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“Here is a work for poets; Carve the runes Then be content with silence.” George Mackay Brown

Orphir, Orkney, the present day

The runes began to dance before his eyes, their cryptic tree shapes merging branches one with another. Magnus glanced at the bottle of Highland Park, registering how much he’d had since settling down to work. Not enough to affect his vision. More than likely, he decided, it was the lateness of the hour.

Rising from his desk near the fire, he went to the back door and stepped outside. The scent in the house had been of warmth and peat smoke, but out here his strong sense of smell was beseiged by a salty cold and the sharp tang of seaweed on the nearby beach. As he passed the sensor, the darkness was punctured suddenly by the automatic light springing on to illuminate the dark water, which lapped just short of the top of the grey stone jetty.

The tide’s in.

Had the sea been rougher, or the wind stronger, salt spray would have been splattering the seaward windows of his home. Built by fishermen below the high water mark, the two storey narrow house was reached by a flagstone walkway from dry land, with the remaining three sides surrounded by water when the tide came in. It was like living on a boat without the swell, something Magnus liked.

As he reached the old fish-smoking shed, the light switched itself off. Magnus paused, giving his eyes time to adjust to the night. Gradually, the whale shape of Hoy became visible across Scapa Flow, then the flatter form of the small island of Cava. A crescent moon peeping out from behind a cloud fashioned a silver path across the water towards him.

There were no lights to be seen on Hoy, but looking westwards it appeared a few folk were still up in his own mainland parish of Orphir. Approaching the midwinter solstice, the Orkney archipelago had entered a time of near constant darkness - the sun rose fitfully after nine, hovering no higher than ten degrees above the horizon, only to set six hours later.

Gradually, the whale shape of Hoy became visible across Scapa Flow, then the flatter form of the small island of Cava

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