And so it was that I found myself packing the saddle bags and dressing for a long journey. Light summer dress was replaced by practical, often patched jeans and a rather plain vest. The mailman assured me I would be given a uniform for this job so I didn’t bother trying to find a decent jacket. It was warm and sunny, sunny enough that my goggles came with me. I pushed them back into my hair until I would need them. I simply couldn’t ride for days without boots of some kind. Though I was quite used to being barefoot now, I still owned boots for riding, and would have to find more good ones for winter. The leather was kind to my feet and calves. Leather gloves protected my hands from the reins as well. I packed enough clothing to cover a variety of likely weather situations, but kept it light. Most of the space in one saddlebag was reserved for food and flasks of clean drinking water. I did pack a sharp knife, unsure what I was likely to face. Aside from that the only things I carried were the gypsy letter, an induction torch and a warm sleeping bag that was rolled into a tight little bag.
I took trade items too. Nothing too heavy to carry, but enough to perhaps be interesting. Gemstones, trinkets, pencils (they were always popular) and small nuggets of copper flattened into discs and strung on a leather thong. I hung it around my neck. I took those everywhere. You could trade a lot for a piece of copper these days. I also loaded up on simple jewellery items, those were often enough to buy a meal or two. Satisfied that the young gypsy boy was capable of keeping an eye on the animals, I followed the mailman back to the city to see the Council.
The journey was a good hour long, with little said between us. Or rather, I spoke little and the mailman made up for it. I have no memory of what he talked about, just that he talked. He talked to me. He talked to his gelding. He talked to Ford. I swear at one point he was talking to the road itself. I guess his job is boring. All the same he was reliable and got me to my destination easily and fairly quickly. He left me at the post office, I knew where I was going after that and he had to finish working.
Ford and I clopped down the road slowly, passing through areas that were heavily populated compared to my area. The council of Alba would be meeting in the old castle, and to get there I would just need to follow the steep, cobbled road through narrow streets. This part of the city looked entirely untouched by change at first glance. This biggest noticeable difference was the shops. Once they were filled with tourist junk, now they were restored to the way they had once been. I passed butchers, haberdashers, lots of professional general traders, blacksmiths and even an armoury on the way up to the castle.
After handing Ford over to the stable boys for grooming and feeding I made my way into council chambers to see what exactly it was they expected of me. It seemed like I had to show the letter I had received to everyone, and was handed back and forth and moved around until my patience was thin. And then, Once I was in the appropriate waiting area, I waited. And waited. And waited.
Some things had not been affected by the Incident. Council efficiency was one of them.
After an age of sitting and alternating between staring at the walls and browsing the old magazines that someone had found and left there, I finally got to see the council elders. I was led into a deceptively small room and sat in an old armchair. Before me was a long desk, behind which sat an elderly man with a long beard. Various other similar men and women were milling around the room, obviously working on a variety of things. It seemed my presence wasn’t enough to warrant more than a brief glance from the other elders. I was severely bored and irritated by this point. I scowled at the old man and he looked at me blankly before offering me one of those standard I’m-here-to-help-provided-it-doesn’t-tak
“So, you’re the girl Postman Richards recommended.” He muttered croakily, as if he’d been talking all day. He probably had. I nodded, a bit resentful at being called a girl. “Good good. Let’s see, we have the paperwork here somewhere…” he rooted through a stack of files and pulled out some wax sealed documents. They looked very official. He handed them to me and smiled, turning to go back to his work. I paused for a moment, raising an eyebrow.
“…And? The letter you gave me wasn’t exactly specific. You want me to just take these up there and give them to the Pictish Chiefs and then come home?” I scowled.
“Oh, oh no. You can swing by the Post Office first, they requested that the mail go up with you.”
“So I go up, give them these documents, give them the mail and then come home and get paid, right?” I restated. He looked at me as if I was simple.
“Well obviously you need to wait for a reply, but that’s pretty much it. You’ll be our ambassador.” He looked at his calendar pointedly before looking back at me. “Be a couple of weeks, I would imagine.”
“The pay better be good.” I grumbled, standing up and tucking the files under my arm. They were wrapped in one of those clear plastic folders at least, so they wouldn’t get wet. I slipped the gypsy letter out of my pocket and in beside the files. The man held out a hand and reluctantly I shook it.
“Oh yes, excellent pay. Don’t worry about it. Here.” He pressed a copper ring into my hand that bore the seal of Alba. “Consider that a deposit.”
I was ushered out of the building, once more being handed from assistant to assistant until I was in the courtyard beneath the far too bright sky. Ford was there waiting for me, an exasperated stable boy clinging to his reins. I gave the boy a bar of chocolate as a tip and took my stallion from him. I swear he looked relieved.
