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THE DESERT AND THE BLADE

by S.M. Stirling


 

CHAPTER THREE:

 

Hraefnbeorg, Barony of Mist Hills
(formerly Mendocino County)
Crown Province of Westria
(Formerly California)
High Kingdom of Montival
(Formerly western North America)
July/Mædmōnaþ 7th
Change Year 46/2044 A.D.

 

Deor Wid-ferende—which meant Wide-farer in the old tongue, the language his folk used for matters of name and lore and ritual—was glad to be home for a visit, sitting on the dais in the middle of his long-dead father’s hall as the long summer day fell towards evening. Here, though, he was Deor Godulfson, son to the first Baron and brother to Lord Godric, the current holder of the title. It had been five years since he had seen his kin.

More or less glad, anyway, he thought, remembering his father, and the mother who hadn’t long outlived him.  I’d forgotten quite how... rustic... Mist Hills is. Well, most places are; but most of them aren’t places you nearly spent your entire life in. Back then we didn’t know there was anything else but ruins and bones and savages.

He was a lean man of medium height with pale grey eyes >and a harpist’s long deft hands, dark hair gathered in a queue at the back of his neck through a worked silver tie, wiry and fit in his thirty-second summer, his skin tanned and weathered by strange strong suns.

It was hard to remember being that desperately earnest, naïve boy yearning for a world beyond the hills he knew; desperate for knowledge, for beauty, for music... full of longings that hadn’t had names.

Longing to see the things I’ve seen, he thought.  Courts and kings and castles, beaches fringed with palms and the sun making the sea a lake of crimson as it sank in the southern seas... and home again, to wonder if home is still a word you can speak.  Are all journeys a circle, like Time itself?  Didn’t Woden Himself say something like that to High King in a dream? But you couldn’t really come home again, because by the time you did, both you and home would have changed.

That must be why he felt as if he were not quite at home in his skin, despite his pleasure in the sharp, sweet bite of Gowan’s cider that filled his mug, and a belly still stretched by the feast his sister-in-law had put together the day of his return—a runner had taken the message to her as soon as a longboat from the ship had put them ashore.

Thora Garwood leaned towards him from her seat to the left and said softly:

“Is it all smaller than you remembered?”

They were of an age, and about the same in height, though his oath-sister was a little thicker-built than he, sprawling at her ease in the carved redwood chair, like a good-natured lynx.  She had a graze across the knuckles of her left hand, and a slight mouse under one hazel eye.  It had been just long enough since their last visit here for a new crop of eager young idiots to grow up discounting tales of the Bearkiller war-skills marked by the A-list brand between her brows, not to mention her own personal reputation.  Eager to make a name for themselves by taking her genial offer of an all-in wrestle, and a little friendly bet on the side.  They hadn’t realized what the grins of their older relatives meant until too late, until they were sorry and sore and somewhat lighter of purse. Thora took what he considered a slightly childish glee in winning a bet, just for the sake of the thing and regardless of the stakes.

“No, not really,” Deor said.

Up north in the Association lands this barony his father had built from the wreck of a world would be accounted a rather modest knight’s fee bearing a too-grand title. But he’d built it with his own hands, and the willing help of those he’d saved when all else failed them, even the very fabric of things itself.

“Just... feeling... I’m not sure. A dream last night, but it fades when I try to bring it into focus.”

The great timber-and-stone feasting hall was much as his father had finished it just a few years before he died; a long rectangle a hundred feet by fifty, with a ceiling of double hammer-beam timbers high above, the interior lit by windows at each end and set into the dormers over the doors at the sides.  Wrought-iron holders for candles and lanterns could be lowered from above after dark.  It smelled faintly of old woodsmoke and the sun’s heat on the shingles of the roof.  More of horse and hay drifting in from the outside, and warm wool on human skin, good food and the drowsy warmth of a long hot summer’s day.

The chatter of voices as folk came in and sat down to dinner tended to be lost, though the acoustics were quite good for song.  Two rows of log pillars ran lengthwise to support the upper part of the roof; the uprights were carved and painted with bands and chevrons of black, red, yellow and green. The long hearth down the center was swept and garnished with dried wildflowers and aromatic herbs in this summer season; cooking was done in a separate building, and in any case winters here were chilly and wet rather than really cold...

And now he knew what really cold meant, since he’d spent a February in a Lakota ger on the high eastern plains, and seen the norðrljós glittering and dancing and crackling in curtains of icy fire across the sky, reflecting on the berg-ice floating in the Trondheimsfjord.

Frankly, this place is a bit of a barn, though I love it.

He felt a tug of annoyance in the flow of welcome at the edge of his consciousness and his lips twitched in amusement.

I didn't mean to insult you— he sent a thought toward the hearth wight. Your coals kept me warm many a winter’s night, and I saw the world in the colors that licked over them.

He drew the rune Wynn, for joy, over the cider in the turned oak mug before him, dipped out a drop and flicked it in offering toward the long hearth that ran down the center of the hall.

Though certainly Mist Hills is less rustic now than it was then.

The hangings on the wall included tapestries from northern workshops, bright with images of lords and ladies hawking or knights breaking lances at tournaments, a sport he had now seen and thought thunderously dull for the most part. Though there were the shields and spears and mail-coats and the skins of grizzly, cheetah, tiger and lion he remembered.  There had been coffee for breakfast, albeit treated as a rare luxury trotted out for the returning prodigal.  The floor had been re-laid with smooth tile, which was easier to clean than the original rough flagstones.  

