(Pt 2. A work in progress, this is the second chapter of 'The Jarslhof or The Earl’s Mansion', first in a series of short stories set in the Shetland Isles. Working title “An Imagined Shetland Folklore’)
The Jarlshof, or the Earl’s House – this is where the wretched mariner has ended up, though he doesn’t know it yet, since he is still unconscious. But when he does come to, he will find he is in a rather grand hall: a vast fireplace, almost as big as his demolished boat, taking up an entire wall, great mounds of peat and driftwood burning in it, giving off enough light to turn this night to soft day.
When he does come to, he will see, and not recognise, portraits on the walls. Of ancient lineage and wealth, by the look of them, and all stopping, judging by their fashions, a good few centuries back. So, either there have been no new portraits painted in these past few hundred years, or there have been no more descendants worth painting. Odd.
But not really, once you know the history of this place, this pile of ruined rooms half swallowed up by the drifting sands outside that have leached inside grain by grain, till, as the years passed, they have built up as many dunes against the inner walls as against the outer.
A strange sight, as if the beach and the island itself have somehow migrated through the stone so that in places it would be possible, if awkward, to climb the sand mounds and take a close inspection of the weather-faded faces hung high on the walls.
Ah, look, he is coming to now – there was definitely movement there, and a sigh – let’s see what he makes of his new circumstances once he manages to peel his eyes open.
And so it is that this shipwrecked mariner wakes to find himself in clean, if ancient, nightclothes, much too big but infinitely better than the soaking rags he arrived in. His clothes have been hung out to dry by the fire, and there is food and drink laid out on the table at the far end of the room.
He is a twitchy sort, this rescued seafarer. Always has been. Never one to relax and see the best of a situation, or understand he might have ended up somewhere because that is where he needs to be at this juncture in his earthly life, and so endeavour to make the best of things, or at least not make a battlefield of his current circumstances.
No. He is the sort to see the glass half empty, the stranger as potential murderer, or at the very least plotting to con him out of his watch chain whilst distracting his eyes with some calculated act of friendship or prestidigitation.
It is said, believably enough, that we judge others by our own standards, and so it would be understandable to assume that he embodies those unappealing qualities, but we are of a more open mind set are we not? And so we will wait and not judge, while he prises open his eyes to find he is exchanging glances with an ancient, surly looking warrior type, hanging high up by the ceiling. Further skittish glances around the room bring him eye-to-eye with a collection of beautiful, dark haired, dark eyed men and women, aristocracy, with a name reminiscent of those of his own Nordic lands. Culminating in two portraits, the most recent, if their attire is anything to go by, though even those over a century old at least, hung over the fireplace, side by side.
The first, a mesmerising woman, her pale face all that remains visible in the soot-darkened sea of canvas around her. The second, a boy, her son, for sure. A solitary looking child, a loneliness emanating from his luminous skin that seems brutally out of place for a child. There is an otherness to that boy, as if the veneer of his species has been scrubbed away in parts, the centuries of sandblasting gradually revealing a beast beneath his human skin.
But a solitary, anguished beast, not one of those ravening creatures riding the storm outside. Something else entirely, though he does have similarities to the cliff-top fiends, but if asked to specify what they are, any might fail to identify a single one.
That vague reminiscence of them is enough, however, for our fearful mariner to jolt fully awake, convinced now that he has landed in a troll’s larder.
Day is breaking, a grey and stormy day, and outside the wind is blasting the walls with sand and sea spray. Inside, the house is alive with creaks and groans and noises as terrifying as anything going on outside, and he imagines the place alive with flesh eating creatures come to devour him. But it only takes a few deep breaths for him to realise that, had they wanted to eat him, he’s been unconscious all night, yet there are no chunks taken out of him, no bits missing, so chances are for the time being he is safe.
Having eaten and drunk with a frenzy he could barely contain, and his confidence returning a little, he goes in search of his host. The house is like a bizarre desert kasbah, with sand drifting in dunes inside the rooms, against the windows and walls, so high that, should you wish to (which he doesn’t), you could climb to the ceiling.
The place is enormous and largely in ruins, many of the rooms open to the howling sky or just a great pile of rocks where a ceiling or wall has fallen in, revealing upper floors or neighbouring rooms in a way that would not have been part of the original plan.
With his host nowhere to be found, the mariner goes out into the storm to see if he can find what, if anything, is left of his boat and cargo. Very tentative he is now, as he heads to the beach, in terror of those flying beasts, but thankfully daylight has kept them away so he hurries down to the shore, now scattered with wood and sticks and bits and pieces that were once his boat.
