Wildfire, Chapter 3 Part 2.
(Previous parts available under the ‘Wildfire’ tag.) I thought I’d wait until LJ was back before carrying on posting this, but – fingers crossed – it seems to be OK this morning.
Moral of the story so far – when a suspicious stranger comes to the door immediately after your aged grandad tells you a story about suspicious strangers coming to the door and taking over his life, take a hint, for goodness sake! Don’t treat them like your new best friend. (This moral courtesy of the “Oh, Alfred, you’re far too trusting,” theme.)
The sun had barely time to catch her breath before Alfred was back leading two horses, the stranger’s smoke-grey dappled mare and Athelgrim’s chestnut gelding.
"I doubt if I could have been faster." said Alfred, "Come now, let’s go."
"What about my breakfast?" said Ingeld.
"Damn it," said Alfred. "There are more important things than food!"
"Not when you’re hungry," said Ingeld with certainty, "But I can see that I’ll have to humour you."
They led their horses through the wet grass and cool smelling morning, pinning on their cloaks firmly against the salt breeze from the beach. Men were running the snake-prowed fishing skips into the waves and calling in wind hollowed voices upon the strand. A stout sea-wife came laughing from the shore with her neighbours to find the broiled fish and new bread she had left out for her morning meal gone. Howler, her neighbour’s mongrel dog was sniffing at the plate in a suspicious manner. They didn’t look very far for the culprit.
As the sun rose the thin mist which clung to the land, like the skin in an eggshell, was spun into the sun like silk on the spindle. Alfred and Ingeld walked their horses along the cliff path where half-submerged boulders lay wet in the slippery mud. Below them the sea sidled in with a whisper, and fleets of sails, like bloodied shields, shone against the water, tossing idly.
"Are you sure this is the quickest way?" demanded Alfred irritably.
"I don’t think I’d prolong my journey with you in this humour," said Ingeld, brushing crumbs from his tunic. "Can’t you think about your dream and cheer up a bit?"
Then Alfred smiled and was silent.
They reached the turn off where the cliff path with it’s slime and belligerent seagulls met the edge of the dark forest that billowed up to the great Hill in the south. By that time the day was hot. Small butterflies were wheeling in the shadows and the lights. They were brown and mottled, like a leaf-fall. The shade of the pines was suddenly cold.
Alfred stopped, "Wait! What sort of a watchman am I, wandering off like a child on a jaunt!"
"So now you want to go back?" said Ingeld scathingly, "It’s to be hoped that you never have to make an important decision."
"But I told no-one that I would not be there," said Alfred. "For all I know they’re dredging the bay for my body."
Ingeld cursed softly as his horse pulled restively and the rough-spun bridle whipped through his hands, burning them. "There’s a day wasted. But hopefully we’ll be able to get back by evening." He turned his horse.
"There’s no point in going back now," said Alfred. "I don’t believe anything comes of going back on a decision. The harm is done."
"A very good saying for a pagan man," Ingeld, smiled. "The warrior’s way is; never go back, never admit to failure or lack of foresight. Never make yourself small before the gods by crawling to them like a coward. They won’t care for you if you do. A warrior should be proud."
"You preach." said Alfred. He thought of his brother Edmund. Edmund would look up from the parchment at that remark. There would be a short-sighted frown on his face and his fists would be white. He had brooked no refusal but went into the monastery at the age of sixteen. What would he think of that complement or the company his elder brother kept?
Alfred kept his head down for some time after that. He turned onto the rutted path, whose hacking from the forest Sceldwulf had described so bitterly. There, beneath an arch of trees, they mounted and rode on with speed. Then Alfred said, "I was told Norsemen were good on horseback, but you ride like an English child; both hands in the mane. How do you come to be in England?"
"It’s fairly clear to me," Ingeld shifted his grip to the saddle, "That you don’t listen to a word I say. As I told Goldboru my brother’s realm in Horthaland is threatened from all sides by scheming cowards who fancy a king to do their bidding. The best thing I could do for him was to show them my back, show him I wasn’t in the market for knee-crawlers. So I’ve been about looking to make a name for myself and testing my luck. But you’re right about horses, I’d rather walk."
"I don’t call it all that loyal to leave your Lord in the hands of men you know to be traitors."
"You can call it what you like," said Ingeld. "But if you’d been there you’d have done the same thing."
"You must have seen some great marvels in your travels," said Alfred.
"Everything’s the same under the skin," Ingeld shrugged. "But as you seem to be angling for a tale I’ll tell you about some of the different skins there are:
“We were in a wavecutter, a horse of the water, and we were shivering. The leader of our party and the owner of the high-prowed arrow was Thorgunnar Bjornssen. He was a great black-bearded tree of battle and a loud laugher. We headed north, and north and through the sunlight into the six month darkness. Oh it was cold!"
He slowed his horse to an ambling trot and grimaced, hunching up his shoulders and shivering.
"Thorgunnar said," he went on, ‘We’ll go right to the top of the world and take a look at what the world-serpent looks like…’ He was a pagan too. The others, they were all as devout as you like; refusing to pull at the oars on a Sunday and murmuring meaningless things to beads. They all thought we’d fall off the world.
“Well, soon it got colder and we rode on a rock-crystal sea until at last the keel shuddered and the ice closed in around us. We slept one night, all together in the half-frozen slush that was packed in the draft, and the morning, or when we woke in the darkness, all around us you could walk on the sea, tripping over waves.
“For a stretch, that we reckoned as a day, we tried to heat and smash our way inwards, but it was clear we’d never budge. Soon then we went for jaunts on the ice, but that was foolish, it would gape at your feet and chew you up in cold teeth. Indeed, one little cleric, an Englishman called Aethelwitan, was under the ice for hours before we realised he’d gone. He came up bloated and blue, and the blood where he’d bitten off his tongue in struggle was frozen in patterns of lace. We footed him under the ice again – it was as good a place as any other.
