Cunoarda was still sleeping deeply, though it seemed several of the group were stirring. That was probably what had woken me up in the first place, as there seemed to be a general sort of comfortable movement to the group. Someone a few bodies away farted loudly, making several voices raise in protest softly before the quiet was restored. I could feel my cheeks burning. I wondered if it would be best just to try and sneak my way out of the pile and hide in the room Ena had lent me for my stay. The dodo honked again and settled itself on my feet. I shall admit, it was nice and warm, but damned inconvenient.
“Piss off stupid bird!” I hissed again. It cocked its head at me stupidly and decided to groom its useless wings instead. I wasn’t going anywhere quickly.
I looked around as best as I could (still somewhat blearily). I couldn’t see Kenneth anywhere, though there was a cute blond form sleeping on another cute blond form, either of which might have been Ena. I did recognise a few faces hazily, though putting the right name with the right face was troublesome for my poor brain. I rested my head back down and looked at Cunoarda instead. It seemed that every naked body on the meeting hall floor where we slept was covered in those clever little symbols. Even me. And some were in places that I wouldn’t have normally expected them to be. Apparently, I was drunk enough not to care at the time.
I frowned and thought about it. I could vaguely remember small brushes being used with an odd dark liquid. And a lot of giggling. The stinging in my upper arm made itself more obvious as I turned to try and get a look at the sides of my breasts and the curious little spirals that wove their way around the curve of the flesh. I scowled and looked to see if I had been bitten, or rolled over on something sharp. All I could see were the markings, though one looked a bit red. I ran my hand over it and found it was raised. Nor would it wipe off.
I suppose I am not the first person in the world to wake up from a night of drinking with an unfamiliar tattoo at least. I wondered what the odd symbol meant. It looked vaguely like a crescent with intricate patterns inside it.
“If it’s bothering you I can get you some yarrow root. Works a treat.” Ena was crouching behind the dodo now. She must have been busy somewhere. She was naked as well, though she didn’t seem too concerned by it. I blushed a little and tried to look away.
“Ah… yeah, thanks.” I muttered bashfully. She nodded and smiled in her pleasant way before heading out of the main doors, still without a stitch of clothing. I had heard rumours about the Picts lack of modesty, but I had thought them no more than mere rumours.
I squirmed and gave the indignant dodo a light kick. It bit my toes and I called it several uncomplimentary names. But it worked and the fat bird eventually got annoyed enough that it waddled a little distance away to perch on the unsuspecting head of another sleeper. With my feet free I was able to shuffle quietly away from the group until I was able to stand and carefully pick my way among limbs and torsos. I shivered a little as I glanced back at the hole I’d left. It really had been both warm and comfortable in there. The space was filled by the unfamiliar body next to me rolling over with an outstretched arm, the back of his hand hitting a snoring face with an audible slap. The snorer grumbled and otherwise didn’t flinch.
I could see a little more than I wanted to, depending where I looked. The places the pictograms had been tattooed and etched were quite inventive in some cases. One young and rather well endowed man had a black smudge on the winkled skin of his penis.
“It’s a horse.” Ena said softly as she came up beside me with a jar. “It’s kind of hard to tell at the moment though, but trust me. It’s a horse. His idea of a joke.”
I turned to look at her, finding she had still not bothered to dress. I could see why when I looked out the door, the sun was beaming and it was rather warm already.
“Wha…?” I said with all the linguistic skills of a rock. Ena shook her head mirthfully, rolling her eyes a little.
“Here, let me see.” She sighed, prodding me onto a bench and turning me so the light from the open door illuminated my arm. She gave the wound a quick clean and I winced. “I take it you’re new to mead then? It agrees with you, judging by last night.” Ena almost giggled and I blushed deeply. Her hands moved to scoop something cold and a little sticky out of the jar which she applied liberally to the new tattoo. It was remarkably soothing and after a moment I could forget that it was even there.
“Yeah. It’s quite… powerful?” I added as she replaced the lid and admired her handiwork to ensure the cream was well rubbed in.
“It can be. Though we had some gypsies up our way a few months ago that brought some great moonshine. Once you’re used to our mead that stuff knocks you for six.” She chattered away cheerfully. “Apply this a couple of times a day, it keeps it moisturised and pain free. Stops the itching too.”
I thought about it, and on reflection both mead and moonshine seemed equally strong to me. Though the moonshine had given me a bit of a hangover and the mead did not. I mentioned this observation to her and she nodded.