The saffron-robed, shaven-headed monk from the monastery of the Ten Thousand Buddhas near what used to be Ukiah might have been here in the old days, and the Pomo chief with beadwork and an abalone pendant on his butter-soft doeskin shirt. But the elegant dark man with the curled black mustachios was from Rancho Sotoyome, which was the new settlement established by the ex-thralls after the fall of the bandit and self-proclaimed Duke Morgruen, just after the first Montivallans had come to Mist Hills.

Deor's lips tightened; his father had died at Morgruen’s hands, while he lay a bound prisoner. But he’d avenged him, in his own way. Morgruen might not have died on his blade, but he’d died still—and would not have, save for what Deor had done.

And there were two young Rangers with the White Tree and Seven Stars and Crown on their jerkins, whispering to each other in Sindarin, which would have been a mad dream back then...

His gaze sharpened with appreciation of the male of the Dúnedain pair—who was about the age he’d been when he first left home.

Faramir, that was the name.  

Curly yellow hair like pale gold falling down his neck and framing blue-grey eyes and a snub nose, a spray of freckles across his high cheekbones.  A lithely supple build too, and a tragic air that sat oddly on one so young; his companion was outright brooding, and had a nasty and barely-healed scar across her face.

His cousin, Morfind.

They’d ridden in with dispatches, and only the fact that it would cause grave offense without a good and stated reason had kept them from riding right out again, he judged.

Wait... I met them long ago, when the Dúnedain first came south to Eryn Muir. They were small children then, of course.

Thora raised a brow at him with a pursing of the lips and a sideways twist of her head that made her thick red hair toss.

Not bad, I agree! the gesture meant, as she flicked her eyes towards the comely Ranger youth.

She and Deor had been comrades for a long time, and had a compressed mutual wordless language for some things.  A slight waggle of the hand.  

But just a bit too young for either of us. Pity.

His own smile and movement of the brows said:  True, but no harm in looking.

He’d never had any interest in those younger than full manhood, not since he’d been a gawky youth himself. And even then the ideal of his soul’s desire had been the hard beauty of a warrior; as his mind saw Sigurd facing Fafnir, or Beowulf as he strode into Hrothgar’s hall in the first iron pride of his flowering strength. But now full manhood’s earliest years were getting to be younger than himself by a sometimes uncomfortable margin. 

“Were we ever that young?” he added quietly.

“Just as young as that handsome lad when we met at Albion Cove, brother,” she replied, and they both laughed softly.  “Though we were both drenched with rain and I was expecting to drown, until we saw your signal-fire and Ark’s anchor held.”

Deor’s brother Godric came in, his hair wet and slicked back from washing off the sweat worked up breaking horses to harness, and wearing a clean blue tunic with gold embroidered hems and neck, and indoor shoes. Everyone rose in respect—the meal didn’t begin until the Baron was seated.  He was a stocky broad-shouldered man in his forties now, big-nosed and with a thrusting chin under his neatly trimmed dark-brown beard.  

In fact he was the image of their father as Deor recalled him from his earliest memories.  More so than last time.  Enough so that it was a little startling, even to the streaks of gray in his beard and the way his forelock looked more pointed at the front as his hair receded on either side.

That passed.  So too will this, he quoted to himself.  When you’re my age or Thora’s, the world seems to go on and on and you don’t change, always strong and in command of hard-won powers that you lay up like a chest full of golden arm-rings. But coming back after five years you see that the worm never stops gnawing at the root of the World-Tree.  Even more so that my nephew Leofric is a man grown with a wife and a little daughter of his own! I remember him making his first steps.  And... the High King dead! Killed not a week’s journey from this very spot!

The shock of that blow was still echoing in his mind and heart, the more so that the others had had months to come to terms with it.  He could remember his first meeting with Artos... Rudi Mackenzie... as if it were yesterday, the aliveness of the man, the chiseled face and steady blue-gray eyes...

After that there would always be something of him in my words when I sang of heroes.

And the way he’d been patiently kind with Deor’s adolescent awkwardness at Court, arranged that he be unobtrusively protected, and seen potentials in the stranger from the little out-of-the-way settlement that Deor himself had only wistfully dreamed might be his. It had been Artos’ word that won Deor a hearing from his half-sister Fiorbhinn at Dun Juniper, and she the foremost bard of their time; yes, and other lessons from his mother Lady Juniper that set his footsteps on a path deep and shadowy.

That passed, he thought. And of his grief: So too will this.

Wilcuma! Be welcome!” Godric said as he stepped onto the dais and took his seat.

This was a casual family meal, not a formal feast, but there were guests. His wife Aerlene brought him his horn, this one full of beer with the foam visible over the silver-bound rim.  Deor had drunk several tall mugs of Hraefnbeorg’s good cool spring water before he asked for cider with his meal; especially in the warm season you didn’t want to sit down still thirsty with the spirit of the grape, or the apple, before you.  Beer was different, of course.

It did a man no harm to get drunk now and then, but only now and then.

“Hail the hall!” She turned to face her husband. “Hail Godric Eorl! This drink I bear to bless the land-father, wine and wynn for the boar of battle!”

The Eorl hammer-signed the horn and lifted it before his strong deep voice filled the space; for a moment Deor’s vision blurred, as if he was watching his mother and father make the same familiar well-loved homely rite:

“Hail to the Gods, hail to the Goddesses, hail to the fathers and mothers of our folk! Hail to the sele-aelf, to mund-aelfen and aecere-aelfen, hail the wights that ward us all!”

