Dun Juniper to Dun Fairfax
Dùthchas of the Clan Mackenzie
(Formerly the east-central Willamette Valley, Oregon)
High Kingdom of Montival
(Formerly western North America)
July 31st, Change Year 25/2023 A.D.
"It's by you my place is, Chief," Edain Aylward Mackenzie said.
Rudi Mackenzie cocked an eyebrow. The commander of his guard regiment continued stolidly, his feet planted apart and hands on his sword-belt, his grey eyes steady in his square young face:
"I'm Bow-Captain of the High King's Archers. You can dismiss me if you've a mind to; but until you do, I'll do my job whether you find it suits your whim or not. Your Majesty."
"You never call me that save when you're going to defy me," Rudi laughed.
"With all due respect—"
"And you never say that unless you're going to be disrespectful, either. I've a sufficiency of armed men to guard me here in Dun Juniper, don't you think? And this."
He slapped a hand to the Sword of the Lady, and went on: "And I'll have you remember I put your face in the midden more than once when we were boys together. I can do it again if I must."
Despite himself, Edain laughed. At the High King's enquiring glance he admitted:
"That is most exactly what I said to me little brother Dickie when we got home, word for word, midden and all. And him grown so tall and roynish while we were gone."
"Then be off. We'll have our fill of risk this year, and you can throw yourself between it and me. This day I'm going to spend with my mother and step-father and my sisters in the place I was born. You and your bride the sword-maiden go down to Dun Fairfax and do likewise!"
Edain chuckled as he set foot on the steep path that led down from the plateau of Dun Juniper to Dun Fairfax, where it was tucked away in the valley of Artemis Creek. The quiet of the hillside forest swallowed it, green-umber distances between the tall candle-straight trunks of the Douglas fir and Ponderosa pine, red-cedar and hemlock, with the odd bigleaf maple or garry oak, and black walnut thickly planted long ago for variety. A jay went sheunk-sheunk-sheunk, squirrels ran chattering like gray streaks, and a hedgehog scuttled off into the underbrush.
Asgerd Karlsdottir looked at him and raised one yellow brow. She was only a finger shorter than his five-nine, but with a slender strength in contrast to his broad-shouldered, thick-armed, barrel-chested build; she wore breeks and tunic rather than the kilt, a seax-knife and Norrheimer broadsword at her belt but a Mackenzie-style quiver on her back. They both took the steep way effortlessly, ducking and twisting now and then when tree branches or undergrowth nearly caught at the arrows in their quivers, their feet making little sound despite the boots they wore. Now and then one would bend a fern gently aside with the tip of the longbows they both carried in their left hands, leaving no trace of their passing.
Neither was conscious of taking care not to make noise or leave trail. It was a manner you learned when you hunted for food's sake, not to mention scouting and tracking and skirmishing across a continent with life and death for the table-stakes.
"What's the jest?" she asked.
"No jest; just thinking that I'm a lucky man."
"Lucky in your lord, or your wife?"
He grinned at her; freed from the helmet his oak-colored curls tossed around his tanned face, and she restrained an impulse to smooth them back.
"The both, which is as much luck as a man can decently ask of the Powers, eh?"
They both made protective signs, though different ones; he the Invoking Pentagram, she Thor's Hammer.
"And I was happy that the Sword gave Rudi a happy vision for once, those children he told us of. It'll be a fine rare thing to have a little princess and prince about."
Asgerd sighed. "I wish we had such a foretelling," she said.
"Well, as a general rule folk don't need a vision from a magic sword to produce children, you see. The usual way suffices," he said solemnly.
A glint came into Edain's gray eye as he deliberately looked her up and down. "We'll just have to keep practicing over and over until we get it right, so to say..."
He dodged as she pretended to clout him along the head with her bow, then said more seriously:
"Though we've plenty of time; we're both of us younger than Rudi and his lady. Why, look at me ma and da; I come back after only two years away, and I've a new brother and sister tumbling about the place like puppies. Twins, I admit, and born no more than nine months after I left almost to a day, but it's scarce daycent, at their ages. Da'll be seventy, come Samhain and a bit!"
