© Helen Johnson
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Yorkshire, January 1069
My hammer was raised to strike when a voice interrupted.
I ignored it, and smote my hammer. A cascade of white hot sparks erupted, burning my apron and raising an acrid smell.
"Gudrid." The voice was insistent. Golden-brown eyes in a bearded face demanded my attention.
I swung my hammer again, and cursed as it missed.
"Ketil," I said, "Not now." I patted out a spark smouldering in my skirt.
His face fell. "I only wanted to know where your Father is," he said.
"He is with Torsten." Torsten was the thegn, sworn lord to Father and Ketil.
"What are they talking about?" demanded Ketil.
"I don't know."
Ketil removed his cloak and hung it on a peg. Village babble floated through the open door. Clucking hens, bleating sheep, chattering children. Sinking sun spread its bloody flare over distant snow-covered hills. The blade I forged was unfinished, and I had done nothing of what I should have done.
"Darkness is coming," I said.
Ketil took up his favourite position, leaning on the doorframe. His muscles, powerful from training with sword and shield, bulged as he folded his arms. His clothes were sleek, his acorn-coloured hair and beard neatly trimmed, his eyes gleaming with health and hope. He was handsome, and he knew it.
My face burned from the fire, sweat flooded from every pore and soaked my linen kirtle. My metal cooled and turned dull grey. I groaned.
Ketil lowered his voice. "The Northumbrians have killed the invaders in Durham. Now the thegns think to attack the castle in York." He lowered his voice even further. "Maybe Torsten is deciding who he is for."
Grasping the hot metal with tongs, I thrust it into the fire. Forge-smell filled my lungs as I pumped the bellows. The choke of coals, the sting of hot metal, the tickle of dry thatch. The smell of sweat, of wet wood from the quench tub, of fire itself. Fire, the power that both destroys and creates. No wonder poets revere the smith.
"It makes no difference to me." I placed my hot iron on the anvil. It wasn't the king or the sheriff who kept me here. Leffie did that.
I swung the hammer, revelling in my power to bend iron to my will. But only for a few moments. The metal cooled, and hardened. I returned it to the fire.
"It makes a difference to me," said Ketil. "William's men have taken immense taxes. If we take their castle, we win the treasure." He ran his finger along the scabbard of his saex.
I watched my iron carefully. As it heats, the changing colour tells me when it is ready to strike. Red, orange, yellow, white. "I care not who is king, earl, of sheriff," I said, "As long as I can go to Ulfbert."
I did not intend to be a common village smith like Father, mending ploughs and patching pots. I would be a bladesmith – the finest, most skilled work. And to learn the secrets of that art, I must go to Ulfbert, whose name was engraved on the most valuable swords in the world.
Ketil touched his scabbard again. It was embossed with dragons, chasing tails that entangled in the Web of Fate.
I humoured him. "You have a new scabbard?"
"Torsten is pleased with me." He held out his arms and twirled to show off new clothes: a blue-dyed tunic, edged with braid intricately woven in yellow and red. "I am dressed that folk might see that I am doing well for myself."
I laughed. "We know that."
He looked crestfallen. "Yes. Maybe, here in the village. But not others."
"Maybe in York, if Thorstein decides for rebellion." Ketil smoothed his tunic. "Folk will know that I am an important man, not to be trifled with."
I swallowed a smile at the thought of our Ketil, the village boy I had grown up with, as an 'important man'. I nodded, wishing he would leave me to finish my work.
"I will wait for your father." He settled himself at the doorframe again.
I sighed and returned to pump the bellows, to heat my iron agan. The handle, polished from years of use, was slippery in my hand. I panted slightly, hurrying to finish my work before sundown.
A scream cut everything.
Leffie! I abandoned my work and ran.
The scream sounded again, leaving a hollow silence behind it. It came from the heath, the common land beyond our fields. I ran faster.
Ketil soon overtook me. The heath was difficult land. Wiry stems of heather clawed my skirts, spears of rushes warned of sinking bogs, patches of ice lurked in the shadows.
Ketil leapt like a deer, his glossy acorn hair streaming behind him. Ingiborg, the reeve's wife, ran behind me, her breath hanging like smoke in the chill air. A straggle of children trailed behind her. Leffie's dark head bobbed among them. I slowed, feeling a surge of relief.
Suddenly Ketil halted. He drew his saex. The blade glimmered in the dying daylight as he raised it, then plunged it deep into the ground.
