Wildfire, Chapter 1 part 2
1st part available here: http://alexbeecroft.com/2011/05/since-there-is-no-lokaday/ in which the elderly Sceldwulf is telling his disapproving kinsfolk about how he once met two gods, when they were being hunted out of England by the new faith.
Chapter 1, Part Two – in which Sceldwulf fulfils an old oath.
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."
Father and mother being awake now, they look at him dumbly, and then mother flies into a rapid packing, hustling all the hens and the goats out into the paling morning. Father says “What do you mean?" like an idiot .
Grima picks up the shield and glowing spear that he’s left outside and says;
"I have had enough of running away. I am a warrior. The foreigner has tracked me to here and now I choose to stand and fight. You are a farmer, and a peasant, I do not expect you to help me. Take your family and flee."
I’m looking at this spear all this time and let me tell you, no human made that, it shone like the sun.
Meanwhile Loptr comes out and he sees Grima and bows;
"My Lord." says he and
"My brother," says Grima, "Will you fight for me?"
"We share blood," Says Loptr, smiling almost as if he wished the other well, "And he is an enemy of mine as much as yours. I will fight."
Mother, hearing this talk of battles, was hustling the children out to the safety of the holy grove in the ash woods to the south. But when the two of them went for the door my father was before them crying, "Wait!"
Well, they stopped. I think they were humouring him.
"You," says my father, pointing at Loptr, "You said you didn’t know him. Will you be a liar to my face?"
"I said," says Loptr, grinning with delight, "The only Grima I knew was Woden. I wouldn’t lie to you."
That was the biggest lie I’d heard in my life, of course, but I could see father grasp the ends of it. He reeled like a dying man.
Well, before he could rake his senses together there was the faint sound of hooves on the morning and Grima pushes out of the door. No longer an old man, but a tall warrior with a bright face and a proud helmet with a golden mask.
In front of us a smoke floated on the breeze. A thick grey smoke. They were burning trees.
"The cowards!" hisses my father and rushes to Grima, spear in hand,
"I’ll fight for you!" he cries, "Grima, or Woden, or whoever you are, I’ll fight for you against these cowards."
Now Grima, he turns to father and says; "For this you shall be one of my champions."
I nearly died on the spot with pride.
Then I looked at Loptr, and I couldn’t conscience the thought of him going into battle alone, with no-one to guard his back. So, of course, I stepped forward, and I said,
"I’ve never fought, but if you’ll have me Loki, I’ll fight for you."
"You’ll be damned," says he, but
"Everyone goes to Hel sooner or later…" Says I, "Always excepting your champions, Most High. And I may as well be damned for you as for anyone."
Well at that Grima gives me a glance that shows he’s guessed everything that went on. But there, if Loptr was his blood-brother he’d know already what sort of thing he was likely to get up to.
Now the hoofbeats were louder, drumming like the wild hunt, and we could see the flash and glitter of weapons in the sun. As they come in an eagle darts in, shrieking, and settles on Grima’s shoulder. Out of the wood there comes two wolves and up to him like dogs with their tongues lolling and their tails like banners "Now we’re evenly matched!" laughs Loki and even Grima smiles. Me, I was terrified; as those riders came close to us I could have sworn they weren’t human. They wore strange robes and sang strange war-songs. Their hair was short, like the hair of slaves.
"What are they?" cries my father.
"Priests." says Grima, "Priests of a new god that no-one can see."
"They have a great power in them." says Loki, "But my sons would eat them, were they here."
At that they were on us, and I can’t give a good reckoning of the fight. They didn’t give us time to cast the ritual spear, but it was in and all in confusion. There was only a flashing of hooves and a wild neighing. Then one of them took a swipe at father and I saw him bury his spear in the rider’s side. Then one was coming at me, and suddenly everything was slow and clear. I tried to get out of the way but he rode me down. So I slit the horse’s belly from beneath and blood poured out of it all over me. Loki dragged its rider down and that was the end of one shaven priest.
Meanwhile I could just see the wolves hanging on the throats of two horses and Grima fling his spear at one rider and take his sword to another. That spear was a wonder. It never missed its mark, and it flew back to his hand once it had done his will…
The last priest I slew. It was my first taking of life and the feel of the knife in the wound is still with me: The memory of his alien gaze. He looked even less human when he died. I hated him.
Now when the last of them was dead we laughed for joy. But our happiness was short lived. We despoiled the dead – that’s how I got my sword – and we were off to drink to our victory when, on a grey smudged breeze, like pieces of drifting ash, two ravens floated to us. They settled on the house-eves above, cocking black eyes full of sarcasm at us. First one then the other hopped onto Grima’s shoulder and spoke into his ear. Then he really did look grim and frowned like thunder-clouds.
