The Reluctant Berserker – Excerpt
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To Regia Anglorum, from whom I learned so much about being a Saxon. (And a great deal about how to lay a fire, spin, weave and sew a tunic, cobble a shoe and shingle a roof.) Almost all of the worldbuilding in this novel has passed through your influence first.
Thank you to Manchester University, who probably thought I would never use the knowledge gained during researching “The Cult of the Horse in Early Anglo Saxon England,” for anything in real life and yet allowed me to do it anyway. Ta da!
And on a more serious note, thank you to Stephen Pollington, whose research into Anglo-Saxon medicine and magic has informed the character of Saewyn from the bottom to the top.
Wulfstan’s doom came upon him in a music too angelic for this world. It happened like this:
“A little to steerboard,” Wulfstan called out as he piloted his lord’s ship, Ganet, through the shifting sandbanks outside the salt market of Uisebec. To his right slipped past the long, low coastline of the land of the East Angles. Before, behind, and to his left, the world was as white as the meat of an egg. A sky of high pale clouds met a sea coloured like milk.
That was when the breeze fell off. The steerboard creaked against the side, and the oars groaned together as they were pulled back. The wind withdrew and, in the great silence that followed, Wulfstan heard music, ghostly with distance, achingly sweet.
Was this Man’s music, enchanted by distance, or was it truly the voices of Heaven’s messengers meant to speak some word that only he might hear?
He stood breathless, listening hard for what felt like an age, and his heart thudded under his breastbone like horse’s hooves on a stone floor. No clearer understanding came, and finally he rebuked himself—God deals out men’s fates as He wills. It is not for them to know their wyrd until it has come to pass. Furtively, hiding the movement behind his cloak in case Cenred should see it and mock, he crossed himself for protection.
The gesture worked—the wind swung back, bringing with it the scent of the shore, seaweed and smoke, the blown murmur of a horde of chatting voices and the clap of wet rope on masts. They rounded the sandbank and saw ahead the harbour of Uisebec, crowded with ships, seething with folk and merry with market-day colour.
A flick of fluttering blue cloth snapped against Wulfstan’s thigh as Cenred came up beside him. “The lord says I am to bring us in. You are to stand with the horses and calm them.”
Cenred had a round face, smooth and guileless as a child’s, which he held before him like a shield, protecting and defending his thoughts rather than revealing them.
Son of a coward, but none himself, Cenred had need of armour against his fellows’ scorn. Wulfstan felt…not sorry for him, for that would be an insult, but a wary, tentative kinship. He too knew what it was to be, by gift of some mischief in God, that little bit too misshapen to fit his place.
Cenred was also good looking, and Wulfstan was aware enough of his own weaknesses to know he would not have smiled so readily but for the hint of wickedness in those half-veiled eyes. He allowed himself to reach out and curl his hand around Cenred’s arm in a friendly cuff of acknowledgment. Cenred’s smile broadened in return, and his eyes narrowed until they were scarcely more than slits of glimmering lapis against the white sky. As Wulfstan ran down the keelboard, to the pregnant hollow of the ship where the horses were lying, folded down and tied, it was with a red racing of blood and a tingle over his skin as though he had slicked it all over with nettle oil.
The oarsmen put their backs into the stroke. Wulfstan threw himself to his knees in the centre of the hobbled animals and leaned over the lead stallion’s neck to calm it as Ganet ran rattling onto the brown beach of loam and pebble at the very edge of high tide. Impact jarred through the ship, throwing forward many unsecured things: a seax—the single-edged knife from which the Saxons took their name—the tack of Ecgbert’s horse, and the youngest of the lady’s maids Ecgbert’s wife had brought with her.
A bright young creature with a plump, dimpled smile and the edge of a raven curl peeking out of her veil, the maid clutched at a rower to steady herself. Laughter burst forth all around when the rower seized her by the waist and murmured something ribald. Though she slapped him in the face for it, the smack was playful as a kitten’s swipe, and they both looked delighted when he let her go.
Wulfstan indulged himself long enough to sigh as he watched them—dealing with the horses requiring nothing more now the movement of the ship had ceased.
“Envying him?” Ecgbert’s voice startled him, made him scramble up and brush horsehair from his tunic, trying to look brave and keen and steady.
Envying her, Wulfstan thought. He straightened his shoulders and raised his eyes to around the level of Ecgbert’s moustache. “My lord?”
“You are of an age to marry.” Ecgbert’s smile was a tucked-in little thing, scarcely to be seen behind his plaited white beard. “It is good that you are finally giving it some thought.” He stroked the up-flip of his moustache, aligning all the hairs more neatly. “In truth I’m glad to see you have the appetite. You have been so chaste since boyhood I thought I was raising a monk.”
Wulfstan let go of his scabbard to fiddle with his belt buckle while he thought of a way to answer his lord that did not involve lying. “Not chaste, my lord, just private.”
He looked up to gauge the older man’s reaction to this. Ecgbert had been young with Wulfstan’s father, that epitome of everything a man should be. He had fostered all Wulfstan’s brothers before him and had raised Wulfstan himself for the past ten years. Wulfstan would sooner tear off his right arm than let his lord down.
“Well.” Ecgbert’s small smile broadened into humour. “The wise man gives his enemies no cause to tattle. But I’ve never known a youth who could school himself quite so well as you. Discretion is a virtue I’ve yet to master myself.”
As they spoke, servants sidled up to untie the horses’ bonds. There came the snap of a whip and the tug of a long leading rein from the shore, and with a violent surge and clatter, the first of the horses half scrabbled, half jumped over the side onto the soft wet sand.
“I thought you liked my Ecgfreda.” Ecgbert’s observation came sidelong, his lord turning away to watch the unloading.
Wulfstan slumped, noticed that the green linen thread of Ecgbert’s red shoes had worn to snapping where he pulled them on. He sighed again. “I do, my lord.”
“So why are you not courting her? You have my favour.”
He kept his head bowed but dared to look up through the fringe of his flame-red hair. Favour in this matter tasted just like shame. “I do not have hers. I spoke of it with her, but she was wroth with me. She still is—we have not talked since.”
“Well, I will not force her. She should know her own mind. Yet you two were shoulder companions growing up. Always at some game together. I thought it a certain thing.”
Wulfstan hunched a little more. “I thought so too, but she—”
Ecgbert shook his head, his tone hardening. “Stand up straight, boy. For God’s sake, how many times must you be told? You are always trying to make yourself small. Stand up, take up space. You are a large man, let the world know it.”
Wulfstan straightened, raising an apologetic look to his lord. Ecgbert’s expression was an interesting blend of fatherly disapproval and fondness, and Wulfstan noted with satisfaction that—when he did stand tall—the old man had to look up at him.
“I would not have the world undervalue you,” Ecgbert said, watching out of the corner of his eye as the slaves made all tidy in Ganet’s belly, curling the ropes, passing the travelling chests and sacks out to their fellows on the bank. He turned his face aside to watch as the Port Reeve worked his way through the crowd towards them.
“Son of my friend,” Ecgbert finished—a little distracted, but warm—“take advantage of my wisdom, hard won, when it comes to women. If she is angry with you, you have done something terrible—”
“Which, being a man, you are not subtle enough to understand. The first thing to do is to find out what it is, and that I will help you with. Isn’t that so, my dear?”
Judith, Ecgbert’s wife, had emerged from the tent amidships as it was folded down around her, and was adjusting her wimple against the wind. She smiled at Wulfstan, though he thought it was a cooler smile than her husband’s. Always more thought, more judgment behind her eyes than ever made it out in public speech. “What’s that?”
“We will help Wulfstan here find out what he did to make Ecgfreda angry, so that he can put it right.”
Her smile gained undertones of honest amusement. “Is he frightened of asking her himself? I was not aware my daughter was such a fiend, to be approached only by messenger.”
“Lady, she won’t speak to me, either to explain or to forgive. I cannot make reparation if I don’t know what I’ve done.”
Judith shrugged the folds of her mantle back into the crooks of her elbows and linked her hands over her stomach. “Yet I think you do know,” she said. “Or would, if you thought on it. It is not my secret to give away.”
She tugged at Ecgbert’s arm. “Come, my lord, here is Reeve Alfric. Let us declare ourselves and find lodging. If we don’t get to the market soon, all the bargains will be gone.”
With one last look to see that all in Ganet lay lashed and secure, safe to be left in the care of the reeve’s men, Wulfstan followed Ecgbert over the side, waited for Judith to leap down and for her husband to catch her, cushioning her fall. Then he joined the household to walk in procession up the thronging streets of the town to Alfric’s great hall, where they would pass the night.
As the beach fell behind him and the empty white world was closed in by houses and workshops, the music came again—a different strain this time, martial and noble. He could almost feel it tightening his sinews, bracing up his soul. It was closer now, close enough to distinguish the joined voices of mellow harp and sharp, clean pipe. Looking over his shoulder to see who was making it, he almost stumbled on the rutted mud of the street. Cenred caught him and hauled him upright, and laughed about it all the way into the burh.
When Ecgbert and Judith’s things had been settled in private chambers, and a space assigned for each of the warriors in the hall, Judith unlocked the smallest of the chests and took out two leather pouches of coin. She kept the larger for herself and gave the smaller to her husband. “Give me a couple of slaves to carry the bags, and I will leave you for the day.”
“We could accompany you,” Wulfstan offered, still at Ecgbert’s shoulder. He had come prepared to do the office of a son.
Judith grimaced. “I will be half the day haggling over the salt and the other half buying spices and Frankish wine. Neither thing being a fit occupation for warriors. Go, spend money rashly. Gamble on the horse races. Get drunk. Fight. Whatever it is that you boys do out of the sight of your womenfolk, of which you like to believe us fondly ignorant.”
This was his lady in her old age, saddened by time and the suffering of life. It came to him in a flash what a sharp creature she must have been in her youth. As he followed Ecgbert out onto the streets once more, he spared a moment’s regret for the prospect of a day browsing among the market stalls. He would have enjoyed sipping new wine and running his fingers over bolts of silk brought all the way from Byzantium.
He and Ecgbert returned past Alfric’s hall and picked up Cenred and the other warriors who were leaning there in the porch. Dressed for peace, they wore neither mail nor helm, and their shields were left inside, lining the walls. No one would mistake them for lesser men even so. Tall and well fed and well muscled, they wore the best of cloth, the highest of colours. Their belts were gilded, their swords ornamented with jewels.
They walked together back down to the shore, the other youths coming behind Wulfstan, jostling and jabbing him at intervals as they would have poked at a bear to prove their courage. He took the mobbing peaceably, accustomed to it.
“Wait,” Ecgbert said, stopping in his tracks. A fat-bellied knarr lay on the beach beside Ganet, listing over a little on her side. Around her clustered merchants and farmers and a selection of youths from other lords’ households, vaguely recognised as allies across the battle lines. They were drawn up in a loose circle. On the sand in the centre of it, a seaman with a beaten face and a blue herringbone cloak held the leash of a young man of surpassing beauty.
If it had not been for the stubble of his hair, fallow like a new-mown wheat field, and the iron collar about his throat, Wulfstan would have sworn he was a warrior. He had the physique of a man trained to kill, shoulders heavy from bearing the mail and the linden shield, deep chested for wind enough to fight all day. The muscles had begun to pare away into slenderness for lack of use, and it gave him a half-made look, like a coltish boy. The shaved head made the nape of his neck stand out, vulnerable and exposed, and with no hair to hang forward into his face, he could not veil his fine features or his downcast eyes.
He stood very still as his owner expounded on his virtues. “We captured him in Cerniu. A Welsh warrior, haughty and proud. A prince, maybe—God knows they have enough of them. As you can see, he is tamed well enough now, and broken to any man’s use. It is a shame to part with him, but at my lord’s death, his widow wishes the ship and its chattels disposed of. So come, who will give me twenty shillings for a Welsh prince to work in your stables…or at whatever task you will?”
Ecgbert jerked his head, and the boys cleared him a path to the front of the crowd, Wulfstan beside him as always. “I will.”
The slave looked up. Wulfstan caught a glimpse of freckles scattered across elegant cheekbones, and of eyes, green as beech leaves, empty as a beech-bark cup. He shuddered within at that look. It was as though the boy were dead already—a profound resignation to whatever might come, as though despair was its own peace.
“You do not wish to haggle, lord?” Blue-cloak looked Ecgbert up and down. He was obviously sizing up the retinue, the jewels in Ecgbert’s sword-hilt and on his belt, the scars and creases on his face. Wulfstan prickled up like a hedgehog at the thought of this man judging his lord. A foolish old man with his best days behind him. Probably can’t satisfy his young wife and wants something more tractable to bed.
