island was now only a short distance away and the shouts of his family shook him from his thoughts. He looked up and read their faces as they waited on the shore: there was relief that the men were safely returned, but despair that Cala was not with them.
A father’s pride surged within him. Cala lived. Oh how she lived!