SHE FIRST saw her house from the sea.
It lay on the cliff above the sheltered cove, long and gray with a roof that was darker than the granite walls. Close by was the crumbling stump of another, much greater building. Above both was the bulk of a hill, a sentinel.
Freya Dane stood up in the open dinghy. She clutched the gunwale as they rounded the headland. There was the crescent of the landing beach beneath the cliff, and she could see the path to the house. The place matched the pictures. She had arrived.
What had she done?
The dinghy plunged over a wave crest, and Freya sat down with a bump. She’d wanted this, wanted to come here, but the cliff had not seemed so high in the pictures. Now she was close to its walls, and that dark bulk was intimidating.
Freya glanced at the things she’d brought from Sydney: her laptop, a backpack, and a larger bag for clothes. Before the crossing, she’d bought basic groceries in Portsolly, the fishing village on the other side of the strait. They were there, too, in a box. With wet-weather gear, she had all that was needed for a quick trip. Why was she feeling such anticipation? She should be angry. She’d made this journey because of him, not for him. And there was plenty of room for anger because of what he’d done—not just to her either.
Was it only the day before she’d been in Sydney? Freya saw herself, like a clip from a film. One last, brave wave to her mother at the air gate—anxiety unacknowledged on both sides—then the turning, the walking away. The last scene from Casablanca.
She half-laughed. Ah yes, they were all stoic, the Dane women—Elizabeth had trained her well. Stick the chin out, get on with it. So she had.
But she hated flying, that was the thing. When the plane took off, any plane she was on, Freya expected to die. One day, she knew, the joint confidence of all her fellow passengers would falter; and when that innocent, blind belief—the certainty that hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of tons of metal could (a) get off the ground and (b) stay up in the air—ruptured, it would all be over. They would drop from the sky like a brick, screaming.
But not this time. This time work got Freya through that endless night and the day that followed as the jumbo tracked on, indefatigable, over Australia and India, Afghanistan, the Gulf States and, as dawn broke, Europe.
After all, why terrify yourself picturing how far it was to the ground when you had only to open your laptop to allow another, equally powerful—though less terminal—anxiety to distract you?
“An Assessment of Regional Influences on the Iconography of the Early Medieval Church in the Romance Kingdoms.” It certainly looked like a doctoral thesis on the screen—all those pages and words and footnotes—but, sadly, trying to write her way to the end was just as difficult at thirty-five thousand feet as it had been at her desk on the ground in Sydney.
The usual terror; deadline or not, Freya just could not crack the topic—and she’d chosen it. Her fault.
A wave slapped the bow of the dinghy, and Freya ducked. Too late.
“All right?” The man in the stern shouted over the engine; he seemed genuinely concerned.
She raised a hand. “I’m fine.”
At least the air was cool on the strait between Findnar and the mainland. Freya hated heat—odd for an Australian—but Scotland made it easier to forget the steaming weight of Bangkok’s air on that first night of travel. But then there’d been sullen London and the hell of Luton on a lead gray summer’s day. Plane delays and zoned-out people in queues were Freya’s own personal vision of Hell, and that final flight north had nearly done her head in. So little room, her knees pressed against the seat in front, and she’d been wedged between two braying idiots in business suits. Both of them pale, one half-drunk with a long, odd face, the other rowdy and sweaty.
An overactive imagination; it had always been her curse. Add jet lag, and Long Face turned into a donkey while Pungent One barked like a dog as the pair talked across her. Brits. They could all patronize for Home & Empire when they heard an Australian accent.
But she’d arrived at the coast in the far northeast of Scotland in the long summer twilight at last.
And, as promised by Mr. W. Shakespeare, there was the silver sea. It really was silver. She saw that as the cab from the airport dropped her beside the shops in Portsolly and drove away.
Sharp air—real air, after more than a day of canned reek—had rinsed Freya’s mind as she walked down the twisting main street toward the harbor and that glimmering water. She was looking for a pub—always the best place to ask for directions.
