Envoy Of The Black Pine
April 1808 and a storm sweeps across the islands of the Baltic Sea and on towards England, destroying the village of Lower Slaughter as it goes.
Into this ruined landscape comes missing-persons finder Whilbert Stroop, on the trail of a lost miniature library and its protector. Almost crossing his path is Griselda Litt, a refugee from Lower Slaughter, carrying her father’s secrets back to the island of her birth. Behind Griselda, in the shadows, a figure follows for a very different reason.
Stroop’s investigation will lead him to the strange island archipelago of Saaremaa in the Baltic Sea. Once there, he must unravel the increasingly tangled strands of past and present that surround the islands, and delve into a mysterious world of hidden tree-chapels, ancient Brotherhoods, insurrection, piracy, and death.
“This book’s true delight is the fond, playfully elegant and effortlessly seductive ‘action style'...”
“Weird and truly wonderful, Envoy of the Black Pine excites, terrifies and amuses. A fantastically different read by a fantastically different writer”
Barbara Nadel, author
Envoy Of The Black PineDawn breathed a line of light the colour of quinces across the sea’s grey and slumped horizon, bled a little red towards the east, where the sun would soon-time rise, spread the sandstone cliffs with gold and shadow. Almost to the top, a stick-insect seemed to twitch its legs and move. It was a boy, his thin body spread-eagled against the rock, fingers clinging to their holds, heart beating fast as stoats amidst the clap, clap, clap of pigeon wings that spiralled about his head in half-asleep alarm, disturbed from their roost by his climb.
Steffan felt the prickle of sweat on his forehead, at the roots of every hair, wanted more than anything to brush it away, fought off the reflexive itch of his muscles which tried to make him lift his hands. He breathed hard, touched his head to the rock, felt the drip-wet dew of it, the stink of foul-smelling oil that came from the fulmars’ nests, and knew he did not have far to go. Only a few yards, he thought, surely I can do this.
The birds bred soonest here, were the only ones to have eggs this early in the season. His grandfather had told him they were like troubadours without the singing, spent their whole lives adrift and alone upon the sea, until the milder weather came and they headed for land. It had been so very mild this year, and by the middle of January they were already circling about the edges of the cliff, cackling on their bare rock ledges, clacking beaks and winding necks. His grandfather had taught him all this, though could not be here with him to collect the early eggs, had been six spades deep these past two weeks, with Steffan blinking away the tears over the cold, frost-hardened ground, giving the old man one last promise, that he would go in his stead.
And so here he was, spooked by a pack of rock doves, and only a few yards to go. He hoped the lifting of the birds would not disturb the big grey gulls which were his aim, though felt a little calmer now the doves had risen, could hear his grandfather’s words telling him which way to go, loosened his left hand and moved it up apace, found another grasp-hole, hauled his feet up below him, just as he had been taught to do. Slowly now, trying to remain invisible and without sound, he got himself ready for the next move, knew he was close, heard the gentle cackling of the birds just above him, knew that it was almost sunrise and the time when the fulmars would stretch out their long grey wings and go off across the sea like the troubadours they were, leave their eggs for him to steal.
The slip and slide of sheep guts came at him from nowhere, landed with a slap against his upturned face, the slither-green sack which had contained them becoming a mask of stink and blood. He lifted his hands involuntarily to wipe the shit-smelling, grass-fermenting coils from off him, and felt the cold of air rush pass his body as he left the sandstone of the cliff, recognised the panic that he had sweated through so often in his dreams of falling, went over once, then twice, his sheep-splattered head shattering on the outlying precipice of rock from which the doves had so recently fled, mewling like a seal pup that has been abandoned upon the sand with no one to hear it. Two seconds later, and Steffan hit the cove floor, every part of his young body breaking, the water sucking at his wounds, the tide already snatching at his clothes and rolling him out into the breakers, swirling him with the spume between the outcrops and bouldered arches that lay scattered about the base of the cliff like bones; a single splash of colour in the scroll of rolling grey that was the uncaring sea.
