The distant clouds lit up with a flash of electric blue before fading back to a hundred tones of orange. They glowed on the horizon over the setting sun, grey streamers of rain arcing down onto the dark ocean below.
Boom. Thunder reverberated across the world like a distant cannon shot.
A trail of sparks flitted across the clouds’ surface, intensifying shadows and crevices which looked carved more out of marble than mist. A few seconds later, a protracted rumble filled the air, as if a giant had dug its hands into the top of a mountain and proceeded to tear it apart.
On a pebble-laden beach, a young girl stood and watched the swell of the sea, her flower-patterned dress flapping in the breeze with her twirling, copper-coloured hair. She was gazing at the burgeoning through one eyepiece of an old set of binoculars. For now it was calm, but the wind was picking up and the waves were becoming agitated, periodically splashing down then dragging pebbles into the sea with a hollow clatter. Another rumble sounded out as the sky ground against the earth. She could feel the static and the moisture in the air. A storm was coming.
“Rhona, it’s time to go home now.” Her uncle came up to her and held her hand. He was a middle aged man with dark grey hair and a rough beard; his mottled complexion was the mark of an outdoorsman but his weary eyes were not the ones of a natural guardian.
“Uncle Brag, can we stay to watch the storm?”
“It may seem okay now, but it’s going to get a lot worse as it comes closer,” he gave her arm a tug, “Come on, it’s fish fingers for dinner.” With that, they set off down the beach toward home. Rhona negotiated her way over the uneven pebbles, “Daddy died in a storm,” she stated, as casually as if she was naming the colour of the sky.
“Yes,” came the gruff reply. He zipped up his jacket and shook off a sudden chill, “do you want white or yellow rice with your fish fingers?”
“White, please. Do you think Daddy’s still watching over me?” She looked up at her uncle and swung his arm back and forth to hold his attention. Conceding, he met her expectant gaze, “Your father was a good man. He will always watch over you from Heaven.”
She giggled and looked down at her feet as she tip-toed over the red and blue pebbles like a clumsy ballerina, “It must be very boring for him.” She shivered as a gust of wind rushed through the beach. Her uncle reached into an inside pocket, “You look cold,” and pulled out a red cardigan, “here, put your cardigan on.” He crouched down and helped to pull it over her arms; as he did so he said to her, “Your father loved you… loves you… with all his soul. He will never leave you, no matter how bad things get.”
Rhona tugged her cardigan around herself in a fabric embrace, quietly considering his words then quickly smuggling her mind to less profound thoughts, “Can I stay up to watch the storm tonight?” Her uncle stood up and allowed himself a smile, “Maybe. If you’re good. Come on…” he reached out a hand and she took it. As they walked off the beach, the impending storm roared from afar, as if in defiance of the two humans’ turned backs. The tangerine glow of the sunset had begun to fade, revealing the true dark colours of the maelstrom. Already the first tentative raindrops were beginning to fall, tapping their skin as cold pinpricks from the sky. Doubling down, the two of them hurried home.
* * *
They lived together, just the two of them, on the outskirts of town just by the sea. Rhona had always liked their home; the stone and brick forest of the town rose up on one side while – like a mouldy green-and-brown carpet of brush and heather – the rugged moors sloped down from the other side toward the increasingly choppy sea.
The house was part of a squat two-storey terrace of the traditional Scottish construction, built of sandy-coloured stone with a dormer window peeking out from under the slates of the roof. As the rain intensified to more than just a drizzle, Uncle Brag jogged up the front garden path, escorting Rhona protectively under the canopy over the door, before fumbling with his keys and rattling one into the lock. The lock gave in and the two of them almost fell onto the carpet as the door swung open in front of them.