His own thoughts were unbearable to him, drove him forward, tightened his shoulders and his voice. “My lord is no merchant, seafarer. If he wishes to be generous to you, why should you question it? Payment of another sort he could give you, if he wished, did you choose to question him again.”
The boys were at his shoulder, Cenred on the immediate left, protecting his unshielded side. Their hands had fallen to the peace-ties about the hilts of their swords, picking at the knots that held the blades in place.
Both hands in the air, placating, the merchant stepped back, and now his own gaze was on the wormy ripples of the sand beneath his feet, and his own head bowed. A sick little smile flitted across the slave’s face.
“I meant no offence, ring-giver. I would be glad of your bounty.”
Ecgbert dropped a hand on Wulfstan’s shoulder as he stepped forward, and something about the quiet exhale of his breath suggested a laugh. “It is right for a man to aid a widow in the time of her grief,” he said. “What heart would hold back at such a time? What does she mean to do with this wealth?”
“Cunning old bugger,” Cenred whispered in Wulfstan’s ear, his voice full of the same laughter. “Now he gets the balm in bed and to act the man of God.”
“You don’t think he means to use the boy for…” Wulfstan hissed, horrified to find that others shared his suspicion.
The soft chuckle raised the hairs on the back of his neck as it ghosted across his skin. “Well, if he isn’t, he’s the only one here not thinking it.”
“But…a warrior? A prince?”
“Not a warrior now, is he?” Cenred’s laughter turned in an instant into anger. “If he’d not been willing to bear the dishonour, he shouldn’t have let himself be captured. Look at him standing there, meek as a maid. Even now he could be fighting back. If he ran at us, we’d give him death. No, he chooses to be a real man’s whore with every breath he takes. I don’t give dog-shit what he was before. Now, he’s a coward. I hope the old man nails him so hard he can’t walk for a month, craven little lickspittle worm.”
Spit sprayed the side of Wulfstan’s face. He jerked away and wiped it, feeling besmirched. There was a shake in his fingers he hoped Cenred hadn’t seen, fruits of a strange, shrill panic under his breastbone he was surprised that no one but he could hear. That could be any one of us, if the Norsemen caught us. They’ve broken others, do you think they could not do the same to you?
“She means to journey to Rome,” the sailor was saying, genial now he had the coins in his palm. “To make pilgrimage for the sake of her husband’s soul.”
The words conjured up a different world—gold and white. The mother of God, serene and mild, and holy virgins whose maidenheads miraculously survived all the world could do to steal it. Washed clean and made generous by heaven, Wulfstan thought. Of course, Cenred is furious because he is afraid. Because no matter how he denies it, he knows this too could be him. And he would not have it so.
“Then,” said Ecgbert, smiling with the air of a man who has ground into the dirt all those who tried to shame him, “I am all the more glad to have contributed to her weal.”
He held out his hand for the leash.
The slave did not look up, but fixed his gaze on the rough rope in his new master’s hand and followed where he was tugged. They walked a little, further down the beach, away from the ships and the crowd, into the sparse dunes, where long grass hissed like snakes over tumbled stone.
“So,” Ecgbert laughed at last. “This is the reason I am not trusted with the coin. I didn’t ask if you spoke our language. Where are you from, boy?”
“From Petrocstow, my lord.” It was a good voice, rough around the edges as though the collar had worn it down. “They taught me to speak Englisc in the boat. My name is—”
“I can’t get my tongue around your foreign words. You’ll be Brid from now on.”
Wulfstan was watching closely, but the smooth face did not alter and the downcast eyes betrayed nothing. He had not thought his lord cruel enough to take away a man’s name on a whim, but perhaps it was not cruelty at all. Perhaps he meant to put an end to what had been the young man’s life aboard ship, to mark a new beginning. Whatever his old name, it was steeped in shame. It might be a relief to be able to put it down.
“Yes, my lord.”
“You were on an oar?”
“Yes, my lord, but trusted with the sail too. I am skilled with horses and—”
“I have no need either of sailor or stableboy, but you may make yourself useful with Shipmaster Eadwacer while I consider what to do with you. Wulfstan?”
“Take him and see to it that he’s bathed and better clothed. Eadwacer is to put him to use, but he’s not to be put with the other slaves just yet. We must hold him close for a while so he does not get any thoughts of escape.”
Ecgbert pressed the rope into Wulfstan’s hand, and he closed his fingers on it, feeling accused, somehow. Behind him, Manna gave a guffaw of laughter at something Cenred had murmured, and Wulfstan felt a flash of bright certainty that they were talking about him. He set his face and tugged, and Brid came to heel like a well-trained hound.
The lads followed, but for an honour guard of two who peeled from the scrum to stand behind Ecgbert. They closed in all around, and though Brid remained utterly expressionless, passive to the point where he was almost not there at all, the stink of him gave him away—the acrid, unmistakable stink of fear.
It was Manna who shoved him first, making him stumble, catch himself awkwardly with his hands lashed behind his back and his throat jerking against the iron band. He made a small unf as his air was cut off, but his expression didn’t waver from nothingness. Bland. Infuriating.
Manna reached out, caught him by the chin and raised his face so they could all see it clearly, and now its smoothness was clearer to all as a badge of pride. It earned him a cuff around the ear. Brid staggered quite silently, righted himself, and Manna caught his face again, stepped up close. “This boy wants to be in the stables. I say we fit him out with a bridle and bit, for the lord will be riding tonight.”
Six of the boys to one slave, and all roared with laughter, except Wulfstan. Even Cenred joined in, though he joined in with everything, too eager to be accepted to discriminate between the group’s opinions and his own.
“Leave him be.” Wulfstan shoved Manna away. He was a wiry, sinewy creature without much weight—the push sent him a fair distance. Wulfstan hadn’t intended the rock that met his heel and tripped him, so that he flapped and flopped onto the dune like a beached fish, but he couldn’t have said he regretted it either. “It’s not your place to interfere with the lord’s belongings. He’s under Ecgbert’s protection, and Ecgbert is a kind man and would not have his slaves abused.”
Manna flushed an ugly purple and leaped to his feet. He unclenched his hand from his sword-hilt with an effort, bared his teeth. “You like him! You hope when the lord’s finished with him he’ll crawl out to you. Fucking suck-up that you are.”
Cenred had found his bravery enough to sober and catch at Manna’s elbow. “Enough, Manna, you let your mouth run away with you. Hush now before you hurt yourself with it.”
Manna’s blood was too high for retreat. He gave a bright laugh. His eyes flashed. “Like that, would you—to share the same hole as your lord? Bet you’d bend over for Ecgbert too if he asked.”
A great silence and a moment of disbelief, when no one in the party dared acknowledge what had been said. All Wulfstan’s tangle of emotions went away in one great and glorious burst of skin-peeling fury. He was barely aware of wrenching out of the hard grips of his friends’ restraining hands. The sound of their protests was a peeping like the voices of little birds in the back of his mind as he drove across the small space that separated them, knocked Manna’s hand away from his weapon and locked his fingers around the fiend’s throat, squeezing.
Manna’s face was clear and bright in Wulfstan’s vision. He watched and treasured every change from astonishment and regret, to fear, to panic and pain. The purple suffusing Manna’s face deepened. His tongue crept out from between his writhing lips. At last he went limp.
As Wulfstan shook him to wake him up again—for it was much less satisfying to throttle a man when he flopped like a new corpse—something smashed into the side of his face and knocked him off balance. He let go as he fell, and as he rolled to his feet, all five of the lads surrounded him in a wall of clinging hands and concerned looks.
Ecgbert ran up, shaking his white head. “My back was barely turned and you are murdering each other! What is this?”
“He said…” It was suddenly hard for Wulfstan to draw a breath. He worked his lungs like bellows but could not find air to speak.
Cenred stepped into the silence, eagerly. “Manna…” He touched his tongue to his lips as he looked for a less damning way to say it, but found none. “Said that Wulfstan would welcome…a man’s attentions.” A hand-flip and a quick rush to exclaim, “It wasn’t an accusation. He didn’t mean it. It was only an insult, intended to anger, and in that it succeeded better than he hoped. Wulfstan was furious. We couldn’t stop him.”
“Does Manna breathe yet?” Ecgbert asked, and when Cenred knelt at his side, brought his cheek to the open mouth and nodded, Ecgbert frowned and nudged the fallen youth with his foot, ungently. “One day many of you youths will be men. Until that day, the wisdom of God continues to winnow out the fools and feed them to the cold earth. Wulfstan?”
“My lord?” The anger, leaving, had taken his strength with it. He struggled not to shake. Not to let tears come to his eyes.
Ecgbert drew his sword and handed it to him, hilt first. “For this only of all insults you had every right to kill him. Yet he lives. Do you now wish to finish the job?”
Wulfstan didn’t know what to do. Spare the bastard and…would people think it was true? But…but he didn’t think he could kill him. Not now, with him sprawled defenceless in late-autumnal light, a band of bruising around his throat like the marks of the gallows tree.
Also, it was true. Could he really kill a man for speaking the truth?
He closed his hand around the sword-hilt. The ring on the pommel clicked as it turned in its setting. “Cenred says it was a…” He was ashamed at how his voice slurred. His teeth met in his cheek as he bit down, getting himself in hand. “A joke, my lord. I didn’t find it funny. Yet neither would I kill a man for something he didn’t mean. I will abide by your decision, if you’ll guide me.”
“I say spare him. For though he has deserved death, he is a young idiot and may yet grow into something worthwhile. Still, he must go home to his father. I will not have in my following a lad who would make such remarks about his brothers in arms.”
Seeing Wulfstan’s distress, Ecgbert clapped him on the shoulder and smiled. “Come, they say only a strong man can afford mercy, and you have proved yourself strong today. Did not Beowulf seek reconciliation with Unferth, though he had been insulted? He was the most perfect of men.”
Ecgbert dusted his palms down on the skirts of his tunic. “Now, Cenred, Aelfsi, you take this piece of trash to the docks and find him a boat home. Wulfstan, take Brid to Judith. She’ll know what to do with him. I hope not to see any of you again until I see you at the hall this evening.”
Knowing they were past the point where pushing him was safe, the lads wandered off behind Ecgbert, letting Wulfstan be. He breathed deep, getting himself in hand, forcing the inner animal safely back beneath his skin. A few more moments soaking in the peace of sea and sky, and he had become human again.
With Judith likely out at market still, Wulfstan took his chance to thread among the stalls and look at the wonders on offer, calming his mind with the sights. Here came the produce of the whole world, goods from countries where the folk lived in stone houses and went about in cloth of silver. Conversely, goods from savage countries, where the men were indistinguishable from monsters, shaped differently from the men of Christendom—men with single feet, heads in their chests, scales like dragon scales on their bellies, single eyes.
Soothed, he looked at the young man trailing obediently after him and said, “You are a traveller.”
Quick flash of those leaf-green eyes, and he realized he had been wrong—they were willow green, not beech. “I have been, lord.”
“You’ve seen uncanny things? Wondrous things?”
He thought the soft voice took on a hint of amusement, but didn’t trust his perceptions enough to take offence. “Perhaps I haven’t been far enough, lord. It was little but men in different clothes. And men are all the same.”
“Not so.” Wulfstan paused before a display of knives, picked one up to test its heft, ignoring the craftsman’s fawning deference. It occurred to him that the lad had seen him almost murder a man who accused him of being willing to lie with his lord, and yet he was assumed to go to it willingly.
How did you speak across such a chasm? Perhaps you didn’t. Perhaps you assumed that crossing that gap cut a man off from mankind. Perhaps it was his willingness to treat the slave as though he counted for anything that had marked him out for the taunt in the first place? Either that, or his inward nature showed on his skin like a mark.
He had a quick, suicidal urge to ask “What is it like? I dream sometimes…” and stifled it. He would not tell that to any creature, let alone this one with no fondness nor ties to him. Nor could he expect to get a useful answer from one who had come by his defilement unwillingly. “Ecgbert is a good man,” he said instead. “You will not be mistreated here, whatever impression the lads may have made on you.”
This time the slave’s smile was open, open like a smoke hole to give a glimpse of white nothingness behind it, empty and unknown. “I have no fear, lord, in as much as I have no expectations at all. Let come what will come. I will endure it.”
Wulfstan no more knew the answer to this question than his friends had. It tore out of him, trailing confusion like gouts of blood on its barbs. “Why?”