“Then we tried to melt and break our way out, back to the sea. That was when we cursed ourselves properly, for now there was nothing to show of where we were but the way the ship was pointing. The dragon-head glared out over an ice forest and the ship tossed its tail at an ocean of bone. Then we got hungry, waiting for dawn. Dawn didn’t come so often in that place.
“Well we ate the stores, and we ate the plunder. Then we ate the horses, and then we ate Thorgunnar’s pet hound though it set its snout down on the deck and whimpered. Thorgunnar, that was Ragnarok to his enemies, wept till the tears froze in his beard, but that didn’t stop him taking his share. After that they all started praying loudly.
“Oh we were in a terrible mess then. Frodi the wise piped up; ‘There’s nothing for it but to pray and suffer. Someone around here has snubbed his nose at God and this is what has come of it. We’d better convince Him we’re all sorry, or we’ll end up as stiff as the Englander, and somewhat thinner to boot.’
"’Bragi’s tongue!’ said Thorgunnar to me, "I’d be a happy man if I could blame all my stupidity on Odin. But every hour now my stomach growls at me; ‘Thorgunnar you’re a fool. You must have sailed clean off the world and into Nifflheim, which is cold comfort to anyone." Then he laughed at his pun until the ice rang and we could hear a great wall of it in the distance collapse like a frost giant slurrying into mud.
"’But,’ he went on, quietening down rapidly, ‘It’s my foolishness that’s got us into this situation, and I, or our gods will get us out again without any help from them.’
“So Thorgunnar went out over the ice until he disappeared into the darkness and we waited for him for hours.
“The dawn came before he did. Far, far away over a glittering silver-hoard of snow, like a thread from the loom of Wyrd, shot a thin wire of gold with the sun like a bead on it, white and shrunken. We fancied we could feel its warmth in that instant.
“‘Our prayers are answered,’ said Frodi, and Thorgunnar returned to find them all on their knees again.
"’What!’ he said to them, ‘Have your legs gone? Well be sure the rest of you will be following if you don’t get on your feet and set about that ice.’
“Then we realised that dawn wasn’t any good to us. We were staggering about by then, weak and vicious as new born wolves. We worked out that, with the thickness of the ice, and the distance we were from the open sea it would take us two weeks to smash our way out. Then we almost despaired, because we’d be dead within a week, and a two week thaw was little help to us.
“Now, all this time we’d been travelling to the edge of the ice and dangling a baitless hook and line bootlessly over the edge. Not a beast had even nosed at the hook. But, the day after Thorgunnar’s little jaunt we walked out there and, beached on the grey slag, rolling its grey eyes, was a great huge mountain of the deep, a fountain-breathed whale shuddering the ground with its tail.
“Just as we saw it it gave up the ghost and laid its tail and big grin down on the ice for the last time. We carved it up as soon as looking at it and lugged the pieces back to the ship. It was a stringy one alright, and tasted worse than whale meat at its worst, but there was enough of it to keep us alive and thriving until we could get to the nearest land.
“They were all laughing and congratulating each other on their good luck when Thorgunnar laughed his aurochs’s bellow and slapped me on the back so that I could hardly breathe.
“‘Well!’ he said, ‘See, you pray on your knees for weeks and your god looks on and lets you starve. But I go one day and ask for a bit of food and Thor sends us this sea-king the very next morning. Our gods don’t let us die so easily. Tuck in, it’s a gift from the Thunderer.’
“So they gawped at him, then they pushed away their dishes, and Frodi took the rest of the meat and saying, ‘We don’t take food from demons,’ he threw it into the sea. Then he said, ‘Now I call on God the Maker to give us wholesome meat,’ and he cast out a weighted net on the water.
“It took three of us, Frodi, I, and the sinewy Thorgunnar to bring up the catch and we sailed all the way back to Germania, without a stop, on it. Frodi laughed into his beard all the way there. He thought he’d proved his point."
"He had," said Alfred happily.
"That’s what I mean about skins," Ingeld replied. "Frodi said his god had brought fish out of the water where ours could only bring foul-tasting whale-blubber. I say that without the whale-meat for bait we’d never have got the fish, and we’d have starved to death. Frodi put a skin on it to make it look good to him, but I bet Loki’s underneath it, laughing at him."
"Who put the whale in the sea in the first place!" Alfred snapped. He saw the point of the story now, and he didn’t like it. To teach the stranger not to goad him too far he dug his heels hard into his horse’s flank and made Ingeld gallop behind him, clinging on desperately in fear of falling. The sight helped him gather his temper, and soon he slowed and said;
"The Northmen have a reputation of not knowing fear, but I’ve never seen a woman look as afraid as you do on horseback."
"If you judge my kin by me," said Ingeld frankly, "You do them great injustice."
They rounded by the stony foot of the hill. Alfred craned his neck to look at the top of it as if he had never seen anything so huge and, seeing his awe, Ingeld crinkled his nose. "This is no mountain. In my country a man would be ashamed to have such a thing as a burial-mound."
"Don’t carp," said Alfred, “it’s unbecoming. Look!"
Rising against the smudged blue of the sky were the smokes of a hall. Wooden-walled farmhouses surrounded it in a clutter, their wheatfields just turning tawny in the orange sunset.
"That looks like the place," Ingeld followed Alfred’s headlong rush along the wide, hardpacked path more sedately, smiling to himself.
When the dark shambled in on clawed feet like a bear it found them at the Hall. Ingeld looked at his companion and found him resolved. He raised his fist and drummed a hollow roar from the wood. The pagan doors opened and they went in.