Brag brushed a spray of raindrops off his jacket and threw the keys into a bowl, “You go into the living room and get wrapped up nice and warm. I’ll turn on the heating…” Rhona ran into the cottage living room and jumped onto the sofa; drawing up a tartan blanket, she wrapped herself up into a cotton cocoon and gazed out of the window. The storm was closing in – lumpy dark clouds were beginning to lumber their way across the once blue sky – they came knocking at the window with the load taps of increasingly frequent raindrops. But locked away from the forces of nature that were reeling outside, Rhona felt safe.
As she watched the first raindrops trickle their path down the window panes, she noticed a small book on the windowsill. Not a colourful hardback or paperback thing like they had on their shelves, but an old battered leather bound affair, its chocolate brown corners curled up by age. It looked out of place against the well maintained, if slightly unkempt, surroundings of the house; like an ancient relic sat in the middle of a shopping centre – otherwise she wouldn’t have noticed it at all.
Curious, she disengaged herself from the blanket and approached the book. Taking it up in her hands she examined it more closely; it was only as big as a postcard and as thick as a finger; cracks and wrinkles riddled the surface and, most prominently, a rusting metal band was clamped around it with a large lock on the side. That only stoked her curiosity. What secrets did its leather cover conceal?
There was only one way to find out, “Uncle, what’s this book?” She wandered into the kitchen where her uncle was shaking frozen fish fingers onto a baking tray; he turned around to see the source of her query and almost immediately his face dropped, “Oh, that’s just something of mine. Put it back in the study, will you?” He returned to the cooking, clearly with no intention to have a conversation about it.
Rhona deflated with disappointment and looked down at the small book in her hands. A finger ran across the edges of the pages, as if to desperately pry out any knowledge they might contain.
Uncle Brag looked over his shoulder, “Go on,” he encouraged her.
“Okay,” she said, and went to the door of the study.
The door to the study was always firmly closed, its monotone featureless surface imposing over the hallway, challenging anyone who dared to enter. Rhona rarely ventured in there by herself; it was strictly Brag’s realm. Tentatively – and more than a little nervously – she wrapped a hand around the circular brass door handle and turned.
With a click, the door cracked open. She peered inside.
Sandwiched snugly between the kitchen and the living room, the study’s lack of windows left it shrouded in murky darkness. Under the meagre light from the hallway, the ghostly silhouettes of years of accumulated clutter could barely be made out.
Rhona threw a switch on the wall and the ceiling light sputtered on. Furniture revealed itself. Dark shapes brought themselves into clarity. Against the opposite wall sat an old wooden bureau with an old wooden chair; all other floor space was covered in accumulated stacks of books, boxes, chests and a whole host of ragtag trinkets – an ageing globe, a Galileo thermometer, a broken lamp – Brag had never been one to keep things tidy. Everything seemed to be covered in a thick layer of dust, or maybe the room was just naturally grey. Even with the harsh light from the bare bulb on the ceiling, the study was enclosed, subdued, riddled with shadows. Like a cave.
Rhona picked her way through the mess and slapped the book on the desk next to a chipped mug stuffed with pens. As she turned to make her way out, her attention was drawn to a flash of silver. It looked unusual among the drab dirtiness of the rest of the room. Her curiosity was piqued. She threw a skittish glance toward the door and gently nudged it closed.
She didn’t dare continue until the door clicked shut. Clearing away a couple of boxes and files as carefully and quietly as she could, she inspected what lay underneath. The silver was, in fact, what appeared to be a large sheet of grey silk covering a chest underneath; it was mesmerizingly, immaterially smooth; the light reflected off the crests of the waves in the material. Boldly, she gripped a corner of the sheet and pulled; it flowed away to reveal the imposing trunk which lay underneath.
It was almost as long as she was tall, an indomitable construct of wood and metal. It didn’t have a curved lid or gold edges like the pirates’ treasure chests she saw on television or in story books; this chest was distinctly cuboid – its wooden faces secured together with dark, lead-like metal. Two thick metal latches clamped the lid firmly shut, but there was no lock.