Brid met his gaze, and it was as though his body was empty of a soul, as though no one was there. For a moment it seemed he would not answer, but something in Wulfstan’s face, perhaps, moved him to say, quietly, “It seemed to me braver to live than to die.”
A stir at the end of the street, where bodies were packed in tight between the fishermen’s huts, caught Wulfstan’s attention. A roar of laughter and of applause came rolling up the hill towards them. Wulfstan felt it break over him like a wave as he stood with the slave’s words chiming within him—making something ring inside that he had not known was there.
“What was your name?” he asked. “Your true name?”
The boy laughed—very gently, very apologetically—and said, “Brid, my lord. That is all that is left of the truth.”
The crowd had begun parting, and Wulfstan spotted Judith, throwing something silver-bright on the ground in front of a skinny old man. The man rose and bowed, and next to him, a slight and slender youngster did the same, offering Wulfstan a good view of his cap of wild gold curls and the harp in its bag on his back.
Wulfstan’s unease slid without warning into urgency. “So here is the source of that music I’ve been hearing all day,” he said, mostly to himself—to Brid only as an excuse to talk out loud. “I thought it was spirits, but now, see, it’s only one young imp and his master, drawn here to play to the crowd. Let’s go and make them sing for us.”
He walked as fast as he wished, and Brid followed him at the same pace, so as not to tug on the leash.
There were wives hunkered on the street, selling everything out of baskets. There were bales of salted fish, hard as bark. There was honey-bread flavoured with ginger, and a tray of little custards with the last of the season’s cherries wrinkled and tart inside them. There were tablet-woven laces and edgings for tunics, bright with new colours and intricate designs. Arrowheads, and feathers to fletch the arrows with, and leather quivers to carry them in. There were dried apples, and belt buckles, shoes and lampreys, eels and eggs.
All of these wares their sellers shoved in his face, urging him in loud voices to sample, try and buy, to smell and squeeze and feel the quality. So by the time he had pushed past them all, made his way to Judith’s side, the harper and his boy had dodged up an alley and were nowhere to be seen.
He swallowed unreasonably acute disappointment—a desire to know at once if these two had really been his portent, or if he should look for something else.
Under the scrutiny of ladies in waiting, he accepted Judith’s hug before tugging Brid forward to stand in front of his lord’s wife, sparing a moment to worry about what she would say. “My lady, Ecgbert bought this slave, and bids you wash and clothe him more suitably. His name is Brid.”
Judith looked the young man up and down, adjusted the set of her wimple, the curve of her hands not quite concealing a brief expression of weariness. It had gone by the time she lowered her hands again. “My husband is always so thoughtful. I am too old to safely bear any more children, and I would strangle at birth any get that threatened my own sons. This was a wise purchase. I will do as he asks.”
To Brid she said only, “You see those two?” and indicated the slaves she had with her, both of them dressed in undyed wool and cast-off shoes, without weapon or ornament and with their greying hair cropped close. They were reshouldering a great pile of baskets and sacks, while ostentatiously pretending neither to look nor listen to the conversation.
“You can help them with the baggage for now, while I consider where to house you. Wulfstan, I won’t be left with an untested slave and no sword to guard me. You will have to spend the day accompanying me after all.”
“I’d be honoured to, lady.”
At that she laughed, the heaviness lifting from her face and her back straightening. “I do believe you mean that, strange boy.”
He did. There was too much to look at in the market. It would have been a waste to spend the day fighting, gambling and drinking with his companions as he did every day at home, and miss it all. “I do,” he agreed, good-humouredly. “I was hoping to find the harpers again. I’ve been hearing music on and off all day, and I need to track them down just to prove to myself that they and it fit together.”
“Ah,” she said, and her head was turned, so that some of the sigh was for Brid, who had joined the other slaves, had his hands untied and the leash removed. The collar remained for Ecgbert to remove or not as he pleased. “But we are just off to the salt merchants, and they are tucked behind the dunes on the coast. We will leave your scops behind, I’m afraid.”
As he trailed down the coast path behind her, keeping a wary eye on Brid and an indulgent one on the gossip of the maids, Wulfstan thought back on the day. He had disappointed Ecgbert, been accused of the unthinkable and broken a friendship as a result. Ecgbert had disappointed and worried him in return—manly though it was to fuck one’s defeated and enslaved enemies, it hardly seemed Christian, or kind. It was all of a part of the day that he should have set his heart on a music he was now going to be denied.
His fretfulness must have showed, for at length, Judith put a hand on his arm. Evening was falling and the ladies drooping. The slaves staggered under their blocks of salt. “They’ll be at the hall,” she said quietly. “I’ve never known a harper to turn away from a captive audience or a free meal.”
It was true. As they were packing away the burdens in the chest set aside for Judith’s use, he heard the tune from this morning come winding through the twilight on the firelit smoke of the hall. He was drawn there as if under a spell, throwing the door wider, finding a wall of backs, thicker than the reek of sweat and fish and smoke. Somewhere near the high seat pillars, a glint of gold accompanied a sound like honey. Plunging in, he swore to himself that this time would count for all. With this encounter he was going to mend the whole day.
Wulfstan took a moment to let his eyes adjust. Outside, a yellow sunset filled the streets with saffron light. Inside, only the great hearth’s amber glow and the few smoky dishes of fish oil, hanging alight from the crossbeams of the hall, provided any relief from the brown darkness. Talk and laughter surged all around him, almost drowning out the soothing lilt of the harp—it stitched together the little pauses, formed a homely backdrop for the many conversations. Don’t be so impatient, it said, you have all night. You have me here trapped.
As his sight grew accustomed to the dim, the colours of the wall hangings grew deeper, richer. The gilded paint on the wolves’ heads above the door began to gleam out. The pillars of the hall were blood-red, carved and painted with ships and whales and sea monsters, white and green and blue. Now he could see the guests in all their finery—the great silver brooches that held back their cloaks, the glisten of silk and bone and gold.
Pushing past the lower tables, where common fishermen and traders ate their meals off wooden trenchers and supped from beakers of leather, he found Ecgbert already seated on a cushioned bench at the high table. This—stretching from side to side of the end wall—was covered in finely woven lawn cloth, white with bands of indigo and red. It glittered all over with glassware—claw beakers and horns of glass held up by delicate iron supports, and conical beakers, refilled to be drained in one gulp, because they could not be set down full.
Servants had just begun taking down the spitted boar that sizzled over the fire in the great central firepit, and others were ladling pottage from the larger of the two cauldrons. Its chain wound up like fighting serpents into the dark of the roof, where it coiled around one of the beams. Ecgbert beckoned, and Wulfstan ran up the stairs of the dais and went to the place set for him at his lord’s right hand.
Just at the edge of the dais, between the feasting lords and their folk, a three-legged stool had been set, and there sat the old man from the market, his eyes closed and his head bent over the carved harp in his lap. Music spilled out from his moving fingers like mead, soothing and sweet.
Wulfstan’s fellows were at the table already, and there was a brief uneasiness as he sat, a shuffling to put a little more distance between himself and them. He harvested looks out of the corners of a dozen eyes as they tried to gauge whether the battle madness had left him. Then Cenred leaned forward and pressed a full mug of ale into his hand, and all the backs around him eased, slumping.
He answered a few questions, returned a few taunts absentmindedly, watching the harper, waiting for that sensation of magic to return. This music, beautiful though it was, and clearly powerful enough to soothe the angry souls of a hundred young warriors eager for glory and seated together, was not what he had been hoping for.
The old man was not meanly dressed. His garments were well made and fine, but of a dozen diverse ages—good shoes worn shabby, a green cloak rubbed thin over the shoulders. A cast-off tunic of indigo, too big for him, with the sleeves rolled back so that his skinny wrists showed beneath. Dear Lord, he was skinny. The hall’s umber light made hollows of his cheeks and his eye sockets, gouged out the thinness of his jaw and the fragile collarbones that showed where the ample tunic had slipped off one shoulder.
Still, there was silver at his throat, and a silver bracelet over one of his sleeves. His face might have been that of welcome death, serene in its gauntness, with deep scores of laughter around the mouth and eyes. He was all but bald—a few brave hairs clinging to the base of his skull, but his moustache was a glorious thing, a great moony sickle, the ends hanging down to brush his thin chest.
Where was his imp—his servant, his young helper? Wulfstan earned himself a glare of disapproval from his lord by shovelling down meat and barley stew in heaped spoonfuls, untasting, and cramming bread so fast after it that half the portion tore off and landed on the floor. He slowed down, remembered his manners, picked up the bread he had dropped among the fresh scented reeds and made the sign of the cross over it to dislodge any ill-giving demons that might have hopped on board before he returned it to his plate.
Looking up at the hall’s high wind holes, he saw it was dark outside, and excused himself from the table to go and find an alley to piss in. That too did not go down well with Ecgbert or with their host, Alfric, but Wulfstan was feeling itchy and ill done by—thwarted at every turn in the one, single thing he had set himself to do this day—and he did not take the hint of their vinegar looks.
Outside, the autumn evening had grown chill and a dew was beginning to rise from every flat surface. A green haze hung about the silver-blue moon and bruised all the shadows that fell around him. The day’s voices had fallen silent, and now the town was filled with the whispering of the sea.
Finding an angle between two walls, Wulfstan hauled up his skirts and relieved himself swiftly. This was not a time of night to be out of doors, alone in a world that sunset had handed over to the powers of darkness. They drew close, at night, the things that lived in the wilderness and listened with envious hearts to the laughter of men. At that thought he adjusted his linen, tightened his hose and turned back, no longer annoyed. Better Cenred and Aelfsi, Ecgbert and Alfric. Better Manna, than whatever might lurk out here.
Coming in to the porch, a little too fast, his eyes dazzled from the light indoors and his mind mazed with thoughts, he didn’t hear the other man until he collided with him. The breath went out of him in a round thump. There was a brief impression of long limbs, slim and bony. Then a resonant voice went “Oh!” without any of the apology or the instant deference Wulfstan knew himself entitled to.
He didn’t think before grabbing narrow wrists and holding on, but he did twist so that the light of the fire fell on his companion’s face, and he did breathe in, hard, to see he had finally caught the fish for which he had been angling all night. For this young man had the sheepskin bag of a lyre on his shoulder and a bone whistle clutched in his right hand.
Loose curls the colour of Byzantine gold bounced absurdly around a face as thin as his master’s. Hard to see it clearly in the leap and cower of firelight, Wulfstan only got glimpses, enough to believe he saw beauty, sharp and fine. A gazehound of a man, built for speed. In the shifting bars of radiance through the door, his eyes looked full of fire, so that Wulfstan couldn’t tell the colour, though he tried.
The harper breathed out—a sigh that was also a laugh, and the ends of his lips turned up. Wulfstan couldn’t be sure, but he thought the smile mocking. It lit something in Wulfstan that snapped into sparks with a crack.
“I’m waiting for your apology, churl. Then you may step aside and let me pass.”
The laugh was a little louder this time, and the mockery more certain. “You ran into me. It’s you who should apologise.”
He couldn’t believe it. The creature had only an eating knife at his belt. He was as frail and thin as straw, and a beggar in the hall. Wulfstan had never been so affronted in his life. “Men like you get out of my way.”
He really thought the man’s eyes were that colour—all madder red and gold with fire. The thin mouth twisted up, and underneath the laughter there was pride like a coiled snake. The snap of it took Wulfstan by surprise, no more so than the shove in the centre of his chest. At some point he must have let go of those sinewy wrists, for now he found himself pushed back into the join of door and joist and pinned there, all the other man’s weight crowded against him.
He saw stars over the harper’s shoulder shining down on him like spear tips, and he knew he should push back—that this man didn’t have either the weight or the training to hold him. He should push back, and hit and hit again until the little nobody was taught how to deal with his betters. A profound helplessness seemed to have come over him. The man was beautiful in the darkness, and his body and his anger were hot against Wulfstan, and the thin fingers with their calluses that had risen to yank at his hair in childish spite were slowly ungripping and sliding down to bracket his face.
Here there was less light, their combined weight holding the door shut, the fire inside. The harper’s eyes were dark now, but they were wide open, fixed on Wulfstan’s, and everything behind them was sharp and hard and proud, demanding. Though slight, he was taller than Wulfstan.
He pulled at Wulfstan’s face, angling it, and Wulfstan let him. Just at that moment, Wulfstan would have let him do anything. He felt that someone had taken his bones out and replaced them with honeycomb, and that as long as he didn’t frighten this away, if only he didn’t move, he might burst into puddles of gold, sticky sweet.