Up above, gaunt strands of heather began to lift as the sun warmed the frost from off their tips, stretched a silent hand down the sandstone to tease up those few last fulmars still sleeping, from their nests. Only a scrape of time since Steffan had fallen, and already he might never have been, and the man who had unburdened himself of his slaughterful sack was already a quarter mile distant, running like a wolf across the moor, his shadow lengthening over the newly budded shoots of bilberry with the growing sun, making it hard for him to see his steps, made him stumble into bog-fringed pools and over clumps of cotton grass, made him curse the cold and cramp that twisted the muscles within him, torqued the skin upon his skeleton as upon a rack.
Eyvind Berwald was neither young nor small, as Steffan had been, and yet the fear he felt tightened his lungs just the same, brought the goose-bumps up on his hard, soldier-man’s skin, made his close-cropped beard prickle amidst the grey. It was the same fear he had felt as when Gunar Torrensson had first spoken out his schemes to his specially elected crew, the strong wrapping of each one’s hands within his own as he passed amongst them, boasting of the days to come of thunder and strike, marking each date out upon the calendar with the black swirl of his thumb. The weeks of worry that had followed had hammered like woodpeckers at Eyvind’s heart, made it harder than ever for him to think, which had never come easy, the constant tick and tick inside him as he tried to hatch a plan to get him off this wagon he had hitched to Torrensson so long ago. Then, it had carried him strong and screaming through each battle at his brother Onni’s side, feeling stronger with each survival, the ever-growing possibility of victory within his sights. Now, he realised that the battles would never end, that Torrensson had no other life but to lead and needed this band of men at his back to do so, needed their shouts behind him to push him on, would rather die and take every last one of them with him than live in any other, more ordinary, way.
Throwing down that bag of guts, Eyvind knew again the same jig and jump of his heart as that morning when he’d knocked on Torrensson’s cabin door, made his poor argument, his voice pale and trembling, his fingertips twitching at the seams of his pockets, the tic of blood that throbbed beneath his temples, the sickly rise of hope and bile within his throat as Torrensson sat and smoked and thought, left him hanging in the doorway like an outsized strip of arsenic paper used to catch the flies, swaying slowly, waiting for whatever to be thrown at him, to hit and stick.
And then Torrensson had rolled his shoulders, rubbed his neck, turned his flat grey face towards him, and Eyvind had known from the twist of his captain’s lips that his contribution to the cause had been approved, and Eyvind had won his way out of the mutiny and off the boat, and had to put his hand out to the door-frame to keep himself from sinking to his knees with relief. He felt again that same paroxysm of giggling that had accompanied his slow release from the deep, dark pool of war and death and duty that had weighed upon his shoulders like a grindstone, felt and savoured the gradual lightening of his conscience as it rose towards a better life, the growing hope that one day soon he would break the surface, and step out clean and without blood and be able to live his last few years as a blameless man.
Eyvind thought these thoughts as he took his uneven way back across the moors, having thrown his sack of sheep guts down and over the cliff, wiping his hands again and again upon his trousers to remove the blood he knew must still be there, could feel it hardening beneath his fingernails, in the skin about his knuckles, and the loose wrinkles rippled around the callused pads that ridged his palms. The sweat was pouring down his back, and his skin felt slack and wet against his bones, but the knife was still heavy in the inner pocket of his jacket, pricking at his side with every step, so that when he finally reached the abandoned byre he now called his home, it was with a certain satisfaction that he stripped away his stinking shirt, and found a pipped and purpled bruise the size of a fist against his side, gained comfort from its presence, kept prodding at it with his thumb, found satisfaction in the pain it gave him, a hidden penance for all the things he had done, and those he would yet be forced to do. He would have sicked his stomach inside out to see the dead body of Steffan rolling in the surf and know it was his doing, would have understood then that the clouds he saw were only reflections and that the dark waters were already gathering over his head, that the self-disgust and sorrow he felt had only just begun.
On top of that cliff, he had turned for a moment, stared at the rising sun until he had to close his eyes, could still see the burning disk of it upon his eyelids, sparks splintering all about it like a devil in the fire; he had opened his eyes then so that he could see again to walk, saw instead the dark and terrifying circle of the sun riding ramrod through his vision, the black and dirty marks of Torrensson’s thumb inked upon his calendar, and dreaded the times he knew were about to come.