Rhona paused there for a moment, considering her imminent actions and what they might mean. Her uncle had brought her up for as long as she could remember – she never knew her parents – and for all those years he had been her guiding light and caring hand. She trusted him to the ends of the Earth but, at the same time, she had the impression he was hiding some things away from her; the way guardians do when they stop you from watching certain television programmes, or send you out of the room when they’re having private adult conversations. But it was more than that; the study, the book, countless other momentary flashes of strangeness which had punctuated her life; it had always fuelled a latent, burning curiosity within her. She was usually forced to ignore it, and she loved her Uncle Brag, but that moment of solitude was too precious an opportunity to give up.
As quietly as she could, Rhona lifted the latches and pulled on the lid; it was heavier than she thought. Once more, mustering all of her strength, she pulled as hard and she could and heaved the chest wide open. She gasped.
Lying within the chest’s cavernous interior, she saw her own eyes looking back at her; they were reflected off the gleaming blade of a sword. She reached down and ran her fingers across it, careful not to touch the edge of the blade, already convinced of what she suspected. It was a real sword. A real metal sword. It was long and thin and slightly curved. She wasn’t able to help herself as she gripped the leather handle and picked it up; it was heavy; she felt the tough edges of the leather strip wrapped around the handle in the palm of her hand, the cold touch of the metal butt against her little finger; it felt powerful.
Rhona tensed up as a pan clattered in the kitchen. She heard footsteps through the wall. An oven door opened then closed again. Then quiet once more.
Laying the sword to one side, her head instinctively held away from any potential cause of injury, she knelt down and reached back into the chest. She found a hard leather sheath attached to a belt strap, which she dropped next to the sword in search for something more interesting. Something shinier. All that was left in the chest was a large green blanket; a lumpy green blanket. Reaching down, she gave the blanket a push and was returned with a metallic clatter. She began to unravel and pull back the blanket to find the other things hidden among its folds; a leather wrist guard, a shining bronze knife in sheath, a strange bronze crescent attached to a chain. Finally, as she pulled back the final layer of blanket, she was rewarded with a large round metal shield in the same dull gold as the rest of the items.
Footsteps in the hallway. The door clunked open.
Rhona swung around to see Brag in the doorway.
“Get out!” he barked.
“Get out!” He shot a finger fiercely toward the stairs.
Tearing up, like a threatened rabbit Rhona shot past him and scampered up the stairs before the breath had even finished leaving his mouth. Exasperated, Brag sighed and moved to conceal everything she had uncovered.
* * *
Dinner was quiet. The lonely sound of forks clinking against plates rang around the kitchen as the two of them finished off their meals. Her uncle looked up, “You shouldn’t look through people’s things without asking, Rhona.”
She glanced back, then returned to shifting the remaining scraps of food around on her plate with her fork, “I wanted to know what you were hiding.”
Uncle Brag huffed, “Hiding? Rhona, that isn’t the point. You shouldn’t have been in there.”
“But you told me to put…”
Her uncle sucked in through his teeth, “I know I told you to put the book in the study but after that you should have gone straight out. The study is out of bounds!”
Rhona threw her cutlery down onto her plate in annoyance. The two of them usually got on very well, but like in any relationship flash points and frayed tempers were inevitable from time to time. “You don’t let me look at anything. Why do you have a sword? You’ve never used a sword.”
Her uncle sighed and metered his temper, “Look Rhona, I love you very much, but everyone needs their own private things and spaces. That’s just how it is.”
Rhona slouched down, folded her arms and stuck out her bottom lip, “I know…” But it was about more than that; more than just an incident in the study, “All the people at school go on holiday,” she sulked, “they talk about all the presents they get from their family when it’s their birthdays. Why don’t I get that?”
“Birthdays are about more than just getting things…”
“No…” she moaned, “…they have mums and dads and cousins and grannies. Where’s my family?”
“I’m your family, Rhona.” His temper had softened and his anger was replaced with concern; he came round the table and hugged her, “What’s wrong?”
Hesitantly, she hugged back, “I don’t know. That’s what I’m trying to figure out.”