The entente with our southern neighbour had been cordiale enough following the affirmation of Failbhe’s strength. Omael remained as ambassador. Like all diplomats he was polite when discussing matters with Failbhe, his wives, and the Chamberlain’s staff and even extended invitations to the household for events at the Embassy. The boys I had seen at that first meal were also still in residence at the sprawling compound. As I’d guessed they were young nobles and seemed to be have a great time growing up away from the close attention of their own court. Aeldred had made no other move against Alba, surprised perhaps that Failbhe’s position still seemed unassailable. But they both knew that it was an old game, one that had been played off and on for centuries for as long as the two countries had existed.

A council was called by Aeldred. Upheavals in the very south had left the Duchy without a clear ruler. Failbhe had been called to Elmet, along with Cymraig’s Merlin and the Taosich of Eirenn, to decide on the best course of action. No one would refuse, all the lands had a stake in trying to stop the High King taking over the Duchy. Leaving Eilionoir as regent, supported by Amana and Lysanias, the heir apparent, Failbhe took his party south. Moshen went along to assist the Chamberlain. I was included – along with a few other wives – to support whatever mood took our lord on the journey.

Elmet was a strange place to us. The land was softer than our own but somehow the people were harsher, with their ugly accents and brutal clothes, their utilitarian drabness. They all seemed so small – truculent lumps jealous of my height and speechless at seeing Moshen taller still. I probably do them a disservice. Events cloud my impressions. It was the end of the good times.

There were games within games as the old rivalries vied for position. Eventually the Duchy issue seemed resolved and Cymraig and Eirenn took their leave, Aeldred honoured us by asking Alba to stay for the wedding of one of his sons. We never really considered the possibility that he would resort to actual violence. That would have been like admitting that he couldn’t play the game anymore.

When the attack came even I couldn’t save my lord. I was quick and strong and very skilled. But efficiency can only go so far against overwhelming odds. I might have been able to protect him from the ravages of time … but time was something faced one day after another not a suicidal attack by simultaneous weeks. He was no coward hiding behind his son and his freak of a wife bodyguard, but fought valiantly beside us.

In the end he surrendered. Spattered in the blood of these vile people he ordered me and Moshen to cease the fight and gave himself up to the bastard, fucking, spineless Angles so that our lives would be spared. He made his deal with the devil in exchange for a last call home to his beloved Eilionoir and exile in Europe for his last two defenders. What were we to do? He was our lord and we were sworn to follow him to the end.

He got his call home, but it was before all the High King’s court. Facing a screen that made our world seem a million miles away he made his farewells to Eilionoir and reminded Lysanias of his duties. Then, oh the indignity, in view of both courts they cut our hair so it was like stubble on our heads. They stripped me of my kirtle and put me in man’s trousers. I did not get to … I could not say goodbye to a husband as a wife should. I never got to say goodbye. Never. I still feel the guilt.

Moshen held me up, kept me going as the soldiers took us away. I cried. I howled. I would have torn the hair from my head but that had already been taken. We were dumped in the brig of a boat that would take us over the water to the forbidden continent. I raved and beat my head against the walls of the cell. Eventually my body shut down and I slept. I think I would have killed myself with grief otherwise. Moshen watched over me, cleaned me as I slept, kept me safe.

A safe distance away from Elmet a signal was triggered and our lord, beloved husband and father, went to his eternal rest. Aeldred had violated the rules of the game. He had little time to savour his ‘victory’ over Alba, no time at all to appreciate the consequences of his failure as the dirty bomb hidden behind Failbhe’s heart levelled his court, destroyed his bloodline and the core of Angle nobility, and laid the surrounding land to waste for generations to come.

Failbhe understood the game. He gave himself in a feint to ensure the survival of the next Laird. Alba would always endure even though individuals were lost.

“Don’t touch me. No, I’m not ok damn it. Christ! Let me get through this as quick as I can. Fucking men and their stupid fucking games.”

Anyway, the crew came for us. Already paid by the Angles, they had no love for Aeldred’s people. We were put ashore in a small non-descript port in the middle of nowhere. I depended utterly on my best friend, my only friend. As I recovered we became the lovers we had wanted to be over a decade before. We were not in love, but we clung to each other for comfort, we were all each other had. His body, so long a stranger to me, became as familiar as my own as we turned to each other and away from the strange new world we had been cast adrift in.

I don’t know, chance, bad luck … just a stupid combination of things put us is a small town outside Paris when it got hit by a stray nuke from the Eternal Fronde. I never even knew which of those mad Gallic bastards had slung it. It wasn’t a large warhead, but it was enough to take out the Church he’d gone into to buy supplies. I had to leave the town, couldn’t turn back to look for him. People had seen me leave the blast zone apparently unharmed. It would only be a matter of time before the questions started and I would be in danger from their fears. No way could he have survived the blast, the destruction of the building or the radiation. Leaving was a rational decision but I hated myself for doing it. Another lover abandoned. More guilt.

Whatever I had felt before, it was the first time I had been truly alone.

What did I do next? Desolate, I fell back on what I knew and fucked my way across Fortress Europe. Stayed in some places longer than others, but mostly just went from bed to bed and tried to lose myself. Discovered by the salon set in Florence I was passed around like a party favour. In a steady haze of drink and drugs, I didn’t care what was done to me. While my body always recovered from the tedious round of harm and damage it was so much more of a struggle to cast off the long ennui that now seemed my only true companion.

I moved on only when someone made the inevitable suggestion of pairing me with a woman. It always happened, just one of those things I guess, and was guaranteed to make me leave wherever I was. I’ve never had sex with a woman … or a man who didn’t realise he was a woman. I might have got used to being looked at, and even touched if I was off my head, but to do that thing? I always hoped you understood we never had a chance.

Eventually I met a man who reminded me that I was more than just a body to be used. An academic, he was happy to talk to me not just fuck me. He helped resurrect my interest in the past. There was no way I could enrol where he taught, no way could he risk discovery by being caught with me. However much I intrigued him I was, after all, only a dalliance; he would not risk his wife and family for a shallow fling. He gave me something to focus on other than my loss and, when his ardour for me cooled, I left him with fond memories and steered my apparently imperishable flesh and empty heart towards Egypt where he said I would find the birthplace of history.

“Ok, sorry for that before, I know you meant well. Promise not to shout at you again. We good?”

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