Wildfire, Chapter Four part 1

In which it turns out that Freyja added a few bonus warning dreams of her own to the package.  Not that it helped.

For earlier parts check the Loki or Wildfire tags.

Chapter Four.

Priests and Peaceweavers.

Raegn cursed. Aethelbald’s sword had nicked her arm and the slow blood trickled down to her fingertips. She was aware of it’s progress, as irritating as a march of ants. She cursed at herself, for acting like a wife, like a little placid woman who had never handled a sword. Too much thinking, that was the problem. Aethelbald sheathed his sword and said;

"I’m sorry. Is it bad? "

She knocked him down with the flat of her sword against his face. He was lucky he didn’t get it in the eye.

"You don’t apologise for my fault." she said. "If I was of the mettle to be badly hurt by that little scratch I would be using this sword to beat my weaving."

She walked away. Aethelbald rubbed his face, and there was a rueful look on it. Friends laughed at him sitting there in the dust, and his wife walked by and said "You look very well there, husband. You’ve never been more than a fool." Raegn sheathed her sword. She had called it Lufgifu, the love-gift. The men who had tried to get her for wife in the past had found it a sharp bedfellow…

She walked into the forest, to where a dead pine lay across the swift river. There she sat, kicking at the water, watching the progress of the sun through the summer leaf-dance, listening to the never-ending battle of the wild creatures.

She had had dreams: She was sitting here, in Autumn, watching the fallow leaves fall. There came a thunder, and a wind, and the shadows of black storm clouds. She looked up. Skogol was riding there, over the tree tops, in the form of a swan.

"What do you look up for, Aetheldreda’s daughter?" She said. "Do you want to know where the sword is?"

"What sword, Host-Fetter?" said Raegn.

"The sword that will double your Lord’s land and bring death to his enemies." Said Skogol. She landed in the stream and sat there, her black legs hidden in the water.

"Yes." said Raegn, "I’ll have that sword."

"Look for it in the barrow of a dead god." said Skogol, "But you may find it less bright than you think." Raegn went to Bald Barrow in the East, where they said that Balder’s ship had beached, when it had born his body out of the world of the gods. Corpse fire was burning, and the stars were strange. The doorway of the Haudh was low and black. There were runes scratched on it.

"Dead one in there." Raegn shouted, "I’ve come for the sword, it’s no use to you, now you’re dry bones. It’ll do better in my hands."

The dead one stirred in the tomb. There were runes scratched over the door. The corpse turned it’s face to her. It had once been a very beautiful face.

"Why do you trouble me?" It said, "I have been dead a long time, drenched with rain, frozen by hoar frost. Worms have eaten me, and I am cold. You need not have woken me to take the sword. It was never mine."

The sword was beautiful, and bright. It gleamed and shimmered in the corpse light. She brought it home and unwrapped it in the firelight, and it was black. She valued it less after that.

"It doesn’t even have a name." said Raegn, kicking at the water and thinking of her dreams. "What use is that ?"

There had been a second dream, not much of a dream by any standards, just a man’s face. She had never seen him before, but she knew he was no dream-creature. She knew that neither dream was out of her head, that much she could tell. What was more she sensed Woden in the one and guessed at Freyja’s hand in the other, but she had no skill with visions. Her mother might interpret it, or tell its purpose, but she had been a week now in the woods, plant hunting in the Holy Groves with a wooden stave and a knife for blood offering.

That Aetheldreda should be away at such a time worried Raegn. It smacked of careful management. Aetheldreda would not have gone if she had known. She would have laughed, pointing a tattooed finger,

"Well my lass, you’re turning into a woman, finally. Perhaps you’d better put down that sword and find yourself a staff."

"Fame is better than wisdom, and to be long remembered is better than any knowledge." Raegn replied to her thought, but her voice was uncertain. She didn’t know how she would choose between the sword and the face.

Alfred, that was his name. He would be a berserker, a man who raged under the inspiration of Woden. Strong and sharp as a pattern-welded blade. Death’s madness would be in him, the clarity and the poetry of the Gallows God. There was nothing soft about Woden, or his chosen men.

The sun was on a level with her now. The river was golden and orange, and the birds began to pipe in thin voices. She shook her head and strode home. Fate would bring what it would, it was womanly to take too much thought for what might be. She might die tonight, and then all the gods would laugh at her plans.