He took a long swallow. “Wuton wesan wel! Let us be well!” and handed the horn back to his lady.

Once more she faced the hall. “To all our guests a host of welcomes!”

Her face shone. “Far have they fared!  And none more so that my lord’s brother Deor Godulfson, justly called the Wide-Farer, and his comrade and oath-sister Thora Garwood, called Swiftsword!  Welcome among us once more!”

She signed, and the servers—her own younger children and those of the housecarls—brought out the food before they sat further down the trestle tables to either side of the dais themselves. The meal was lighter in this season than it would be in cooler weather, though hearty enough for folk who’d been working with their hands all day, which everyone who dwelt here did, rank or no. Fertile soil and hard skilled work meant nobody in Mist Hills had gone hungry in a long time. Not since before he’d been born, not since the first terrible years after the Change when they struggled to get the tools and seed and knowledge they needed, and came to a good understanding with the landwights and the Gods of soil and weather and field.

So there were steaming platters of the first corn from the garden with its rows of white and yellow kernels to burst sweet on the tongue; big bowls of green salads with sharp white goat-cheese and walnuts crumbled in, plates of sliced tomatoes and onions, steamed peas, fried potatoes, hard-boiled eggs, platters heaped with cold sliced roast pork and venison garnished with pickles, chunks of hard yellow cheese with knives stuck in their tops, round loaves of coarse wholemeal bread and pottery crocks of yellow summer butter cool from the spring-house.

All good, but the real treat would be the fruits that followed; bowls of blueberries, boysenberries and strawberries and blackberries with thick cream, and baskets—mostly fine-woven Pomo work brought in trade—of peaches and cherries and nectarines, apricots blushing yellow-crimson and the first crisp yellow-green-red apples.

“Good to see you’re up, brother,” Godric said, a little teasing in his voice.  “You were too weary last night for us to get much out of you.”

“After the way your good lady fed us, it’s a wonder I didn’t sleep for a week!” Deor said politely.

“We spent some time today sparring with a few of your youngsters, lord,” Thora said cheerfully. “Sweating the ale out, so to say, and earning dinner.”

That too was needful work, and as hard as any. It had actually been a bit of a relief to face relative beginners, rather than his usual session with Thora’s merciless perfectionism. He’d said more than once that stepping into a practice ring with her was like learning the harp from Lady Fiorbhinn... except that he enjoyed playing the harp and was naturally good at it, and he didn’t try to make Thora learn that. Whereupon Thora would retort that the audience for a bad composition with the sword was likely to be far more hostile... and you couldn’t chose whether or not to put on a performance.

Then they would both laugh...

She broke a loaf from the basket at her elbow and handed part of it to Deor; the interior was still warm, since a big household like this had the need and the labor and equipment to bake nearly every day rather than the more common once or twice a week.  Some very thrifty farm-wives didn’t let their households eat bread new-baked lest they gorge on it for the taste alone.

“Your latest crop of fighters is promising, very promising, but they need seasoning,” she said. “They’re a little... academic. I’d drill them more in rough country, if I were you, lord Baron.”

“We’ve had a peaceful time, since I swore to the High Kingdom,” Godric said.  “Nothing more than the odd bandit, or a duel between the white wands now and then; and a Haida raid four years ago, but that was only a skirmish.”

He looked at the young Dúnedain woman with the ax-mark on her face. “The Rangers guard us well. Even the youngsters we send south to help them now and then rarely see real fighting... though that may change. Will change, from what I’m told. The Kingdom will call, and we will answer.”

Deor could see his elder brother put aside care for the moment as he looked at him.  

“So you still pick up that fine sword you brought home now and then?”

Deor began to bridle at the teasing tone; his brother had always protected him as a lad, but that time was past. His sister-in-law smiled and leaned forward and touched a short white mark on his chin.

“That wasn’t taken in a battle of scops,” she said.

“Oh, that was just a brawl in a harbor tavern,” Deor shrugged.

And blinked as the rank-sweet smells of the hot alien night came back, and himself showing his teeth in a smile that hid a cold anticipation of sudden shocking unexpected death a world away from home.  

“The knives came out.  That was in... Zanzibar, I think... yes, Zanzibar.”

Thora laughed, finished her mouthful of salad, picked a handful of olives out of a bowl, and spoke:

“Knives a foot long, curved, and shaving-sharp,” she said.  “And there were three of them, and two with swords, while the rest of the room hid under the tables or leapt out the windows screaming for the Sultan’s men.  It isn’t easy to hide under a table there, they sit on the floor and the little stands holding the brass tops are only two feet high. There were more than a few white-robed backsides on display, and no time to kick them.”

“It was a misunderstanding,” Deor said into the laughter.

“No, I understood that churl perfectly when he grabbed at my ass uninvited,” she said.  “That’s why I broke his arm—”

She smiled reminiscently, and Deor winced. She’d grabbed the man’s wrist, twisted to lock the joint and then jerked the limb down over her rising knee, all as quick and fluid as an otter slipping into the water. The sound of bone and tendon and cartilage ripping was one he’d remember until his dying day; far from the worst thing he’d ever heard, but unpleasantly... primal. Not that the outlander hadn’t deserved it, but if he lived it would be a long time before he got much use out of the limb.

“—and kicked his balls up around his ears.”

Which was no joke either, no matter that everyone was laughing. With Thora’s leg behind even a hasty snap kick... there were other things the man wouldn’t be doing anytime soon, if ever.

“His friends misunderstood how a free woman of the Bearkillers expects to be treated,” she finished. “Misunderstood very badly.”