“Huh.” That small laugh again, surprised, delighted, and the harper leaned in a touch more and the mocking lips closed hot over his own.
Breath against his mouth and the tentative press of a very daring tongue, and Wulfstan’s mind and scruples joined the wash of thick liquid gold that was oozing out of all his pores, making his heart thud slow and heavy and his loins ache deep. All the resistance in him, false as it was, melted into warm oil and left him boneless, compliant, waiting for the other man to take the lead, wanting him to.
Who knew where it would have led, but just as the young harper had shaken off his surprise, taken back his long hands and might have done something more interesting with them, the door bounced against them both, and a determined pressure began to grind it open.
Someone was coming through. The thought knocked at the gates of Wulfstan’s mind once and was ignored. The second time it battered them down. Someone would see! Someone would see him, surrendering his body to another man’s use, like a slave—but worse, because he was doing it willingly. Heaven’s Warden! How they’d laugh. How they’d despise him, all of them. How his lord would mourn, his father too, and his mother would weep. No man in all of the kingdoms of the Angles, nor anywhere in the world, would ever look again on him without contempt.
Wulfstan’s hands, which had been powerlessly clutching at the wall behind him, came up, grabbed ahold of the scop’s tunic. He lifted the man off his feet and threw him bodily backwards. The harper twisted, cat-light, in the air, so that he would not fall onto his back and crush the lyre he carried. He came down heavily on his shoulder, knocking cheek and chin against the portico’s other wall. Wulfstan had stepped forward, grabbed him by the collar and raised his fist to land a punch in that trespassing mouth, before the door opened wide to let through a burly fisherman and his sons. Behind them stood the boy’s master, bent and frail as last winter’s leaf left on the bough.
The old man could move fast enough, mind. He had thrown himself at Wulfstan’s feet in a breath, clutching in supplication at his knees.
“My lord! Please, whatever the boy’s done, leave him able to sing and to play. They are baying for music in there and I am an old man, and tired. He must earn our bread, or we shall go hungry. I beg you, lord…” Tears stood in the rheumy eyes, making Wulfstan feel like a monster atop all of the raging confusion of this moment. “I beg you. He’s a foolish child, and I have indulged him too much. I will punish him myself. I have no doubt his wicked words deserve a whipping. Only please don’t—”
“He deserves…” Wulfstan stopped himself. The harper had drawn himself together in a tangle of long limbs against the wall, and looked shaken, perhaps even penitent. Struggling with his thick head—he hadn’t regained the power of thought—Wulfstan remembered what it was that the young man deserved, for suggesting that one of Ecgbert’s warriors could possibly want to yield to him. Death. If Ecgbert would let him kill Manna over the suggestion—Manna who was a shoulder-companion, the son of a man of rank—he would positively demand it for this nobody.
The younger man wiped blood from his nose and came to his master’s side, which left him kneeling too, his blond head bent and his gaze fixed on the floor. Wulfstan was left looking down on the elder’s entreating face, the bowed nape of the younger man’s neck. “He deserves…”
What did he deserve, for taking advantage of Wulfstan’s weakness and giving him what he hadn’t really known he wanted until that moment? What did he deserve for being a more natural man? “He deserves a good hiding. He was disrespectful to me and is fortunate that I am a merciful man. With another he would not have been so lucky. That mouth of his will get him killed, if you do not teach him to shut it.”
Without letting go of Wulfstan’s knees, so—unless he wished to kick the frail ancient off—he was pinned in place, the old man nudged the younger, who scrambled to his feet and eeled back inside among the crowd without a backward glance. “I will teach him so, my lord.” He bowed, until the ends of his long moustache trailed on Wulfstan’s shoes, and shed warm tears on his feet. “Thank you. Where I travel, I will tell of your kindness. I will link your name forever with—”
“No.” Wulfstan’s skin crept. “Let me earn my reputation in battle and not for forgiving little slights. There is no glory in beating a scop, so where is the glory in refraining? Silence will serve.”
It was an age-worn smile he got in return, soft as an old cloak. “As you wish, lord.” Creakily, wincing as his joints straightened, the old man struggled to his feet. “I am Anna, my lord. Anna of Cantwarebyrig. Though I have very little, what I have is yours to command, in gratitude for your generosity.”
Give me your boy. Wulfstan’s heart spoke, or perhaps it was a devil speaking directly to his soul. This day had been cursed from its beginning, and he was suddenly weary for it to end.
He inclined his head, accepting the offer of service, but didn’t open his mouth to say anything more for fear of what might come out. Anna withdrew, and Wulfstan stood gulping for breath, his prick bruised with need and his mouth full of the taste of another man’s spit.
When he came back in, making the flames of the fire bow as he passed, the hall seemed suddenly bright as day. He felt every man’s eye on him.
Wulfstan knew what he looked like from the many times he had lost his temper and seen sudden fear spark in the eyes of his playmates and friends. He was tall and broad and heavy with muscle, and when he chose to show it, everyone took notice. Now, some of his confidence returned, sure those who watched him saw only a warrior proud in battle. No one looked beneath the skin to the turmoil within. He was safe.
Servants scurried out of his way, and the local townsfolk either bowed their heads or averted their eyes as he climbed back onto the dais, into the whirling pool of light from the hanging bowls of fire, into the glitter of gold and the bright colours and clean cloth of his rank.
The scops were both there before him, the older man on his stool, the younger cross-legged beside him on the floor. Not part of the high world, but permitted to occupy the same space—and therefore not quite part of the lower either. The bruise had begun to show on the cheek of Wulfstan’s angelic-looking young man, and there was a streak of blood yet behind his ear, where a hasty cleaning of his bloody nose had smeared it. He looked down sharply when he noticed Wulfstan watching him, but somehow his deference had an air of mockery.
Now Wulfstan felt again that everyone must know. He felt on show, stripped, waiting for judgment. Pushing past the two as they tuned their harp-strings, he walked to his seat, trying not to make it look as though he fled. They don’t see it. None of them see it. They never have, they never will.
Putting a hand on Aelfsi’s shoulder to steady himself, he hitched one leg over the bench, then the other. His companions’ faces lifted to him without alteration, as though they had no idea his world had changed in the brief time he had been apart from them. He sat, and as he did so the sound of the ripest, fattest fart ever let loose by man echoed off the walls of the hall. There was a silence, and then everyone began to laugh as though they were possessed.
Wulfstan whirled and caught the young harper taking his fingers out of his mouth, joining in with the laughter, the older one clouting him on the ear, though he smiled. The poisonous little bastard! He’d done it on purpose. By some harper’s magic, he had made the sound appear to come from Wulfstan, though actually produced elsewhere.
Humiliation boiled up from the soles of his feet to the roots of his hair and lifted him off his seat as though a giant had hauled him up by the collar.
From his place by the Port Reeve’s side, Ecgbert said sharply, “Stop him,” and Aelfsi on his left, Cenred on his right caught an arm each and with some struggling forced him back onto his bench. He made two more attempts, almost unseating them, before the rage drained off, leaving him cold and sick and miserable.
Familiar with his moods, Aelfsi patted the arm he had been holding and let go, and Cenred thrust a full beaker of mead into his hand, watched as he downed it and called for it to be refilled.
Awareness came back slowly. At some point the young man had begun to sing, and it was a voice of bronze—powerful but subtle, beautiful but strong, its measured cadences and striding beats sweeping the listener along as if galloping on a spirited horse. As the humiliation faded, Wulfstan noticed with grudging thankfulness that no one was looking at him. They were all taken up in the rush of the song, reliving a well-known story, hearing it afresh as though they’d never heard it before.
The mingled voices of harp and lyre—the gut strings of the harp mellow and rounded, the metal strings of the lyre silvery, shivery, triumphant—filled the firelit shades, wound up the pillars of the hall and pooled like the smoke in the ceiling, and everyone in that place quietened and stilled under its influence.
Ecgbert leaned forward in his place. “You feel that?” he murmured, low enough to pass beneath the spell of the music. “They have no weapons because theirs is a strange magic. One that can soothe a hall full of men or drive them mad. One that can bring immortality or eternal condemnation. Whatever a man truly is, he is remembered only as the scops choose to remember him.” He passed Wulfstan a dish of apple dumplings drenched in honey and smiled.
“It is better to be remembered as a gracious man, one who knows when to laugh, than it is to avenge a harper’s hurt. They are like priests. It’s easy to think they are of no consequence because they pose no physical threat. Their power is no less real than ours for all it lies in other things than steel.”
Sullenly, knowing he was being sullen and hating himself for it, Wulfstan spooned a couple of the dumplings onto his trencher and ate, and the high, shrill sweetness of them joined the melody and worked a little miracle of calm. After a while he was able to put the spoon down and sigh, “Yes, lord.”
Yes, lord. And if you had told me this an hour earlier, I might have been saved. I might not have run my ship quite so hard onto the rocks of fate. I might have stayed sinless all my life, a proper man.
That was a lie too, as all his thoughts today had been lies. He was a creature made up entirely of pretense. What else was there but to pretend to be what he wished to be in the hopes that in time pretense became habit, and habit by degrees became the truth?
“As you see.” The hall warden smiled at Leofgar defensively as he gestured to the floor, where bedding had been brought out and stretched in one unbroken line from wall to wall. “We have no space to house you for the night.”
The warriors were stripping off hauberks and piling them on the tables above their heads, lying beneath, shoulder to shoulder under their overlapped cloaks, crammed in and companionable like badgers in their sett. A few wealthy merchants and seafarers had inserted themselves around the walls, where it was coldest. Leofgar thought they could make one more gap if they pleased. “They are already so squeezed, asking them to shuffle up a little more could be no harm. I don’t ask for myself—I can sleep outside—but my master is an old man, and has sung himself raw tonight. You will not, surely, throw his old bones out into the cold?”
The warden dipped his head, his shaven crown gleaming in the lamplight. “Alfric has asked me to thank your master and to offer him this ring in gratitude.” He held out a finger ring of gold, set with a little garnet in the centre. Behind the garnet, a sheet of patterned metal caught the light and threw it back, making the stone glow and glitter. It was a princely gift, but Leofgar would have traded it with a light heart for a spot by the fire for Anna.
He was about to haggle, but his master limped to his side and took the ring with a courteous nod of the head and a smile. You would never have known, Leofgar thought, looking at Anna, how much more welcome would be an invitation to stay.
Sighing, Leofgar relieved Anna of the harp bag. Swaddled tight in her lappings of lamb’s wool, Lark was silent and smug against his back. She knew she had played well. She at least was content.
She too would have been better off in the dry warmth of the hall, rather than taken out into the night to face the blood-month’s chill and the cold dews of dawn. He could see from Anna’s sharp glance that any more arguing would earn him a switch across the back, and though the weakness of the old man’s arm had taken the sting out of his blows a long time ago, it was his disappointment Leofgar chiefly feared. He hoisted his own bags, took a last swallow of beer from a nearby cup before the slaves could tidy it away and, having thus relieved his dry throat, forced out a word or two of thanks and farewell. They would be back for the fair next year—no sense in leaving ill will behind to welcome them.
Outside, the night was dark and silent. Clouds had ridden up out of the sea and veiled the moon. The houses and workshops of the town showed only the occasional line or star of amber, where firelight bled through the holes in the walls. Otherwise the buildings were scarcely darker than the spaces between them.
The mud squelched underfoot, churned up by feet and carts and sleds and horses. Every footstep was a struggle against a grip that held on and pulled back. Leofgar’s shoulders were tight from an evening of playing, and the straps of their bags cut thinly into the aching muscles. The pit of his stomach trembled from having sung and piped so long. Wind froze his cheeks and made his ears sting, and he was afraid to ask how Anna fared, whose joints ached unceasingly in anything but the hottest of summers.
He felt basely ashamed. For surely they would have found a place in the hall if it had not been for his revenge on that boor. His master could be curling up now on a thick mattress of straw, under their shared cloaks, warmed on all sides by bodies and the embers of a noble fire, but for him.
They reached the end of the street, and here at least the mud became shallower. A little light came up from the harbour, where the wide sea shone grey. Fishermen’s huts, scarcely twelve feet long, lined the wharves, their shingled roofs sloping down almost to the ground. Beneath the eaves, Leofgar could have lain, rolled in his cloak and sheltered just enough from rain and wind to fall asleep. Dark lumps swathed in cloth clustered around each building, where other travellers had had the same idea. But that was a game for the young, and a death sentence for the old.
“I could knock,” he whispered, feeling Anna take the opportunity to draw close and lean on his arm. “At one of these doors. Someone will be glad to take silver for a night’s lodging. I would have you lie in warmth.”