“Oh, I’ve never seen the village so quiet as it was that week!” she laughed. “Didn’t stop us taking a healthy supply of it from them. We still have a few bottles left actually. Breakfast?”
Breakfast sounded good and my stomach agreed, rumbling with complaint. The great fire of the meeting hall had a large cauldron bubbling over it, and every so often the more mobile Picts were helping themselves to the contents. Ena scooped out a bowl for me and one for herself. I gave the light-coloured mush a sniff. Porridge. I hadn’t had porridge since before the Incident. A couple of drops of honey added to the mix made it perfect and I devoured it with happiness, washing it down with the deliciously sweet fruit juice Ena provided. I felt much better after such a hearty meal.
“Well then, you know where my home is? Good, good. Let yourself in and make yourself comfortable. I’d better get out and do some work myself.” She stood up and the bowls were cleared away by a youth (the same one that had served us last night? I couldn’t be sure) almost instantly. They would be washed and reused as people steadily woke.
Ena hummed to herself as she left the building. I saw her once again when I gradually followed her, a little nervous and unable to find my clothes. She was heading off to the fields, this time in her simple but functional clothing. I glanced around and darted back to her house. My clothing was there, laid out on the bed. They ran some kind of strange and organised system in this village I couldn’t quite work out. But somehow it resulted in nearly all of my clothing having been laundered while I drank. There was a jug of water and a wash basin on a vanity unit nearby and I splashed the water into the bowl to wash my face. The mirror that sat above it reflected my startling image. Symbols were etched on my face as well, lining my eyes and cheeks. It actually wasn’t a bad look. But the black marks ran with the addition of water and I eventually washed my body down with the water and a cloth until I was free of all but my original tattoos and the new ointment coated one. As far as I could tell anyway.
I dressed and leaned on the window frame, observing the village that was deceptively quiet. A small child ran by giggling, chasing her pet haggis. The little furry beast scrambled quickly on its six legs. Elsewhere there were people setting up their simple stalls trading meat, fish, vegetables, jewellery and all manner of simple items. I could have really grown to like it there, but I had a home to get back to. Kenneth stepped out of his house and addressed a couple of young men, passing them paperwork much like the documents I had brought up. They hopped on their horses and raced off in opposite directions. He spotted me and gave me a polite nod as he approached the window I leaned out of.
“I’ve dispatched a couple of riders with the important details to neighbouring villages. If one of us is going to join this alliance of sorts, we all shall.” He informed me. “They should take no more than a couple of days. Please enjoy our hospitality while we finish our reply to Alba.” He said in his gruff manner. Before I could reply with so much as a thanks he stalked away through the village.
And so it came to pass I spent the best part of a week in the village merely waiting. I didn’t mind so much, it was sort of like a rather enjoyable holiday. I soon learned that if I covered my tankard with my hand when the brewer’s apprentices (as I learned the youths serving the drinks were) approached they would skip my glass. And so I managed to stay only moderately drunk in the evenings. Nudity, I soon learned, was par for the course. I was still somewhat awkward and shy about it, but a little mead often served to dispel my modesty enough to at least partially (if not wholly) join in. I watched as others received tattoos for this event or that celebration (and I discovered that the black smudge I had observed was indeed a horse, but only under certain conditions), and I was quite getting to enjoy the painting sessions. During the day I traded my wares for theirs, ensuring I had a healthy supply of souvenirs and new things to trade down south. I even helped out with the daily tasks when I could, finding the Picts to be remarkably creative and inventive when it came to solving problems. I helped Ena on her sheep farm too, enjoying the work.
I interacted with Cunoarda whenever possible even though most of the time she said very little. Her company was still pleasant to enjoy and the silences were always far from awkward. She had a comfortable presence that felt almost as if we had always known one another, and so speaking simply wasn’t necessary. It actually seemed too soon when the riders returned one after the other and spent time in counsel with Kenneth and his mother. It felt as if the holiday was coming to an end, which I suppose it was. I wasn’t surprised on the day he called me into his house to hand over the new documents to be returned to the council.
Ena helped me pack and gifted me with food to take with me on the journey. She gave me a big hug and made me promise to come back one day. When I stepped outside to fit my somewhat heavy saddlebags to Ford I paused, startled. He was hitched to a small trap. I looked around for explanation and found Cunoarda rubbing his nose and murmuring soothing words to my horse.
