Wildfire Chapter 3, part 1

In which Freyja is as good as her word.

Chapter Three.

Dreams out of Season .

Alfred looked up, staring out into the darkening air with a vacant stare. Sceldwulf was in his thoughts. The old man had told him once, when he was a small boy and sat rocking in his father’s shield, fancying himself a hero in a war-bound long-ship, that there was more to life than fighting. This was what he had said;

 

"In my day you didn’t lounge around all day waiting for a war to take your mind off your own want of work. Lying there waiting for someone to drum up a battle somewhere! We were warriors alright, proper warriors – every day was a struggle against Death, and he was a strong one in those days.

It’s a poor warrior who fights just with other men. We faced down the rages of the gods; the sea like a grey giant and us tangled in his tossing hair, and him roaring with the pain of it. Hauling fish out of the deep like a divine thief, on a little rickety boat with your feet already ankle deep in water. Farming too, that’s no job for the faint-hearted; praying for rain, and praying for the rain to stop; toiling in the cold wind with your back breaking to till the soil, and then watching the sea-birds gobble all the seed.

Oh my lad, you want to be a fighter you say? Well there’s nothing to being a fighting man, it’s a warrior you should be. Dance the sprightly dance with Death, bait him like a bear in his den with a sword, or with words, and then, whatever men think of you you’ll be a thing of which even the gods take notice."

Alfred had laughed at him, when he was a child. Now he sat pondering. Goldboru had slaves and servants to farm and fish for her. She had nobles to fight her wars, but she fought no wars. What was the use of being a fighting man in days of peace? How could one bait Death with words? He shifted position in the dust. His head ached with the sunshine and hard thinking. He felt as useless as a knife rusted in the scabbard.

A shadow fell across his eyes. He saw a stranger before him smiling, with the sun at his back like a golden shield. The sunset lapped up the sky like tongues of fire.

"Oh!" said Alfred, "I thought, when I looked for you this morning, that you were long gone."

"No," Ingeld was slightly out of breath, and looked windblown, as if he had been riding hard. His horse, led to the stable by the welsh horseboy, looked as fresh as if it had merely trotted out to welcome its master home from a long journey. "I’ve been scouting out ways in which best to get to the next hall." 

"Wulfgeat," said Ingeld, "That’s the name of the lord of that hall. I’m inclined to make his acquaintance…I should be glad of someone to travel with me, if you fancy making the trip."

He took a long drink from the traveller’s wineskin he had slung over his shoulder. Then he wiped his mouth on his sleeve and looked at Alfred inquiringly.

"To Wulfgeat’s hall?" Alfred couldn’t credit his ears. "Why would I want to go there? He’d kill me as soon as look at me. He has no fondness for Christian men."

"Hark at him!" Ingeld mocked.  "He doesn’t think much of my bravery, but he won’t take the test himself. I’ve stayed in this hall long enough, though they’d have my head if they knew what’s round my neck. You don’t even dare to go there for a look? Is that what Christianity does to a man?"

He pointed at Alfred’s sword that lay at the door with the other men’s weapons.  "That doesn’t make you a warrior you know. It’s not dealing death that makes you a hero but facing your own. It’s no use your sitting here waiting to be tested. Go out and test Death. The taste of it will sharpen you till you gleam."

"You are a witch!" Alfred exclaimed, "Get out of my head! You’re not welcome to my thoughts."

"I’m no witch," said Ingeld.  "I just take the time to look at people. I thought I knew that scowl."

Alfred was not convinced. "My grandfather said almost the same thing to me as you have said." he mused, "And that was fifteen years ago now. Still, they say truth changes little while the years lengthen."

He looked at the stranger steadily. "We may have no enemies, nevertheless my duty is to guard the hall. It would go hard to desert it just to look at a neighbour. Do you have no retinue that will go with you?"

"You didn’t look too closely at my entrance," said Ingeld good-humouredly. He sat down on the dirt step beside him. "I came here alone. I did have companions, but Freyja separated them from me."

"How?" said Alfred. He didn’t understand that the other man was speaking as a poet may.

"They fell in love.  One by one they found themselves wives, and settled down, and had families. Her cats ate some – they died – but the most of them just left me for women. I reckon you would too, if you sit around me long enough. Maybe there’s even one waiting for you in Wulfgeat’s hall."

Alfred laughed. His hound, lean and sharp-nosed, loped up to him with a charred bone from the fire-pit in its mouth. He rubbed it behind the ears while it growled at him playfully and wagged its stick-like tail.

"Now I certainly shan’t come," he said. "I’ve no desire as yet to give away my little wealth and my own council. I doubt if I shall marry until Ecgbert returns. To be ruled by one woman is enough."

"Think on it though," said Ingeld.  "And if you’ve changed your mind in the morning I’ll wait for you."

The night darkened. In from the clustering village came the farmers and craftsmen. They left their labours for a short hour of light and companionship by the fire.

"It’s elf-shot alright," a burly, red faced man with a gloomy look was saying to his neighbour. "There’s little doubt in my mind; I’ve seen that look before. My best calf! Twitching like I’d cut its head off, and all lame in its left legs. Bloody damned elves! And these priests told me the elves wouldn’t come on my land when they’d blessed it.

“’That’s as maybe.’ I said to them, ‘But can you cure my elf-shot beasts if your damn spells don’t work?’

“’We use no spells,’ says they.

‘Then how can they work?’ says I. They didn’t answer me that."

"And now your beast is elf-shot?" his neighbour asked in sympathy.

