King Hereafter

King Hereafter, US first edition, 1982

In 1982, Dorothy Dunnett published standalone novel about the Scottish king Macbeth, a work of historical fiction that wonders what if that fabled king were the same man as Thorfinn the Great?

Late that night, the seven ships under Thorfinn stole their way into an anchorage and, making fast, lay locked together, gently rocking in silence while the men slept.  Then the blackness around them turned to tablets of black and less than black and somewhere, a long way off, a blackbird announced a cherried sentence and the watch on each ship, stretching, began to move bending from man to man.  The wind had dropped.

They entered Loch Bracadale with the sunrise, rose-coloured oars laying darkling folds on the rose-tinted pool of the fjord.  A dusting of guillemots, asleep on the water, roused and dived with almost no sound, leaving pink and verdigris rings on the surface.  A charcoal rock needled with cormorants became suddenly bare, and from the shore came the scalloped cry of an oyster-catcher, joined after a moment by the others.  Then the longships slid past, and the sounds died away.

With no sound at all, but with a glory that bludgeons the senses, the furnace doors were thrown finally open, and the spires and pinnacles of the mountains of Skye stood suddenly stark before them, against mighty rivers of scarlet and brass. On Thorfinn’s ship, no one spoke.  The grey goose flamed, and its shadow moved, shortening.  ‘On such a day,’ Thorfinn said, ‘it would not be a hardship to die.’

King Hereafter (chapter 17, p 164, Vintage Books 1998)

Sunrise over Loch Carron, by William Gray at the Lanark Camera Club Sunrise over Loch Carron, by William Gray at the Lanark Camera Club

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