“What’s this?” I asked with a confused expression. There was a trunk at the back of the trap, in which I stowed the bags (and saw there were already some in there) and then strapped shut.
“Well, I can hardly ride that far, not like this…” she sighed, patting the roundness of her belly. It was still hard to tell beneath those Pictish dresses. I frowned. I was hired to deliver mail, not people. “Well, what did you expect?” she laughed, catching my expression.
“Not this, anyway. It’s not exactly a normal sort of delivery.” I replied, bemused.
“Are you saying you don’t want my company?” she smiled, laughing musically.
I had to relent. I couldn’t argue with her on that point. I was actually more a little nervous about having to spend the entire journey with only her than annoyed at having an unexpected task. I couldn’t say that though. I sighed and helped her up, following her to take a seat and give the reins a little flick. Ford reluctantly began the journey south, clearly a little upset at having become a temporary cart horse. But I knew how strong he was and he was more than capable of the journey provided we made plenty of rest stops. So I had southbound mail, important documents and a pregnant woman as cargo,
The first couple of hours were almost silent, save for small talk about the weather and the general journey. I made a mental note to detour widely around Chav territory. Had it been just me and Ford I may have risked the shortcut, knowing I could outrun them. But with a trap and Cunoarda it was simply too dangerous. I did however decide to take her past the herd of stray thoughts so she could see them frolic. When the conversation about the local trees ran dry I decided to try my luck and broach the subject of her situation. Previous attempts at conversation had always seemed thwarted on that matter.
“So…” I began in the manner that always seems to suggest verbal clumsiness. “Are you really going to marry the gypsy?” I asked curiously. She shrugged.
“Yeah. I suppose that I am.”
“Ah.” I replied. There was a pause that was filled only by the rushing of the breeze through the branches, Ford’s hooves on the ground and the sound of the rattling cart itself. “You love him then?”
“I could.” She shrugged again.
“Enough to get yourself knocked up at least?”
Silence. That wasn’t very well worded on my part at all. But I felt bold, the silence said as much as her words could have.
“Gypsy moonshine?” I asked.
“Gypsy moonshine.” She nodded. Now things made a little more sense, in a way.
“His name is Joshua. You might want to remember that.” I smirked. She turned her blue eyes on me in a stony gaze and then broke into a laugh.
“You’re familiar with it then, I take it.” I nodded, and to pass the time I recounted the events that had led to me ending up waking naked and confused in bed. As many as I could remember anyway.
“Exactly the same happened to me. That stuff is strong if you’re not used to it. And a couple of months later…” she sighed.
“So’s Pictish mead.” I added with a nod. And then I blanched a little. I hadn’t thought of the possible consequences. I didn’t even know who had been in my bed, if anyone had. Nor exactly what had happened in the mead hall.
At dusk we pulled the cart up in a clearing near a small trickling stream. I unhitched Ford and he helped himself to some long grass and some well deserved water as Cunoarda stoked a fire and prepared some kind of soup while I gathered firewood and checked Ford over. True to what I had heard, she was an excellent cook even in such basic conditions. Over a glass of the warmed fruit juice I picked up the conversation again.
“But why give up your life in the north to be with a man you barely know?” I wondered. She sighed and poked a stick into the flames idly.
“It’s not fair to the village to have to support us. Kenneth offered to marry me, you know. But it’s not right. He’s had his eye on Taran for a long time now.” She frowned. Even frowning she was enchanting.
“But why the gypsies?”
“I figured if I have to deal with it, then so should he. Besides, what else can I do? I have nowhere else to go. Who else would agree to take me in like this?”
I opened my mouth to say she could stay with me, I could turn one of the spare rooms into a nursery, I could get a long term job to support them both, I could buy more goats. But I paused before I spoke. Somewhere in the back of my mind that sounded almost as much like a proposal as the gypsy letter had been, and she knew me little better than she knew the gypsy. Surely she wouldn’t want to jump from one kind of proposal to another on a whim? She took my hesitation as my being unable to find an answer.
“See? So, I go where I might be wanted.” She shrugged. I closed my mouth and stared into the fire.
She slept soundly, with her sleeping bag bunched up against mine. I stared upwards at the stars, glad for the good weather. But I couldn’t sleep. It didn’t seem right for her to just walk blindly into an arrangement like that. It wasn’t fair. I scowled at the stars as if they might provide an answer for me. Which of course they didn’t. Somewhere nearby a wolf howled and others joined the chorus. I threw more wood on the fire and rolled over. I had to sleep or I’d be no use in the morning.