Asgerd snorted. "Your mother is younger, and that's what counts."
"Aye, eighteen year younger, near nineteen; she lost her first man in the Change, my half-sister Tamar's father, he was some place far away. And Tamar was nobbut a wee one then. Not that I'm not glad to have little Nigel and Nola, of course. The more Aylwards the better for the Clan and the world—"
"They do set an example of modesty," Asgerd said in a pawky tone.
"Modesty is a vice I leave to Christians, as the Chief likes to say. But it's odd to think they're younger than Tamar's children, my nieces and nephews. It's taken a good deal out of ma, too. Fifty is old to be brought to bed of a hard labor, and they say it was painful hard. Thank Brigid we have fine midwives and healers."
Asgerd shivered a little inwardly; her people did too, but you went to the mouth of Hela's realm to bring forth life, nonetheless. Then her mouth quirked:
"And she's not all that happy you've brought a foreign wife home, and one who follows other Gods than hers."
Edain shrugged. "Could be worse, darlin'; you're not of the Old Religion, but you're not quite a cowan either. Now if you'd been a Christian, one of the ones who scorns all other Gods and won't so much as set aside a bowl of milk for the house-hob... that would have put the manure-fork in the soup kettle, right and proper it would."
Asgerd wore the triple interlinked triangles of Odin on a thong around her neck, the valknut; she was asatru, like most of the folk in her distant homeland of Norrheim, what had once been northernmost Maine. Her man went on:
"And she's not over-happy her grown children are near all off to the war—Tamar's man Eochu, and me, and Dickie, and even young Fand as an eòghann. Tamar would be too, except that she has a babe at the breast. We'd best remember that there's been war here, with battles and all, while we made our way to Nantucket and back, tricking and twisting and fighting. Not to mention runnin' like buggery when we could, though the bards will leave that out, I'm thinking."
"Only from Norrheim to Nantucket and all the way back here, for me, but that was long enough! Three thousand miles, is it?"
A chill ran down her back as she remembered what had happened on Nantucket. The details were hazy, as if in a fever-dream that slipped away when you woke; but she knew she had stepped out of the light of Midgard's common day there. And the Sword... she could hear the seeress' voice, deepened and roughened as the All-Father took hold of her on the high seat of seidh in the hall at Eriksgarth:
More potent than Tyrfing, forged for the hand of a King!
They came out of the deep woods, onto a spot where the trail turned downward in a switchback; it had been roughly reinforced with logs and rocks to prevent the soil from washing in the winter rains, and those in turn worn by boots and the odd hoof. From here you were a hundred feet above the funnel shape of the little valley running out into the broader stretches of the Willamette and could see it all with a sweep of the eyes.
A winding strip of forest followed Artemis creek; the rest of the vale was divided into small fields by neatly trimmed hawthorn hedges studded with lines of poplars and oaks, well-grown but usually no older than Edain. Some of the fields were the pale brown-blond of reaped wheat, or the gold-shot green of standing barley a month or two from harvest. The vivid grass of cropped pasture lay dreaming beneath the warmth of a sun that brought out the rich smell of earth and sap; white-coated sheep and red cattle grazed there, and beneath orchards. Plots of potatoes and vegetables were grouped closer to the walls of the Dun. Beeches lined the white-surfaced dirt road that followed the tumbling water, and dust smoked away behind an ox-wagon that moved there, small as a child's toy with distance.
"And isn't this a brave bright sight," Edain said, his voice soft with love. "I can remember the time my father took me to this spot, after the first harvest I recall clear, and pointed out our fields and our neighbors', where I'd worked carrying water to the binders and myself so proud to be part of it. Often and often I thought of this on the journey there and back again.
Asgerd tried to see it as he did; tried and failed.
Oh, it's was beautiful enough, she thought; beautiful with an alien comeliness. And rich, richer than Norrheim.
Some of the crops were the same; her folk grew wheat and barley and oats and spuds too. But here they planted wheat in the fall and harvested it in the summer, instead of putting seed down in spring and making prayer and blót to Frey and Freya and Thor that the weather held long enough to get it in come fall. Norrheimers reaped with one eye on the sky, dreading clouds and cold driving rain to make the grain sprout and rot in the stack, hail that could beat it flat, and even early snow. Here it was one fine warm day after another for the ripening.
