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The Bonding, Part 1: The Boar (first section)

AD 861, Imbolc (early February). In Cardhu, on the west coast of Scotland.

“He might change his mind,” said Donnell. It pained him to see his closest friend so downcast – though he could understand the reason. With their fifteenth summer approaching, it was time for both lads to take up their trades. Malcolm, as the blacksmith’s son, hoped to be apprenticed to his father – but Willem had stated several times that his son wasn’t suitable to learn the craft.

“You’re certainly strong enough,” he added, glancing around at Malcolm. His friend was shorter but much broader than him, the muscular build of his shoulders clear to see even under his winter cloak. Even with his disability – his left arm was missing just below the elbow – Malcolm could do most physical tasks better than he could, due to his great strength. “And you can wield a smith’s hammer better than most.”

“I can, yes, but I can’t persuade him that I’m worthy of it.” He shook his head slightly, and the two walked on in silence for a moment.

“I’m sorry, Malcolm,” Donnell said at last. “Though at least it’s only a couple of years. After that, who knows.” As they walked, the two young men had approached the edge of the outfield – the last field of the village where the crofters’ animals were left to graze at warmer times of year. Holm’s Wood stood up ahead, huge wintry ash trees marking the forest’s edge.

“It’s strange to think that in a few hours we will be men in the eyes of the village,” said Malcolm.

“And no longer be free.” Although the bonding ceremony was yet to happen, Donnell, who had spent much of his childhood playing in the nearby forest known as Holm’s Wood, knew that he was due to be bonded to one of the small number of farms around the edge of the village. The crofts, smallholding farms centred around the traditional roundhouses of the village, were worked by single families, but the few larger farms at the edge of the area needed to take on extra labour. And as Donnell already lived on Tarin’s farm with his mother, his fate seemed settled. “That hurts. But what’s worse is the thought of doing the same basic jobs, day after day, and never feeling the wind whistling through my hair down on the shore, or clambering around on the cliffs. I’ll miss walking the forest paths most of all, of course.”

“Perhaps there will be a chance to travel together, to take goods down to Wherrycross for trade,” said Malcolm.

“Yes, perhaps. And if I can, I will try to...”

“Look, do you see?” said Malcolm, interrupting his friend with a whack to the chest, and pointing.

“Where?” Donnell looked in the direction that Malcolm had indicated. Holm’s Wood was the vast forest into which Cardhu nestled, and which spread from eastwards from there, across hill and glen, almost as far as the capital at Dumbarton Castle. Of course, those who travelled to Dumbarton on foot had to skirt around the forest towards the north or south, taking some five or six days to reach there.

“Up there, by that gap between the trees. There’s nothing now, but I saw an old man, I swear. He must have gone into the trees. Donnell, I think it was Eochaid.”

Donnell made a face. “That old spellcaster? But it’s been years since he lived in these parts.” He peered towards Holm’s Wood for a moment longer and then shook his head. “I do miss him, but...”

“I know.”

“Well, we’d best be getting back. The choosing time will begin at dusk.”

Malcolm hesitated, looking back towards the edge of the trees. “I just want to take a quick look,” he said. “If it is him, I’d like to speak to him.” He sighed, and looked at his friend. “It might sound strange, but it seems more than a coincidence for him to appear now – just before the bonding – when I haven’t seen him for all these years.”

“You still fancy yourself as a spellcaster’s apprentice?”

Malcolm shrugged, and then laughed at the silliness of the idea. “I suppose not, but he’ll want to speak to us. I am sure of it.“

Donnell looked in the other direction, back towards the village. A half mile away at the village square, a gathering place in the centre of Cardhu around which all of the older roundhouses of the village were roughly clustered, the bonding ceremony would soon commence, at which the rest of their lives would be determined via the choice of a master crafter, farmer or trader.

He looked back towards the forest, that great untamed wilderness. “I don’t want to be late,” he told his friend. “Not today of all days.”

“Just a few minutes,” urged Malcolm. “The old man can’t have gone far.”

As children, the two had spent a lot of time near Eochaid’s little cabin along the coast, where the spellcaster lived with his books and mysterious artefacts. The old man had shown little interest in their playful antics, but from time to time had agreed to show them books, and to explain how writing works. Malcolm had been especially interested in these discussions; Donnell, on the other hand, was always in a hurry to get back to their games – to climbing trees or acting out great battles.

“Very well, then,” said Donnell at last. “Just a few minutes, and if he’s not there, we’re going back. My mother will kill me if I’m late.”

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