She turned to Godric and Aerlene; folk leaned forward from the benches to either side to hear.

“One of them hit me from behind with a teapot while I was dealing with the first, and next I knew I was lying on the floor blinking with blood and hot tea running over my face. While Deor stood over me with sword in his right hand and seax in the left screaming Hraefenborg and Woden!”  

Deor shrugged at the looks he got. “Needs must, when men won’t listen to reason,” he said, and drank more cider. “I think it was a long time since anyone called on Victory-Father in Zanzibar. And perhaps the first time ever for Hraefnbeorg.”

“One to four is long odds, with none standing to cover your back,” Godric said respectfully.

“They couldn’t all get at me at the same time, and it was half-dark,” Deor said. “There was a lot of jostling and staggering. And they were hesitant at first. I think it had all gotten more serious than they expected very quickly.”

Not to mention how one of them was curled in a ball and screaming like a rabbit in a trap.

“And the ones who could get close weren’t glad of it,” Thora said cheerfully. “He cut two, one badly, before I wobbled back to my feet and got my own blade out.  We gave them a little more trouble to rock them back on their heels, put ourselves back-to-back, with them snapping around us, and ran for the ship as soon as we got outside.  Twisty streets there!  And we crossed steel with them again at the foot of the gangplank, backing up side-by-side, until the deck-watch showed the business end of their crossbows... and started shouting for the Sultan’s men too.”

“We’d have been in real trouble if the brawlers had been Zanzibaris themselves,” Deor explained. “But they were foreigners there too, and not popular ones—Omani, their tribe is called, from a desert land north of there across the monsoon seas.  Handsome brown men, good sailors and fine craftsmen and far-ranging traders, but they have some odd customs. I wish I had enough of their language to understand their poetry and songs, but... well, that’s one of the curses of traveling. You drink of many springs, but none very deeply. The world is too wide for any man to learn.”

He nodded to his brother’s wife.  Aerlene was a deep-bosomed woman with barley-colored hair and kind green eyes.  

“Zanzibar is off the east coast of Africa; it’s where those cloves I gave you came from.  They grow them as we do apples, in orchards.  Vast stretches of them, too; ships come from all over the world to buy them nowadays, so it’s a good port to find a berth to wherever you want.”

“They smell wonderful!  We’ll mull cider with them this winter, and they’ll be fine indeed with the Yule hams. There’s an old recipe my mother had from her mother, and I’ve never been able to use it before. Is the scent as good where they grow?”

“It is when they pick the flower-buds and dry them on mats across the orchards, and that’s the season we arrived,” Deor said and smiled reminiscently.  “You can smell that scent miles offshore there, making the sea-breeze a wave of perfume as you approach.  Then the surf, cream-white on the silver sand, with the long trunks and rustling leaves of the coconut palms swaying above, and the whitewashed buildings and minarets.  They carve their doors from this hard dark wood as beautiful as jet, too, with worked silver studs. I wish I could have brought you one of those.”

Thora grinned.  “And they make this stuff from palm sap there... what did they call it...”

Chang’aa,” Deor said; he had a musician and poet’s ear for words.

“White and sweet and strong!” she said, smacking her lips and taking a pull at her beer.  “It’s against their religion, but that doesn’t keep them from drinking it, by the ale of Aegir!”

“The word means kill-me-quick,” Deor added.

Everyone chuckled, and his sister Gytha touched the broad bracelet of worked gold coiled thrice high up on Deor’s left arm.

Widowed sister, he reminded himself with another shock.

Like running down stairs in the dark and thinking there was one more when there wasn’t. Her man had gone out in the middle of the night to check on why his dogs were going loudly mad and found it was a lion trying to kill his best Angus bull in the paddock. He’d had a spear with him, of course, and the lion hadn’t survived the encounter, but neither had he in the end—lion-claws and fangs were filthy and the wounds they made always grew infected. That had happened three years ago, and the grass already grew thick and long on his barrow, dense with goldenrod and aster.

A place doesn’t stop in time when you leave, he thought ruefully.

His arm-ring showed clearly. He was in a short-sleeved tunic of fine cotton dyed deep blue and embroidered at hem and neck, and green breeks cross-gartered below the knee.  There were silver-and-turquoise plaques on the belt that held his seax—long weapons were hung on the wall—and a silver-and-gold valknut on a chain around his neck, showing his allegiance to Woden who sent the mead of poetry to men.  A scop, a wandering bard of the sort who sang praise-songs for kings and drighten chiefs, wore the rewards of his craft as a badge of honor. He admitted to himself that besides custom, it was a pleasure to peacock a bit before his family.

“And where did this come from?” she asked.  “Those are runes—” she did healing work, which needed runecraft as well as herblore and anatomy “—but not quite like ours.”

“Ah, that was from King Bjarni in Norrheim,” Deor said; the ancient world had called the heart of that realm northern Maine.  “For the song I made and sang in his hall, and bearing him a word from our High King, his blood-brother and battle comrade.”

For a moment it was as if a cloud had dimmed the sun.

"May he feast in Woden's hall!" murmured Godric, and raised his horn in salute.

Then he shook his head and looked at his brother again, smiling. Their folk held there was no better way for a man to die than for land and kin, and so their lord Artos had fallen, blade in hand and face to the foe. They would show courage in the face of grief, as he had in the face of peril, and go on about the lives his sacrifice had helped buy for them. His voice was steady as he went on:

“You traveled to Norrheim twice?  Even our High King only went once!  How do they fare?”