She returned to the Hall. She smiled at Aethelbald and his wife. Aethelbald nodded, grinning. His wife glowered at her, she didn’t care to think that her husband had been seen being beaten by a woman.

Raegn sat at her bench. She was half way up the hall, closer to the Lord’s high-seat than many warriors. It was the place of a good fighter, who need not feel any shame for their prowess, but it was not the place of a hero. She slumped there, and her face was worried.

The people came in. The priests were before them, wild eyed and dark robed, and they sat in the shadowed corners with their wives and their children discussing magic, and portents, the wills of Woden and Thunor and Ing. The sorcerer’s place among them was empty. The smooth flags of the coloured floor where she cast her runes was left clear. Men walked around it to get to their seats.

The fighters took up their empty mead horns, and servant girls went round quickly and nervously to fill them up. Then the harp was passed from hand to hand around the table, and men sang in slow voices tales of the old countries, and the heroes of the North. Redwald the Fool left the table when the harp was passed to him; his hands were clumsy and his voice unsure. Shame went with him.

Then the harp came to Ceolfrith, the scop. The priests held him in high honour though he was no swordsman. Often Woden spoke in his words. His voice, and his songs were of great beauty, and they were strong; he would give no quarter to despair, nor to self pity, though Ragnarok come and the world be ended.

Ceolfrith put the harp down on the table amid the plates and he rapped on the board with the hilt of his knife until the talking stopped.

"I had a dream last night," he said.

Raegn looked up from her wine.

"This was the dream." said Ceolfrith, "That Skirnir, Freyr’s servant came to me and gave me a tale to tell, which he said would serve as a warning to us. This is the tale;

It so happened that, when Odin and his brother Hoenir had moulded the world from the flesh of Ymir, they lay down in it’s long green grass and while Hoenir slept Odin looked into the fire and dreamed.

He made himself an eagle form and flew. Above the earth he flew, looking with his mad gold eye at the shapes of his world. On the wing he came to the North lands which lay cold on an icy sea. There he saw a single tree which stood in the midst of an empty and desolate moor. About the tree the moor was grey, the wind howled across it and above it black clouds thickened. A spark leaped from Odin’s fire to the air, but from the twisted fist of the clouds there leaped a great blazing serpent. Screaming branches hissed at its touch. It smote the tree a dangerous smite.

Leaf after leaf, twig after twig, the tree flowered, and its flowers were yellow-orange, red and gold. Flame crowned it with a radiant garland, but its branches blackened. Again the white hand hit and within its mad light there was a man. There was a man in the tree, a young man, spread-eagled like a sacrifice in the fire. He screamed as a child screams with its first breath. Then he opened his eyes, they were ice-coloured. The fire was drawn to him. It entered in at his eyes, then it was gone.

The tree was burnt and broken. The young man stepped from it in wonder of the cold world. He looked around himself with yellow-red eyes, with eyes as black as charred branches, with wild and newborn eyes. For a moment he looked at the watching eagle, and he seemed to know it, but only for a moment…The eagle returned to Odin by the fire, and saw that it had burnt low. Odin awoke from his dream. That was how he knew that on that day, far off in the world, a new god had been born in pain.

There is a god, "Said Ceolfrith, "Who is of Giant kin. He was born of the woman Laufey, which means The Leafy One, and his father is Farbauti, the Dangerous Smiter. That Farbauti had two sons before him; big lads, they might take on Thor one day. They’re black haired and black tempered, and they go a roaring over the world. Men fear them. One of them stirs up the ocean like a woman’s cooking pot, flings ships into the air with his little finger. It’s never a good thing to go sailing when he’s around. His name is Waterspout.

The other one of these two fine boys stirs up the air in the same way. He likes to tear off the roofs of halls, and to fling trees at travellers. It’s bad to run into him on a journey on horseback. He is known as Whirlwind. When they get together they’re a terrible pair. The third son isn’t one of that kind. You wouldn’t know his parentage just by looking at him. He is a good-looking one, and well spoken, very wise. What’s more they say that he can be helpful if you know how to treat him, and if you don’t take your eye off him for a moment.