Portsolly only had one pub, the Angry Nun. A small building of gray stone with leaded windows and a painted sign that moved back and forth in the gentle breeze off the sea, Freya liked what she saw, and her mood had lifted. She’d pushed the door open as the barman looked up from polishing glasses. Other faces turned to stare as she entered, and though Freya never had trouble asking for help, the observant silence made her self-conscious. The barman seemed amused as she leaned in close over the varnished counter. “Excuse me, but would you know someone who could take me across to Findnar tonight?”
The man had raised his brows. “Tonight?” He’d looked around the bar. “Walter, can you help the lady?”
The r had been softly rolled and the a more of an o. Beguiling. Freya smiled as she remembered. Spoken language this far north was sweet and dark in the mouth.
One of the barstools swiveled as its occupant inspected her. Somewhere north of fifty, he had white wrinkles in the brown skin around his eyes. A good face, but he frowned.
Because she was anxious, Freya had jumped in. “I’m happy to pay, of course. Twelve pounds?” Ten too little, fifteen too much.
He’d stared at her with no expression Freya could read. Then, as she’d been about to up the offer—though she didn’t want to—he’d said, “Best we go now. Wind’s on its way. Put your money away.”
He was wearing the boots of a fisherman, Freya had seen that when he stood, and storm gear had been hooked over the back of the stool.
Perhaps it was kindness from a stranger that had made her jumpy. “But it’s a calm evening, surely? Just a soft breeze.”
Walter Boyne had laughed. “Perhaps.”
In the end, she’d hitched up her pack and followed him, and so, here they were.
The boat pitched in a dip between waves, and Freya resisted staring at the man in the stern. Why had he been so nice? She thought about that as the sky darkened above her head. At last, the long twilight was fading, and in Portsolly, across the water, first lights blinked on.
This place was nothing like her home, nothing like Sydney—even the sea smelled different—yet the day was dying into glory, and the green of Findnar’s sheltering headland was luminous in the last light. Above, seabirds were settling in their rookery. Unfamiliar, harsh calls, a bedlam of honks and squawks, not like the evening music of wagtails and magpies.
And suddenly Freya was washed, swamped, by the thought of all she’d left behind on this fool’s errand. All the safe rituals, the habits of her life. Work on the PhD she thought she’d never finish, meeting her friends for coffee or breakfast, Sundays with Elizabeth, even waitressing to pay the rent. Known things. Known people. And now there was anxiety and fear. And yearning. They’d come back, that unholy trinity, her companions from childhood; by getting on that plane in Sydney, she’d called them up again.
The dinghy grounded on the cove in a rattle of shingle. An urgent sea, shouldering behind, pushed the boat higher as Walter Boyne cut the outboard. The engine snarled and died, the sound rushed away by the surging water. Without comment, he clambered over the side to tie the dinghy to a jetty stump.
Freya called out, “Mr. Boyne, will my bag be safe on the beach? Above the tide line, I mean.” It was good she sounded calm. She’d take the laptop and the backpack, the groceries, too, up to the house, but the bag of clothes was heavy.
The man was a pace or two away, a rope in one nicked and battered fist. He shook his head. “Mr. Boyne’s my father. I’m Walter. Best we take your things to the house tonight. Big tide with a hunter’s moon. Wait here, lass.”
Freya’s lips quirked. Lass. Were you still a lass at twenty-six? Perhaps he was being polite, yet there was a lilt to the way Walter said the word, and she liked the music of his accent, his courteously formal way.
Freya swung her legs over the side of the boat. She swallowed the urge to call out to that retreating back because she didn’t want to be alone on the beach. Don’t be ridiculous. You chose to come, Freya Dane. That voice in her head annoyed her. Often.
But what would have happened all those weeks ago in Sydney if she’d said to the solicitor, calling all the way from Scotland, I don’t want the place. Please arrange for the island to be sold.
That had been her mother’s advice, of course. She was a practical and dignified woman, Elizabeth Dane, but both qualities ran to sand with the first of the lawyer’s letters. Corrosive regret, long strapped down beneath the armor of defensive resignation, had found a voice after Freya opened that envelope. “Why would you go to Scotland just because he’s asked you to?”