The Norrheimers were heathen like most of the folk of Mist Hills, though they used the Norski names for the old Gods, not the Saxon ones Deor’s people followed.  So did a fair number of the Bearkillers, Thora’s folk, up in the Willamette; and in Boise many had followed the lead of the ruler’s family, the Thurstons, who now offered to the Aesir.  Which was natural enough, since the very name of their House meant Stone of Thunor.

It gave them all something in common.  Followers of the White Christ weren’t nearly as dominant on this continent as they’d been in the ancient days, but pagans were still a minority, albeit a considerable one.  Heathen were a minority among pagans in turn.  They tended to follow each other’s fortunes with interest.

“King Bjarni is older, of course, but still strong in might and main. His eldest son Eric is a likely lad... young man!... of twenty-four, a wide-faring sailor and already his father’s right hand with a son of his own; everyone says the Althing will hail him with no dispute. Norrheim grows in numbers and wealth and arts every year; their lands stretch north to the Royal Mountain now, and westward they’re probing into the Great Lakes country. Rich soil waiting for the plow, the dead cities for mining, woods and rivers beyond end thick with timber and game and fish. And they’re subduing the wild men, bringing them back to the world of human kind and building their own strength by it.”

“We climbed the Sea-End Tower in the lost city of Toronto as the High King and his comrades did on the Quest, it’s still standing, our lake-boat touched there on our way east,” Thora said. “There’s a little trade on the Lakes now, mostly Norrheimers, and they have an outpost near there.”

Deor nodded. “Two thousand feet into the sky, step by step! Then to Eriksgarth where King Bjarni dwells when he’s not visiting his jarls and outposts, and then we took ship over the eastern sea.”

“With Ketil Ormsson, a Norrheimer merchant out of Kalksthorpe who trades grain and timber and metals to Iceland for their salt fish and fine wool cloaks,” Thora said.

Everyone was rapt at the word; Iceland figured much in the old stories. Deor’s eyes went distant, remembering the fuming smoke of the hot-springs as they stood into the bay and the ruins of Reykjavik stretched along the shore, and the flowering turf-roofs of the low-built modern longhouses in contrast.

“Most of those who lived in Iceland moved to England in the five years after the Change and became part of that folk. Not enough food at home, they were just about to starve, and the English needed hands and had good land to offer as they resettled from their refuges. But the ones who stayed are increasing once more, and they offer to the old Gods too nowadays. Some of their young folk leave for Norrheim each year.  They’ve fine poets and scops... skálds they call them... but by the Gods, it’s bleak there!  Beautiful in a grand bare way, but...”

“Like Jotunheim in the old stories,” Thora said, and drank with a shudder and smiled at the awestruck girl who refilled her horn. “Driftwood is a treasure and their sheep are thin because they have to travel at a run from one blade of grass to the next, or they’d starve to death between.”

Everyone chuckled, and Thora went on:

“We didn’t want to stay the winter, for all their poetry.”

Godric raised brows gone a little shaggy. “That doesn’t sound like Deor.”

Deor laughed, and Thora jerked a thumb at him: “He didn’t want to stay either, not after we tasted what they consider a fine delicacy—rotten shark buried underground and then hung in the wind for months!”

There were groans of incredulity, but Deor nodded with a wince. Thora pulled out the silver hammer that hung around her neck and touched it to her lips.

“No,” she said. “I swear it by almighty Thor!  It smells worse than it tastes, and it tastes worse than anything I’ve ever willingly put in my mouth... and I’ve eaten ship’s biscuit that crawled away if you put it down.”

"That's why they serve it with Brennivin—" Deor put in as she banished the memory with cider and a bite of herbed roast pork. "A kind of vodka. Enough of that and you no longer care about the taste."

She cocked an eye at him and winked.  “I got it down and kept it, just barely. You ran outside with a hand clapped over your mouth.”

“We took a Norrlander ship from there to the Trondheimsfjord,” he said, ignoring her loftily.  “Norrland is a strong kingdom now, if loose-knit, and there are folk along the fjord, prosperous enough now though the city died.  We spent the winter there, traveling by ski and hunting bear and moose.”

“Though they call them elk—they don’t have what we call elk, though they have red deer,” Thora said.

“Do they offer to the Aesir too?” someone asked.

“Some do; more are Christians; and they’re not what you’d call a pious folk in general,” Deor said. “We had good guesting at the yeomens’ steadings for song and tales—they were eager to show hospitality and hear our news of foreign lands, this part of the world is just fable to them now.  In the spring we set out to England. Well, the Empire of Greater Britain; but England’s still the heart of it.”

“How do they fare?” Godric asked eagerly.

Their father had raised them on tales of the Anglo-Saxons, whose ways and faith he’d practiced in the Society For Creative Anachronism because they spoke to his soul, and then in deadly earnest after the Change.

“They fare well, though it’s much changed from the old days of the stories, of course—they’re Christians, to start with.  Well, most of them.  But rich, rich—well-tilled land, strong yeomen and wealthy thegns and eorls, knights and bowmen and castles, cities and trade, roads and railways and canals, ships...  Full of ancient buildings, layer on layer whenever a man so much as digs a well, and many housing the living once more as their numbers grow and they clear the dead lands.  We saw the White Horse of Uffington—”

“Hengest’s banner!” someone murmured.

“—and the King-Emperor’s court in Winchester—”

Uintancæstir,” Godric said, the same name in the old tongue from which the modern descended.