So in the Mackenzie dùthchas barley went mostly to beer and oats to horses and they didn't bother with rye. Everyone ate fine feast-time white bread made from wheat flour every day if they pleased, like a great chief. There were fruits here she'd only heard about in tales, apricots and cherries, pears and peaches and nectarines, even grapes for wine. You could graze stock outside ten or eleven months of the year, too; she'd never seen such a wealth of strong fat beasts. Winters here were chilly and wet, not the endless gray iron cold and driving blizzards she'd grown up with, and there were near a hundred days more between the last killing frost and the first.
Rich land well farmed and plenty of it, she thought. The only wealth that's really real. Never a hungry spring for my children, when they come; a place for them to grow straight and strong and carry our blood down the years in our children's children.
But for a moment she was possessed by a bitter longing for the hard pine scent of the homeland winds, the pale light of the short midsummer nights gleaming on the silver bark of the birches, and even the bright chill of a winter morning when the land seemed crusted with diamond and the air crackled in your nose. There was no point in talking of any of that. She had made her decision, for reasons which still seemed good, and she would abide what came of it. Edain best of all, and where he was she would make her home.
"The harvest was fine," she said instead, the sure-fire conversational gambit; she couldn't imagine anyone not being interested in that. "The heads in the sheaves were thick and heavy."
"Fifty bushels the acre if it's one, despite pushing it just a wee bit early for the war's sake and letting the grain dry in the stooks," Edain agreed. "Nor any sign of the rust. As good as any can remember since the Change."
He cocked an eye at her. "And you pitched in very well, with not a word said. Everyone was pleased, and more than one told me so."
Asgerd flushed, happy and a little angry at the same time that anyone could have doubted her. She'd seen lands where a few rich lorded it over all others and despised toil and sweat, but she was glad that among Mackenzies everyone worked, and fought when needful. Back in Norrheim she'd often seen King Bjarni with his hands on the handles of a plow or the haft of an ax, and Queen Harberga busy with loom and churn or helping get in the hay.
"Who but a nithing would do otherwise?" she said. "When there's real work to be done, you do it with all you have. The wights give no luck to the lazy, nor would Frey and Freya if I lacked respect for Their gifts."
Edain chuckled. "I know you, acushla, and have for a year now; and I know your folk a little, so I know why your back's up and bristling like an angry cat. There's no harm making a good impression on those who don't know you or them, though, eh? We Mackenzies think well of a hard worker too, and you're the new wolf in the pack here."
She nodded. I haven't met many Norrheimer men who are as good at following a woman's thoughts, she mused. He's a troll-killing terror in a fight, my Edain, and a stallion in the blankets, and he can hunt anything that flies or runs, but in some ways he's as sensitive as another girl.
The thought gave her a flush of pleasure. She hid it by cocking her head to one side and considering Dun Fairfax itself, seen as a bird or a God might view it and away from the confusing thronging closeness that had blurred her vision of it before. There was nothing quite like a Dun of Clan Mackenzie in Norrheim. The thorpe of a godhi, the home-place of a ring-giving drighten chief, would come closest; but that would be dominated by the Hall, and none held quite so many dwellers. Most Norrheimers lived each family of yeoman bondar by itself in the center of its allodal family land, the way her own parents and siblings did, with perhaps a few dependents' homes to make a hamlet for the most prosperous.
Dun Fairfax was a rectangle surrounded by a palisade of logs set in concrete and bound together with steel cable. There were blockhouses at the corners and flanking the gate made from squared baulks of timber; the whole was built from big logs, as thick as her body and many man-lengths high, for the trees grew tall and great here. They'd been stripped of bark, too, and varnished and oiled and polished, and bands across them had been carved with low-relief patterns of twining leaves and vines and serpents and elongated beasts, colorfully painted and inlaid with glass and stone from which whimsical faces peered, human and demi-human, bestial and divine.
