This is a tale of the Dark Ages set somewhere along the north Northumberland coast. Driftwood concerns two children, Islaeg and his younger sister Aeggith, who make a grim discovery after their mother sends them down to the beach to gather driftwood the morning after a fierce storm.
________________________________‘Is he dead?’
The little girl shivered in the icy on-shore wind, clutched her bundle of driftwood tighter to her chest.
‘I don’t know Aeggith,’ Islaeg said, poking the body with the end of his staff, trying to show more bravado than he felt, ‘He looks dead.’
‘You’d better fetch Ma.’
Aeggith watched the gangly youth sprint out of sight among the dunes.
Overhead, wispy white clouds tacked across a washed out sky, gulls wheeling and diving in the blustery air, their plaintive mewling melting in and out of the song of waves crashing on the shore.
The wind was playful today, tugging at Aeggith’s clothes, slicing through her threadbare smock like a knife to raise goose bumps on her arms. It whipped the hair across her face, stirred up small clouds of coarse grains to sting and bite at her legs. Last night it had been a howling dark beast, madly driving a torrent of rain and roaring spume-topped breakers relentlessly onto the shoreline. It was the reason their mother had sent Aeggith and her brother down to the beach that morning - driftwood for the fire was always plentiful after such a storm.
Aeggith looked down at the man’s body lying half in, half out of the lapping waves. He had a look of her uncle about him, her uncle the Huscarl, with his clothes of fine wool and linen, boots of hard, tooled leather, gold and silver at his neck and arms. The sword at his hip was like her uncle’s too, plain, unornamented, a workman’s sword - a blood-drinker, a soul-taker.
She knelt by him then, her eyes drawn to the serpent-inscribed ring of silver, one of several about his arm. A single arm-ring like that would keep her whole family for a year or more, and anyway, she thought, he had others, not that he was likely to have need of them now. Slowly, tentatively, she reached out a trembling hand, grasped the cold metal with fingers still gritted from beachcombing, and tugged.
Aeggith screamed as he grabbed her wrist, the rings on his fingers biting savagely into her flesh. She fell backwards, kicking and scratching desperately at him, her feet scrabbling against the wet sand, but he held her fast.
His eyes flashed open, fixing her with a piercing emerald gaze, spasms of coughing wracking his chest.
‘Lëorith? Have you found Lëorith?’
When she shook her head he slumped back onto the sand, shuddered, then lay still. Slipping her hand from his, Aeggith sucked her wrist where his ring had cut her skin, salt sea tang mingling with the metallic taste of her blood.
She was standing a little way off still watching him, the driftwood bundle clutched to her chest, when Islaeg returned with their mother and Father Nistian. None of them noticed the glint of silver deep within Aeggith’s armful of kindling, nor any sign of the blood-spattered rock hastily hidden in the sand at her feet.
‘Is he dead?’ she said.
One from the vaults for you this week, I hope you enjoyed it. Driftwood was originally published as an entry in Laurita Miller's Seaside Fiction contest over at Calling Shotgun last year, where it won an Honourable Mention.
Driftwood is one of the stories I mentioned in my recent interview by EP Marcellin, which, if you missed it, can be found here.