In the dark, the old man’s weight bore heavily down on him. He could feel a shiver through the thin hands that grasped his biceps, and when a wind came moaning through the streets and stirring the straw with a rattle by his feet, cold flowed down his own spine like heavy rain.
“Every year”—Anna chuckled, though his voice was thick and rough in his throat—“we say the same things. We will stay where we always stay. It does well enough.”
He had taken the lead now, walking cautiously through the blind dark. Leofgar followed, through the cluster of huts, out onto the narrow track that took them over dunes and down into the next bay.
Proud as the devil, Anna had drawn ahead, his back straight and his step long, the wheeze of his breath muffled behind one hand. But he stumbled on the way down and let Leofgar catch him without a curse, and that was new this year. New this year too was the way that—when they went on—he let Leofgar take his elbow again and gradually bear more and more of his weight, until they hobbled as one creature, slowly and painfully into the fumes of the bay.
This was a narrow inlet too shallow for ships. Instead, the folk of Uisebec had built salt pans here. Hurrying clouds parted for a moment, and the moon lit the white walls that dammed the outflow of the tide, made them glitter as though they were drifted over by snow. Pillars of steam rose silvery up to the stars, and the damp warmth enfolded them both as they limped closer.
The air was bitter on the lips, and salt crunched underfoot as they found the first of the boarded walks along which sleds were pulled from the pans to the warehouses. A sullen red glow at the most distant pan showed where a peat fire smouldered. Slaves tended it. They looked up with faces from which life had leached all expression, even fear, as the harpers loomed out of the night. They were glad enough to exchange a place at the fire for music and news, and the promise that Leofgar would take a shift at their work, let them sleep an extra hour.
Some of the faces were new. Some they had come to know over ten years of markets. One of these, a man called Asc, watched as Anna propped himself up against the low wall of the pan, wringing his hands over and over, trying to rub out the aches.
“He’s too old to be out here with us.”
“You see?” Leofgar turned to his master with a triumphant smile. It faltered and fell away as the russet light painted all the lines on Anna’s face with a light like blood. Some magic was at play—or some had been withdrawn—for it was as if he were seeing ten years of hardship fall on the old man at once.
Time set its stamp so slowly on change, he thought, that you go for years not noticing that anything new has been wrought. Then one day the scales fall from your eyes and the world has been unmade around you. He’d jokily called Anna “the old man” for the past decade. He’d called him “ancient one” indeed, since Anna first stopped at the cot of Leofgar’s family and offered him a glimpse of a life that was not all sheep. But Leofgar had been a child in those days, and “ancient” had meant “has some grey in his beard”. He hadn’t really appreciated that ten years of sleeping in ditches had changed them both since then.
Now he saw for the first time how haggard Anna’s face was—the way his skin hung off, creased as a linen tunic put away damp. Age spots, bruises and broken veins mottled the backs of his hands and his bald scalp. His eyelids had folded over on themselves and weighed his eyes half-closed at all times. They were fully closed now, pressed tight, and his forehead was scored deep with furrows of pain. It hit Leofgar, like an arrow through a lung, that his master looked not only old but frail, like a heathen sacrifice dredged out of a bog. A skeleton clothed in second-hand skin. Death had started to show, like a fraying edge in a garment too weak to be resewn.
Triumph turned rapidly into ashes, but he finished his thought nevertheless. It was only truer now. “I was right. We should have paid for lodging. We can afford it, and you should have a bed softer than this sharp ground.”
“That silver is to tide us over when I can walk no more,” Anna mumbled. “Which is soon, but not yet. We will need it more then, for you will leave me and find a lord to serve, and I will pay for some good wife to nurse me to my grave.”
In the heart of the fire, three round, granite rocks nestled like dragon eggs. Asc took one between iron tongs and, lifting it out, dropped it into the nearest salt pan, where it sank with a hiss and a bubbling. After some fishing in the milk-white water, he picked out a second, now cold, and set it gently down at the edge of the flames to ease into warmth before it went back into the hottest embers. When he had done, he traded the tongs for a paddle on the end of a long stick, and scraped the salt on the bottom of the pan—soft as new butter—to the sides.
While he laboured, Leofgar took the tongs in his turn and brought a second stone out of the fire. He pulled his spare tunic out of his bag, wrapped the glowing thing in it and placed it in Anna’s lap, folding his master’s hands around it. Anna opened one eye. Despite his weariness, there was a wry twinkle in it.
Leofgar smiled in return, painfully fond. “You know I’ll do nothing of the kind. We will find a lord together, who will take us both. Then I will take care of you. Are you not my father, that I should leave you behind? Don’t ask it of me.”
“Yet you left your own sire without a backward glance.” Anna smiled to take the sting out of the words. “You are a wanderer at heart. And perhaps I should find a lord to praise with my remaining hours and leave you to walk the earth alone, being thrown out of mead halls for picking fights with men twice your size.”
Distracted, Leofgar grinned. The taste of that victory remained sweet, despite his guilt. “We scops are beholden to no one,” he said, taking out the parcel of bread and meat and pastries he had purloined from the hall, sharing it with Asc, Anna and the other two silent ones. “We are masters of our own craft, who have attained skills and knowledge those butter-fed bruisers could never imagine. Why should we scrape to them as though they were saints, or humble ourselves as if to the holy ones of God?”
“Ah.” Anna brought his knees up so that he was more firmly curled around the hot stone. “I thought it must be your fault that you and he were at odds.”
“He walked into me and demanded I apologise.”
“You could not have feigned regret, though it might have spared you a bruising?”
Leofgar edged as close to the fire as he could get, so that when slow, grassy sparks drifted out they landed on his cloak and singed it brown. He propped up his feet against the hearthstone and watched steam rise from his shoes, as his warming feet tingled and his ears throbbed with returning blood. It was better to think on his adventures this evening than it was to look too closely at his diminishing future.
“He…” It was better still to conjure up the warrior’s face in his mind. He’d been a big man, yes, half as wide again as Leofgar and all of it muscle. But he had a generous, feminine mouth, plump in the lips like two silken cushions. More than that, he had worried eyes.
The mouth might have been a fluke—a moment of whimsy on God’s part—for why shouldn’t the creator have a little fun now and again, gifting the burliest of men with incongruous beauties? The eyes, though… He hadn’t seen the colour, but he had seen the doubts, the thought, complicated and cautious, as out of place in the brutal young man as his woman’s mouth.
“He seemed the sort who would take a joke,” Leofgar finished, abruptly changing his mind. He wasn’t sure he wanted to talk about this after all. “I swear, if I had thought him a complete arsehole, I would have kept my head down and been as meek as you please. I am not altogether in favour of my own martyrdom.”
“Just bear in mind that we will never gain a place in any lord’s household if you cannot learn discretion. It is no shame to give every man what he wants. It is part of a scop’s skill—to please, to praise, to flatter and to fawn. And I would rather have a home in my old age than any amount of cold gold in my pocket.”
“I would rather have my freedom,” Leofgar mused, pushing the now-dry stone into the centre of the fire. The salt on it burnt off in long blue flames, wondrous to behold. “I know all the songs tell us how terrible it is to be alone, without place or protector, a wanderer in the wilderness. I can recite the lament of the lordless with every syllable dripping with woe. It isn’t to be alone that I fear, it is to be caged. Bound to some man who thinks that because he feeds you he thus owns you. That his are the words that come out of your mouth, and his are your thoughts—that you exist only to praise and serve him. How can a man of pride bear that? How can any real man be content as another’s servant?”
“I’ve an answer to that.” It was the slave, Asc, who spoke. “For I was starving, and my family were starving, before I sold myself to Alfric to pay my debts. I tell you, you can’t have ever been hungry enough, if you think you wouldn’t embrace a few years as someone else’s chattel rather than see your young daughter die, with the bones all but sticking through her skin, and her bright eyes like wounds.”
He replaced the hot stone in Anna’s bundle, raked out and changed the one in the pan, and sat again, all unselfconsciously, as though no shame weighted down his shoulders. Leofgar thought that Asc had a dignity Anna shared, that he himself—spiky as a hedgehog with pride—did not. If the price of that dignity was to learn to submit to something greater than himself, whether that be famine or old age, he had no desire to pay it.
“We all serve in the end.” Anna nodded at the slave’s words. “Asc serves Alfric, Alfric serves Hereswith, Hereswith serves the king. The king serves God. In the end we are all alike in needing to surrender to God’s will, for the Lord of All works our wyrd as He sees fit, and our weal is only to do—for the fleeting days of our mortal life—as we are given to do.”
He shifted inwards, gingerly, as though trying to get as much of himself as he could in contact with the hot stone. Leofgar didn’t like to see the way his old arms moved, jerking against his will, closing creakily slow, like a door whose leather hinges have stretched and left it gouging its way through the ground.
By the side of the salt pan, under a shallow shingled roof to keep it dry, a stack of peat waited to be burned. Leofgar brought out hairy, dirty bricks of the stuff and made a mattress of it in front of the fire. Anna accepted his help to struggle to his feet and limp the few paces from the wall to this makeshift mattress. Supporting him, Leofgar could feel the effort it took him to kneel down again, to lie, straightening himself out on the dry and yielding surface. The fire shone on his face and warmed his chest and belly. Leofgar put the stone at his feet and tucked the pack with their clothes beneath his head to serve him for a pillow. He lay down behind and blanketed the old man’s back with his own scrawny body, wrapping their cloaks around them both.
The turf was soft beneath them and smelled of ancient heather and dust—long-ago vanished summers in a time of giants. He let his arm rest about Anna’s waist and felt the old man’s shivering slowly ebb as, in their swaddlings, it grew warm. And I serve you, he thought. Reluctantly—for it didn’t suit him to think himself bound by ties of obligation to anyone.
“There is no shame in serving a lord worthy of you,” Anna mumbled, his voice drowsy. “I do not know why you need to be told the things that are obvious to all.”
“Perhaps my mother was right.” Leofgar yawned, sleep circling him like a friendly dog, dark of pelt, calm of eye. “She said I was a changeling child, some elf’s get set in the place of a man—her own child spirited away to herd sheep for the folk of Frey. Perhaps that’s why I want folk to see that I am more than I seem to be. Because I am.”
Anna’s chuckle turned into a shallow, rasping cough. “Or perhaps it is just your monstrous pride.”
Leofgar laughed softly, though it hurt him sore to feel the coughs go on, shaking Anna’s ribs. He wouldn’t have known, had they not been pressed tight, for Anna made no noise at all to betray them.
“Perhaps it is.” And it was true, for he was a monster of pride to care for his own name and reputation more than he cared for his master’s comfort. The sheer ingratitude of his arguments struck him dumb. He owed Anna everything, and the old man should have everything he desired, if only the chance might come to give it to him.
With this decided, he allowed the hound of sleep to settle on him, breathing deep, weighing him down like a coverlet. As he slipped beneath its spell, he saw again the dark bulk that was the warrior with the worried eyes. There was one who had everything they both desired—the respect of every man, and a high and noble place in a good lord’s household. Yet it hadn’t seemed to be what he wanted.
Lust swam sinuous through his dreams like a snake in a stream as he felt again the thrill of power and astonishment that had gone through him when the other man—the deadly creature, sword skilled, hard handed, the maker of widows—had given everything up to his control. He saw it. Bullying boor that he was, he saw in Leofgar what Leofgar knew to be there, and he had given in to it with all the gladness of a new bride.
Perhaps it had not been the brightest of his ideas to humiliate the man in front of the entire village. The thought occurred—as these thoughts so often did—far too late. Made him groan and squeeze his eyes tight shut and hide his forehead against his master’s shoulder. Anna reached back and patted him consolingly on the hand, but it did very little to take away his regret, the feeling of a wonderful chance wantonly squandered. Monstrous pride, indeed.
By midwinter, freedom seemed not so sweet to Leofgar. The ground glittered as he slogged uphill towards the land of the Gyrwe, the cold of it striking up like shards of broken glass through his feet. Every step jarred aching limbs and joints, bloodied his heels in his hardened shoes and rang out, bell-like, as though the whole earth beneath him had turned to metal.
Snow heaped by the sides of the road. If it hadn’t been for the stakes hammered in by the path’s edges, he would not have known where it lay in the wide, white, featureless landscape. Ahead, a couple of trees stood out black as calligraphy against the parchment world, and in the fields they passed, the thin cattle already staggered, their hip bones sticking out like wings.