Mackenzies were fond of that effect, but it always made her feel as if something was looking at her, just out of sight at the corners of her eyes. Here you always felt that the Otherworld was only a half-step away.
A clear space of close-cropped pasture was kept outside the walls. Within were the homes and workshops along cobbled lanes, the tall steep-pitched covenstead that served for ceremony and gatherings and school for the children, and a communal barn and grain-elevator and warehouse where things like the reaping machines were kept; there was a pond like a blue eye near the center where ducks and geese swam, surrounded by willows and oaks and a stretch of grass. Smoke drifted blue from brick chimneys in roofs that might be mossy shingle or flower-starred green turf, and very faintly she could hear the tink-tank-clang of a smith at work. The largest house was a pre-Change frame structure not at all unlike some she'd seen as a girl, but it was much altered and painted in a pale blue. The corners and windows and door-lintels had all been set with bands of carved planking picked out in gold-yellow and scarlet and green.
Beautiful, but different... very strange... witchy, she thought.
"Too crowded," she said aloud, and then again had that disconcerting feeling that Edain was following her real thoughts. "All those households within one wall."
"Ah, well, it was bad in Norrheim after the Change but worse for us," he said blandly. "For ten years war hung over us like a thundercloud of threats and raids before it burst; I remember the wars against the Association, though I was nought but a nipper when Rudi was taken prisoner, and the northerners besieged Sutterdown, and I recall Da leading our archers out to the Field of Gold. And bad bandit troubles before and after and during that, gangs of the spalpeens, so it wasn't safe for families to live apart on their own as your folk do. We got into the habit of dwelling close, so."
"It's still as packed with folk as an egg is with meat," she grumbled.
"Forebye it's a bit crowded now, yes, what with the easterners we've given refuge and our own numbers growing. Perhaps after the war, we'll get together with Dun Carson and some others and found a new settlement."
Unspoken went: if too many don't die in the battles to come.
There was quiet pride in his voice: "We've done it before and more than twice; this is the oldest Dun in the Clan's territory, after Dun Juniper. And Dun Juniper's... different. This was the first of our farming Duns, and the pattern for the others, so."
The bigger house was the Aylward household, where her man's family dwelt. Her marriage-kin now. She took a deep breath. No task grew easier and no danger grew less because you flinched from it. Just as she did they both heard soft quiet steps coming from below. Hands went to weapons, and Edain made a brzzzzzllll sound between his teeth, the buzzing trill of some local bird she didn't know. The like answered it, and they relaxed; then a man and three dogs came into sight.
"Dickie," Edain said, slipping the arrow back into his quiver.
His younger brother was just eighteen and hence a little younger than Asgerd herself, in a kilt but barefoot, with only a sleeveless shirt below his quiver and a bow in his hand and a dirk at his belt. He had a kin-look of Edain, but his long queue of hair was a brown ruddy with the tint of old rust, his face half-covered with freckles where it wasn't pale, and his build more lanky. Two of the dogs were just out of pup-hood, two years or so with heads and feet still a little large for their frames; the other was a gray-brown bitch of six or seven. All three were enormous, mastiff-Dane crosses with a strong trace of timber wolf.
"Stay, Garbh," Edain said.
The bitch came over to him, sniffed politely at Asgerd's hand, accepted a ruffling of the ears, then sat down by her master with a thump of tail against packed dirt and leaned her massive barrel-wide head into his thigh. A slight lift of the lip to show fang kept the younger dogs well-mannered when they showed an impulse to leap about. They were the get of a sister from Garbh's litter, and had accepted her authority instantly.
"Edain," the younger man replied, and: "Sister," to Asgerd with a casual nod.
And he's always just taken me as I am, Asgerd thought gratefully. Neither too friendly or hiding behind formal manners, more as if he'd known me from a baby and remembered me sitting on the porch sucking my thumb. Right now I think he wants to talk to his brother, though.
"I'll go down," she said. "Your mother may need some help, with the feast preparing."
"See you in a bit then, mo chroi," Edain said.
The Aylward brothers squatted side by side with their bows across their knees, looking down at the Dun that was the home where they'd been born.
"That is a fine, fine figure of a woman you've found yourself there," Dick said after an instant, nodding down the trail after Asgerd.
