Since there is no Lokaday
I will have to post this on a Thursday. Slightly embarrassing though it is, here is an excerpt of the first ever novel I actually finished. I hit on the cunning plan of telling lots of short stories – because I knew I could finish a short story – and then linking them together to create one larger tale. It helped that I set this in the oral culture of early Anglo-Saxon England, where it would (I thought) be quite in character for people to stop whatever they were doing at intervals in order to tell each other illustrative stories.
Nowadays I suspect this is not a great way of maintaining narrative flow, but hey, I was 18 and had never written a novel or read a ‘how to write’ book. Possibly it shows.
The Tale and the Teller
“The old man hobbled into the hall. He was a strange sight; vain as a Viking with his long white hair and beard combed and plaited. His clothes were of the old fashion and his cloak pinned with a polished bronze brooch. The children called him ‘the old mare’ because of this brooch; it was a pagan thing, a woman’s brooch that stared at the world with the head of a horse. He had been a tall fellow, strong too, and even in his sixtieth year his eyes were bright and his voice strong. Too strong, some said.
Swinging his stick to knock the dogs and infants out of his path he made his way to his bench and sat down. When he had lifted the ale horn and found it empty he raised his voice;
“Bring me some beer!” he shouted, “And I’ll tell you a tale you won’t forget for the rest of your lives.”
The goodwife, Alfgama, brought him ale as the darkness gathered over the hall. When the fire was lit the old man gazed into it as if he saw demons dancing, but the folk of the village gathered in beneath the cross and fondly imagined they’d left the demons outside. None of them saw the face in the fire that grinned at him with sly eyes, or with what a struggle he turned away from it, for only a moment, to drain the depths of the horn. Other faces turned to him then, and the fire watched them.
“He’s drinking like a young man tonight.” said Alfgama, as she brought him the flagon again, “I think we will hear more than we bargain for; it’s a strange mood.”
The monks blessed them and with their words Sceldwulf saw the flame-guest grimace and go. He was saddened as he began to speak.
“Be silent,” he said, “And I will give you the gift of a tale. This is the tale which I have kept till last, because this is the truest tale…It happened a long time ago, as long as most of you have lived, and me only a boy of sixteen or so. We lived here, the five of us, Aethelfrith and Hild, far from anyone and on our own. There was another homestead on the other side of the mountain, where Wulfgeat is now, but I’m not going to talk about them.
It started off on a stormy night, a stormy and blustery night, and the fire raged. The sky poured down and fell on us with a loud shout, like a hammer blow. We huddled from the mountains where the stone-giants were throwing boulders and we prayed as the walls rattled. We prayed, yes we prayed with blood and herbs, while little Aesgifu, that was only four years old at that time, howled her head off.
“Thunor, Thunder, come quick and kill all these giants!” That’s what we prayed, and there’s no need for you to look so shocked, no-one had even heard of your god in those days.
“Thunor, come and get them! Come and smash their skulls!” that’s what we prayed.
All of a sudden the noise stopped. Aesgifu stopped bawling, the wind stopped howling; silence curled about the place like the world long serpent. Even the fire stopped crackling. We forgot to breathe. Then, yes then, in the middle of that great silence came a knocking at the door that made the wood tremble.
“Don’t open it!” cries my mother, “It’s a demon!” My mother was a great teller of tales and knew of many monsters. But Wulfstan, he’d leapt over there before the hammering stopped and was reaching up to the latch. Honestly you could have floated a ship on the fear in the air. Of course, Wulfstan, being only six, he couldn’t reach the bar, so mother breathed a sigh of relief…She shouldn’t have done; the knocking went on and on in that silence and the way it was was like drumming, like something very old I’d forgotten. Before I knew what I was doing I was over there and swinging back the door.
And was it a demon? You might well ask: It was a man. Not young, not old either, or you wouldn’t have thought it from the way he stood.
“Oh, Father,” says I, “Come in out of that terrible weather. I’m sorry to have kept you in it so long, but we thought it was a bad spirit.”
He laughed and walked in, trailing water. There were crystals of water around the brim of his great black hat, and his long beard glittered with it. He wore a great grey cloak, darker at the shoulders where the rain had soaked in, and pinned with an eagle-headed pin. You couldn’t see his eyes for the shadow of his hat brim.
“Yes,” says my father, leaping to his feet, “Come and dry by the fire. Hild, bring our guest the horn of ale. Sceldwulf, winch down the cauldron.”