They had stayed at Watewelle for Christmas Day, and done what they could to repay warm food and lodging with songs of holy mirth. But even then Anna had been too weak to sing, and there had been very little of gratitude in Leofgar’s heart. Two weeks later, and the feast of twelfth night saw them here, swaying with exhaustion in the middle of nowhere.
The cold burned Leofgar from feet to knees, hands to elbows, his face gone past pain and into numbness. Still, he was the better of the two of them, for Anna no longer troubled to conceal his cough. Couldn’t have done if he’d tried—it now shook him like invisible hands, racking and tossing him. It began as a single hoarse cry and worked up until he was doubled over, gasping for breath, making inhuman whooping noises, while tears leaked from his eyes and blood ran from his lips.
They left a red trail in that white place, bright and festive as holly berries.
Leofgar would have wept too. Inside, the dammed tears grew into a deep lake that filled his dreams and made him feel as though he were drowning. Outside he simply tightened his arm around the old man and bared his teeth in a determined smile. “They said at Chidesbi that the lord of this land lived only a day’s journey away. Come now, it must only be a little further. Two or three more miles, and we’ll take it slow. Lean on me, and we’ll be there just in time to eat.”
Anna breathed out of his nose in what passed for a laugh for him now, but didn’t open his eyes. His face had changed so over the past months of deprivation that Leofgar sometimes woke in panic, certain he’d left his real master behind somewhere, and this one was an elvish abomination. Then he would study the old man and see where—beneath the marks of famine and chill—the same gaze looked back at him, tolerantly amused.
Shame dogged him as much as hunger. Where now was his gratitude for all Anna had taught him? What did it profit the old harper to have lavished his care on so useless an apprentice? One who could not even keep him warm? If he had only been more tractable, milder in temper, wiser in restraining his unruly emotions, they might have spent the winter in a new home, slowly blossoming beneath the care of a generous man with a warm house and a place by the fire for them both.
The path rolled into a hollow full of snow, and at each footfall they sank into it to their knees. Bitter, stinging cold soaked his hose and melting ice trickled into his boots, his softened, wet feet rubbing raw as he walked.
He thought of turning round, going back to Chidesbi, but they had made it clear their harvest had been poor and their stores were low. To try to winter there could bring death to them.
The short winter day was already going down in gloom, and the wind pierced them with a million needles of ice as it whispered past. Coughing, making harsh, barking, doglike noises, Anna pushed him away, fell to his knees and, slowly bowing forward, planted his forehead on the snow. “…can’t.”
Something snapped inside Leofgar’s head. Anger and desperation flooded him, and all at once he was hot. He grabbed his master’s arm and pulled, teeth clenched, until he had hauled the old man to his feet. Bending down, he got his shoulder into Anna’s stomach and lifted with all the strength in his back.
He felt the snow should melt before him. In the blast of his fury, it should whirl away and scatter and show him green grass. It should let him walk out into summer and wheat fields drowsing in the sun.
It did not, of course, but the strange fit carried him to the brow of the hill, and there—though the wind froze his breath to his lips—he saw, dark as crow wings in the distance, the ash and smoke of a fire on the empty sky.
Fury carried him almost all the way there, past workmen’s huts and a scattering of dwellings, past a moat and palisade crowned with silver-grey oak, past two gatehouses on either side of the track, from which the guards came running to lift Anna down and urge him to stop.
Their voices made piping noises in his ears, devoid of meaning or sense. He tried to wrest his limp master from their grasp and push on past. Only a few hundred yards away, past forge and bakehouse, weaving sheds and chapel, past the bower house and the stables, rose up a majestic hall. The smoke billowed out of its wind holes, and just the smell of it was warm.
With a berserk, desperate strength, he shouldered the guards aside—how dare they keep him from refuge? They were shouting now. He dodged open-handed blows, his ears ringing as he tried to walk on.
A man came out of the hall. He could not have been other than its lord—cloaked in wolf’s fur, gold at his belt and his throat, and his purple tunic stitched in wide bands of it. A tall, upright man with hair that gleamed as silver as a blade, and a wry wisdom in his leathery, lined face. His authority hit Leofgar at a hundred paces from his person. Poised at the edge of the spirit world as he was, Leofgar could almost see it—a penumbra of gold, as though he carried the sun inside his skin.
At a word from the man, the clutching hands of the guards fell. Leofgar was left alone, with Anna, unconscious, sagging from his arms. His harper’s eloquence deserted him, and he stood helpless as this glorious man unpinned his fur and swung it around Anna’s shoulders, wrapping and supporting him in one gesture.
“I am Tatwine,” he said, gently. “Lord of this place. I was only wishing for bards on this holy night. You are very well come. Now, let me see your master tended to, and let me take you in and seat you by the fire.”
At his nod, the guards picked Anna up between them and bore him into the warmth. Leofgar, with tears swimming in his cold eyes, stumbled after, and Tatwine steadied him all the way.
Leofgar didn’t know how long he sat by the fire, absorbed by the flare of the embers, while around him the life of the hall ebbed and flowed, and feeling returned slowly to his stinging hands and feet. He didn’t believe he had any thoughts at all during this time, but sat mute as a stone, pushed beyond his humanity by that final flare of strength.
Only when Tatwine returned and berated the cup bearers for not bringing him wine, tucked a strong hand under his elbow and lifted him without effort, did he stir out of his stupor. And that was to look up into the lord’s face without comprehension or thanks, stock-still and wordless.
Tatwine only smiled, and carefully took the snow-melt wet hat off Leofgar’s curls, surprising him by how much better it was without its clammy touch.
At last, Leofwine’s mind returned, bringing with it anxiety. “My master is…”
“Is abed. Come with me.”
Already Tatwine’s folk were setting out the tables for the evening feast, twining new branches of evergreens into the wilted Christmas boughs. From the bakehouse, a scent of spices floated into the compound and tingled the frosted air. The horses in their stable, beneath a good thatched roof and shielded from the wind by wickerwork screens, snorted companionably at Leofgar. A little haze of warm fog rose above them, smudging the evening’s sudden, terrible clarity.
For when he looked up, he saw that all the clouds had drawn apart. The night was on them full, and acres and acres of sharp stars were poised to fall on him with killing cold. The short journey out of the further gate, to a small thatched hut under the trees beyond, blasted out of him the small amount of warmth he had regained by the fire, and it came to him, slowly, that if he and Anna had had to sleep outside tonight, they would both have died.
Anna lay in the hut, looking withered and small in a bed heaped with blankets and a mattress stuffed to creaking with straw. He smiled as Leofgar came in, and his weary eyes were reassuring and kind. Leofgar circled the brazier of coals in the centre of the floor and sank to his knees at the bedside, lowering his forehead into Anna’s open hand. Behind him, the door closed and they were alone.
His tears dripped onto the old man’s fingers, making Anna shift over so that he could lay his other hand on Leofgar’s head, either in blessing or comfort. “I swear,” Leofgar said after a time, “this is where we stop for the winter. Everything I can do, anything I can do to make this man take us under his protection, I will do. I will not… I will not… I’m sorry.”
Cold fingers stirred his hair and rubbed his scalp soothingly. When he looked up, Anna’s expression was wry and fond but not hopeful, and Leofgar was shaken with a fierce determination to prove that he could do it. He could be pliant and helpful and courteous and meek, if his master’s comfort depended on it. He could. He would.
“Then…” Anna coughed softly and flailed for the cup set beside his bed, where horehound boiled in wine and honey sat steaming. A swallow stopped the cough as dramatically as a tripwire stops a galloping horse. “You should run over what you are to play tonight. That praise-song we wrote for Saebyrt of Ingenwic could be—”
“Altered for Tatwine,” Leofgar agreed, calling the lines to his mind, running through the places where the new name tripped up the old rhythm, replacing the lines that praised too-specific feats with well-worn kennings that could apply to any good lord. It took him only enough time for the burning coals to shift and settle once, and he said, “I have it,” drowsily, and snugged a little more firmly against the side of the bed.
A hand tugged weakly at his hair. “Up,” said Anna, “and get in. It must be late afternoon—you can sleep for two hours or more before they’ll need you, and nothing to be gained by doing it on your knees.”
So Leofgar took off everything that was wet and, rolling into the nest of blankets, put an arm around Anna’s hips, tucked his face into his master’s flank, ignored the brief opening and closing of the door behind him, and fell asleep, determined to wake up as a better man.
The feast passed in a blur of topaz candlelight and deep, rich colour. Leofgar’s sleep had not been nearly enough to relieve his bone-deep tiredness, but it was enough to give the evening a dreamlike quality, in which only the music felt solid. Had the walls of the hall trembled and dissolved into chiselled stone, showing him entombed in an elvish mound, he would not have been surprised. Indeed, they did shimmer in his sight like a lady’s veil in a breeze, but so too did the floor, and his own hands, and anything on which he tried to turn his eye.
The night was a long swirl of mead and inquiring eyes. He lost track of the friendly faces of warriors and maidens both. One red-headed fellow stuck in his mind only for having the same colouring as the fire, and for handing him cup after cup of beer until the carved roof beams seemed to come alive and the wolves on the rafters started leaning down and watching him. If any of his listeners noticed his flubbed notes and trembling fingers, or—worse than that—the absurd tears of exhaustion and gratitude he had to keep blinking from his eyes, they were too courteous to mention it.
The hastily embroidered praise song for Tatwine prompted a banging on the tables so loud he almost thought it thundered, and it was the lord himself who did him the honour of supporting him back to his master’s side. Unwinding his bracelet of plaited silver, Tatwine fastened it around his wrist. Dimly, Leofgar realized this was a momentous thing—the first time he had been the evening’s master, the first time he had been given the reward, rather than having it, and the compliments, go to Anna. The thought had a sweet taste at first, but soon turned so bitter he wished he could spit it out.
At some time in the evening, a servant had brought Anna a platter of good things from the feast, buttered worts, meats and bread, and king cake rich with fruit. It sat untasted beside the bed, for the old man was asleep. Silently as he could, Leofgar joined him.
It took two weeks before the overwhelming kindness began to trouble Leofgar. A glad welcome, he was used to—though not always one as wholehearted as this. What he was not used to were the hints that they should stay. “When this frost eases,” said the red-headed man, whose name he had now learned was Hunlaf, “in the spring, you should come with us to catch the early geese. I’ve heard that a skillful piper can call down the birds to the hunters, isn’t that so?”
Leofgar was sitting by the fire with him, helping—with his dextrous fingers—the other man to wind cord around the fletchings of his arrows. He shifted, so that the friendly hand the warrior dropped on his thigh landed on his knee instead, and said, “I would be glad to.”
He had promised Anna, after all, to cause no more trouble, told himself that this would be the refuge his master dreamed of in his old age. He could not be sure he had just been insulted. Hunlaf could simply be one of those men who must crowd close and touch everyone with whom they talked. Besides, he was one man, and easy enough to avoid.
Nevertheless, noticing Tatwine’s disapproving eye on him, Leofgar cut the conversation short after that, and went to speak to Lady Edith, the lord’s mother, from whom he was learning the history of Tatwine’s family—their generations back to Scild and through him back to Woden. In payment for this lavish hospitality, he could at least make an account of his host’s line, something that would make the dry subject matter stick in the mind and let all Tatwine’s tenants know of his connection to royalty.
Edith was happy to reminisce for an hour, with her distaff tucked under her elbow. Her spindle lowered like a spider towards the ground, climbed back up as she wound the new thread on, lowered again as she spun, her movements so practiced they carried on flawlessly while her mind ranged back over years and miles, back into the old days on their distant homeland, into forests pregnant with gods.
Leofgar made himself useful, transferring wool from a full spindle to a niddy-noddy and thence into balls, and gradually he found himself in the centre of the lady’s women, all peacefully sewing or spinning together, taking up the stories like dropped stitches from their lady’s hands and spinning them out, correcting or elaborating.
After a little while they began disappearing to the bower house, searching through chests and coming back with tapestries that told other stories, half-remembered. They would puzzle over them together, and he would commit to mind what they agreed was the closest truth, and wind it into poetry as they worked.
It was so comfortable and useful a thing that, after seeing his master tended to—neither better nor worse, able to rise from his bed only to sit by the fire an hour and then return—Leofgar came back the next day, and the day after that.
On Sunday, after a morning in the small wooden church, packed in and warmed by many bodies, Tatwine captured him, still with the smell of attar of roses in his nostrils, and prevented him from going back. Leofgar looked at the painting, on the far wall, of the tree of life that was Christ, and thought many things—chiefly that Tatwine had come to ask them to leave, as was long, long overdue. He wondered how he could beg the man to at least let Anna stay.