"Or she found me."
"Stubborn and close-mouthed, though."
"Ah, you just noticed! Not that any Aylward has ever been such before, cough our da cough."
"And when she does talk, it's always as if she were chanting a tale."
"She thinks we Mackenzies gabble too much and too quick," Edain said with a grin. "All her folk talk like that. Something to do with their Gods, d'ye see."
Dick snorted. "Well, the father always says we talk like... like the stage Irish. What that means perhaps Ogma of the honey tongue knows, but I do not."
"I've heard Lady Juniper say something of the sort," Edain said, and shrugged.
Their generation were used to finding those who'd been adults before the Change odd, even the most beloved or respected. Then he went on:
"How else should Mackenzies talk? We're Gaels and that's how we speak. I've no complaints about Asgerd; when she does speak, it's usually something worth the hearing and not just clack for the sake of it. No complaints in general; let Lady Aeval who rules the marriage bed bear witness."
Dick nodded: "She's clever and hard-working, too, and not so bad a shot with a bow in her hands; you and she should make some fine comely bairns, which the Mother-of-All grant. But can she cook, brother?"
Edain laughed. "Over a camp-fire, yes, but we've not had our own hearth yet! Her folk do well enough; plain good cooking the most of it, not as subtle as ours, and they've less to work with in that grim shiversome ice-box they inhabit. Their beer is sad beyond description—no hops—but they make a fine mead and good whiskey and cider and applejack. And they liven up considerable at a feast; no lack of the craic."
Dick reached into his sporran and pulled out a scone wrapped in a broad dock leaf, breaking it and offering Edain half. He took it, biting into it with relish. It was still faintly warm, with a brown crisp crust on the bottom and a soft steaming interior thickly studded with Bing cherries and hazelnuts, the whole sweet with honey.
"Ah, and on the quest I missed the mother's cooking something fierce," he said through the crumbs.
"I don't hold with foreign food myself," Dick agreed. "Now, what's this I hear about an Óenach Mór?"
Edain nodded. "On the fly, so to speak. There will be business to do for the Clan, and it can't wait, so the levy will be the assembly too, so to say. And sure, they're collecting the proxies so there'll be a quorum with the marching host; it's a war we're going to, not a cèilidh. Lady Juniper's been busy with that, Rudi having other things to put his hand to the now."
Dick's brows went up. "We've already voted for war, and that some time ago."
"It's that Rudi... the High King... can't be tanist any more.
His younger brother sat bolt upright and sprayed crumbs; Edain pounded him helpfully on the back. "And why not, by Anwyn's hounds?"
The Chief always had a tanist, a designated successor in training; it had been Rudi Mackenzie for six years now.
"Because he's the High King, y'daft burraidh!"
"A blockhead, am I? And why shouldn't he be Chief in his time, as well as Ard Rí?"
"Because he's to be High King of all Montival, of which the Clan is only a part, and not the largest part at that. Which means he belongs to all the peoples, not just us. And it would be just a bit of a slap in the face to all the rest if he were to be Chief, the Mackenzie Himself, wouldn't it now? He's to be King over them, but that doesn't put us over them, so."
"Oh," Dick said, knotting his rusty brows. "Well, since you put it that way. But who's to be tanist, then? May the Gods grant the Chief a long life, but..."
"But we all of us pass the Western Gate someday. Well, in strict law we could choose anyone. If I were a betting man, I'd say that Lady Juniper's middle daughter would be the one to back. A good deal of quiet talk's been going on with the notable folk in each Dun to that effect, and in Sutterdown. And not just since Rudi returned. The Chief saw the necessity of it as soon as the news that Rudi was to be King came back, and folk took to it so enthusiastic and all."
"Ah," Dick said. "Well, I wouldn't want to choose any outside the Chief's line anyway, given a choice. There's lady Eilir, but she's with the Rangers. Fiorbhinn's a likey lass, though."
Edain shook his head. "She'd do at a pinch; but she's very young yet, not yet under the Moon, and besides she's more for the music and the magic. Maude's near as old as Rudi was when we hailed him tanist, and she's clever and good-hearted. She'll be a steady hand on the reins."