The next couple of days passed quickly. Cunoarda and I enjoyed one another’s company and friendship. Very little happened. I took her to see the sights I had encountered on my way north and she admired them. And I admired her. Even resigned as she was she carried a sort of noble elegance. On the third day, detouring around the Chavs, we encountered an abandoned town. Not a soul could be found amongst the streets. We did, however, locate a supermarket. Most of the food was rotten, but the tins were still good. We loaded up on supplies. I heard her squeal with delight and I followed her voice.
The coffee and tea aisle was fully stocked with foil wrapped and jarred tea and coffee. And it was all still good. Under Ford’s huffed protestations we filled a suitcase we found on the travel supplies aisle with as much as we could carry and loaded it on top of the chest. Thankfully most of my bags were not heavy so it didn’t add too much weight. We were effectively rich. We laughed and made a thermos of the valuable drink to share as we rode south.
Eventually we passed through the city. Cunoarda took the time to explore and do a spot of trading as I handed the mail I have brought down to the Post Office for sorting and tried to turn in my uniform.
“Keep it.” The cheery faced woman smiled. “We might be interested in hiring you again, if you like.”
I didn’t object to that, and the rain coat was at least useful. My next stop was the Council. This time I was hurried right through without more than a few minutes of waiting. Clearly they were eager to hear back from the Picts. As the man’s eyes quickly skimmed the documents he grinned broadly.
“It looks like we might be in the market for a full time ambassador and courier.” He smiled at me meaningfully. I was shooed out again, nodding and agreeing to consider it and with a bag full of my payment. I didn’t even check it, but it was fairly heavy. By the jangling I suspected it might be a collection of copper disks like the ones I wore around my neck. Cunoarda met up with me, Ford trailing behind her lazily and we continued the last stretch of the journey.
It was getting dark when my home town came into view over a hill. My companion seemed pensive. I suggested we stop over in one of the abandoned hotels for the night so that she was fresh for the meeting with the gypsies. She turned to me and smiled almost sadly, nodding.
“I ought to prepare.” She agreed.
I pulled into the courtyard of a particularly impressive old building, one I knew had suitable accommodation for Ford and real fireplaces in the bedrooms. I had often stayed here when I needed a rest, as many people in the area did. I stabled Ford with a bucket of oats and fresh hay and water as Cunoarda explored the rooms. I heard her calling as I climbed the stairs.
“This one is perfect!” she smiled, pulling me inside and closing the door. I dropped the bags of necessary items on a chair and looked around. She had already started a fire (on which a pot of something from one of the cans was bubbling) and it lit and warmed the room. There was a huge four poster bed opposite the fire. It did look very comfortable.
We ate together and when I tried to leave to find my own room she insisted I stayed. She wasn’t really used to sleeping alone, and the bed was huge. Not to mention the time it would take me to get another fire going elsewhere in the house. I couldn’t really argue with her logic. And so I undressed in the bathroom, wearing just a vest and a pair of men’s boxer shorts I had liberated from Marks and Spencers for sleeping purposes. She, of course, wore nothing. By this point I had learned how not to stare or blush quite so much. We climbed into bed and under the gentle glow of the fire, eventually fell asleep in comfort.
I woke a couple of times. The first time I presume I had been woken by her weight shifting against me. She curled up against me, the fire no more than embers by then. And weight the comfort of her warmth against me I fell back asleep. The second time I woke it was still dark outside, but she had stoked the fire back to life and was sitting on the sheepskin in front of it, deep in concentration. I watched her fiery silhouette as she dabbed ink onto a tiny brush and refreshed the symbols on her body. It was fascinating to see, in its way. She looked up as I stretched and yawned, waving me over with a smile. I slipped out of the bed and sat in front of her.
“I figured I may as well be properly prepared.” She said grimly as the ink dried on her skin. “Here, let me…”
Her hand was steady and skilled as she traced lines and detail onto my bare arms and legs. She painted my lips and around my eyes, working down my collarbone and pouting a little with mild frustration as she came to the vest. She set her brush down and before I could really protest she had it tugged off and cast aside. I felt suddenly exposed, and in the rush of unexpected air I felt my nipples stiffen automatically. She decorated those with great care, patterning the curve of my breasts and the line of my stomach. I blushed as the soft brush grazed over my nipples. It was actually rather pleasant.