The ravens flapped up to grasp a seat at the dragon-head that guarded our door and Grima looked at us sternly. "An army is too much for us to deal with and keep you from death." he said, "And the days have come when I need my followers alive. So, since we can’t fight, we will go."
"Go where?" says I with the feeling of victory ebbing from me like pain.
"There’s no point in being in a place you aren’t wanted." says Grima again.
"What if you’re not welcome anywhere?" says Loki meaningfully, and that time, the only time ever, I saw god look shamefaced.
"But where will you go?" insists my father, "Stay here and let my son and I defend you unto death."
"Are you trying to gainsay me?"
"My lord I hope not to be so foolish."
"Good," says Grim "It’s not as if we’ll be staying away…You aren’t likely ever to give up meddling, are you brother?"
With that they turned around, laughing, and began to walk away. Then Loptr turns back to me and says;
"Sceldwulf, you do everything you can to stay alive. Tell all the lies you need…The worms will get you soon enough."
"But I will die for you!" I cried in youthful disappointment.
"Then wait until your old age." said he, "That will do just as well for me."
They turned and walked away like any mortal travellers. Then a veil of mist came over them and with it they were gone. I’ll tell you, I wept. And in the morning when the army hacked through the forest to our door I cursed them in my heart and I would have killed as many as I could have got my hands on, but father said;
"I can’t let these traitors enter my house, but you Sceldwulf must protect your mother and sisters."
With that he went out to them and he swore to kill their god if ever he got within distance of him. That angered them, I suppose. I heard them shouting, crying that he would be saved if only he abandoned the devils. That’s what they called our old protectors – Devils!
Well father laughed in their faces. He was a proud man, and a warrior. But when they entered with his blood on their swords and threatened my weeping mother I thought: To Hel with truth. I will tell all the lies I need.
So I swore to the foreign god with oath-breaking in my heart and the safety of my family on my mind… Some of that army settled and brought their families, and here we are. The end of my story is this: Friends driven out, father killed, and myself sworn to slavery to some alien devil. Well, I’ve lived my three score years and now in my old age I will die for my gods. Just chew on this; you’re sworn to the wrong one, and when you land in Hel with me, oh I shall laugh!"
There was silence in the hall. A bitter silence that may have been fear or disgust. When the old man took his life no-one moved to stop him. They watched and sat, shocked into stillness.
The blood dripped into the fire-pit and went up in a flurry of white sparks. Then Alfgama ran for the priests and they came hurrying in to drive the demon out of the hall, the demon that must have caused the deed. They swung thuribles filled with scent until the air was grey and thick and they chanted words, strange, soft, sonorous words, while the people huddled against the walls with their eyes wide. Sitting still as trolls in the daytime, frozen by the strange magic.
Even Alfred sat quietly there. He was the son of Athelgrim who was Sceldwulf’s son. He was a young man, brown haired and brown eyed, gentle, though he could be fierce when he cared. He had been quite fond of his grandfather, but he sat as still as the rest. He didn’t want the devil that had caught his father’s father to turn its eyes to him. There would be time for grief when the hall was made safe again.
When the blessing was done Athelgrim’s kinsmen bore the body away, and the black-haired British slaves mopped up the blood and strewed fresh rushes and handfuls of buttercups down on the packed earth floor. Then the arguing began.
"He was a good man." said Athelgrim.
"A suicide and a pagan." said Adrian waving his brothers out of the hall.
"He shall not lie in Holy ground."
The monks and the priests left; going out to the austerity of the monastery, out to Compline and another world. Out of the smell of blood and beer and away from the warriors mocking smiles.
"He must lie somewhere." said Goldboru, Queen, "It will be hot tomorrow."
"Then he must lie with the thieves and the oath-breakers," said Adrian, "Where he belongs."
"He was my grandfather!" Alfred exclaimed, "He was my kinsman. Are you calling him a thief?"
He was a tall warrior, Alfred, and strong, and he laid a hand on his sword-hilt as he spoke. Adrian was not frightened. He had come across the grey straits from France when all of England was full of warriors like this and, with only a Gospel book he had copied out himself, he had outfaced every one of them.
"Not a thief," he said, "An oath-breaker, and the oath sworn to God. There are other words also; suicide, sodomite, pagan and priest-murderer. Titles he was proud enough to boast of in this hall. He will go to Hell wherever he is buried, but I am not hypocrite enough to give him a good man’s grave.
Few men could hold Adrian’s gaze for long. He had pale eyes, white eyes in an old, skeletal face. Alfred soon looked away, hanging his head in surly silence. Summer thunder could be heard miles away, moving down in crow-black clouds from the mountain. Then Adrian began to speak again, to chant in Latin, a slow invocation that none there understood. All the power of the Eagle warriors was in its soft words, the Eagles who had once ruled the world. Alfred moved away quickly, and with religious awe.
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?