He is the answer to this riddle;

I know a noble, no friend has he

Men make him, many are glad of him;

But he sleeps unsoundly, stirs in his place.

When he wakes, if no-one watches

He slays the sleepers. The stealthy one

Breaks down the beams; black lies the Hall

Humbled on the heath. Heroes mourn.

A bright slave, a blissful servant,

A treacherous thane, this creature is.

I have heard that he is the most dangerous of the three brothers. Certainly the giants were very keen to get rid of him when they could…The giants call him Lightbringer, the gods say Heimdallr’s Foe, the Sons of Muspell call him Bright Victor and the Dead say Grandfather, but his name among men is…"

The knocking at the door startled even Wulfgeat where he sat upon the dais with his elbows on his knees, leaning forward to catch the scop’s voice. He raised his head and favoured the Hall wardens with a piercing glance. They stirred by the door. The warriors loosened their swords in their scabbards. They reached beneath the benches for the long hafted spears of ash.

The priests frowned, they sensed a change in the weft of the night. Ceolfrith took up the harp and fingered it softly, nervously. He was not used to being interrupted. A rag clothed slave crept up to the doors and threw them open. He made the sign of the cross before he scuttled back to his place, but for all that there were only two travellers outside. Nothing to be wary of.

Slaves took their horses. The two young men came forward. One smiled, as though he should be recognised. The other chewed at his lip, darting suspicious glances at the rows of eyes that followed him as he walked between them to the dais. The priests stared and, putting their heads together, they began to mutter. Raegn half rose from her place at the bench. The cushions scattered. Cyneburg pulled at her arm, misinterpreting her interest.

"They’re no threat." he said.

Alfred saw her there, fitting perfectly into the ranks of warriors like a garnet in its setting. His step faltered until Ingeld took his arm and pulled him forward to be shown to the grizzled bear of a man who sat between the high seat pillars, looking down on them.

He was no bench boaster. Alfred looked up at the strong clear-eyed old man with respect. His hair was grey and his beard still as black as Hel. He sat very upright, with his hand on his sword. There was a look of command on his scarred face. His single hand bore many rings. "Well," he said, and his voice was soft and sure,

"Tell me what you are, that travel in the wilderness at this end of the world? We get so few guests here that the priests, judging from their frightened huddle, seem to think that you’re some sort of omen."

Ingeld bowed, "I am Ingjaldr Glapsvidarson." he said, "I am now a trader in silver and furs. Horthaland is my Home Country. Ringproud, my ship burst its nose on a rock near here and I am now traipsing round all Halls in the hope of finding kinsmen who will help me home."

"There are none of your kin here." said Wulfgeat, "But you are welcome all the same. What of you?"

Alfred was looking over his shoulder. His ears were closed. He started when Ingeld nudged him and looked up wildly, wondering for a moment why there was a man in the High seat, sitting between the three-legged dishes of flaming oil. Between the pillars of wood and the lakes of fire and smoke Wulfgeat sat and looked down on him.

"Alfred," he said, "I am Alfred Athelgrim’s son. Athelgrim is Sceldwulf Garwulf’s son, Garwulf was Wulfstan’s son, who came to England as Hengest’s thane…You look like my father."

The hall erupted in laughter,

"Perhaps I am." said Wulfgeat, "Do I know your mother?"

Alfred took a step forward and glared,"I’m not ashamed to give you her name." he said, "It is Ceothfreda. Her honour is unquestioned."

"Lad!", Wulfgeat laughed, "I’m not in the habit of insulting strangers in my hall, but you walked into that. At any rate it’s a good lineage you claim. Do you live up to it?"

He leaned forward, fixing the stranger with a level stare.

"Hengest’s line went back to Woden." he said, "Woden gave him this island. Who is your god?"

Alfred’s head cleared at the tone of the man’s voice. It was not the voice of a friend. Though he heard the danger clearly he did not want to deny his faith. He did not want either to lie or to die. He looked to Ingeld for help. Ingeld laid his hand, lightly as a thief, upon his empty scabbard.

"I am a warrior," said Alfred, "I serve the Warrior’s god, the Most High."

Many priests now called God by those names.

"I travel to test my courage." Alfred continued, "And I’m not ashamed to stand in any man’s Hall."

