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The Last Truth

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I look back at what happened and there have been so many lies mixed up with so much truth that I can hardly separate them now.

But of one thing I am sure, Finn, he it was told the first lie.

I forgave him, of course. I have always forgiven Finn, no matter how outrageous he is, how far-fetched, how wrong.

I love him, I cannot help myself.

But when it began, he strolled casually in as I was sorting the good beans from the bad, and kissed my head in passing as he went to fling open his weapons chest.

‘Is there danger?’ I asked, alarmed as he pulled out bow and knives and sword and dropped them on the table opposite me, if you please, and began to clean and polish the blades.

‘No,’ he said lightly, too lightly, and that was the first lie; his eyes said yes, yes there is danger, flee, run, hide... ‘No, there’s just been... stories. At the coast, nowhere near us. Lights in the sky, oh, I don’t know, could be angels, could be... anything.’

Dragons. Also, it could be dragons.

‘We all know the sky burns green at night, sometimes,’ I said, before he can mention dragons and so make them real.

‘Yes. Not in daylight, though. Anyway... I have been sent for.’

‘Of course you have.’

He looked at me, his bright blue eyes innocent, hurt. ‘But they need me.’

‘They always send for you,’ I said. ‘They always need you. Why would they not, as strong as you are, as skilled? But... I have noticed, the summons arrives always just as you are ready, your weapons stowed, your prayers said...’

He looked down, intent on his work, I saw his eyes reflected in the blade.

‘I love you, Aebba,’ he said, and that, that was no lie, and it frightened me more than any dragon, that he needed to say it now. ‘I won’t be gone long...’

A sigh at my stern silence and he shook his head, looking up.

‘No, I will be gone as long as it takes to keep us safe, you and the little ones and the village. And then I will return triumphant, and I will expect good hot soup, cold beer, and warm arms.’

And that was truth, and lie, and truth, all together.

I did not wave and call after him as he rode off next day. I held the childers close to me and handed him a flower, a forget-me-not, so blue, so very blue.

But not as blue as his eyes.

They are still blue now, brighter now, looking out from his poor, bruised face as I cradle him in my lap and try not to weep.

‘Aebbe?’ he manages to say, and from somewhere I find a smile.

I look into his face, only his face, so that I do not have to see the rest of him.

‘Don’t fear,’ I tell him. ‘Help will come.’

And that is most certainly a lie.

There is no one left alive to help, I think, in the whole of the world.

Everything is gone, lost, razed, destroyed by dragon-fire.

At least it is not cold here.

They fought every inch of the way from the first attack to the village, two dragons dead before they got here... they fought, they died, and it wasn’t enough to save us.

‘I did it, didn’t I?’ Finn asks, desperate to know he is the hero. ‘I killed the dragon, blinded it with my last arrow, ran it through with my sword...’

No, beloved, you hit it in the eye, made it angry, alerted it to where you were sheltering me, my dear idiot, my foolish Finn, and it turned on us... you stopped it, you held it off... but it was Dunstan, the King’s man who killed it even as you stabbed and it swiped at you, throwing you clear across the village. It was Dunstan pushed me to safety, he who ducked beneath its body to stab up into its heart, he who died beneath its crushing weight...

Of course, I do not tell my poor, damaged husband that.

‘Yes, Finn,’ I say instead. ‘You killed it, you saved me. You saved us all.’

I stroke the remains of his hair back from his face. So beautiful he had been, so fair,golden and gleaming. Not now. But still fair, to me.

‘Where are they, my son? Our daughter?’

‘Hush. Safe.’ This is not a lie. They said their prayers, they are innocent, they... they are free from the pain of this world, now, and if that is not safety, I do not know what is. ‘You wouldn’t want them to leave off their games just yet, would you?’

‘What about you? I thought... I thought I heard you scream...’

‘It is nothing, I am fine. I was afraid for a moment.’

‘Aebbe? Aebbe, love, I can’t feel my legs...’

‘Well, and how could you, when I am holding your hands?’ I say, trying to be playful and fun, just as he likes me to be.

But the truth is, when the dragon threw him through the air, he landed badly, and although it took me forever to get to him, he didn’t move, didn’t stir even when I lifted his head into my lap. The truth is, my Finn is broken almost in two and I cannot bear to tell him.

‘What are you hiding from me?’ he asks, and I do not know what to say, so I let go of one of his hands to stroke his face again.

‘Perhaps it is just the shock,’ I tell him. ‘You remember old Ernulf, when the horse kicked him. Claimed he was fine, didn’t feel a thing, and then fell down in agony an hour later...’

‘Yes... when owner of the horse arrived...’

Finn smiles, and I laugh, thinking about old Ernulf, even though it hurts, and for a few moments I nearly forget about my childers burned and my husband dying in my arms and all the blood...

For there is blood, pooling beneath us somewhere; I can feel its trickle and I hold Finn tighter against my fears.

‘It’s getting dark,’ he says, ‘they will be lighting the lamps soon.’

‘Yes, dearest,’ I say, even though the sun in the sky mocks us with its bright middle-day light. Even though there is nobody left to light the lamps.

Perhaps it is just that my Finn’s eyes need wiping, from the smoke.

‘And I am cold,’ he adds.

I still have my shawl, and I lay it over him and press my hands to his face. It won’t be long now, and I bend to kiss his lips, despite the taste of blood. If this is the last of him I will have, I will savour it, bitter though it be.

‘It often gets colder towards nightfall,’ I say, and this is not a lie. ‘Finn, I love you. Even when you show off, even when you are late, even when you are drunk.’

‘Now, don’t get carried away, my girl!’ he says with a hint of his old familiar grin. ‘Just maybe another kiss, warm an old warrior’s heart?’

‘My love, you will never be old,’ I tell him, bending to his lips again, and this is a sad, sad truth.

As we kiss, he stills, and his breath drifts into my mouth, and that is all.

But his eyes, they are still so blue and bright as they look up into whatever place he is gone to.

I sit forever holding him, until he is long cold, and I wonder that still he bleeds from somewhere, still pooling out beneath me is this slow and sticky redness. I sit until the day fades, for the sky is dark and I am growing cold.

And I realise the last lie; I am not fine, the blood is not Finn’s, it is my own.

And still nobody comes. There is nobody left in the whole world except Finn, and me.

And that, that is the last truth.