So in he came, without making so much as a footfall, and sat beside the fire with steam coming from him like ground mist. What a shadow he cast! Like a great grey wolf on the wall. He was quiet, quiet as a hunter and the night dared not draw breath in his presence.
“Tell me,” Says my father, fingering the hilt of his dagger, “What brings a traveller like yourself here in these wild lands? The king’s many leagues away, and the nearest homestead’s a days journey or more, even if you don’t get lost in the trees trying to find the track. There’s nothing about here but fish and forest.”
“To tell you the truth,” says he, “The court’s driven me out…Oh you needn’t worry, not for any crime. The king got tired of seeing my face, so he told me to go.”
At that point he took off his hat, and he smiled at us children where we sat in a corner. The others, they cringed, but I was nearly a man so I smiled back. Shall I tell you what was so terrible? Well, he had only one eye, and the socket where the other should have been was filled in with grey whetstone. That put the fear of god in us, but
“Oh,” he said, “You’re frightened at my eye? I lost it in a Northman raid, but the Flota that took it, he lost more. Hel got him that very night, and I wore his masked helmet for years.”
Well, I think my parents believed him, and I think I did too at that time. After all, it’s not so rare that a man loses a limb to the sea-wolves.
“So, you’re known at the court?” my father went on. I suppose he was angling for friends in high places. If he was he couldn’t have got much higher;
“Yes,” said our guest, “I used to be very influential with the king, in fact I used to have a say in almost everything. Many people have profited by my advice. Now you’d think that with age respect would increase but, oh no; in comes this young foreigner and suddenly he’s the most important thing in the nine worlds, and he looks at me and says,” Get this devil out of here!”
And would you believe, they drove me out!”
“But your friends,” my father insisted, “They surely defended you?”
“Indeed they did,” Said the stranger, “But this young upstart got his retainers to kill my friends, or to drive them to the point they daren’t acknowledge me publicly…So I left. There’s no point in being in a place you’re not wanted. Not if there’s somewhere else to go.”
“You’ll go to Mercia then?” my father asked, sympathetically now, for the ruin of a great man by the jealousy of some mere bench-boaster is a matter for grief in all right hearted men.
“Yes, or further.” he said, and that was all we got from him.
His name, he said, was Grima, but there it’s a common enough name, though inauspicious. So we gave him food and ale and he slept in the best bed, but not before my mother had given him the approving eye. I think she would have been glad to get her hands on him – he had that way with him – but on the whole she was a good woman and kept her hands to herself.
He went in the morning. It must have been very early because no-one saw him go, but he left a purse of gold coins worth more than two years harvest. How we thanked his memory you may well guess.
Well that’s about all we talked about for the next year. He was a strange one alright, he made me religious…A year passed, a good year with much sun and little snow; I remember the fish being particularly good, and the Autumn, when it came, was flame coloured and warm…I can see you thinking, ‘That’s not much of a story’, but you have to be patient. I’ve not done the half of it yet.
One Autumn day, with the leaves floating down like funeral-blossom and the sun like honey, I was out in the apple field lazing. What did I see but, striding across our barley fields, a young man dressed like a king. He came walking towards me like a flame: A blood-red tunic he had on and a cuirass over it with the shoulder-clasps in gold and garnet. His hair was the colour of our ripe barley, and he had it bound in a red and gold fillet like those that new wives wear. His cloak was pinned with a woman’s brooch.
At that time I didn’t see his face, but let me tell you, the rest of him was beautiful…Off he went, walking like a lynx toward our house. Me I nipped round the back where I kept a loose board in the planking, one I could just slip through if I wriggled hard enough. So, when he knocked at the door I was there to answer it.
Strange to tell, there was that same soft thunder about his blows as there had been when the old man came, and I shivered a little. Father looked at me strangely from where he sat, patching the cauldron in the corner. Mother nearly slit her thumb on her fish-knife as she sliced off heads. Aesgifu, she started crying again. She always was a mardy child.
Anyway, that knocking shivered us, but we weren’t as scared as last time. We’d taken no harm from the one that called himself after the one-eyed god. So, I leapt up, I was an eager one then, and I opened the door. The light came in like a golden shield, and out of its centre he stepped, bareheaded and smiling. Honestly I was knocked backwards he was that beautiful.