I drew closer and saw a mound of grey fur. Blood darkened a thick ruff.
Under its black-lipped jaw was a pale face.
A girl. Saeunn, my friend. Blood poured from a wound in her neck.
Ketil tore off his tunic and pressed it into the wound. "Hold this," he ordered. I knelt to shove hard on the cloth, trying to staunch the flood of blood.
Ketil dragged the wolf off her.
Saeunn shuddered. A red smear was livid on her white cheek. Blood pulsed into Ketil's expensively trimmed tunic, turning the blue cloth black. I pressed harder into the wound.
Saeunn sobbed and shivered. There was a smell of blood and wolf and wet bog. Ketil joined me to lean hard on the tunic as we fought to stop Saeunn's life blood ebb away into the boggy ground.
Ingiborg arrived, panting. Tendrils of hair escaped her cap as she scanned the horizon. "How many were there, Saeunn?" She was wife of the reeve, the village manager, accustomed to asking questions.
Saeunn shuddered, unable to speak.
The trail of children gathered in a ring, faces wide with shock. Freda wailed, fell to the ground and grasped her sister's hand. Leffie sidled close to me, her little body warm against my back.
"Saeunn." I desperately wanted her to speak – anything, just to hear her voice.
But Saeunn made no words, just quiet, shuddering sobs.
Freda held her sister tight. "Saeunn," she stuttered.
Ketil scanned the horizon. "Where are the others?" He turned to Ingiborg. "Wolves do not hunt alone."
There was no sign of father. The sun was below the horizon by the time we had carried Saeunn home. Our house was empty, the central hearth dark and cold. I nursed the fire to life, went to the well for water, and lit a lantern to dig vegetables from the garden.
Leffie sat her doll on the bench against the wall that served as our beds. Ingunn was sewn from hempen sackcloth, with eyes of black wool, and hair of white wool. She wore a tunic that was exactly like Leffie's – all made by Mother.
Leffie tucked the blanket around her doll, and helped me to scrub mud from the vegetables. "Saeunn's mother will mend her?" she said, in a trembling voice.
"Please God," I said, half answer, half prayer. Saeunn's mother had taken one look at her and immediately sent for the Wise Woman.
I used my big kitchen knife to chop the vegetables - parsnips, turnips, leeks. I had been pleased when I first made the knife. It had a good, hard-tempered edge. But now, three years on, I thought the blade heavy, not well balanced. I would make a better one, when I had time.
Father came home. He filled the house, his dark hair catching the cobwebs that dangled from the thatch. He ran an affectionate hand over Leffie's head, its dark curls so like his. I had Mother's hair, a frizz of yellow. I wished I did not.
Leffie poured out her story of the wolf attack.
Father ruffled Leffie's head again. "Doubtless Torsten will call for a wolf hunt." His eyes slid to the untouched weaving loom and quickly back to me. "Is dinner ready?" he asked.
His face flickered, disappointment quickly hidden.
Mother's voice floated into my head: "You cannot waste a moment, Gudrid," she said, "If you cannot cook, then you must weave. And if you cannot weave, then you must spin." I picked up my distaff and spindle.
Leffie took her spindle too. Father stared into the fire, as if his burning eyes would cook the dinner faster.
I was struck by an idea. "Shall I teach you to spin?" I asked. "It took all summer for Leffie and me to spin enough yarn for cloth." Now, it was taking forever to weave that yarn into the cloth to make a tunic for Leffie. "If you could spin too, Father," I said, "It would help."
Father shook his head. "I would be a laughing stock amongst the men if I were to take up a woman's distaff," he said.
"I have taken up a man's hammer," I said.
"But that is your choice," he said.
"It will be your choice if you take the distaff," I said. "No one can say you are weak if you make your own choice."
Father laughed. "My clever daughter, skilled with words as well as hands. Very well, teach me to spin."
I did not wait, lest he change his mind. I showed Father how to tease fleece from the distaff and feed it into the yarn on the spindle. With a flick of my fingers, I set the spindle spinning, twisting fleece into yarn.
"See, it's easy," I said, as I wound up the thread and set the spindle spinning again. It was a task I did thoughtlessly, taught by Mother so long ago that I did not even remember. Leffie too had learned from Mother.
But Father struggled. The fibres caught on his rough skin, and would not feed smoothly into the twisting yarn. The tips of his fingers, callused from years of handling hot iron, were so thickened that he could not feel the thread. Unable to feel, he failed to feed in the fleece, and the thread broke. The spindle dropped to the floor with a thud.