“Those too, or I’ll take them off for you.” She ordered, pointing to the old boxers. I knew that was a threat she’d follow through on so a little nervously I kneeled up and pushed them down over my hips.
The brush moved over my hips and thighs with equal precision, decorating me carefully. I still had no idea what any of the symbols actually meant. It wasn’t until the brush dipped lower, between my thighs that I gasped in surprise. I hadn’t realised that decoration extended there as well. It hadn’t when I had first washed the ink off at the village. She laughed with musical amusement.
“Hold still.” She smirked, a gleam of mischief in her deep blue eyes. She made me gasp once more when she softly blew on the ink there to make it dry faster. I hadn’t been prepared for any of that at all. Nor was I prepared for the lips that followed her breath.
The time until dawn passed quickly in a tangle of limbs, tongue and fingers. Not a word more was actually spoken though the room grew loud more than once. When I next awoke I found her sleeping in my arms. I didn’t move for fear of disturbing her. I couldn’t remember sleeping quite so well for a very long time myself. She woke soon after on her own and busied herself making some breakfast while I packed our things back up. She would have liked to ride the rest of the way as she was, but I reluctantly suggested she may want to put one of her simple dresses on.
The journey back to the gypsy camp was done in silence. She was preoccupied and I couldn’t think of what to say. Had it been a last night of freedom for her to cut loose? Or had there really been something behind it? I don’t suppose I’ll ever know the truth to that, I couldn’t ask. The gypsies met us as we approached and Joshua gallantly helped her down from the trap. I kept my head down and unloaded her bags. I had slipped as much of the coffee as I could into her things, hidden. Should she change her mind she’d be able to pay her way across country to anywhere. I whispered such into her ear as she grabbed me in a hug. The old gypsy lady interrupted to press a basket into my hands. The coffee and silver tin she had promised, and what appeared to be a pack of cards. It didn’t seem like enough payment all of a sudden.
The next morning the camp packed up. I almost missed them going. I made it to the field at a jog in time to see her stepping up into one of the caravans. She saw me and paused, staring at me with an expression I shall not soon forget. I dashed up the steps and she caught me, kissing each cheek and then my lips before letting go as the driver flicked the reins and the wheels began turning.
“Thank you!” she called, though what exactly she was thanking me for I was not sure. And then the caravan rumbled down the road and around the corner. I thought about saddling up and chasing them down, snatching her away from them and bringing her home… but for some reason I didn’t.
I moped around my house, tending to the chores and the animals for the next couple of days. Ford had earned some rest so I didn’t go anywhere. I found myself wondering if Cunoarda might be happy, perhaps she and Joshua would make a perfect little family with a lot of dark haired, blue eyed babies. Or perhaps Violet, entirely enchanted by her, had stolen her away from her own brother? Or maybe she had changed her mind and left the gypsies at the next encampment.
My thoughts were interrupted on the second day by the jingling of bells. The mailman trotted up to the gate and I leaned out of my bedroom window. He waved a stack of letters.
“Anything from the west?” I called. He shook his head.
“No, the boat landed last week.”
Perhaps that was that then. Perhaps I was writing to nowhere, no one. Perhaps I really had lost everything. I contemplated packing up and moving north.
“What about the gypsies?” I asked hopefully. He shook his head again. I sighed and came downstairs to collect what little I had. A postcard from my parents as usual. A couple of official letters from the Council of Alba and one from the Mail. I paid him his due and returned inside to think.
The very next morning I was woken by a horse outside again. I grumbled and threw open my window to complain to the rider and was startled to see the familiar red and black of the Royal Mail. The familiar wide brimmed hat shaded the deliverer from the sun. I frowned as a leather clad arm held up a heavy bag of mail. This was odd. There were no bells and instead of a bay gelding this rider had a grey mare. I wondered where my usual mailman was.
The arm lowered the bag again and took the hat off. A familiar face smiled up at me and I almost fell out of the window in excitement and pure delight. Nor gypsy moonshine nor Pictish mead could compare to the rush of blood to my head and buzz I got at that moment. I ran down the stairs, taking them two at a time and leapt into the black and red covered arms.
“I thought I’d never see you again.” I cried out happily. And things seemed all right then, at last.
So that's it, finished for now. It felt a bit cramped and rushed. I have missed out a lot, obviously. But it just kept getting longer so I had to condense it. Sorry if you miss any bits or it doesn't flow well.
I may be convinced to expand on everything in much more detail for Nanowrimo.