Happy Valentine’s Day! In celebration, I thought to share with you the first chapter of Tremors. Believe me, I feel like celebrating. As a friend recently mentioned, this book has been a labor (a true labor) of love.
Scottish Highlands, 1351
Friðr. Sith. Peace.
Loch Nis looked anything but peaceful as Lachlann turned towards home. Shrouded in mist, it loomed dark and foreboding in the distance. He pulled the packhorse along swiftly, anxious to be home before nightfall. He hoped that both Allasan and Iain were feeling better than they had been a week ago. Even now, he could hardly believe that he’d left them both ill. Certainly, he wouldn’t have if he hadn’t been married to the most stubborn Gael alive. Despite fever, nausea, and a sick three-year-old to care for, she’d almost pushed him out the door.
“You have to go,” she’d urged, her brown eyes unnaturally bright. “You’ll only be in my way here! I want that dye and you’ll find it in Inhbir Nis. You promised. I didn’t work day and night all summer to be disappointed because of a paltry ailment. I have my family and yours all around me if I need anything.”
Lachlann reluctantly grinned at the memory. They had their differences, but if there was one thing about Allasan, she knew what she wanted.
She’d be satisfied to know, if unsurprised, that she’d been right. The Lùnastal festival in Inhbir Nis was much larger than their local fairs and there was a far wider variety of merchants. With a bountiful harvest and the cloth Allasan wove so skillfully, he’d had plenty with which to barter. He’d been able to obtain everything on her short but extravagant list and then some: purple dye, a serving dish, wax candles. He’d chosen a few gifts: silk ribbons, iron gall ink for the bard, and vegetable seeds for himself. He’d been especially pleased to find mustard and horseradish seeds, Norse favorites, as well as a different sort of kale.
But what he was most pleased with, the most important items as far as he was concerned, were the wee leather ball and wooden figurine of a horse that he’d chosen for Iain. He patted his sporan, where he’d tucked them for safekeeping. He could hardly wait to see his son’s face when he gave him the toys.
What was wrong with the mule? He tugged lightly on the rope. The beast stalled, its ears flattening slightly. He tugged harder, then smelled it, a foul stench of smoke.
“Come on,” he urged the animal. “Someone’s just burning something.”
But burning what? As he drew closer to the village, black smoke billowed from the mountain. Lachlann’s gut clenched. Something was wrong. He moved faster.
The packhorse resisted.
Damn it! He had to get home. When the beast continued to resist, he tied it to a tree and ran.
By the time he reached the outskirts of his village, his eyes were burning. Smoke was beginning to choke him. Iain. He ran faster.
Someone grasped his arms, swinging him to a halt.
“You’re going the wrong way! You need to get out of here!”
Gaelic, but the accent was odd. Dimly, through the smoke, he saw a stranger standing before him, his face shrouded by a hood.
“I’m going to my family!”
“They’re gone. You need to turn around and head back to Inbhir Nis.”
“What do you mean, they’re gone?”
They must have moved away from the fire. He pushed forward. He’d be able to help.
The stranger stopped him again.
“You’re the farmer, aren’t you? The Norseman they call ‘Ox’?”
“I’m sorry, Friend. Your family is gone. Your entire village was wiped out!”
“Explain yourself!” roared Lachlann, his heart pounding in his ears.
“They’re all dead. The plague. . . It took your whole village in less than a week. They’ve been burning everything – bodies, houses, clothing, bedding. There’s nothing left.”
Lachlann began to run.
“Turn around!” the stranger shouted after him. “Save yourself!”
He ran as fast as he could, the stinking smoke filling his nostrils, burning his eyes and throat. He rushed through the village without pause, not stopping until he reached his longhouse. He paused then, gasping, his heart beating in his ears. The thatch roof was gone, the stone blackened with soot.
“Allasan! Iain!” Racing inside, he found only ashes. He stared. Ashes. Their iron kettle nestled on the floor of the hearth, blackened, smoldering. On shaking legs, he walked the short length of his house. Not a sign, not a hint. Where were they?