“Did you cause trouble?” he chuckled, patting Ford on the nose. He looked at me lazily and snorted.
“ ’e wunt stay in no stables, that one. ‘e let his-sen out.” The boy panted. “I hadda run right affer ‘im.”
I smirked and shook my head. Ford had come to meet me, as usual. I bid the boy good day (and good luck with the other horses) and let my equine companion down the street. I’d ride him when I got further out of the city, may as well let him get as much rest as possible.
When I got to the Post Office my mailman was just leaving with a sack under his arm. He gave me a wave and enquired if I had gotten everything sorted. I shrugged and grinned a little awkwardly.
“As much as anything is when it comes to the council.” I replied. He chuckled and tipped his wide-brimmed hat before heading off to collect his own horse and set off to finish his own rounds.
I stepped inside the cool building after tethering Ford to the hitching post outside. The place was bustling, but organised. People were dropping mail off and picking it up, deliverers came and went in a steady stream and over the counter I could see the mail being sorted by groups of people. All of them wore the familiar black and red.
I stepped up to the same counter the deliverers went to and was immediately greeted by a fresh faced young woman, not much older than me.
“Hi, I’m supposed to take some mail to the Picts?” I offered, a little unsure if she was the right one to speak to. Her face lit up and she pulled open a nearby door.
“Come on in, come on in! Let’s get you kitted up. You have the letter and the seal, right?” she grinned. I showed her and she nodded, satisfied. She pushed me through into a small back room before vanishing and being replaced by a somewhat older and more portly woman. She chattered worse than my mailman did as she measured me up, tugging me this way and that until she was happy and disappearing. When she returned she had a bundle of clothes and some bags.
“Here we go, hen.” She smiled pleasantly. “We have everything here I think.”
She turned me round and round, fitting various items. First was a rather standard button down shirt, black with red details. Perfect for the weather, the cuffs were wide and the sleeves could be rolled up easily. Following that was a warm jacket of similar colour. It was tough enough to stave off light weather and bumps and scratches. A much longer jacket that would completely cover me, my saddle, saddlebags and Ford’s rump was handed to me. It was cleverly bundled up into a deceptively small bag. It wouldn’t be much good for warmth but excellent for rain. And last was the wide brimmed hat many mailmen and women wore to keep the sun off.
“Someone will be seeing to your horse. The big dun fellow, right?” I nodded again, wondering what exactly they were seeing to.
As I was led back outside (by yet another cheerful woman) I saw that they had been grooming him much as they had groomed me. His black mane now had red ribbons in it. I stifled a laugh and I am damned sure he glared at me. They’d also fitted the mail saddle bags, thankfully fairly light. Mostly letters and a couple of small packages. The saddle bags bore the seal of the Royal Mail. Well, no one would doubt what I was doing up so far north at least. I gave him a reassuring pat and a mint before I unhitched him and led him out of the city.
And that was how I found myself riding north to find the main Pictish village and deliver the mail. I will spare you tales of the journey north. Though if you were to buy me a drink I might regale you with the stories of how I encountered a pack of wild Jedi or perhaps how I inadvertently wandered into dangerous Chav territory. I might even tell you of the hot and humid jungle lands I had to pass through, between fern and palm and fending off dragonflies the length of my arm. Perhaps, if I am feeling generous, I might even pull out a map and show you exactly where herds of stray thoughts roam though they are often hunted for their inspirational pelts.
All in all the journey took me several days of near constant riding. I survived it, thankfully, and before twilight had fallen on the fifth day of riding I saw smoke in the distance that could only come from an area that was reasonably populated. There were no real settlements this far north aside from several villages of Picts and the occasional lost Viking camp so I headed for it, hoping it was the right one. I was greeted by several men and women before I made it to the village itself, while I passed through farmland and orchards. They seemed to be doing pretty well for themselves when it came to resources at least. They had very healthy and expansive crops, a whole variety of food. Up in the hills I could see white dots that were surely sheep and from somewhere nearby I could hear the various sounds of cows and pigs. There was also a very familiar honking noise coming from a field.
The cry went up almost immediately. They had to wait a long time for mail to come from the south and there was obvious excitement at my arrival. I was soon being escorted to the heart of their village by a surprisingly large number of people. Men, women and children all clustered around in their simple, dull coloured clothing. I guessed much of it was handmade and dyed using the colours available. On the majority of them I could see the curious symbols, patterns and pictures on their skin that gave them their name. I couldn’t even begin to fathom what these strange markings meant, though they obviously held significance. Even the children were marked, though their designs were fewer and often smudged from playing. On the older members, some markings were obviously tattooed on permanently.