Over the past days, winter had eased its grip a little, and long slanting spears of rain had washed away most of the snow, softening the ground beneath. It had been dim and cheerless and bleak. Today, though, the rain had dried and a wintery sun was making the wet earth gleam. The paintings of vine scroll around the door were so very green they almost hurt his eyes, and the purple grapes looked full of wine.
“Walk with me,” said Tatwine, “while we may. There is something I want you to see.”
Tatwine’s holding lay in the gentle hills near Lachesslei, with common forest bordering it to the north, and everywhere else the prosperous signs of good husbandry. Coming out of the gates, they turned west and walked clockwise around the partly frozen moat. A swathe of grass and scrubby trees led down to the graveyard. Here a fleet of graves lay like upturned boats with long grass growing over them. Most floated in the stream of the sun’s passage, facing from east to west, but faint discolourations in the grass, so old they were no longer mounded at all, faced north to south. Amid these, either in challenge or in hope of doing them good, a preaching cross had been erected, and in a landscape of faded grasses, dun mud, dun trees against an off-white sky, the cross looked like a window into a better world, scarlet, azure and gold with gilt and paint.
Tatwine led him—slowly, as though he supposed Leofgar not fully recovered, or perhaps as though he was gathering his thoughts—to the side of one of the larger mounds. There, a sprig of holly with bright red berries had been laid down, and so Leofgar knew that whoever was inside had been beloved and was remembered.
“She was but a girl when we wed,” said Tatwine, looking down with his hard face rueful. The lines at the corners of his mouth stood out like gashes, and his hands were clenched around belt and sword.
“Your wife?” Leofgar encouraged him in a soft voice, because it was clear enough to him that this was something the lord needed to say, and it was some small measure of repayment to help him say it.
Tatwine smiled, tilting his head towards Leofgar without taking his eyes off the grave. “Her father and I arranged it.” He waved towards the distant hills, where ox teams had almost finished ploughing the narrow strips of fields. “Her dowry would include the arable land my steading had so badly needed. She did not wish to come. I was not to her fancy, this old man her father’s age, boiled hard by life like a leather cup. Yet she did as her father asked, and I was as good to her as I knew how. For a time I believe we were both happy. I was, at least.”
Silence, and Leofgar came in on the beat. “What happened?”
“She died giving birth to our first child. The child died also.”
So Leofgar knew that the folds of Tatwine’s face did not conceal fury, but grief. “The weary spirit cannot withstand fate. Nor does a rough or sorrowful mind do any good. So I, often wretched and sorrowful, far from noble kinsmen, have had to bind in fetters my inmost thoughts, since long years ago I hid my lord in the darkness of the earth,” he chanted, part of him caught up in Tatwine’s sorrow, part thinking of Anna and the fate he was finding increasingly hard to ignore.
“Indeed.” Tatwine unclenched his hands with clear effort, frowning at them as though he had not meant to display so much unseemly emotion. “It has been a hard year, with this like a stone on my back, and a hungry winter. My days and my nights have been like wounds, one atop the other. So I take your coming here, on the holy feast, as a gift from God. I have prayed for a friend to whom I might unbind my thoughts. Here you are.”
Leofgar caught himself in the act of stepping backwards, turned it into a fidget he hoped would look more like one innocently surprised by intense words than like a man preparing to flee. Why should he flee? What was there in this that touched his skin like fire and made him recoil? Why was he, as Anna often lamented, so cursed to think ill of all?
He composed his face into a smile. “I am…overwhelmed, my lord. You do me too much honour. I am nothing but an itinerant musician. Not worthy to speak to you except through intermediaries, and only to tell you how grateful I am for your kindness. I am not of a quality that could ever hope for friendship with such as you.”
Tatwine smiled. “That, I think, is for me to decide.” He seized Leofgar by the elbow, his strong fingers almost crushing the whistle that Leofgar routinely carried up his sleeve—it was for that reason, and for that reason alone, that Leofgar flinched.
Tatwine steered him further downhill, to where the river that fed the moat emerged and spread into a wide, still pond, full of the sinuous shadows of grey fish. There they came out onto a short boarded quay. The slaves who had been fishing on their church-enforced Sunday afternoon of freedom gathered their rods and baskets and fled silently from their approach.
“Look,” said Tatwine, and gestured to Leofgar to lean over and look into the dark water. He saw fins gleaming faintly silver on the humped backs of swirling trout, old leaves and stones at the bottom, sifted over by the slime that was the common destiny of all that perished in this impermanent world.
“What am I looking at, my lord?”
Tatwine laughed, surprised and seemingly confirmed in his thoughts. “I do not think that you know what you look like, Harper. I am trying to show you what every warrior in my hall saw, the night that you staggered through our doors, carrying your aged master so tenderly, though you were at the very end of your strength yourself. Look.”
Now the exercise made him feel a little sick, but he had promised himself not to be disobedient for no reason, and so he tried. He’d seen the face before, in polished cups and puddles. It seemed thin to him, despite a fortnight of good meals, and the eyes regarded him warily, as though they suspected him of being up to no good.
A stoat-like face, he thought, too sharp, too weasely. His hair was getting too long, past his shoulders now and in danger of hanging into his harp strings, but he admitted to being a little vain of the colour. Why should he not wear gold when it came by nature? The softness of it stopped him from resembling the kind of scrawny feral cat, which begs from door to door of a wic hoping for scraps, that he often felt he was.
“I…I’m not sure I see…”
Leofgar searched his lord’s face, seeking a clue to tell him what the man wanted from him, watched as it thawed further from command to a kind of fondness he felt he had done nothing to deserve.
“You truly do not see it. Well, perhaps that is for the best, for it protects you from the vanity that must have surely followed if you had. Come then, let me tell you plain. When you limped into the hall that night, you were fair as one of the heavenly kingdom’s angels, and slender like a reed, and delicate as a woodland flower. I was not the only man moved by your beauty and your frailty in that hour, but I would contest with any the right to claim myself the most affected.”
These words of praise were not at all to Leofgar’s taste. They burned him up inside with shame and sullenness. Indeed, he had opened his mouth to say, Being starved does not make me a modest maiden any more than famine makes the wolves of the forest gentle, before the thought of his master leaped up and stopped his mouth.
He bit his lip to keep the words in, and turned away. “I, um… Again, I hardly know what to say. My lord, you have driven the wits straight out of my head.”
Tatwine seemed not unpleased with this. He took Leofgar’s arm again, this time carefully avoiding the whistle held snug by Leofgar’s tight shirt cuff. His fingers were gentler this second time, but neither thing made Leofgar less inclined to flinch.
The fingers slid up between overtunic and shirt and came to rest over the heartbeat that pulsed in the crook of Leofgar’s elbow. From there, it felt as though the tides of his blood spread the touch through every inch of him, itchy and invasive.
“I have seen the great love between you and your master,” Tatwine went on. “When you first came, and I opened the door to see you asleep in his arms, I honoured you both for it. He must be remarkable to win such a prize as you, and you must be remarkable to stay with one so old—now that he cannot protect you as he used.”
Oh, Leofgar thought, knowing that his burning face—hot with humiliation—would be interpreted as a slave-boy’s blush of womanly pleasure, so now it is clear. He was furious with himself that he had once imagined himself welcome because he was good at his calling—because his singing was sweet and his music full of power. Instead he had been welcomed as the beautiful daughter of an aged traveller might be welcomed, and vied for, and won at last by the strongest.
Yet he had promised Anna to do anything rather than be sent on the road again. Anything that would let his master stay and recover his strength, so that when he did escape this place in the middle of the night and torch it on the way out, his master would be hearty and hale beside him.
“I owe my master everything,” he said slowly, clinging to Anna even now as a lifeline thrown from a fairer riverbank. “I was a child when he took me in, and he has raised and fed and taught me, and given me everything that I am. We are bound together by obligations and gratitude that can never be undone.”
“This I understand,” Tatwine said kindly, “and I admire. It is a little like my wife and I—though she was scarcely more than a child herself, and I so much the elder, yet in a marriage these things count for little.”
He began to amble away from the jetty, letting the slaves who had been watching them both from the shadow of the trees drift back and take up their fishing places once more. Since he had not let go of Leofgar’s arm, sick and sore at heart or not, Leofgar had to follow, back up to the graveyard and the little wreath of holly like spilled blood on the ground.
“The hurt of her passing would have been greatly eased, for me, if you had been here,” said Tatwine. “And…” he sighed, “…you must be aware that your master is very old and not at all well. The time is coming fast when he will join the saints in glory. At that time, I will be to you the comfort I myself wished for, when death came ungently into my house.”
“I had thought…” Leofgar wrestled with the desire to kick the grave marker or to kick Tatwine or to pull his dagger and declare himself entitled to single combat to clear his name. All three were choices he could see leading to his own grave. “When that unhappy hour arrives, I had thought to go on pilgrimage after and offer the silver we have earned over the years in prayers for his soul. After that…I am a wanderer by inclination, lord. I hoped to cross the sea and visit the Emperor in Byzantium, to see the warm places and the wonders of the world.”
Tatwine laughed as though this were a child’s dream. “We will go together, perhaps, once you and your master have sworn fealty to me. This summer, should he still have the strength in him to travel. The heat would do him good.”
“Sworn fealty?” It was the ultimate prize for a scop—a place in the lord’s retinue—and Leofgar felt the impact of it as though it had been a punch to the throat. Only his surprise must have come across, not the dread, for Tatwine beamed, like one who sees a generous gift lavishly appreciated.
“Indeed. I spoke to your master about it before church, and he wept over my hands in gratitude. You need have no further fear of what may come, for your days without protection are over. You can swear to me tomorrow night, and henceforth you will both be mine.”
Outside the shut door, the rains of Solmonath drizzled and trickled from the thatch, making a musical whispering that pleased Saewyn as she whispered words of power over the apple in her hand. Last of the winter store, the skin was as wrinkled as her own, but the sweetness of the thing would be that much greater for its age.
“It does seem smaller.” Beorthread the potter glanced up at her from his bed-shelf with hope and faith, and looked back again at the weeping sore that covered his right flank from armpit to hip.
“It will,” she said, serene in the knowledge that—unless God chose to take this man, which no one could forestall—the power of the chant and the salve would soon make him well. “These nine plants have might against powerful diseases, against the flying venom and the running venom, the red poison and the bright poison, and the pale. Now let me make the salve a second time, and you will see the sore flee away. By the third time it will be gone.”
With the hallowed apple in one hand, mortar on her knees and pestle in the other hand, she was in no position to stoop down and scrape up ash. Where was…
She tried not to sigh, disappointed, as—looking up—she found her son crowding the potter’s daughter into a corner. Cenred’s straw-straight hair looked golden in the light of the single oil lantern that hung flickering from the house’s central beam, and there was something about it, something about the hunched shape of his shoulders, the tensed arms and face turned away, that reminded her of his father.
A giggle from the girl told her it was flirtation she saw and not intimidation, but her own mouth dried and her heart rattled in her chest like the feet of a fleeing deer, even so. He had begun to resemble Cenwulf so much, and not just in the outer man. Less in flesh than in spirit, indeed.
“Son,” she said, as gently as she could manage, “I need your help. Rake me up a handful of these ashes and put them in the cauldron, with a little water and the fennel from my basket. Build up the fire so that the water boils. I may not put the apple down now.”
Cenred’s sigh was unrestrained. He rolled his eyes at the girl, as if to say, I am beset about by interfering women, but see what a loyal son I am, and took the four steps from the end wall of the house to the firepit with as much labour as though they were a hundred miles. “You should have put the ash on first.”
“As I would, if I had not brought an assistant to whom I wished to teach some of my lore before I grew too frail and it was too late. Cenred, I am trying to give you a gift. A gift of power.”
“Women’s power.” He shrugged as though a raven had landed on his shoulders and he could twitch it off.
“It is neither women’s power nor men’s power,” she replied, her voice calm, though it felt that the organs inside her had grown heavy with her sadness. “It is anyone’s power who has the gift of it, and you should have, by your blood. By my blood.”
“You know what they whisper about me.” His round face should not have been able to look so hard. Yet she remembered many times in the past when his eyes had been swollen shut and his cheeks purple with bruising, and thought that each time his father’s hands had touched him they drove hardness into his skin like stone. “That my blood is the blood of a coward. You would mend that by suggesting it would be better to be known for having the blood of a woman?”