"It’s good to pass a test." said Wulfgeat, "Not so good to fail."

He waved a hand toward the benches.

"Both of you are welcome here," he said, "Sit and eat, drink and listen while the scop finishes his story." "Lord," said Ceolfrith, "I have forgotten it."

He bowed his head, staring into his horn of ale, as if inspiration swam on the dark surface of the liquid. The priests looked at each other again. They had been listening carefully to the scop’s riddle, and most of them knew the answer. They looked at Ingeld with suspicious eyes.

Had Alfred been looking at his friend he might have found it strange how he had changed. In the smoky amber light his garnet-coloured tunic showed a rust brown. His blonde hair seemed darker. It had a tawny look in the dim light. Only his eyes were still as dark as the priest’s robes where they sat in the shadow.

Alfred was not looking. He was staring at Raegn and his fixed and foolish grin was the subject of many of the night’s best jokes. Cyneburg pointed it out to her, incase she hadn’t noticed. She nodded absently and put in some good eyework herself.

"It looks like Freyja’s cats have been flicking their tails in the hall tonight." said Redwald Aelfward’s son to Ingeld beside him.

"So it seems" said Ingeld, "I wonder what that portends. It’s rare that the gods show their hands so heavily."

"Good times." said Redwald, "It can only mean good times."

"Maybe." Ingeld shrugged and looked away.

He saw the priests staring at him curiously. When he saw them slipping out one by one to offer blood and questions to the gods he smiled. It was a twisted smile, it showed the white pattern of scars on his lips. Then he left Alfred, and he left the hall, the warmth of human company for the dark blue shelter of the woods and the talk of wolf voices.

That was when he saw Aetheldreda return weary from her journeying and cast herself down in her cold house without lighting the fire. He wished her sound sleep, to wake up in the noon day warmth, not to wake up until he was gone from her Lord’s hearth.

Then, quiet and subtle as an arrow-headed adder, he slipped into the houses of the gods. The few watchful souls, who stayed away from the merriment to chase meaningful dreams in the pregnant silence, did not stir. The smell of blood was about him, the oxheads followed him with dead and flybitten eyes. No-one awoke as he desecrated the temple.

When Alfred cursed Raegn in the depth of the night amid the sleeping warriors Ingeld looked on from the shadows without intervening."I curse you with this curse." said Alfred, "May your sword turn against you, may your shield splinter in battle. May your name be forgotten, may your mother and father spit on you, your Lord disown you. May you bear malformed children to a man that you hate and die a woman’s death, weeping like a slave. May all this happen if you do not come with me, back to my hall to be my wife."

She did not look afraid, she knew that Alfred was no god’s messenger to make these things come true. She leaned back against the wall and put her feet up on the table. Alfred looked away from her critical glance with a frown, but then she said:

"That is a curse I’d sooner not risk coming true. It looks like I’ve no choice but to come with you."

"Come now." said Alfred, "Desert your Hall as I have done mine for you. We can be married tomorrow."

"You would have me disobey my oath of loyalty to Wulfgeat?" said Raegn, frowning now in earnest. But she knew it was not wise to provoke a curse, and she remembered her mother’s saying that a warrior’s power lies in instinct, not oaths. So when Alfred said

"I’ll invoke the curse." she said

"Very well." She chose Freyja’s dream, and the struggle was not so pitched as she had imagined. They got up then as if to be going, and Alfred looked about for his companion and found him asleep, snuggled up beside a fur-cloaked noble. He woke easily though, and looked at them bright eyed.

"We are going." said Alfred.

"It’s the middle of the night." said Ingeld, "Never the best time to make a journey."

"Nevertheless…" said Alfred.

"What a man to travel with!" said Ingeld, but he gathered up his cloak and retrieved the unsheathed Firebrand gently from where it was lying under the hand of the Hall-Warden.

When he saw Raegn make ready he put on a frown and said

"Lady, surely you aren’t coming? It’s a dangerous move, in my opinion."

"Do you think I’m afraid of danger?" Raegn turned on him in anger, "I am a shield-maiden, I seek danger."

The caution, wise as it was, seemed only to make her more determined to go on.