They had to be all right. Just a week ago, Allasan had been cooking, weaving, arguing. Iain had been playing, laughing. They couldn’t be. . . They must have fled.
He would find them.
He stumbled out. Black smoke whirled around him like fingers of death.
He ran to his parents’ home. The stone structure still stood, blackened, roofless. Heat seemed to radiate from within. He stared at it, unable to move as dark flakes fell around him. Ashes! The house built by his grandfather’s grandfather, oldest and largest in their village, the home he’d grown up in, was reduced to a blackened pile of stones. A shuffling sound caught his attention. His heart leapt.
A hen fluttered from behind the house.
Lachlann turned away, tears burning down his cheeks as dread clamped coldly around his heart.
Where was everyone? He glanced wildly about him. They couldn’t all be gone, not the whole village.
A flash of insight lightened his dread. Castle Chisolm! They would have sought sanctuary at the castle. Allasan and Iain would be there. It had been Allasan’s home. He beat the trail up to the castle. The smoke was thinner as he approached the unfinished stone structure. The gates were closed, but he knew the guards.
“My family,” he said urgently. “I want to see my family!”
Brian, an old friend, stepped forward, grimacing.
“Lachlann. . .” He faltered.
“My family!” Lachlann repeated urgently.
The warrior shook his head. “I’m sorry.”
“Where are they?”
His friend’s hands grasped his shoulders.
“They’re not here, Lachlann. They died,” he said quietly.
“They can’t be dead. I just left them a week ago!”
“It happened quickly. Your whole village was struck.”
“My parents, my brothers. . .”
“To the best of my knowledge, you’re the only survivor.”
Lachlann’s knees buckled. Brian’s hands braced him, held him up.
Allasan, Iain, Mother, Father, Ivar, Vali, their wives and children – how could they all be dead? It wasn’t possible.
“Allasan’s parents?” he choked.
“I don’t know,” answered Brian. “I haven’t seen them, but they could be here.”
“Can I go look for them?”
Brian shook his head. “The chief forbids any of the Norse to enter, if there are any left besides you. The sickness started in your village, but we’ve already lost some of our own people.”
“Rònan and his family?”
“Last time I heard, the bard’s family was all right. I thought Rònan would be with you.”
“With me? Why would you think that?”
“He set off for Inbhir Nis on one of the chief’s horses to find you and tell you of your family.”
“Rònan went to Inbhir Nis?” He could hardly fathom it. Rònan hated to ride.
“That’s where he said he was going. He left a few days ago.” The Gael held out a flask.
“Take this. I’m sorry, Lachlann, but you have to go.”
“Where are the bodies?” His own words sounded distant, as if someone else had spoken them.
Brian gazed at him, tears in his dark eyes. They’d shared many meals in each other’s childhood homes.
“I haven’t been to the village in days, but from what I’ve heard, all were burned.”
Lachlann’s stomach roiled.
“Did the chief order this?”
The warrior shook his head. “We bury our dead. But with a sickness like this. . .” He shuddered. “In the end, some of our people helped. The chief might order the same here to stop the disease from spreading. Lachlann, drink.”
Lachlann accepted the flask and tried to swallow. But his throat was clogged with smoke and tears. He gagged. Wordlessly, he handed the flask back to Brian and nodded a farewell.
He had to check all the houses. He would bury any bodies he found. His family, his people. . . He headed back to the village on legs he no longer felt. Only his mind worked.
Find your dead.
But where? The scant structures all looked the same, scorched and black with soot, and piles of ashes were everywhere, some still smoldering.
He wandered from house to house, looking, listening for signs of life. But there was none.
Silence taunted him, stark and pervasive, broken only by his own shallow breaths. What should he do? He couldn’t think. His mind felt numb.
“What are you doing here?”
Starting violently, Lachlann turned to see the hooded stranger striding towards him. A cloth covered his nose and mouth.
“Why are you here?” the man asked him.
