They broke through the fog on their way up, the two of them, and their torches bit into a cold black sky above the blanket of white. The fog shielded the crest of the old hill fort from the camp below with all of its clatter and bang and boasts of deeds past. The top was a sacred place, as they remembered from their grandfather’s stories, a place of loyalty and honor in the days of the ancestors of DalRiada, and these cousins from Morpeth had been waiting a long time to stand in the footsteps of the kings on Dunadd, to place their own boot in the Footprint of Fealty.
Baldwine led the way, the weight of his blades and fighting armor slowing him none while Thomas, older by three years and wearing the much less weighty cloth befitting his position as a man of letters and law, followed hesitantly, watching his step on the narrow path. Thomas was named after that grandfather’s father, The Swordsmith Thomas Rede of Morpeth, but he was born with the old one’s skill in diplomacy rather than an artisan’s eye for metalwork. Baldwine was gifted with neither, but he carried Old Tom Rede’s sword with skill unmatched in Northumbria, perhaps in all of Scotland, some said.
Markings in the rocks, placed by the ancients for reasons too mysterious for understanding, became clear in the light of torch flames no longer absorbed in fog. Thomas wondered if their makers were pagans or if these were signs of Columba, or from The Patriarc himself. Baldwine considered aloud whether they were Norse runes laid down by a foe who waited in ambush at the top of their climb, his anxious teenage mind as jittery as a timorous field mouse under the plough.
As they reached the top and looked across a field poised like an island on a sea of mist, a feeling of awe overcame them, giving them pause. “Imagine, cousin, that we look upon the very place where the kings of our fathers were crowned,” said Baldwine in a near whisper.
“Aye, it is truly a wonderment,” replied Thomas as he brushed past his taller cousin, eager to see the sacred spot. The moon was full and stars filled the sky, and the flat topped peak was as clear to the eye as any cloud covered noonday.
First to put his foot into the sacred imprint was Baldwine, and he raised his sword to the stars and said to his ancestors, “I am here! We are here, kings of our fathers.”
“And so is someone else,” said his cousin as he peered at a nearby cluster of rocks, one of which stood up. Baldwine lowered his sword at the figure as it moved toward them as silently as the mist, seeming to float above the gray stone expanse between them. “What devil is this?” cried Baldwine, “What pagan raider? Show yourself!”
Thomas raised his hand to calm his youthful cousin and asked, “Are you a priest? And if so, Christian?” The figure came within the bright flame of their torches and stopped as two withered hands emerged from black sleeves and pulled down the hood. “I am the Coarb of Iona, Flandabra,” said a man with the weathered lines of a face that had borne the salty spray and wintery winds of the island monastery for decades.
“The Abbot of Iona? What are you doing here?” asked Thomas as Baldwine sheathed his sword.
“I come here to listen,” said the Abbot.
“Listen to what,” asked Baldwine, then, “Are you a Pagan?”
The old monk pointed to the sky and replied, “I listen to God.”
“Mind not my eager cousin, good Flandabra of Iona. His words often run before his thoughts rise for breakfast,” said Thomas. “We are Thomas and Baldwine, of the Rede’s of Morpeth, here with other nobles to consider the Norsemen and their invading fleet.”
“Have the alliances shifted again?” asked Flandabra.
Puzzled at his question Baldwine said, “We alone chose to climb up on a quick pilgrimage to the Footprint of Fealty.”
“Yes, I have heard of the DalRiada kings, and of Prince Reda who expelled the Romans. Descent of him you two are? You fit the part,” said Flandabra as he sat on a large rock.
“We are indeed,” said Thomas as he also sat. Baldwine remained standing, placing his foot in and out of the sacred print carved in the rock floor of the old hill fort. “Tell me, Flandabra, what d’you know of alliances and the Norsemen?” asked Thomas.
The old monk tapped his walking stick idly as he thought a moment, then posed a question himself. “Who are the nobles you speak of, those in your party who stay encamped at the foot of this mountain?”
Thomas felt strangely at ease with the old monk, as if they had known each other a time, or passed on the road once before and shared stories, and so had no hesitation in his open conversation. Thomas had a gift for knowing good intentions when presented, and bad when he crossed them.
“There is Crínán the Abbot of Dunkeld. You must know him,” began Thomas.
“Yes, indeed. A very good man,” said Flandabra.
“And his sons Duncan and Maldred,” continued Thomas.
“They must be sixteen or seventeen by now,” said the monk in more of a question than a statement of knowledge.
“A bit older, around our age,” came a quick response from Baldwine, now sitting in on the talk.
Thomas went on, “My good friend Thane Maldred, son of Akman, whose lands include the Forests of Redesdale and grazing fields near Morpeth.”
“And we also in moiety, some of those grazings…” added Baldwine. Thomas gave his cousin a disapproving scowl, cautious at revealing too much, no matter how pious the audience.
“And there are several thanes and horsemen with their Captain, most of whom I do not yet know,” said Thomas.
“You said your friend is a Thane. Of whom is he thane to, the Scottish King Malcom II or an Earl of Northumbria? Or to Cnut?” asked the monk with an eyebrow raised.
“Maldred is Thane to Earl Ealdred of Bamburgh, son of Uhtred the Bold, as we are also,” said Thomas. This time it was Baldwine who gave his older cousin the frown and slight shake of the head, as he knew that very head he shook could be lost by treacherous tongues of silent alliance.
“And you said there is a Captain, did you not,” asked Flandabra?
“MacBeth,” said Thomas and Baldwine in unison, then they looked at each other and laughed. Their amusement ceased as the old monk pointed his stick at the two and repeated, “MacBeatha? Son of Findlaích?”
“Yes, I suppose that is the one. Why?” asked Thomas. Baldwine frowned at the stick pointed his way and instinctively put his hand on his knife sheath, no thought given that the monk was four times his age.
“Beware of that one, young Rede. Beware MacBeth, for he is the red faced one,” said Flandabra.
They talked more of nicer things, of the food at the Court of Malcolm and Iona’s sparse plates and prayers to drive away pangs, of horses Flandabra had seen in Ireland, and of the books Thomas had seen when visiting Wessex the year before. Flandabra admired the workmanship of the blades held by Baldwine, and listened closely to family stories of the great swordsmith who crafted them by his own hand.
Thomas nearly inserted the part where family lore and historical fact diverge, the part where Old Tom Rede employed several forgers all over Northumbria and York to produce his craftwork, his artistic vision, but he rarely put iron to ember or worked a bellows himself. No, Thomas let his cousin embellish at his heart’s content.
Flandabra took his leave after the moon crossed the center of the sky and the old monk made his way down the west side of the slope, the path less traveled but closer to the coast where he would launch in the morning to his monastic discomfort on Iona. The Redes went back down into the fog the way they came, silently but with the echo of Flandabra’s warning fresh in their thoughts.
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