"Silly Father," murmured Leffie.
Father looked angrily at the fallen spindle. "Little Leffie can spin better than me," he growled. "It is a woman's task."
"It's just practice," I urged. "You can learn, Father, like I learn forge work."
"No." He folded his arms and glared at the cook pot.
How I wished Mother was here. She would have cooked dinner and clothed Leffie, and I could go to Ulfbert.
But Mother was not here. I must do her work, and Father would not help me.
I combed Leffie's hair, teasing out the knots. The house smelled of wood smoke and new-baked oatcakes.
When her hair was smoothed, Leffie climbed into bed beside her doll. "Tell us a story, Father," she said. She tucked the blanket around Ingunn and dropped a kiss on the hempen face.
"I shall tell you of Volund." He sat beside Leffie, content now his stomach was full. "Volund was clever, like your sister."
I glanced up, but his face was bent over Leffie.
"Volund, half–Elven, knew such secrets of smithing," began Father, "That a sword crafted by him gave mastery to any who wielded it."
Leffie snuggled close to Father and put her thumb in her mouth.
He continued. "Despite his gifts, Volund's skill did not make him happy."
Why had Father chosen this story today? I kept my eyes on my spindle.
"A king was entranced by Volund's skill," continued Father. "He sent soldiers to capture him. They imprisoned him on an island, and forced Volund to work."
Leffie's eyelids fluttered. She had heard the story before.
"But," said Father, "Volund was cunning. He crafted arrows, and shot down birds, and collected their feathers."
How many birds, I wondered, must a man capture to do what Volund did? But then, he was half-Elven, with the magic of those folk.
"Volund planned his vengeance," said Father, "Using his artistry, he enticed the king's sons to his forge. Then he killed the greedy sons, and, with his skill, fashioned wings from birds' feathers, and flew to safety."
I felt Father's eyes upon me as I wound my yarn. I was pleased with it. Smooth and tight spun, it slipped easily through my fingers as I wound.
"You are as clever as Volund, my Gudrid," said Father, "Mastering woman's skills as well as mine."
I glowed at his praise, so rarely given.
He slipped away from sleeping Leffie.
"Smithing did not make Volund happy." Father's lips touched the yellow frizz on top of my head. "I would wish you happier than he." He went to his bedroom. "Good night, my clever daughter." He did not smile.
I lay on my bed beside Leffie. We preferred our places, warm by the fire. Father's room was cold and empty.
I pondered Father's words. I caught his eye sometimes, as he watched me. I had Mother's hair. But, however hard I tried, I was not Mother – I could never be Mother.
How long before Leffie would not need me? Would Ulfbert remember me for that long? I decided I must remind him of his promise.
But first, I must see Saeunn.
I carried a precious jar of healing honey for Saeunn. Leffie danced beside me, eager to see her friend, Saeunn's sister Freda. Leffie's arse flashed under her too-short tunic - testimony to my failure to weave enough cloth to decently clothe my little sister.
As we approached Saeunn's house, a bairn's wails floated up the street. I tensed. My feet slowed.
Leffie tugged at my hand, "Come on."
As we entered the house, fug hit like a wall. It was smoky, heavy with a pungent smell and insistent wails. I held my breath as I set the honey on the table.
Saeunn lay in bed beside the fire. Her pale skin was beaded with sweat, her mousy hair slicked to her scalp. Her mother, Elfleda, bent over her. Elfleda's hair, a tangle of flame coloured curls, flew untamed around her head. She wiped Saeunn's face with a cloth, while desperately jiggling the wailing bairn's cradle. Freda knelt beside Saeunn, murmuring a prayer.
Elfleda glanced at me. "Gudrid, thank God." She nodded at the bairn, Saeunn's little brother, Balther. "He wants feeding." She waved at the table at the end of the room. "There's gruel."
My belly flipped. My head span, dizzy in the overheated room. I took a breath and tried to summon my strength.
Saeunn's arm twitched, then fell, limp, back to the bed.
Elfleda bent over her, "Hush, hush, it's gone. You're safe now," she crooned.
The bairn yelled louder. My innards lurched. I startled at another voice.
Hidden behind the flames on the central hearth, an old woman hunched on a low stool. Her skin was wrinkled as a leather hinge, her hair the colour of yesterdays' ashes. Mildryth, the Wise woman. She had become wise, Father said, through living forever. She stirred a pot on the fire. From it came the sharp, astringent smell of herbs.
