Belated Wildfire post
Comprising the rest of Chapter One
Previously – Sceldwulf, having lived his three score years and ten, decided to stir up trouble with a story of the old gods, and then commit suicide. Now that everyone is feeling properly on edge, there comes a knocking at the door…
The litany was hammered into silence, the priest’s spell broken by a pounding at the door. The onlookers almost laughed, but then Aesgifu said, in a little girl’s voice;
"Adrian, what is outside?" and the smiles died.
Who knew better than a priest how to summon things from the darkness?
It seemed to Alfred, when he had heard the words, that the blows had a sound that no mortal wanderer makes, momentous and heavy. Sceldwulf’s words haunted him, like a warning from the dead. No-one moved.
Then Goldboru, Ecgbert’s queen, laughed. She laughed very loudly at the warriors who sat below the throne of her husband.
"I remember a time," she said to them, "When warriors were proud enough of their honour to do battle with demons. What do you think Wulfgeat One-handed would think of you, standing gaping at a knock at the door like poor frogs in a rainstorm. Now stir yourselves. How would you like to be kept waiting on a night like this?"
Cenna threw open the great slatted wooden door and its iron hinges shrieked. The firelight was swallowed up by the wolf of night, lighting nothing. At first the stranger who stood there was only glimmers of red and gold against the pit of blackness and his face was overshadowed by the dark. Then he stepped forward, into the light, and his tunic showed red as blood, and the gold and garnet animals at his belt and shoulders were like fire and flame.
He was a man, young and handsome, and dressed in the Vendel Northman fashion, with his collar open and his golden hair washed and combed. Adrian turned his haggard face away from him in distaste. As if he sensed, in his holiness, something alien and wild in the man, something tainted. ‘What a night for a stranger to be in our hall!’ he murmured to himself, ‘What a Devil’s-chance! And I don’t much like the look of him either.’
The stranger gave up to the door wardens a pattern-welded sword in a dark leather scabbard, with its name in silver runes on the hilt; ‘sviga laevi’; Firebrand. He bowed to Goldboru where she stood between the high-seat pillars, shielding his eyes as if from her beauty. She liked the compliment, she smiled. But Adrian noted only a power-play and he frowned.
Moving with a dry shuffle of robes upon the dirt floor Adrian came close to the stranger and gazed with his pale gaze into that fair face. All there knew that you didn’t meet that gaze for long. Many wondered then that the stranger looked up through the dragon-hoard of his hair mockingly, and smiled as if the old man was a foolish child. It was Adrian who looked away, finding those dark eyes too disquieting, too strong even for him.
"My name is Ingjaldr," said the man, brushing past that fearsome priest as if he were a slave, "You would say ‘Ingeld’."
"Welcome, Ingeld." said Goldboru graciously, settling back into her carved chair, "And I bid you welcome in my husband’s name, Ecgbert, who is today in the court of his sister-son the king of Lindsay. Tell me, what brings you to my hall?"
"I am fleeing from sea-peril and land-peril," said Ingeld, "The sea was the safer. The story is simple; My brother is ring-lord of a land far from here and lately there has been a plot to put up against him a new man, a stranger to our hall. It’s a knife in the back for me either way, whoever I support. So I travel."
He said it glibly, as if it were a joke, or a lie.
"Does your brother have a name?" said Adrian suspiciously.
"His name is Vakr." Ingeld helped himself to a seat close to the fire. He held out his sword-haft calloused hands to the blaze. A faded scar on his right hand proclaimed him blood-brother to some man, but he bore no other mark of parentage or kin.
"And is he ‘Wakeful’?" Adrian asked, scornfully. His voice was loud in the silent hall.
"Always." said the stranger melodramatically, like a false bard, playing to his audience.
"Only God is always wakeful." said Adrian, making his way to the door. His black robes trailed in the straw. The noise was like quill on parchment.
"I think you’re right." said Ingeld, and laughed. Adrian passed into the night with a frown on his face. When he had gone the warriors gave thanks.
"My Queen," Alfred turned to the dais. The light from the iron tripods glimmered in Goldboru’s eyes. It shocked moving sparks from the cross on her necklace.
"My Lady, you cannot allow him…" There was no question of who ‘He’ was, "…To so dishonour my grandfather."
"Aye," Athelgrim spoke up. He stood beside his son and the authority of every scar on his face spoke loudly behind his quiet words;
"All men die, and Sceldwulf’s death was due, but honour, or dishonour, lives forever. Such a dishonour would be a slur on my family which we would take hard."
"Cast him out of your family or live outcast yourself." said Goldboru taking up her husband’s sceptre, to show that she spoke as the king, "I didn’t care for what he said. He brought me dishonour before God and His priests. Are you so fond of him that you’re willing to be lordless? Or perhaps you agreed with what he said? Are you just waiting for an opportunity to forswear your God too?"
Athelgrim bowed his grizzled head and moved back to his bench.
"I will never renounce my God," he said, "Or my lord. Do what you will with Sceldwulf. His honour is no longer mine."
"What is the quarrel?" Ingeld asked softly of the younger man. Alfred was looking at his father, with disappointment.
"My grandfather died tonight." he said warily. He noticed the amulet on its gold chain which the stranger Eorl wore. It was a tiny spear with a cross-beam below the head and the rune ‘Os’, which signifies Woden, upon its shaft. He had thought at first it was a cross.
Sceldwulf had described in detail to him once the signs by which the followers of the different gods might be known. Alfred knew that such spears were worn by nobles and by berserkers to show that their path was given to the Father of the Slain. Woden didn’t have much use for commoners. Alfred knew that sign was a dangerous sign, for the Wael-Father, Woden, was a god of death and a sponsor of deceit, and his followers were merciless.