“I seek my dead.”
“I told you, they burned everything! You will find no bodies.”
“Where did they burn them?”
The man stepped closer to place his hands on Lachlann’s arms.
“In their homes,” he replied quietly. “Mostly in their beds, where they died.”
Oh, God. He couldn’t see, couldn’t breathe. Trembling, Lachlann fell to his knees, gasping for air, gagging on it. His chest. . . He couldn’t. . .
The man pressed his shoulders, sounded long, even breaths.
“Breathe,” repeated the voice. “Steady.”
Lachlann tried to mimic the rhythmic breathing of the stranger crouched before him.
“That’s right. Keep going. Good.”
He didn’t know how long they knelt there as he struggled for control. But the pressure remained on his shoulders until he stopped shaking.
“There’s nothing left for you to do here.” The voice, with its strange accent, finally penetrated his consciousness. “You have to leave. You could still get sick.”
“Where will I go?” Lachlann asked hoarsely. “I should have helped my people.”
“There was nothing you could have done.”
“Then I should have died with them.”
“But you didn’t,” came the quiet response. “You’re obviously not meant to die yet.”
Lachlann swayed. The man shook him slightly.
“Go back to Inhbir Nis. Return in spring.”
Inhbir Nis. Rònan had gone to Inhbir Nis. He could find Rònan. Slowly, he rose. The man rose with him.
“Go,” he urged again.
Nodding, Lachlann turned away. When he reached the edge of the village, he glanced back. The stranger stood watching him, a lone, upright figure swathed in smoke, surrounded by ruin.
Lachlann began running, pausing only when he reached his fields. They were cloaked in the same deathly smoke that was choking him. He couldn’t tell if they’d been burned. There would be no reason, but they looked dark. Everything did.
He hurried on until he reached the loch. Collapsing to his knees, he howled, sounds of a tortured animal ripping from his chest.
How could they all be dead and he still live? He should have been here. He might have helped them.
He might have died with them. Death would have been preferable to this.
Gasping, he yanked at his tunic, ripping it away from his neck.
“Nei!” he bellowed.
He sobbed and raged until his throat was raw, until he could hardly breathe.
He was suffocating.
Up. He had to get up or he would die here in the ashes. He had to find Rònan.
He trudged onward, his legs shaking so hard that walking seemed impossible. But he didn’t stop. He forced himself to keep moving, one foot in front of the other, walking, stumbling.
Night fell. The smoke dissipated, then disappeared altogether. Stars twinkled in the dark, clear sky. Tears poured from his burning eyes, down his cheeks, as he pressed on.
His whole family? His whole village? He might have saved them, at least saved some of them. They’d all been suffering painful deaths whilst he bartered for vegetable seeds.
Please let him find Rònan alive and well.
The ground suddenly trembled. Lachlann glanced at the loch. The water was rippling, but there was no breeze. He.moved away from the water and kept walking. But this wasn’t the mild sort of tremor they usually had in the glen. The earth began shaking violently. Ahead of him, an enormous pine tree uprooted completely. Did he hear voices? Was someone shouting his name?
“Rònan!” he called out urgently.
In the moonlight, cracks appeared in the earth. He heard the ground breaking. All around him, it was breaking! Twisting, turning, Lachlann desperately tried to find safe ground. Suddenly, there sounded a roar, like a terrible rip or a giant bellowing in pain.
The crack running towards him opened into a chasm beneath his feet. He shouted, grasped desperately at the earth. It crumbled beneath his hands. He couldn’t stop himself from sliding, couldn’t climb out. He was falling.
“Lord, have mercy on my soul!”
Surely, the past, present, and future connect in this miraculous state we call life. In this light, history and all human experience are ever-present. Wouldn't it be nice, then, if we could enjoy each other, if we could appreciate and celebrate our differences? Let us love! Let us have fun. Let us toast each other and wish each other well. Now, in our awareness, is the time to be happy, to do our best, to live fully to our purest, highest standards.