But if she’d agreed with her mother, Freya would have smothered that faint, unacknowledged hope. The hope she was trying, now, not to recognize.
Coming to this place, to Findnar, might help her understand why her father had walked out of their lives all those years ago.
Freya knew Michael Dane was dead. She had seen that jagged little fact in the black type and careful lawyers’ phrases. A sparse note that her father had drowned. She’d been surprised how much the news upset her—and, more strangely, her mother. They’d not talked about him for years because, stonewalled, Freya had stopped asking questions.
So there was no point, now, planning the conversation. No point scripting, in forensic detail, what Freya would say to her father, or what he would say to her, when they finally met again. The apologies (from him), the scorn (from her). Her fury, his penitence. Answers. Reasons.
Michael Dane did not exist. He was dead. They would never speak. The end.
Freya glanced up at the low gray building, now just an outline against the florid sky. His house.
So, Dad, I’m here. You whistled finally. And I came. Abrupt tears filmed her sight. Freya shook her head; too late for that, far too late.
The face of Fuil Bay changed, the surface chopped by a rising wind. Fuil. The word meant “blood”—Walter Boyne had told her that, shouting against the engine and the sea as they tore over the water toward . . . what? This moment she’d never expected.
Skirling air caught the girl where she stood on the beach, lifting her soft, shining hair, streaming it away behind her head. Freya shivered and chafed her arms. So, this was summer in Scotland.
A white blur swooped close. Panicked, she ducked from the yellow eyes, the slashing beak. An owl? Freya straightened and her heart lifted as she watched the bird ascend the face of the cliff. Owls are good luck. Cheered, Freya began to ferry her things from the boat. All would be well. She could do this. The owl told her so.
Silently, behind her, a bright, small sphere rose in the eastern sky. Lassoed by Earth’s gravity, the erratic orbit of the comet had circled back to the north after more than twelve hundred years.
The people had called it the Wanderer then, and the brighter it became, the more they feared its power. Wandering stars were omens of evil times.
But as owl-light died, Freya Dane turned her back to the stars. She did not see the Wanderer as it climbed the sky.
The Island House
One warm, rainy summer, Freya Dane, a PhD candidate in archaeology, arrives on the ancient Scottish island of Findnar. Estranged as a child from her recently dead father, himself an archaeologist, Freya yearns to understand more about the man, his work on the island, and why he left her mother so many years ago. It seems Michael Dane uncovered much of Findnar’s Viking and Christian past through his search for an illusive tomb, and Freya continues his work. The discoveries she is destined to make, far greater than her father’s, will teach her the true meaning of love and of loss.
AD 800, and a wandering comet, an omen of evil, shines down on Findnar. The fears of the locals are justified. In a Viking raid, Signy, a Pictish girl, loses her entire family. Taken in by survivors of the island’s Christian community, she falls in love with an injured Viking youth left behind by the raiders and is cast out. Confused and bereft, eventually she becomes a nun, a decision that will unleash tragedy as she is plunged into the heart of a war between three religions. Forced to choose among her ancestors’ animist beliefs, her adopted faith, and the man she loves, Signy will call out to Freya across the centuries. Ancient wrongs must be laid to rest in the present and the mystery at the heart of Findnar’s violent past exposed.
In time the comet will return, a link between past and present. But for these two women, time does not exist. For them, the past will never die. It has waited for them both.
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Reading Group Guide
Freya Dane, a PhD candidate in archaeology, arrives on the island of Findnar off the northern coast of Scotland. After years of estrangement from her father—an archaeologist who recently died—Freya has come to the island to find out more about him and his work. As Freya explores the island and her father’s research, she discovers much more than just the roots of Findnar’s history. In AD 800 a young girl named Signy from the local Pictish tribe is taken in by the surviving members of the Christian community who have settled on the island of Findnar. As Signy grows up behind the walls of the monastery, she finds herself at the center of the clash between the island’s three religious cultures—caught between her adopted Christian faith, her native Pictish religion, and the Viking man she loves. Alternating between present-day and ninth-century Scotland, The Island House is an intertwined story of fascinating discoveries and two women connected to each other over centuries.
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