"The Chief's a bard, and a priestess of power, and a good Chief too."
"That she is, but a child can get some of the gifts and not others. Forbye Fiorbhinn doesn't want it, and does say so with great enthusiasm and determination. Mentions that her first decree would be that everyone must speak in rhyme at all times, and the second that all dishes but ice cream and apple pie be banned. And she's only half in jest. Maude will do what duty says, regardless."
"Which is what's wanted, true enough," Dick said, and finished his half of the scone.
They both took a swig from Edain's canteen, poured a little water on the ground and dusted their hands beside the trail. Each dropped a small piece broken off from the scone for the purpose as well.
"Let the spirit of the place take her due. All the rest is yours, little brothers," Edain murmured, welcoming the insects and birds, then went on:
"We had some fine eating in those foreign parts when we guested with great men, but nothing to compare with home to my reckoning. Well, except in Readstown, where Ingolf the Wanderer's kin dwell along the Kickapoo river; Wisconsin it was called, before the Change. His brother's wife Wanda is a hearthmistress there, and a brewmistress of note as her kin were before her, even before the Change."
"Good, she is?"
"Better than good, by the Blessing! Such beer as Lord Gobniu brews in the Land of Summer. And her meat pies would make you weep. Also their sausages are good, and their cheese is very fine, as good as the mother's or the best from Tillamook."
"You always did take tender care of your stomach, Edain. You'll get all you can guzzle tonight," Dick said, with a smile that was half-sour. "I fair couldn't stand it the more. A fine fat yearling buck I brought in yesterday, and six rabbits—"
They both absently made the gesture of the Horns to Cernnunos, the Master of the Beasts, to acknowledge that their two-legged kind took of the bounty of the woods only when they walked with His power. Deer swarmed in the forests round about, and even more in the overgrown abandoned fields that still made up most of the Willamette country; not only were they good eating, but hunting helped protect the crops and gardens from their nibbling scourge. No fence or hedge made by man would keep a deer out, or a rabbit or a fox.
"—and that's as much as I propose to do. Running about waving their hands in the air, they all are, and screeching. Nerves on end, with the levy and the war and all."
Edain looked out, listening to his brother's voice with the ears of the mind.
"It's not just the women-kind who've driven you out on this fine day," he said. "You're not one to balk at peeling a few spuds."
"Well... mind, I'm happy to be in the High King's Archers. But it'll be a wee bit odd, not to march with the Dun's levy."
Edain laughed and slapped his brother on the shoulder, callused palm echoing on hard muscle.
"If you're afraid of being too safe... well, lad, we'll be by the High King's side. Never a dull moment in battle, I promise you that. That's not all that's bothering you, mo bhràthair!"
Dick sighed, a sound like the relaxing of a constraint.
"It's the father," he said after a moment, his voice catching a little. "Fair worried I am. He would do too much when we brought in the wheat, and I think he pulled something in his back, though the barbs of the Gáe Bolga itself couldn't drag a word of it out of him, you know how he is."
"That I do, and I know just what you mean."
"I'm that afraid he'll kill himself when the spring-planted barley comes ripe, we'll be gone to the war and the Dun'll be short-handed. If any man with Mackenzie on the end of his name has earned the right to take a rest in the sun, then by Lug Longhand and Ogma and Brigid and the threefold Morrigú and all the Gods of our people, isn't it him? By hard work and harder fighting both. But will he listen to me, or you, or Tamar, or even the mother?"
"Not a bit will he. Though it hurts our honor as his children that he won't let us take better care of him."
Edain closed his eyes for a moment, then opened them and shook his head; Garbh looked up and whined slightly at his tone as he went on:
"Aye, it's bitter hard to see the old man fail. You don't remember him as well as I from when he was in his prime, First Armsman of the Clan for all those years."
Dick nodded. "And the new little ones, they probably won't remember him at all."
Edain's breath hissed between his teeth; it was all too likely. Seventy years was old; three-score and ten were the years of a man, as the Christians said.
"It karks at his pride that he can't go with the war-levy, of course. So he does too much else."