It is a punishment, surely, she thought, because after him I took it into my hands to bear no more children for my husband. Bad enough that he should hurt this one in his heart, but no more. It is a punishment because—when Cenwulf died—I felt glad. The Holy Lord must not have finished teaching me the lesson Cenwulf was meant to teach, that now he repeats it with my son.
“If I die,” she said, bending her head over the mortar, working the herbs into a powder and mixing them with the ashes and the juice of the apple, “your lord’s household will have no healer. More warriors will die, more babes and their mothers, more of the common men who grow our food and more of their cattle will die for the lack, and we will all suffer together. Do you think the elves and the unfriendly spirits who surround us in this world of shadows will go away when I do? Who will defend us, if you will not?”
“I will defend my people with force of arms, like a man.” Cenred retreated to the far wall again, too angry as yet to look at the young girl he had been trying to charm. “The church will do the rest. There is no need for you and your heathen witchery in Ethelwulf’s England.”
Saewyn did not gasp, though the feeling of being pressed down from within grew harder to withstand. She arranged the folds of her wimple on her shoulders as an excuse to drop her son’s gaze and look away. It was a strange and ugly thought, but sometimes she wondered if his father’s dying spirit had found some way to stay on earth, to leech itself to her son’s body, drive out the sweet child he once had been.
No, she would not entertain it. Instead, she put a faggot of wood on the fire and watched the bubbles come up around the edges of the soot-dark liquid. When it boiled, she pulled the sleeve of her underdress down over her hand to protect it and lifted the cauldron off.
“I apologise,” she said to the potter, in what she was proud to say was an encouraging tone, “for bringing into your house the secrets of my own.”
Despite the pain of his wounded side, he laughed. “Children have a venom greater than that of any adder, and yet we are powerless to do aught but cherish them.”
“You are not meant to be healing me.” She helped him sit forwards, so that she could sing the charm of nine spikes into his mouth, and into both ears, and into the open wound. She could feel his laughter under her hands when she combined the herb and apple mix with the ash and fennel water and spread it on, pleasantly warm.
“…all weeds may now spring up as herbs. Seas and all salt water slip apart, while I blow this poison from you.”
A roar of laughter and the shriek of a girl genuinely in distress yanked her attention back to her son. The wide smile on his likable face would not have been out of place in the jaw of a wolf. Saewyn did not at first comprehend what it was he had in his hand, white as wool, and then she saw the girl with her arms over her head, her elbows sticking up like horns as she bent her face down into the thicker shadows beneath the house’s one table.
Cenred flourished the white cloth at her, snatching it back when she tried to take it, and laughed again.
The potter was trying to struggle to his feet. Saewyn leaped up instead and hauled up the skirts of her dress with a sooty hand so that she could run across the floorboards and wrench the poor child’s wimple from her son’s hand. The slap she landed on his cheek cut off his laughter like a seax blade, and he looked at her as though she were a stranger.
Shaking with anger, she didn’t care, but allowed the girl to take her covering and wind it back around her hair. “What?” she demanded, not recognising the bell-like iron tones of her own voice. “What do you think you… No, hush, I will hear your reasons at home. For now you will ask pardon of this young woman, before whom you have shamed your mother and your father and your own name.”
Soothed by her fury, the potter leaned back heavily on his ledge, but his spare, muscular hands clenched and unclenched beside him, and his breath came hard.
His daughter, decently covered once more, emerged out of the darkness with eyes tear-bright from shock. A tendril of brown hair curled out of the fabric and fell on her forehead, and it made the shame in Saewyn writhe like a nest of snakes. “I will, of course, not ask payment from you for any of your treatment henceforward Beorthread.”
“That will pay for having my daughter’s hair exposed to the sight of a man, will it?” The gentle old man was gone—he took the insult as hard as she did.
“Of course not. It will only express some of my regret that such a thing could have happened at the hands of my kin.”
“And a daughter’s honour is worth so little?”
“No!” Saewyn siezed Cenred and pushed him further into the firelight. “Tell him you are sorry.”
Cenred’s mouth had settled into sullen lines, and his eyes were a blade-thin glimmer. “She provoked me,” he said. “She was flirting. She let me kiss her. I thought a girl as immodest as that deserved to be exposed. Why should she be allowed to go on pretending to be virtuous, when she is nothing of the kind?”
Saewyn and Beorthread were both silenced, and saw the same horror in one another’s eyes. As Saewyn wrestled with the thought that her own son could have so inherited his father’s meanness and cast about for something to do to make the situation less vile, a small voice spoke up from the shadow of the darkest corner.
“I… It’s true.” The girl hid her face in her hands, starting at the touch of the curl, hastily tucking it back in. “I did—I thought he liked me, I did let him… I’m sorry, Father.”
At once, the standoff crumbled. The potter sagged back onto his cushions, and he too covered his eyes. “I think perhaps you should go, Wise One. Shame has touched us all today, but if the fault was provoked, I shall not expect further geld for it. Sorrow is the spice of all our days once we grow old, but I did not think to find mine here. Go.”
Saewyn packed all her jars and simples into her basket in a hunted silence, and ushered her son out of the door before her with almost the same movements she would use to drive out demons. That was not a comforting thought.
Outside, the rain fell and mud-month was living up to its name. Rain slicked Cenred’s hair and dripped into the corners of those ungenerous eyes. It soaked through Saewyn’s wimple and began to trickle cold down the back of her neck.
As she shivered, scarcely needing this to make her more miserable, a change seemed to come over Cenred’s face—the lines of it eased. His eyes came out of hiding and showed themselves blue and concerned. He took off his leather cloak and swept it around her shoulders. Took off too the oiled leather hood that he had not bothered to raise, and placed it carefully over her head.
“I’m sorry.” He smiled, and it was the face of her young son, before the stones. “I don’t know what came over me. She was so…forward and lewd, it didn’t seem right for her to go about in the guise of one who was virtuous. It…offended me. Was that wrong?”
Now she wanted to embrace and comfort him, for he looked so lost, as though he had been a long way off, watching himself act and puzzling over it. She thought again the thoughts she had put aside earlier. “Are you so very perfect yourself, son, that you must make yourself the right hand of God’s judgment?”
“I do try.”
She was relieved enough to laugh. “As do we all, and all fail, and all of us therefore must lay ourselves penitent at the Lord’s feet and hope for the mercy we are told must come.”
He took the basket from her, letting her pick up her skirts as they both ran back from the huddle of houses where the potter lived among shared fields, into the burh and the great hall’s warmth. The leather cloak flapped around her legs and water dripped off the hood, and she was no more than damp when they arrived, though Cenred was so drenched he might have crawled up out of the moat.
She watched his face light up as his friends among the warriors drew apart to make a space beside them for him, close to the fire, and felt love still, going all the way through her like the spit through a roast bird, when he turned to her and waited for her permission to join them. He is proud of me, she thought. No matter what he says of my work, he is proud of his mother. It made everything feel well again. A little pebble of unhappiness to swallow, instead of a boulder.
“Will I try to teach you again?”
“I would rather not, Mother. I am not suited to it.”
You used to be, she thought, in those old days when you would trail after me, with rips in your knees and armfuls of muddy roots, with tangled hair and a smile that took up half your face. Before your father filled your heart full of stones. But you are the man of the household now and I suppose a man has to put down childish things.
And all the strivings of the world are vanity. All of it shall be lost.
She smiled and inclined her head beneath the supple gape of the hood. “As you wish. I would not force you to go where your heart tells you you do not belong.” I do not have that kind of influence over you any more.
It should have been a hopeful thought. It was not.
The ice creaked beneath Wulfstan’s bone skates, and the air was like a knife in his throat. It tasted of steel. St. Polycarp’s day had come with deepening snow, the last—so the farmers hoped—of the season. Soon there must come a thawing, so that mud-month might soften the earth for planting. Today the old and the soft were warming their stinging hands by the fire, and Wulfstan and the other warriors were at play, chasing one another over the deep ice of the fish pond, enacting skirmishes and ambushes throughout the burh, armed with chunks of ice and balls of snow.
It was serious work, he knew, for the Vikings were growing ever bolder. No longer content to harry the seashores, they pushed their way further up every river every year. One day soon, he might have the chance to repay his lord for all the time and wealth squandered on him—the chance to stand in his defence and kill or die for him. Wulfstan believed he wanted it, but he could not believe he wanted it as much as some of the others, who spoke of the Norse raiders the way a man would speak of a half-cooked steak, longing to have his teeth meet in it and feel the blood drip down his chin.
Despite his temper, which came upon him from the outside like a bolt of lightning—as though it was as the old folk said, an inspiration from Woden, the touch of a god’s hand and not his own spirit at all—Wulfstan did not relish war. This… He slid to a stop in the centre of a great sheet of ice and looked out at clear deep-blue sky and the sunlight coming up yellow from the silvered land, at the trees with ice as thick on their branches as a flock of white butterflies, and the air scouring and tonic. This he liked better. There was something about the world when it forced mankind indoors and he was alone in it, that inevitably turned his mind towards God and glory, white and gold and clean things. He felt, on a day like this, as though he could get his fingers underneath the lid of the world and prize it up, and see all the unseen things that spun out the fabric of the world under its roots.
He took a deep breath of exhilaration that stabbed him in the nose with its cold, and as he did so a mass of wet snow hit him in the back of the head. Sliding around, not allowing himself to shudder or cough, he caught the glint of Cenred’s winter-sun hair. Ducking down beneath a boulder on the lakeside, he pushed off and gathered snow as he glided closer, and when his friend stood to take aim at him again, Wulfstan got him in the face with a double fistful.
That was the end of peace and contemplation for the day. Cenred came after him, roaring, and they hunted one another across the lake and out into the surrounding trees. There, Cenred stumbled on a root, and Wulfstan, his blood hot, leaped at him before he could scramble back up. They both went sprawling into soft snow, laughing, Cenred trying to get Wulfstan into an armlock, Wulfstan trying to pin the slighter man down with his weight. He got an arm across Cenred’s throat, grinning, sure Cenred would have to yield, but the sly snake, by some new trick, managed to slither out from under him, hook a leg around his and flip them both.
He found himself lying surprised in a nest of pressed snow, looking up at a smile that had turned strange. Instead of slowing, his heart sped, or perhaps the normal flow of time slowed down. Cenred’s guarded eyes and Wulfstan’s flush caused such a warmth about them he wondered they did not melt through to the forest floor.
Cenred had stopped fighting a dozen heartbeats ago, but Wulfstan couldn’t bring himself to take the advantage, twist and pin his opponent and claim his victory. This felt so much better. Held down, he felt grounded, completed in a way he couldn’t explain. As if of its own accord, his head tilted and his mouth fell slightly open. He watched as Cenred licked his lips and made a little darting movement forward, not quite daring to touch, and he knew he should surge up to meet it. He should claim dominance, or at the very least equality, he should not simply accept a kiss like a blushing maiden.
There was a puzzlement in the back of Cenred’s eyes now, and for a moment he was sure the man had noticed his surrender and understood it. The fear moved him to grab two handfuls of gilded hair and surge up to crush his mouth against his friend’s, using his moment of shock to gain the upper hand and roll himself back on top. Cenred laughed and bit him hard, kneeing him in the hip, while his hands—as if driven by an entirely separate will—were fumbling to untuck the swaddled layers of cloaks and tunics between them, to get cold fingers on undefended flesh.
Sadly, the moment it had become just another fight, the joy of it had gone out of Wulfstan. He grabbed his friend by the arms and used all his greater strength to push him away. The skin on the inside of his lip had broken, and his mouth tasted of blood, coppery and sickening. Cenred’s disappointment made him want to apologise, to explain—and that was too frightening a thing to contemplate. He couldn’t tell anyone what he really wanted, could he?
Oh, if he could only trust Cenred completely, with his whole heart. He wanted to, badly wanted to, the memory of desire like a fever in his blood, but he couldn’t quite bring himself to do it. He was ashamed to find that he too didn’t trust the coward’s son, though the man was his best friend.
Accepting, finally, that no more kisses would be forthcoming today, Cenred sat back on his heels and looked at Wulfstan sideways out of slitted eyes. “Why not? Since I’ve known you, you’ve bedded no women. Why not with a man?”
“It is a sin.”
“So is anger, yet you give in to that one often enough.”
“I have a besetting sin,” Wulfstan agreed, “so it’s best I do not add to them, don’t you think?”
“You want to.” Cenred leaned forward again and watched the changes in Wulfstan’s face as though he were tracking a rare and shy wild animal. What he saw there must have pleased him, because his disgruntled expression slid into a smile. “Ha! I thought you did. Think on the offer awhile. It will only be the sweeter for a little self-denial first.”