Nevertheless, because he liked the man he said; "He took his own life and cursed God as he did it."
Then he worried his lip until the blood came. He didn’t know how much more to tell. The stranger looked at him with guileless eyes. So he said; "Now the priests refuse to bury him in Christian soil. They would have us bury him as a slave. He is the founder of our family, the oldest here."
"He was a pagan?" Ingeld asked. At Alfred’s shamefaced nod he said,
"Then bury him with pagan honours, beside his long-fathers in the graveyard upon the cliff. The sea can bear his soul from there to Noatun, the Ship Haven."
Alfred shivered at the sound of the words. He didn’t like to hear the names, there was something familiar in them which made him feel homesick.
"You too are a pagan?" he asked in an undertone.
"Would I forfeit my welcome for it?"
"It would certainly be colder." said Alfred, pressing a finger to his wounded lip and grimacing at the sting. He knew that it might be safer for a pagan to be outside with the elves and the monsters than inside with the priests.
"Then," Ingeld smiled wryly and tucked the amulet inside his tunic,
"I am as devout as I need to be. But I know the rituals. I could help bury him in the way he would want, and deserves."
"You’re right." said Alfred, "And my family will see it."
The dawn was an underglow of red beneath black clouds.
"Woden has given him a pyre." said Ingeld to Alfred. He pointed to it as they made their way at the end of the procession.
"You believe that?" Alfred asked, dismayed and a little awed. He didn’t like to think of a devil watching over his grandfather’s funeral.
"I know it." said the pagan, "Your grandfather is honoured by Woden. He fought once by the side of god, didn’t he? The Gelding doesn’t lightly forget such services."
The swift morning breeze wrapped Alfred’s cloak around his legs as he stopped.
"How do you know that?" he said, "How long were you standing outside our doors, listening to private words?"
"Be calm." said Ingeld, "I am no eavesdropper."
He moved on up the steep grassy track to the eagles-nest of a graveyard. It was a green sward, littered over with rocks as if giants had played jack-
stones there. The sky was pale over it. An open, lucid whiteness. The gulls lamented. Pillars of sunlight burst through the cloud and silvered the water many miles around, so that they seemed to be on a green ship, floating on a cloud of glory in the air.
"Then how do you know?" Alfred insisted.
"Look around you." said the stranger, "The gods are smiling…I read their thought in the web of the world as any skilful person can; from the way the wind blows and the sea-birds wheel a knowledgable man can learn much, if he cares to. Besides the gods are the friends of all who worship them, and a man should keep up with the news of his friends."
"You are a witch then?" said Alfred, and he recoiled from the foreigner with a look of fear.
"Not I." said Ingeld.
They laid the body in the grave in its best clothes. A gold buckle gleamed at the belt and at the shoulder the horse-head brooch, newly polished, glowed a soft copper-red. Though the priests had forbidden it the stranger took it upon himself to place the grave goods beside the dead man, gently.
"A spear." he said, "He must have a spear."
"He has a sword." said Goldboru, puzzled, "He’s unlikely to need anything more.
"The spear is more important." Ingeld insisted, "If you grudge him a spear then a spear-head, to show he is under the protection of the Father of the Slain."
Goldboru tugged at her skirt like a little girl but she said, "That’s not much of a recommendation."
Athelgrim frowned. "Let us not half-honour him." he said, "If we are to give him pagan honours let us give him full rites."
A spear was laid beside him and the grave closed. Then Adrian said; "I don’t see that keeping him in his grave," and for fear of the old man walking he blessed the place and shook holy water at the head and foot of the grave. Then he turned his back on Sceldwulf and began to walk away.
When the small mound was raised and covered with turf the old man might have been there for centuries in a cold and salt-stained peace. A spear of sunlight transfixed the mound as they left and then the clouds thickened and it began to rain greyly.
"You see," said Ingeld, pointing to the sunstrike, "Woden sends his spear Gungnir for the old man’s soul. He must have been a great warrior. Or did he perhaps have the friendship of another god for a favour of a different kind?"
If Alfred had thought there was mockery in that light voice he might have slain the stranger there where he stood, but how could Ingeld know of that second shame? Even if he did he would have been a fool to voice such an insult. A fool, or a man of great courage, and the stranger appeared to be neither. So Alfred said,
"He spoke of one named Loptr."
Ingeld laughed, "The Sky Traveller," he said, "That one has many names and few of them complementary. He has been called Loptr in the North, and Loki, and Lotha in England. His followers are brave enough to joke with lives, sometimes even their own. There aren’t that many of them though. Few enough for him to come to the funeral in person."
Alfred’s eyes widened; "The sunshock…" he said, "It could have been…?" He knew that once an angel had appeared as a pillar of fire, and that a devil is of angelic stock.
"No," said Ingeld, smiling, "When our gods appear they go most often as men…are there any strangers here?"
"He cannot have come then." said Ingeld, "I call that very unfaithful."
He began to laugh, silently to himself, as they walked away from the grave. Alfred, lost in thought, did not notice him, but Adrian saw.
"The man delights in the damnation of another’s soul," he said, pointing it out to Goldboru Queen, but she said;
"He’s a stranger. He has no need to grieve."
"Demons can appear in the form of men." said Adrian, "They too would rejoice at a moment like this."
"He’s not a demon!" Goldboru laughed, "He’s only a young man. A bit strange maybe, but that’s because he’s a Flota, a Northman, and they’re not quite the same as us."
"I’ve heard that in Gaul Northmen pirates are sacking churches," said Adrian, "I don’t want that to start here."
"He’s one traveller on his own," said Goldboru, "And probably a Christian. What harm can he do us?"
"We will see if he comes to church on Sunday," said Adrian.
"Yes," said Goldboru, "We will see."