I slipped off my horse and landed on the ground lightly. Ford whinnied and trotted a little way away to destroy someone’s vegetable patch. I was greeted by a man who I guessed was a little older than me and an even older woman who I later learned was his mother. This man was head of the village and he smiled broadly as he approached, shaking my hand. He introduced himself as Kenneth, which struck me as a rather ordinary name all things considered. His mother was Airell. He gave me a moment to collect the mail saddlebags from Ford (who was causing a lot of frustration as he barged his way into a stack of carrots and helped himself) and then he guided me into his home.
It actually was fairly nice. The walls were stone and well insulated with some kind of clay. The roof was thatched and obviously kept the place dry and warm. There were a couple of small windows and a fireplace with a chimney where the smoke from the fire that warmed the house escaped. A couple of doorways that led off of this first room suggested that there were other rooms that I couldn’t see into, probably bedrooms. He sat down in a rather comfortable looking chair and waved me to do the same. I sat nearby in a similar chair and found that yes, it was quite comfortable.
“So, I understand you’ve brought us our mail.” He smiled pleasantly, pouring out a large cup of some sweet liquid I couldn’t quite identify and passing it to me. He poured one for himself too. It was really refreshing. I nodded.
“And I have a package from the Council of Alba for you personally.” I added. He nodded as if he expected it. He probably did.
I opened the saddle bags and pulled out the plastic file. Before I handed it to him, I took out the gypsy letter. Better I made sure that got to its recipient myself, just to be sure. He leafed through the file slowly, a frown creasing his brow. A quick glance showed me why, The entire stack of paper consisted of official documents. Permission of this, denial of that and the biggest stack seemed to pertain to some form of alliance. It was all over my head. Airell took the seat next to him and began browsing the papers as well. I suddenly felt a little bit forgotten.
“So… um, I need to find someone called Cunoarda?” I asked quietly, gently easing myself into their range of perception once more. Kenneth looked up, his expression a bit stunned as if he was surprised I was there at all.
“Oh right. The mail. It needs delivered.” He put his papers down and looked at the bags. “Finish your drink and then take them outside, just read the names on the front and either someone will claim them or show you where to take them.”
I nodded and down the rest of the drink. I stood, shouldering the light bags and turned to leave. Before I had exited the small, cosy house he spoke again.
“Thanks. It’s a long way to come, I know. Once that’s done you can come back here and my sister should be back from the fields. She can help you get cleaned up and you can join us for a meal later.”
I nodded my thanks and gave him a smile before stepping out into the light. Ford had been caught and was roaming a paddock with some other horses. My personal saddlebags were set neatly against the wall of the house I had just left. I took off the large hat and heavy coat, setting them down on top of my bags. It was warm here, despite being northern. There were a lot of people here. It seemed to be a sort of village common green, with people milling and talking and doing small personal trades. I moved to a place where I could be seen, with eyes following me. Opening the bags I cleared my throat nervously. I didn’t like speaking in public at the best of times.
“Taran Jones…?” I said, reading the name from the first letter. A young man grinned and stepped forward, claiming the envelope from me with a thanks. As was customary, he pressed a small item into my hand to cover the cost of delivery. I looked down at it, amazed to see a delicately carved metal disc slightly bigger than an old fifty pence piece. I wasn’t sure exactly what the metal was, but it almost looked like silver to me. I slipped it into the bag.
“Castantin Layne?” I said with more confidence. A similar exchange of letter and small item (this time a bead that might have been some kind of semi precious stone) occurred. She smiled and continued this pattern. On the occasion that no one claimed the mail someone would usually point in this direction or that, mentioning a farm or a field or perhaps someone who was merely at home. Sometimes one of the local children would grab the package or letter and dash off with it, returning with my payment and often an apple or similar treat for themselves. Eventually, as the day wore on my bag became heavy with trinkets and light of letters. Save one.
“Cunoarda?” I asked, looking around. There was only one name on the envelope and I hoped there was only one person with that name. After a moment a woman made her way through the diminishing crowd. She reached out her hand, smiling softly.
I would be lying if I told you that she wasn’t beautiful or graceful. And I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t immediately entranced by her, but it wasn’t lust or desire that caused it. She smiled at me with plump lips, a sedate and undecorated sort of natural pink. Her hand was slender, but strong. She clearly worked hard. Her hair was a deep red, so deep in fact that I would be tempted to say that it wasn’t natural. And her eyes… perhaps it was those that case me to almost drop the letter into her hand. They were bright shining blue, almost as if the light shone from behind like a stained glass window (in truth that was merely an illusion caused by the late afternoon sun). They looked almost feline, in a way, as if she could see right through anyone.