I walked around the fire to her. "Let me stir your pot, and you tend the bairn," I begged.
She shook her head.
The bairn's wails made tense knots in my belly.
"But I am no good to bairns," I pleaded.
Purple veins knotted on Mildryth's fleshless hand as she stirred the pot again. "It wasn't your fault, Gudrid," she said.
She shook dried leaves into the pot. "You cannot hide away forever." A bitter, sharp smell rose from the bubbling pot. She nodded at the bairn. "He needs you. Elfleda needs you. Saeunn needs you."
I bit my lip. Trembling, I approached the crib. I spread my hands under the yelling bairn and lifted him. He was warm, damp, and surprisingly heavy. A sickening wave of stale piss and sour milk swept over me.
He bawled louder. Come, Gudrid, I told myself. He is not....
I sat at the table, and propped the bairn on my lap. Damp from his tail-rags seeped through my dress. I took a spoonful of gruel and inserted it into the cavern of his bawling mouth. Furious, he waggled his head, knocking my hand. The bone spoon slipped in my sweaty fingers, smearing gruel over his cheeks. I took a shuddering breath. Offered the food again. This time, he clamped his lips around the spoon.
Silence flowed into the room, blessed as fresh cool water.
Everyone except me took a deep breath, as if there had been no air to breathe while the bairn wailed. I dared not breathe. Trembling, I offered another spoonful of gruel. He smacked toothless gums onto the spoon and sucked the sticky gruel.
"She's Elf-shot," said Elfleda. Her face was as pale as Saeunn's. "Her soul walks not in this world."
Leffie knelt beside Freda and stared at Saeunn. "She looks like Mother," she said.
I startled. The bairn mewled at the jolt. Desperately, I shoved another spoonful of gruel into his mouth. How could Leffie remember? She was little more than a bairn herself.
Elfleda's eyes filled with fear.
Mildryth said, "Saeunn's not your mother, Leffie."
Leffie leaned to whisper to Freda, "Has she said how many wolves there were?"
Freda shook her head, her lips pressed firmly together.
"Father's gone to hunt them," said Leffie, "Then we shall be safe."
The silence of unspoken words hung heavy in the room. If only our lord, Torsten, had not been taken up with plotting rebellion, the wolves would had been hunted before Saeunn was attacked.
Mildryth's bones creaked as she spread a linen cloth on the hearth, then poured the contents of her cook pot onto it. It was an unpleasant looking greenish-brown sludge.
"Ughh," said Leffie. "That smells horrible."
"It's meant to," said Mildryth. She wrapped the cloth around the sludge. She touched it with a finger, then sat back and stared at it. She prodded again, watched again, prodded again. Suddenly, she said, "Ready, Elfleda?"
Elfleda, her face sheened with sweat, nodded. She lifted the bedcover off her daughter.
Leffie's eyes were wide, fixed on Saeunn. I pushed the spoon into Balther's mouth and leaned forward to see.
"Leffie," said Mildryth sharply. "Go out to play."
Leffie shook her head. "It's no good without Freda."
"Out," said Mildryth.
Leffie shrank at the power in the old woman's voice. She retreated to linger in the doorway.
Elfleda lifted a stained linen cloth from Saeunn's shoulder. Beneath it was a red hollow. I flinched, causing Balther to yelp. Panic-stricken, I jiggled him on my lap.
The hollow in Saeunn's shoulder moved. Within it, a mass of tiny white worms writhed. Mildryth slapped the green sludge onto them.
Saeunn jerked. Her arms twitched, then fell, limp again. Her lips moved, but made no sound.
Elfleda's red curls tumbled as she bent to kiss her daughter's glistening forehead. "Shush, hush now," she said. She took a shuddering breath, then spoke more firmly. "You're safe now, the wolf's gone."
Mildryth hobbled around the hearth to me. I offered the bairn, desperate for her to take him.
She sat beside me and shook her head. "This is your task now," she said.
"No!" I tried to pass him to her. He dropped the spoon, and began to wail again. "I must go to Ulfbert."
Painfully, Mildryth bent for the spoon, and tucked it into the bairn's sticky fist. He put it into his mouth and sucked. The wails ceased.
"Ulfbert can wait," said Mildryth quietly. "Now, you must care for Balther."
"I cannot." I shuddered. "I am unlucky for bairns."
"Nonsense," said Mildryth briskly. "Saeunn burns in the fires of hell. You must mind the bairn while her mother draws her back to the land of the living."