“—and William the Bastard’s tower with its feet in the water in the ruins of London, all swamp and forest and monstrous overgrown works of the ancients. Nobody lives there save for a small garrison, but Winchester’s a city as great as Portland or Darwin now, or greater; seventy-five thousand folk, they said. Not counting us travelers!”

There were murmurs of astonishment; it was a very large number, though he’d seen much bigger later in Asia.  Sambalpur had five times that...

“The King-Emperor rules all the west of Europe to the Rhine and the Middle Sea, and even beyond that, though most of it’s still empty from the Change and the great dying.  Still, there are nearly two million in England now, and as many again in their other possessions.  As many as in all Montival, or nearly.”

Thora held up her left hand.  If you looked closely, you could see that a divot was missing from the little finger at the tip.

“Speaking of beyond, I got this—and Deor got one on his leg you’ll see in the bathhouse—off Agadir, in the southern province the English call Volublis.”

“After a city the Rome-folk built there in their great days,” Deor said. “It’s much like our Westria, in parts. The English hold the lowlands, though very thinly, they’re empty from the Change. Wild folk lair in the mountains inland, and in the deserts to the south. There are raids and skirmishes every year.”

Thora nodded. “The fight off Agadir wasn’t a brawl, it was proper sea-battle.  Saloum rovers, Moorish corsairs from the Emirate of Dakar, attacking a British trade convoy we’d taken passage in.  And we barely out of sight of the Union Jack flying from the fort’s battlements.  One of them nipped in and tried to board our merchant ship while the others kept the escort in play.”

She clenched the hand into a fist.  “They fought well when they came over the rail.  Not as well as us, though!”

“Corsairs?  Like the Haida here?” someone said.

Deor shrugged.  “No, not as bitter a blood-feud as that.  Just the contentions of kings; they don’t like the Empire, there’s an old grudge. The emirs think they should have got Volublis because their kinsfolk once held it.  They’re a hard folk and fierce, by what we heard, though that was from their foes. Sometimes they’re at war with the Empire, sometimes they trade.  They make some lovely things, I saw that, and it’s a pity we couldn’t stop in Dakar, which I heard was a great city for arts and learning now and well worth seeing.”

“You sighed and looked like a boy who’d been told no honey tart for you,” Thora said. “And that at being denied a stop in the place the people who tried to kill us came from.”

Deor shrugged acknowledgment and turned to his kin: “Traveling to see new lands carries a deal of staring at the same old ship with it!”

He drew the bulging coast of West Africa with a finger on the table, indicating where it turned east for a long way.

“The convoy scattered not far from here. Our ship went south and east, a long green coast edged with surf, to the land of the Ashanti where the King’s throne is a stool of pure gold and his courtiers cover their robes with gold beaten thin. They have their own tongue, but many of them speak English as well, at their port of Takoradi. We went inland from there through the jungle hills to the King’s court in Kumasi, where there are new splendors amid the old ruins.”

“And they make chocolate,” Thora sighed. “Caught a nasty fever there that Deor nursed me through, but it was almost worth it.”

There were other sighs at that; he’d brought a little chocolate as gifts too, and a bit trickled in as trade now and then, just enough to tantalize. The tale went on, lubricated by more of the cider—a catalogue of wonders, around the tip of Africa, Madagascar, the troubled stay in Zanzibar and then on to Sri Lanka and the teaming splendors of Hinduraj on the Bay of Bengal—until at last he said:  

“And from there to Darwin in Capricornia, in the north of what the old maps call Australia—the King there is a wonderful old rogue with a silver tongue for a tale himself, and has some strange and powerful musicians at his court.”

“But by Surt and all the fire giants, it’s hot there!” Thora put in. “Hot all the time, day and night, and wet as a sauna half the year including the time we were there. The cloth rots off your back and the boots off your feet and the roaches are the size of mice and hiss at you, and I’m not drawing the long bow there either.”

“Half the world trades there, though. From Darwin we took ship to Bali, which is beautiful as a dream and has the finest dancers I’ve ever seen, and from there to Hawaii, and from there back to Montival on a ship stopping in the Bay to pick up salvage... and some of our good Mist Hills cider and applejack, to be sure... and so here we are.”

That was where they’d had the news about the High King.  He was still mentally stuttering at it.  It was like coming home and finding a mountain peak missing.

Instead of dwelling on that he scooped the last of the blueberries, blackberries and sliced peaches and nuts out of the bowl before him and drank the fruit-steeped cream.  

“And though we traveled the world around, we never found fruit better than this.  The taste makes me feel like a boy again.”

“Around the world,” Gytha whispered.  “Around the world!  My brother!”

Deor opened his mouth, then closed it again, looking around at the eyes staring at him.  It struck him with a sudden shock that probably nobody here but she and his brother and their escort had even gone as far as Portland. Most would never leave this valley and the hills and woods about it, a day’s journey on foot from the farmhouses where they’d been born.

Thora’s hazel eyes were laughing, as if to say:

Well, what did you expect, with your head full of dreams again? That’s why the world keeps surprising you!  

He’d been years on ships and in the parts of port-cities full of rootless travelers, all strangers to each other, and it had come to seem as natural a way of life as any other.  These people were flesh of his flesh and bone of his bone, this earth had borne and fed him, here his father and grandfather and kin from back even before the Change were laid in their graves... but looking at their glances now, for a moment he felt a whirling disorientation that made them as alien as any foreigner he’d met.

The silence echoed for a minute, and then his brother cleared his throat:  

“We’ll hear more of this!” he said.  “What do you plan next?”