Long before dawn, long even before dew fell on the springy turf, they stole their horses from the musty stables. Making their way past the snake pit and the almost empty winter pits of grain they galloped along the river bed far out of their way to fool pursuit. Raegn left no message for her Lord or her kin. She thought her mother would know what had happened very well.

In the morning, when the priests awoke, they found the wooden statues of the gods cast down upon the floor, bespattered with the clotted blood of the crushed animal-heads. Upon the altars were erected crude crosses, twigs from the forest, but the phallic statue of Freyr had its cock lopped off. When they found the missing member it had Ansur, the mouth of the gods, which signifies Loki, the Sky Traveller, cut deeply into it.

"The Christians!" Wulfgeat raged, "It was all very well when the forest and the marsh separated us, but now there’s Goldboru and that useless husband of hers, and it looks like we’re never to have any peace from them. Who do they think they are…coming in here and insulting the Aesir like they were gods themselves? I think we’d better teach them a lesson. Besides, the gods won’t be too pleased with us if we let them get away with it…and it’s coming up to autumn."

With a whisper, as of secrets, from his dark robes Alfhelm stepped forward, priest of the Terrible One, Alfather Woden. His berserks were watching, hard eyed.

"You move too fast." he said, "I know as well as you what it looks like to a foolish man. But I see the hand of the Father of Hel in it, the Sky Traveller. Didn’t he sign the work."

"You listen to him." said Alcfrith, Thunor’s priest, a great, burly, common man with ham fists and a warm smile, just like his god.

"He knows his business. Didn’t the stranger call himself Glapsvidarson?"

"So?"

"Glapsvidar," said Alfhelm, "Means ‘Swift in Deceit’, and the Sky Traveller is the Father of Lies."

"What’s more," said Ing’s priest, a shabby man called Eofor, "You heard the Scop’s dream, sent by Freyr. That wasn’t much of a riddle, and any fool should know the answer was Loki."

"There’s nothing safe that we can do against that one. We just have to get back into the god’s favour, and leave the punishment to them." Alfhelm continued, and he fingered the golden arm-ring that he wore.

"And forget about Raegn?" Wulfgeat pointed out, "I know you priests know what you’re talking about, but if you’ll just think back on your own courtships you’ll realise it wasn’t Glapsvidarson who was looking at our shield-maiden with such a fiery gaze. It was that shifty lad Alfred, who, you’ll notice, wouldn’t put a name to his god…Are we just going to sit back and let him get away with thieving our women?""Do we know he did?" said Redwald, "From the looks she was giving him back I’d say she went with him."

Wulfgeat rapped on the wooden arm of his seat, which bore the blows with a malignant look from it’s dragon’s eyes.

"Look at us all!" he said, "Sitting here like a load of old men gossiping and waiting for winter. A very fine set of warriors we are, for our mothers to laugh at and our wives to scorn out of doors. Can’t even protect our women!…Ah but Os curse us…"

The priests made avertive signs,

"Why isn’t the sorcerer here? She’d know who was to blame, and where to go for vengeance. Whether it was the Sly One as you priests say, or those Christians of Goldboru’s, which is the idea I favour."

Alfhelm said "The fact that she’s not here is another reason to see the Sly One in it. I doubt very much if the Christian’s god makes such careful management…"

"What is this swarming about like flies on a dunghill?"

The noon sun washed into the Hall as Aetheldreda the sorceress made her splendid entrance.

"And where is my daughter among this hive of heroes?"

Only Wulfgeat smiled then, and his was a smile of defiance for Alfhelm Priest. It was left to the poet to tell her. Aetheldreda waited a week before she set out after them. She had things that must be done. There were gods insulted in the matter, far more important than any woman’s love for a daughter. There were sacrifices to be made:

A new statue was carved for Ing. Oxen, a team of them, were brought in from the fields, their horns gilded and wreathes of summer flowers wound between them above their great puzzled eyes. Their heads, hacked necks still bleeding, were stuck on stakes about the new altar. Eofor chose his own son, an acolyte in Freyr’s service, to be the bride of the god. The boy was still weeping when Aetheldreda left.

She left a last cast of runes on the Hall floor. They spoke of death and disaster, but only she and Alfhelm heard them. She turned her back on his pleas, drew her hood down over her face and walked into the dark shadows with a dark glance.

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