I would rather face the fires of hell.
Ketil traced his finger around the hole in the wolf skin, stretched on the tanner's frame. "Your blade," he said. "The blade you forged for me. That made this hole, killed the wolf – and saved Saeunn." His smile lit his acorn- bearded face.
I felt a surge of pride. My blade saved Saeunn. Wielded by Ketil, my friend, now full huscarl. "Lucky you ran faster than me." I indicated the knife at my belt. It was a knife for food, the sort that everyone carries, its blade about the length of my palm. "I doubt this would make much mark on a wolf."
"No." Ketil had to agree. "But we will be safe now." He swept his arm to indicate the four wolf skins stretched on wooden frames in the tanner's yard. "It was a good hunt. Torsten, Styr and I were on horses, the rest on foot. We chased the pack out of the woods, and drove them into the pit we dug. Those that escaped won't be back."
The tanner's boy scraped remnants of flesh from one of the skins, using a curved, two-handled knife that I forged for him last year. The yard stank of blood and stale piss – the tanner soaked other skins in vats of piss to make leather for shoes, tents, wagon covers and other useful things. Furs were rarer. Furs were valuable.
Ketil ran his fingers through the long, thick fur of the wolf's ruff. "Torsten says I can have this," he said. "As a reward."
I smiled. "Ketil wolf's-bane."
He looked grave. "Torsten commands me to York. They have besieged the castle and summoned Edgar Atheling." He bent close to whisper. "They plan to overthrow William and declare Edgar for king."
"How do they know Edgar would be any better?" I asked. "They deposed Earl Tostig, only to open the way for William."
Ketil's face flickered. He had marched with Torsten against the hated Earl Tostig. Many good men died that day – including Torsten's son. That was why Ketil was huscarl now.
He fingered the Web of Fate embossed on his scabbard. "William's men have taken immense taxes. If we take their castle, we win the treasure."
"But how can you? Edgar's barely out of childhood - younger than me," I said. William – the Bastard of Normandy - was a seasoned warrior. He had slaughtered King Harold and his army at Hastings, crushed rebellions in London, Exeter and Warwick, and named himself King of England. "How will a boy overthrow William?"
Ketil fingered his saex again. "Men support Edgar."
"I care not who is earl or king. As soon as Saeunn is mended, I will remind Ulfbert of his promise."
"What about Leffie?" asked Ketil.
"She won't be a bairn forever." I shrugged. "Maybe Elfleda would mind her."
Ketil eyed me gravely. "You would really leave the village – leave your family and friends?"
"I am determined to learn Ulfbert's craft."
"But would you not miss those who love you?" Ketil came closer. His eyes were warm, troubled. How did such a gentle boy become a warrior?
"I would be glad if they would come with me," I said.
The light in his eyes faded. "You know that cannot be," he said. "Your Father is sworn to Torsten – as am I."
"Then I must go alone."
I kilted my skirt into my girdle to lift it clear of mud. Leffie held back the lamb, as I knelt to milk the ewe. "Hush, hush now," Leffie murmured, as the bleating lamb squirmed and wriggled, attempting to return to its mother. The spring sun raised the smell of the earth, and the ewe's fleece was warm on my cheek as I squeezed her milk into my bucket.
"Let me drink some," begged Leffie as I carried the milk back to the house to make cheese. I gave her a cupful. She offered a sip to Ingunn, her doll, drank some herself, then set the cup, still half full, onto the shelf. "You will leave this for the hob?" she asked, anxiously.
I laughed. I knew there was no hob here – but Leffie worried. She fixed me with wide, anxious eyes.
I straightened my face. "Yes," I assured her, "I will leave something for a hob."
A child's call rose from the street. "Freda!" Leffie cried. She ran to join her friend.
I feared for Saeunn. Even more, I feared that the bairn would take harm from me. By drawing water, digging vegetables, grinding oats, and laundering Balther's tail-rags, I had managed to help Elfleda, while avoiding the bairn. Whatever Mildryth said, I could not overcome the dread that overcame me at his cry, the bairn-smell of sour milk, the sight of tiny, transparent fingers helplessly waving. Let Elfleda, who had safely raised other children, deal with him.
Meanwhile, I turned my mind to cheese-making. Last week's curds were ready to be pressed. I salted them, tied them into a cloth and set them under a stone to squeeze out the whey and harden the cheese. I viewed the cheeses already pressed: three, lined up on the shelf. We needed more.