Thora was pouring more cream from a brown clay jug over another bowl of berries. “These are very fine.  Mind, the Willamette’s are as good, but these are fine indeed... well, we were thinking of settling down.  If not right away, then soon.”

There was sharp surprise in the glances his family gave him.  

“When you’ve chased the rising sun until it sets, what more is there to do?” he said, spreading his long-fingered musician’s hands.  “There’s a time to stop cutting timber and start building your house.”

I’ve seen the sea turn silver and flash with winged fish leaping into a dawn like dancing fire, and beheld the ruins of London and Roma-beorg and Florence, and watched the white bears wrestle on glaciers.  I’ve heard Niagara pour in torrents that sound like Thunor’s hammer with the spray on my face.  I’ve smelled the cloves off the coast of Zanzibar, and had a turbaned king throw me sapphires for my songs in the jungle hills of Taprobane, and stood by the roadside while elephants clothed in jeweled mail bore a Maharaja through the streets of Sambalpur, past temples like carved mountains.  But I have no home.  I’ve made songs that will live, but I need more time to compose, or so much of this will be lost when I die.  Lost like tears in rain.

“And children need a home,” Thora said.

At looks of blank surprise, she leaned across the table and prodded a finger into Deor’s shoulder.  

“He’d make a fine man to help raise ‘em, even if he doesn’t like the making part.  I can handle that, though.  With a little temporary help from some long lad.”

That brought a startled laugh.  “We’ve a good house in Portland, the High King’s gift,” he said.  “And gold enough.”

In fact mostly jewels, which they’d sent on to Corvallis to be converted into arcane entries in the ledgers of the First National Bank. Something else that would have been a fable from a tale when he was a boy...

“But they’re strong Christians in Portland mostly, and neither of us is a city dweller in our hearts.  Perhaps some land, somewhere...”

“With space for horses,” Thora said, picking up a handful of raisins and tossing a few into her mouth; her hazel eyes looked dreamy for an instant.  “And a vineyard.  And plenty of space for Deor to talk to the landwights.  He’s the luckiest man that way I know, though they walk in his dreams more than I would like, by the Gods.”

Deor’s gaze went distant, and his fingers moved as if he were playing the harp that the High King’s sister had given him, though Golden Singer was in his room in her case of oak and lacquered bison-hide. A dream had haunted his sleep, and they were meaningful to a scop—songsmith—and to a runemaster as well.

"To walk off some of this fine food myself is what I need now...”

He cast an apologetic look at his brother's wife, who smiled. She did not quite know how to react to him, he could see; she never had, and the more so when he came home so changed. There was a mix of pride and bewilderment there.

Thora's raised eyebrow said, You're in one of your moods. What now?

"Do you want company?" she added aloud.

He shook his head. "I'm just going up to the ridge—settle my head as well as my belly."

It's not just the dream, Deor thought as he stepped out along the trail into the long shadows, absently settling the weight of his sword with a shrug of the hips.

Hraefnbeorg had been built on the knob where a run of higher ground ended in a steep rocky spot. To the west, the trail dipped down and then up a slope and along the ridge. The trees within a quarter-mile of the berg had been cut back to provide a clear field of fire, though the chaparral that was growing up now would have to be cut soon if the goats couldn’t cope.

Things have been too peaceful.

He felt a sense of presence as he passed the graveyard, the weathered slabs that honored his kin from before the Change dominated by the mound they had raised for Godulf.

“Are you pleased with me, father?” he asked softly.

He stopped for a moment before the stone set in the barrow’s side, carved with ravens and bearing the inscription:

Baron Godric Godulfson raised this barrow for his father Godulf the Wise, who saved his folk and died for them, undaunted. Thunor hallow these runes.

Then: “Are you surprised?” he whispered.

He stopped, surprised himself to realize that he still harbored that uncertainty. He had wandered the world with the High King’s leave—almost a command, to bring him a word of all the lands and a sense of how the great globe fared now that two generations had passed since the old world’s fall and human kind had began to find its balance once again. But right now he felt as if that voyage had been an escape from responsibility. Why had his wanderings led him home? And on this day?

Overhead, a raven called and was answered by another. At sunset it was normal for mated pairs to check in as they winged home, but he shivered suddenly. Ravens warded his line, and their cries could bring warning, and sometimes, what looked like a pair of common ravens were something more...

Leaving the cleared slope he passed beneath the Western Maple and oak and fir trees that crowned the ridge and continued on. Below him the slopes fell away in golden grass mixed with the deep green of little shaws of trees; beyond lay the meadows and patchwork fields of the farms, punctuated by the curving lines of carefully pruned grapevines. Now that trade had been established, Mist Hills was exporting their white wines, and he could see that some of the abandoned fields had been put into production once more. Horses dozed, and a herd of dairy cows was heading back towards its barn in single-file, needing no direction.

Beyond the river, the thickly forested southern hills rose in dark folds. For a moment the angle of one of the peaks reminded him of the shape of Mount Tamalpais, or Amon Tam, as they were calling it now, and suddenly an image from his dream leaped vividly into memory.

He remembered how King Artos had once tried to describe the messages he got from the Sword of the Lady. It had sounded a lot like the frustrating confusion of images that came to Deor when he was gestating a new poem. He frowned, trying to move from the image of the Mountain to the rest of his dream. There had been boats, and fighting on the shore. The clang of metal and shouts and screams...

Were these the first stirrings of a poem about the death of the High King? But that had happened at Beltane, when the hills would still have been green, whereas the slopes behind the battling warriors he saw had glowed with ripe Midsummer gold.