Salvaging what has not been smashed to splinters, he piles up planks, torn sail and carved bits and bobs, and contemplates how he might turn it all back into a boat. With a little help from his host maybe, if he can ever find him, her, them. But the days are short here in this wintry northern clime, and in no time at all, without him noticing, the pale sun drops below the horizon and the gloom gathers and, to his horror, shapes pop up on the cliffs above him, springing into the air, spinning and circling and diving like predatory dancers. Terror overwhelms him and he makes a wild dash back to the house, and safety.
To his amazement, the fire is roaring still, built up since his departure this morning, and fresh food and drink laid out on the table. His nerves now jangling like broken church bells, he spins this way and that as if expecting ambush, and in his mounting hysteria exclaims, “I will never leave this place!”
“Would that be so bad?”
The voice is deep, a bass-heavy rumbling that seems an organic part of this place of tumbling stones and raging air currents. It comes from the doorway.
The mariner spins to face it, spots his host for the first time, and nearly passes out. For there before him, lit up by the firelight like, to the mariner’s overwrought mind, a flaming Beelzebub, stands the boy in the painting, full grown now to epic size. A wild, weather-beaten brute ready to devour him.
In truth, the host is indeed very tall and broad, bigger than most men, but rather than being poised to devour, he is dressed in ancient though still splendid velvets, and carries wine. And two glasses. To share with his guest. Not to sip as he gnaws on the man’s skull.
This is the Earl, last Earl, or Jarl, to use the local tongue, of this place. His family, servants, all members of his ancient household long dead, the Earl has learnt everything about how to behave through the vast library of books left behind by his mother’s family. The last of their ancient line, he retains about him something of that old world, its courtesies and hospitality towards unexpected guests.
He steps into his great hall, causing the mariner to leap backwards as though the Earl was one of the flying horrors that had somehow found its way inside. It takes a little doing, and the pouring and proffering of wine, for the Earl to calm him down and convince the man that he is not here to eviscerate him, rather he is his host, and evisceration would be bad manners.
A stilted conversation ensues – the man manages to gabble out his thanks for the hospitality and for saving his bacon, and then begs for help to fix his boat so he can go home and get away from this terrible place. Apologies! This isn’t a terrible place, not this house, just the beasts outside!
An awkward silence, broken by the Earl, clearly seeking some topic of conversation that will not cause cringing and fear and embarrassment, and his eyes fall on the tiny fiddles by the fireplace.
“Music,” says the Earl, delighted. “I have such big hands,” he says, holding them out as if they were something to be ashamed of. They are indeed big, surprisingly delicate for such huge things, yet too big to play any kind of human musical instrument. “Can you play? I’d love it if you could stay a while and play music for me. I haven’t heard music since…” The sentence hangs in the air as the Earl seems to drift back in time.
“No!” This mention of music horrifies the man all over again – he has heard of troll bargains where a fiddler is invited to play, for one night only, but that night is not counted in human time and so when the hapless musician emerges, pockets full of gold and thinking he’s got the bargain of the century, he finds that indeed a century has passed and all those he knew now dead and gone to their graves. In the midst of his renewed terror, he is a little surprised, and embarrassed, to see the Earl’s head drop, gaze lingering on his rough hands, which he then tucks away under the abundant cuffs of his jacket.
The mariner has shamed his host. A part of him has the decency to feel regret, but it is fleeting.
“Maybe,” the Earl continues, “if you wish, you could visit again when you come to trade, and play music for me then. You would be paid for your time and effort. I would love that very much.”
“No,” says the mariner, skin pale, voice flat, resigned, as though Death had arrived to claim him.
“Do you expect me, then, to help you for no return?” The Earl, weary of his guest’s rudeness, seems to have accepted that this visit is not going to be an agreeable one.
“Normally I would,” the Earl says. What he doesn’t say is he is too lonely to pass up the chance of human contact. Even discourteous as this. “There will be no trickery,” he continues. “I simply ask for company twice a year, when you would normally make your trading trips. Yes, I know of these trips, and their scheduled arrival time, at the spring and autumn equinoxes, as I know everything that goes on outside these walls, though I can never partake of any of it. I can bring you customers – I have influence still because of my family name, though none I can call friends, hence my desire for companionship.”
As the Earl continues, the mariner’s mind fills with dread at this commitment he sees developing, so, seeing no alternative if he wishes to escape alive, he agrees.
The instant an agreement is reached, the Earl thanks him, says good night, and is gone.
Next morning, the man awakes and finds, on the beach, his boat fixed, fresh supplies, and what’s left of his cargo neatly packed aboard. Ready to sail.