Outside, sparrows chattered and squabbled over nest-building. For weeks now, Saeunn had lingered, half in this world, half elsewhere.
Leffie and Freda squealed with excitement. I looked through the window and saw that they had found an hazel barrel hoop. Freda bowled it along, tapping it with her hand to keep it rolling. Leffie chased after it, arse flashing, doll dangling in her hand. Would I get cloth woven before the whole village saw Leffie's arse every time she went out to play?
And when would I ever get to Ulfbert?
I took a pitcher of ewes' milk to Saeunn. The fires of hell had left her, but she was still weak, unable to rise from her bed. I helped her to lean on pillows, then fed her a cup of milk. After she'd swallowed the last drop, she smiled.
Freda and Leffie watched, fingers busy with their spindles. Leffie always preferred to be with Freda, and inside the house, Elfleda expected the girls to work.
I set to my next task for Elfleda: grind grain for bread. Elfleda gave the bairn, Balther, an oatcake and sat him upright in his crib. He drooled and gnawed at the oatcake. His eyes followed his mother: left, right, left right, as she worked her loom.
I heaved a sigh of relief that he was learning to feed himself, and removed myself and the heavy quern stone to the other end of the hearth. I feared he would take hurt even from being near me. The quern rumbled quietly as I turned it.
"Tell us a story, Mother," begged Freda.
Saeunn's eyes flickered, her lips twitched in half a smile. Elfleda beamed. "A story, for my girls!
"Tell us about the hob," said Leffie, with a shiver.
Elfleda smiled. "We have no hob in this village, Leffie," she said.
"But one might come," asserted Leffie.
"True," agreed Elfleda. She began the story of the hob, an Unseen creature who worked in secret at night to help a farmer. Every morning, the farmer woke to find his corn threshed, his flax combed, the mangers filled with fresh hay. Each night, the farmer's wife left a bowl of cream to feed the hob in his labours.
I thought of all the work that awaited me at home, and considered a bowl of cream a small price for the help of a hob.
"But one day," continued Elfleda, "The farmer's wife fell ill, and the hob was not fed. The hob, cheated of his food wages, became angry, and set out to punish the farmer. He covered the cheeses with black mould that turned them to stinking slime. He blew out the candles, and in the dark, he stole the oatcakes. He stripped the blankets from the farmer's bed, leaving him cold and quaking in the night. He cast a blight on the crops; he turned the cows dry.
"The farmer tried to run from the hob. He piled his goods in a cart and left his home. But as he drove down the road, a naked creature leapt onto the cart, its skin wizened and dark as beechnuts."
"The farmer, horrified at the hob's nakedness, quaked, and offered the hob his finest garb, if he would only leave him alone.
"But the hob laughed, and mocked him. 'What use are clothes, if I am not fed?' he said. He climbed into the cart and settled himself on the seat beside the farmer. The farmer begged him to cover himself, that he would not be shamed to be seen with a naked creature. But the hob refused. He said he would stay with the farmer always, to teach him what is of value."
Leffie ceased her spinning to look at me. "You have fed the hob, haven't you, Gudrid?"
I nodded miserably. "But there is no hob." To my horror, hot tears slid down my cheeks. "I wish we had one, Leffie. No-one helps me."
Suddenly, Elfleda's arms were around me, my head pressed to her soft bosom. "Hush, whisht," she crooned. "You dinna want a hob, lass. They all turn on folks in the end."
I sniffed, shuddered, and tried to control myself. Smiths do not weep like bairns.
Elfleda went into her bedroom. She returned, carrying a folded length of plain brown cloth. "I'm no hob. But I will help you." She pressed the cloth into my hands. "Make a tunic for Leffie."
I gazed in awe at her gift.
Elfleda laughed. "Just make sure you leave a gift – in case one of the Unseen should pass by."
Ketil unpinned a new gilded brooch, and hung his cloak, now lined with the wolf skin, on the peg in the wall. He glanced at me to ensure that I noticed his valuable garb.
I welcomed him with the guest cup, filled with sweet mead. I presented it formally, with two hands. I was careful to say, "Welcome to my father's house."
As Ketil took the cup, his fingers brushed mine. They sent hot tingles up my arms.
He smiled and turned to Father. "I have a message for you, Hermann."
I gave Father his cup, and Ketil offered a toast. "To our Lord, Torsten."
The two men stood, named their lord, then drank deep. Then Father sat, eyeing Ketil, waiting for his message.
Ketil began, "Those few invaders remaining unslain are imprisoned in their own castle -"
"Hurrah," I interrupted, "I can go to Ulfbert."