But now that he was remembering, what he felt was not grief or rage, but urgency. He had to know more. A little ways ahead, he remembered, was an ancient live-oak with a hollowed base that had cradled him through many dreaming hours. It was time to try utiseta, the old Norse practice of sitting out that he had learned in Norrheim. With no folk to distract him, perhaps he could untangle his dream.

Deor unrolled his cloak and slung it around his shoulders, for the cold sea wind had sprung up with the setting of the sun, leaching the last of the day’s heat—they were closer to the coast than you’d think here. In the east the moon was rising but the coastal hills were already wreathed with fog. Sweeping the hollow clear of debris, he settled himself against the trunk. With a sigh he let out his breath, allowing his awareness to flow with it, joining with that of the tree.

Ac-faeder, Oak-father, hail, he sent a silent message. Since I last sat here I have seen many lands and many trees, but none so noble as thee...

He smiled a little as a whisper of welcome passed through the prickle-edged leaves. Guard me, old friend, for I have a journey to go...

He adjusted his folded legs a little more comfortably, then closed his eyes, counting ever more slowly as he drew breath and let it out again. Awareness arrowed inward, then expanded, noting the rich earthy scent of the leaf mold, the small scufflings as ground squirrels sought shelter. A branch cracked as a doe led her half-grown fawn from cover. Farther still, a grey fox began his evening hunt. The raven called to his mate again, and was answered from the forest down the hill.

He took a deeper breath, and sent a greeting to the crusty old wight who ruled the ridge. He could sense the curiosity of other spirits as a feather-touch against his inner senses, and oddly, the same mix of excitement and security he had always felt in the presence of the High King. But this time it was mingled with the urgency that had throbbed in his dream. King Artos’ blood had blessed the land, his land, this land of valleys and mountains north of the Bay. That sacrifice made it truly part of Montival. It was no surprise if the High King´s spirit had joined the gathering of power he was feeling now. But what did Artos want him to do?

Then a two-note whistle and warble pierced his awareness as Meadowlark, his gold breast marked with black like the Hraefenbeorg banner, swooped and landed on his shoulder.

“Láwerce...” he breathed. “Will you show me the meaning of my dream?”

Rad...” came his ally’s answer, and the rune for riding shaped itself in his mind. “Fly with me...”

With a dizzying lurch his spirit slipped free.

Vision reoriented to a bird’s view as they flew through the night. Looking down he saw dark shapes moving along the pale line of the old highway that ran north and south through the coastal lands. But something was different—the moon, which had been nearly full, was beginning to wane.

It is the future, then, that you are showing me?”

Deor dipped lower to inspect the riders and recognized the Saxon helmets of Hraefenbeorg men. Each rider trailed a remount behind him. As he watched they jolted into a canter once more, and there was a cold glitter on the edges of their spears and in their set eyes and stern faces.

He followed Láwerce southward as the rising sun flamed on the great bay. In moments it was full day, and they were dropping downward past the remains of San Rafael, swooping toward the water’s edge where a receding tide left mudflats shining in the sun. He recognized the odd tufted island just offshore; they must be nearing Círbann Rómenadrim, the ancient fishing village that the Dúnedain had restored as a way-station for scavenging forays.

Nearer still, he saw a ship he recognized—Moishe Feldman’s Tarshish Queen—and an RMN frigate fighting off two Haida orcas and another that reminded him of a captured Korean warship he had seen in Capricornia. Bolts and roundshot and flaming shells arced between them, and the sails bent as the ships made their deadly, stately wheeling dance.

But it was the activity on shore that caught his eye. On the slope between the village and the road Montivallan knights and a group that looked for all the world like warriors of Nihon battled an Eater horde. Individually, the savages were outmatched, but there were so many! Smoke rose into the sky, half-obscuring the vision.

A flare of light caught his eye and he focused on a tall knight who fought with a flowing grace. Deor had only once seen the Sword of the Lady unsheathed, but as the great blade rose and fell he felt a shock of recognition like a trumpet call, like a hot clean wind through the soul. But it was impossible! The High King’s last fight had been in Napa, to the east, not here in San Pablo Bay.

The Eaters retreated, leaving the ground between them and the Montival band littered with the dying and the dead. He could half-see, half-sense presences, vast shadowy Powers at work... A robed figure swirling in rays of blinding light and heat before the entrance to a cave, her sleeves making giant arcs of flame larger than the sky as she danced love and danger and defiance. Another surrounded by a whirling raven-feathered cloud, at one moment a fair maiden with a bow, then a wrathful dark-haired warrior queen with sword in hand, next a grim sooty crone wielding a great scythe, all beautiful and all terrible beyond imagining.

And over the enemy, a flat darkness that loured and drew and drank...

Deor dropped closer as the knight eased off his, no, her helm, he realized as he saw the woman’s fighting braid.

Órlaith! The Princess!

It was years since he had seen her, but all the strength and beauty that had been just showing like new leaves in spring was there now, honed by grief and a grim fury. The warrior behind her spoke, and with a quick glance at her foes she jammed the helmet on again.

The Eaters were gathering for another charge, dancing, screaming, pounding their bare feet on the ground until it shuddered, shaking bows and spears and notched blades in the air. Arrows began to whistle and hum.

No!” shouted Deor, “Not her, not again!” But what came out was a bird’s cry.

Fly!” shrilled the Meadowlark. “Fly home, and sing the men of Hraefnbeorg a battle song!”

 

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