"Twitching and jumping like a mad thing. My best calf, that was going to feed my family through the winter!"

"Elves!" his neighbour sympathised, "And I thought they were supposed to be the companions of the gods."

"They’re out for themselves like anyone else." The wronged farmer muttered grimly, "But if I could get my hands on one I’d make him know what a man’s anger feels like…"

"Elves!" Alfred scoffed, "Elves and orcs and ettins, they’re all part of the demon clan. As far as I can see he can expect them to visit him if he goes on thinking like that."

"I have seen elves," said Ingeld, "And thurs and ettins, but I haven’t seen any of the other sorts. What do they look like?" His voice was full of innocent curiosity.

"The worst of them look like men."

"So your priests say?" said Ingeld.

"So they say."

"But," there was the catch of a laugh in Ingeld’s voice, "How do you know that your priests are not demons?"

"You’re mad!" Alfred exclaimed.

"So you say."

The youngest warrior sang;

"We have heard of the battle when Hnaef was slain,

Hero of the Half-Danes, Hildeburh’s brother.

She was a sad woman, sorrowful queen

To the Jutish people. It was judged

Well that she weave a work of peace;

Hold faith with the Frisians and with Finn, her lord.

But battle came, and blades were buried

In heroes to the hilt. Hnaef died then,

The Scylding was slain by the sword of her son.

He held it just, the Jutish youth,

To make war on his mother’s folk. Men cannot tell

Until the time comes to what strange end

The Shepherd of men will shape their path.

Finn’s son also fell, the fine mail and his mother’s prayers

Proved no protection. On one pyre she placed them;

Hnaef and his sister-son. Hot fire devoured them.

Nor was vengeance in vain awaited

For Hnaef of the Half-Danes…"

Ingeld fell asleep on the floor with the light of the fire on his face. He didn’t care too much about other people’s grief. He was still sleeping when they brought out the bedding for the honoured retainers. The stranger should not have been sleeping in the Hall, so they gave him no blanket and he lay in the hearth with the dogs.

The moon wheeled breathlessly across the sky, whipping up his black horses until the clouds flew from their mouths like foam. The dawn was grey and young when Alfred crept from under his bench, stood amid the armour and the propped spears like a scavenger after a battle. Over to Ingeld he walked, stealthily and with uncertainty in his eyes. He reached out to the stranger where he lay curled up like a child in the womb to shake him by the shoulder and wake him. At the first slight touch Ingeld woke with a shout of fear and a look of nightmare on his face.

"Get a grip on yourself!" exclaimed Alfred, in concern, "It’s no night-walker, it’s only me."

Relief and humour followed a passing confusion on Ingeld’s face.  "Did I give you a fright? Sorry. There have been some powerful dreams  tonight."

"That’s more true than you know." said Alfred, and his face was eager. "I’ve seen my wife tonight."

"In a dream?"

"It was a true dream, I’m sure of it."

"Ha!" said Ingeld in mock bitterness, "Didn’t I tell you not to sit too close to me. But it struck fast with you! So what’s her name? What about her family, how rich is she?"

"Her name is Raegn." said Alfred rapidly, "I don’t know her family, or her wealth, or her skill at weaving and keeping house. I don’t particularly care about that. She’s very beautiful and she is going to marry me."

"Do you have any clue at all as to who she is?"

"Her name is Raegn," Alfred repeated, chanting the words as a poet will, "And I think she is a warrior-maid. She is tall as a queen and she carries a spear. A corslet of gleaming mail is on her breast, and around her waist a swordbelt studded with many stones. Her hair lights up the sky."

Ingeld frowned, "As far as I can see, past your lovesick prose," he said, "There is such a woman living near here. I have heard the skalds talk of her, they say that she slew Audun the Reckless, son of Hrolf Lankhair, when he came raiding in these parts. He won’t be missed overmuch. For a woman that was a deed worthy of merit…The skalds called her Raegn Eldrethsdotar."

Alfred grasped the strangers arms in a hard grip.  "Where?" he said "Where does she live? If you value your skin you’ll tell me quickly."

"You weren’t too keen to go there when I asked you yesterday," said Ingeld "I doubt that you can have changed your mind overnight."

"She lives in Wulfgeat’s hall?" Alfred demanded.

"She does," said Ingeld, "And for that and another reason you should be careful how you go about getting her. Her mother Aetheldreda, Eldreth we call her, is a very deepminded woman and knows ways of doing things that wouldn’t occur to ordinary folk. You don’t want her as an enemy."

"You’re going there today, aren’t you?" said Alfred.  "Well I’m coming with you."

He hauled the smiling stranger to his feet and paced about him like a wolf in a cage.

"I hoped you would ride with me." Ingeld avoided the young man’s prowlings and sat himself down at the mead-bench with an expectant look.

"Come on." said Alfred, "I’m impatient to see her. Listen! I’ll tell you my dream; It felt like I was awake. I felt the chill air flow down from the great hill, with no smell of sea in it, and the turf beneath my feet was damp and smelt of moss. The birds were singing and so was she. She sang of deeds and heroes I have never heard of, and her hair was white as water that shines in the sunlight. Her arms were white as snow."

"I’m sure she’s as fair as the golden Sif herself," said Ingeld with a wry smile, "But as for setting out now, will you go without making ready a horse? Will you run on the way there?"

"I’m going to do it now," said Alfred, heading for the stables.

"You might also arrange for some breakfast." Ingeld called after him, "My stomach cannot live on your tales of love."

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