"No," said Father and Ketil together.
I glowered. "Why not? You have won."
Ketil said, "We have laid siege to the castle."
"So you do not yet have the treasure?" asked Father.
Ketil touched his new brooch. "There is some booty," he said, "But the main treasure is still to be had."
"I don't care about treasure," I said. "I want to go to Ulfbert."
Ketil shook his head. "Edgar is arrived. The thegns have proclaimed him king. There are many of them, encamped in the city."
Father glanced at me. "Strangers," he murmured. "Not safe."
"When the Archbishop has crowned him," added Ketil, "We march south."
"So, I can go to Ulfbert," I said.
"Not until all the soldiers – ours as well as invaders - are gone," said Father.
"And when will that be?" I demanded. "Always, you have excuses to forbid me going to Ulfbert." I made a voice to mock his speech, "Stay here for Leffie. Stay here because there are strangers. Stay here because there is fighting. Stay here because there are our soldiers – why would our soldiers hurt me?" My temper boiled over. "They have been fighting since before Mother died!"
Ketil fingered his cup, suddenly very interested in it.
The chatter of sparrows in the roof was deafening.
Father shrank, as if his innards gave way and no longer supported him. His face was pale, bloodless.
Ketil opened his mouth as if to speak, then closed it again.
The sparrows chattered even louder.
Early morning haze, fresh scented with damp earth and new grass, glimmered with the promise of sunshine to come. The village seethed with people and animals, chattering, bleating, clucking, lowing, hissing, barking. Men wore crowns of green leaves: girls coronets of flowers. Torsten wore a thick band of oak leaves balanced on his grey head. His face was red – he'd begun drinking already.
William, the Bastard of Normandy who named himself King of England, had swept into York and chased away Edgar and his followers. Torsten and Ketil returned home chastened, and cheated of booty. I hoped that there would be peace and Father would finally allow me to visit Ulfbert.
But today was Mayday, time to take sheep and cows to the summer pastures, and make merry. Everyone was here, with trotting ewes, bleating lambs and lowing cows.
Saeunn, recovered at last, smiled broadly as she drove her sheep into the street. Each of her ewes wore a crown of flowers. Even her lambs had flowers tucked between their ears. She covered her scar with a cloth wrapped around her neck, but her face was pink, her eyes sparkling. She carried a basket of flowers. "Do you have flowers?" she asked.
I lifted my basket, foaming with flowers in pink, white, yellow and blue. It was the custom to offer flowers at the springs.
In winter, we kept sheep in the in-bye, close to home. In summer, they grazed heather and wildflowers on the heath, allowing the grass in the in-bye to grow for hay, their winter feed.
Leffie sought her friends, her doll carefully cradled in her arm, lest she lose her garland of flowers. Ketil wove through the crowd, a mass of green leaves balanced precariously on his head. Despite the warm weather, he wore his cloak, flung back to display the valuable wolf skin sewn into it.
Torsten hammered his shield with the pommel of his sword. "People," he yelled.
The chatter continued.
"Listen up," yelled Torsten.
A few people close by him said, "Hush." They waved at those behind them, lips shaping hush, the sound lost in the chatter, laughter, bleating sheep, moo-ing cows, clucking hens.
Ketil bawled. "Hush for our Lord!"
The crowd quietened. Torsten spread his arms wide. "We celebrate the coming of summer."
"Hurrah," said one of the men. "Let's begin." He lifted a drinking horn and took a long swig.
Torsten smiled indulgently. "Very well. But first we choose the Queen to lead us to the summer pastures."
"Queen, queen," chanted the children. Little girls ran up to Torsten. "Pick me, pick me!" they cried.
Torsten lifted his arms again. "We pick..." His eyes searched the crowd. "Saeunn!"
Saeunn gasped. Ketil led three other young men, carrying a huge carven chair borrowed from Torsten's Hall. They placed Saeunn upon it as if enthroning her, then lifted it to their shoulders. Saeunn, looking terrified, grabbed the wobbling chair's arms. Ketil's gang carried her to Thorsten's wife, Ravenhild.
Ravenhild was a square-faced, practical woman who ran the estate when Torsten went a-venturing. Now, a smile lit her face like summer sun. "Saeunn, Queen of the May." She placed a crown of red ribbons and foaming blossom onto Saeunn's head. She leaned forward to kiss her. "Our happiest May Queen," she said, "We are so glad to have you amongst us again."