Dad looked at him and scowled. He used to be easy on the eyes himself and I guess he was vain. Now, he came in, smiled at my mother, so she was all of a flutter and turned to my father all serious all of a sudden, like he was a different man:
“Give me sanctuary.” says he, “I’m being hunted down!” And he took hold of my father’s hands like a supplicant begging a boon from a king. Then, I’ll swear, he glanced at me and winked.
I thought then, “He’s a wily one; a proper trickster,” and maybe I guessed his name too, but I shook it off, and I said to myself, “There’s trouble at court, mighty big trouble if they’re sending away young nobles like him. It’ll be that foreigner Grima told us of.”
“For what crime?” said my father, narrow eyed he was and I think he’d guessed the stranger’s name himself.
“I give bad council.” said the young man, laughing.
“Not that bad, surely!” said I, and that time he looked at me longer and I was afraid. His eyes were sly and dark with a hard black humour at the surface and pain like snake-venom under it. He was hunted, you could see it.
“Do you know a man named Grima?” asked my father, “A king’s councillor?”
“The only Grima I know,” says the stranger, grinning, “Is Woden, ring-lord of kings.”
“Maybe it was him.” says I, and
“Maybe it was.” He says, as if he knew it. My father snorted with disbelief. I reckon he thought we had a false bard at our table, one who’d make up a story off the top of his head to see the reaction he’d get. I thought different…
Well, we asked him who was hunting him, and how, what was his allegiance and family, and all those sorts of questions you ask a guest in your house. He wouldn’t give a straight answer to anything: Said he was born of forest fire, when you know only Loki Laufeyarson, the thief of Heaven had that parentage. He said he was hunted by that same young foreigner Grima had told us of, yet he’d never heard of Grima.
You may imagine how reluctant father was to have such a liar in his house. As for me, being young then, his beauty was payment enough, and I couldn’t think ill of him. I thought to myself though, who in the world would claim to be the Sly god if he wasn’t? So, all the time I was watching his face like a lover, in my heart I was growing more and more afraid. I was beginning to think that he might not be lying at all.
Now I can see all you priests getting nervous, and well you might. But I’m not going to stop my story, so you’ll just have to stop your ears.
Well, soon we went back to our tasks, or in my case to skiving off my tasks, and let me tell you, that day was the best there ever was. First Dad went out on a mirror smooth sea and nearly broke his nets with the
size of his catch. Then I met with a deer in the woods; just in the nick of time I was out with my bow and we had venison. Meanwhile our guest sat whetting his knife and singing old songs like witchcraft over it.
The evening was dark blue and full of stars, and a big bone moon that was swinging a sickle for the harvest above the land. We were sitting outside, warm with fire and meat, when he points up at that moon and says “Look! My grandson is eating it!” Then he tells us the tale of how the great wolf came to be born, that sired all the wolves in the world. He tells it as if he were it’s father, as if he really were Loki that gave birth to Fenriswulf.
It’s a fine story as you know. A fine and sweeping story, but I’ll wager no-one told it that way before, nor heard it either. After it the night was cold, and we hurried in to shut that bitten moon outside.
Well, Night whipped up her horses to a fine swiftness, and we were all thinking of going to bed. We gave Loptr (That was what he called himself.) the best bed out of mere host-obligation, and Father put the wicker screen up. That was so he could try and forget we had a stranger in our midst I think. I wouldn’t have been surprised if he’d have told us to sit a watch, and that worried me, for my father knew a good man from a bad, at twenty paces distance.
Soon everyone was snoring, except me of course, I was thinking of that sly glance and fidgeting. Then as the night wore on I got up and went quietly inside the screen, for I wanted to see if he slept like a human being. But he wasn’t sleeping.
What I did then was wrong so I won’t dwell on it. Wrong I mean by the old laws and wrong by the new…You’re leaving are you, you priests? Take your foreign god and lose yourselves outside if you won’t hear an old man’s confession, and have my curse on you. As for the rest of you this is my last tale so you may as well hear me out…Now as I say, I know what I did was wrong, but I don’t say I was sorry for it. He was beautiful, and I loved him, and that’s all there is to it. But, on the whole it was lucky I woke up before my father or, god or no god, he’d not have left our house alive.
Now what it was that woke me was a knocking at the door, so I pulled on my things and opened it with the tip of my father’s spear. Lo and Behold, it was Grima;
“Quickly boy,” he says, “Take your family and hide in the trees, the King has run me to ground.”