“Is this from the Romany?” she asked, pouting delicately as she turned the letter over in her hand and regarded the seal. I nodded. Her voice had a curious quality, like the accent of someone who had been born in one country and had spent years in another. Her fingers danced over the wax seal, but she didn’t pop it open yet.
“You’re staying with Kenneth, right?” she asked with her unusually musical voice.
“I’m honestly not sure.” I shrugged. She grinned and shook her head, reaching out a hand.
“He’s not exactly informative is he? Come on, his sister should be coming home around now, she’ll sort you out. She’s much better with people than Kenneth, though he runs a fine village.” She sighed, tugging me and the mailbag along behind her. She didn’t take me inside the hut I’d come out of though, taking me into one a little way away. It was slightly smaller, but equally comfortable.
“Ena? Are you home?” She called. A young woman who did bear a striking resemblance to the village chief came in from a back room carrying a large bowl.
“Hello!” she smiled. “Oh, you’d be the postie then? Thanks Cunoarda. I’m making a spot of stew if you’re interested.”
While Ena prepared the simple meal I brought my other bags in and set them in the room she had shown to me. I’d be staying there for a couple of nights while Kenneth and his mother worked out the details of the agreement. Cunoarda was watching the pot for her as it simmered over the fire, reading the letter as she did so. I sat nearby, having taken the opportunity to change into something a little less travel-worn.
“The old woman gave this to you personally? I remember her well. There was something a little unusual about her.” The red-headed woman sighed. I nodded in agreement.
“She said you’d taken a shine to one of her grandsons.” I mentioned, sipping on another cup of that pleasantly sweet liquid. She snorted and I raised an eyebrow in her direction curiously. “You didn’t?”
“Well, we spent some time together. It seems they’re happy to have me anyway.” She turned at me and gave me a charming smile.
Ena dished up a couple of bowls of the meaty stew, interrupting the conversation. The meal was hearty and quite satisfying. It had been a while since I had been able to indulge in such a good home-cooked meal. I was hardly a skilled chef and had to make do with what little I could manage. Cunoarda excused herself after the meal, and I was unable to continue talking with her. Ena, on the other hand, provided a warm bath for me. I loved the luxury of it. I stayed in the water until it was cold before I reluctantly climbed out and dried off. Looking out of the window I could see that it was starting to get dusky outside. A gentle tap on the door echoed through the small room. I wrapped a blanket around myself and opened it. Ena smiled at me through the portal.
“Hey, we’re going to head over to the main hall and have some mead, you want to join us?” she asked. I grinned. I’d heard rather excellent things about Pict mead.
“Be right there!” I nodded, dressing hurriedly.
I followed Ena to the hall, finding it heavily populated already. There was a general sense of joviality in the large room. There was a warm fire burning in a large fireplace and several large tables surrounded by long benches. Most of these tables had groups of people chatting around them, or drinking, or sharing jokes and stories. Cunoarda was at a table with several other women, sipping from a tall tankard and listening in to one of them regaling the others with some kind of tale. Ena led me over to a large table near the fireplace where Kenneth and some other unfamiliar villagers were sitting. Even before I had sat down a boy somewhat younger than me had set down a tankard of the famous mead for me and topped up the other mugs at the table. I tasted it. I could certainly tell why it had gotten its reputation. It didn’t take me long to finish that mug, though as soon as I had it seemed to fill up again.
I woke up blearily, aching all over. I was warm and comfortable and there was a familiar honking coming from the foot of the bed. Except I wasn’t in a bed, which I discovered when I looked down at the dodo nibbling my naked toes.
“Piss off.” I grumbled at it. It honked.
My toes were not the only thing naked. I groaned as I stared down at my naked skin, coated with a variety of the odd Pict symbols. My arm stung and I rolled over to try and get a look at what might be bothering me. I rolled right into another naked body. I blinked and looked over my shoulder where I saw another naked body behind me. Lifting my head I saw I was in a sort of pile of naked Picts.
Pictish mead, apparently, is just as bad at gypsy moonshine, though at least it didn’t give me a hangover.
The body I had rolled into stirred and stretched, rolling in my direction. Cunoarda. Surprised to see her sleeping there I glanced down over the fullness of her breasts and swell of her stomach. Yes, she was a natural redhead. My eyes darted back to the curve of her belly. That had not been obvious when she was clothed.
“Ah.” I said softly.
Part three to follow soon.