Saeunn's eyes glistened. She bit her lip, then gave a tremulous smile.
"Our May Queen!" Torsten bellowed. He handed Saeunn his big drinking horn. "Lead us to the Summer."
Saeunn needed two hands to hold the giant horn. She took a sip, then lifted it high and called, "To the summer pastures!"
She handed the horn back to Torsten. Ketil's gang lifted her throne to carry Queen Saeunn to the heath. Everyone followed, shepherding sheep, cows, and children as they went
Elfleda carried Balther in a cloth tied over her shoulder. I felt a surge of relief to see his face plump and pink, his eyes bright as he watched his mother wave her arms to drive the sheep.
I shooed our ewes and lambs. I had daubed them each with yellow dye, to mark them as ours. Father was delighted to have six lambs – unusually, all had survived, and were growing strong and sturdy.
Somewhere, lost in the happy confusion, was Leffie. I would find her when we reached the heath. She was sure to turn up for the food I carried, strapped on my back.
At the heath, Ketil's gang set Saeunn down close to a tall pole, planted in the ground and hung with long ribbons. Everyone milled around, raising smells of crushed heather, mown grass, flowers, and the food and ale we carried.
The sheep, released from being herded, skittered off to browse on tender new shoots of heather. The cows roamed further, searching out tussocks of juicy new grass.
Torsten clapped his hands. "Music."
Ketil had a bone whistle, someone else had a longer flute. Torsten's daughter carried a lyre. They played a merry tune that flittered about like spring birdsong. A boy picked up a wooden bowl and beat it like a drum.
There was a scrum as people rushed for the ribbons dangling from the pole. Those who were lucky held onto their prize. Those who were not shouldered their way into the ring anyway.
I missed catching a ribbon – I was wriggling out of the leather straps of the basket of food I carried on my back. Undeterred, I joined the ring of dancers, and hopped and skipped to the drumbeat, round and round the pole until I was dizzy and tumbled to the ground. Leffie, laughing, jumped on top of me. "Silly Gudrid," she said, "You fell down."
She looked up at the sound of Father's voice. "Girls," he called, "Food!" He lifted my back-basket and walked to one side of the dancing ground.
Leffie yelped and ran to him. Carefully, I stood, waiting for the dizziness to go. When I joined them, Leffie was offering cheese to her doll. The doll, of course, did not eat – and Leffie guzzled the cheese.
I sat on the tablecloth that Father had spread on the ground, and bit into bread and meat. Father rummaged deeper in the basket, and pulled out the leather bottle of ale. He took a swig, then passed it to me. I drank deep: it was sharp and refreshing. I passed the bottle to Leffie. She took a sip. "Ugh," she said, "I'd rather have milk."
"Milk would have curdled in the hot sun," I said.
"I'll go to the spring, then." Leffie jumped up and ran away. Her new tunic, made from the cloth Elfleda gave me, decently covered Leffie's knees, but now she lifted it to take a longer stride. She joined the girls with their flowers at the spring. Leffie lay down to drink the clean, cool water. Spring water was the best.
Father finished eating. "I must go to Torsten," he said.
I packed our things into the basket and joined Saeunn.
She greeted me with a brilliant smile. "I have not come to the heath, after.. –" a shadow flit across her face – "you know. But with everyone here..." She waved a hand to take in people dancing, others eating and drinking, their dogs intently watching. Girls decorated the spring with flowers, small boys wrestled. She smiled. "This is good."
Ketil came to view the Maypole. Following the dance, the ribbons were bound close to the pole, a tangled mass of red, green and yellow. "It's not a very good pattern," he said.
"That's what comes of allowing anyone to dance," I said. "If you want a pretty pattern, you must have dancers who have trained to weave it."
He shrugged. "Folks didn't want to come out to practice – not after- " he glanced at the cloth around Saeunn's neck.
Saeunn looked more serious. "What of our sheep? They will be here."
"Torsten has decided," said Ketil, "That three people will guard them. They will stay in the summer shepherd's hut. He will cast lots to decide who comes, each week."
Saeunn looked fearful.
Ketil said, "We killed many, and chased the others away. But it is as well to keep watch."
I sighed. Another task to take me from the forge, to delay my going to Ulfbert. "Ketil," I wheedled, "Would you watch my sheep for me?" He raised his brows: huscarls were not to be laden with everyday household tasks.
"I need to go to Ulfbert," I explained.
Ketil scowled. "You cannot go to York," he said.