Dick sighed again, in resignation this time.
"Well, at least the mother will have him to fuss at while we're gone, and her babes and Tamar's. It's luck Tamar has one at the breast and can't answer the levy-call herself, for she'll be company for them both and keep an eye on him."
The air of Dun Fairfax was warm and drowsy, heavy with the good cooking smells of baking and roasting and simmering. But the scents subtly differed from what she was used to; more spices and pungent herbs, a broader range than her folk had, and the cooking done more often with sunflower oil or canola and less with butter or lard. Despite her good intentions Asgerd ducked into the Aylward house through what had once been its double-car garage.
That had been modified to make it a workshop, though rolled bedding was strapped to the walls as well right now; the outer side had a trellis trained with roses, a blaze of color and sweet heavy scent. She had expected it to be empty and give her a spell to nerve herself to plunge into a hard-working crowd who all knew each other from the inside out and she the white crow in the flock. Instead Sam Aylward was sitting at the workbench near the big double doors, before the clamps and spokeshaves, the vices and drawknives and drills.
Run from your fate and you run towards it, she thought to herself.
The old man was fingering the tools neatly racked there, below the bundles of yew staves and hardwood burls. He wore only a kilt, and you could see that he'd been a powerful man once, built much like Edain, but the flesh was gaunt and thinner on the heavy bones now. You could also see the marks of every weapon known to man, knife and sword, spear and arrow and ax, even the round puckered scars left by bullets before the Change—Erik the Strong, King Bjarni's father, had had some of those that she had seen while her family was visiting at Eriksgarth over the festivals.
Asgerd felt a little awed; hers were a warrior folk who honored courage as the first of the Nine Virtues. And someone, sometime, had used red-hot iron to write in an odd curling script on Sam Aywlard's belly, but the letters trailed off. He looked up sharply when she cleared her throat, his gray eyes searching beneath the white tufted eyebrows.
"Ah, Asgerd. Come on in, my girl."
His accent was nothing like the usual Mackenzie burble and lilt; it was slower and deeper, sonorous, in a way Edain had told her was from the English lands where he'd grown: he pronounced the last two words as moi guurl.
He saw where her glance had gone. "Yus, that were interrupted. By Sir Nigel, 'im who's Lady Juniper's 'usband now, long ago, when I were Edain's age and he was captain of my SAS company. Glad Oi was of it, and that's a fact."
"Hello, good father," she said, a little formally.
"And 'ello to you too. All's well up to Dun Juniper?"
She nodded. "The King commanded us to go home." A ghost of a smile. "Said Edain could throw himself in front of danger later, but for now he'd put his face in the midden and hold it there if he didn't come down and have the parting feast with his kin."
Sam Aylward laughed. "Good man, Rudi. Good officer, too, come to that. Sir Nigel taught him well."
So did you, old man, and you taught Edain well too. But you are the sort who will praise another's deeds before his own, I think.
Then he turned to the workbench. "Oi've summat for you," the old man said. "Bit of a gift loik. I was meanin' to wait until the levy left, but per'aps it's better now."
"Ah!" Asgerd said as he pulled back a cloth.
The bow was beautiful, a long shallow double curve in and out with the polished yew limbs, orange heartwood and pale sapwood gleaming under varnish and oil. The riser-grip in the center was from a maple burl, its curling grain promising hard rigid strength. The nocks at the ends were elk-antler, translucent as amber, and they were carved with gripping beasts in the style of her own people. He must have gone looking for that, consulting some book or Lady Juniper.
Sam grinned as she took it up and held it out, feeling the sweet balance.
"Six foot two, reflex-deflex, and near eighty-five pound even on the tillering frame for the draw. Oi don't think that'll overbow you, you've bin practicing 'ard. That hickory bow Edain made you out east is a foine piece o' work, but you'll be needing two at least, for a long campaign, and mountain-grown yew is best at the last."
Asgerd swallowed. "Thank you, good father," she said. "This is lovely work, and a real battle-tool. I will not dishonor it."
"Oi can still make 'em, just slower loik," the old man said, and waved away her thanks.
Then he winced and halted the motion.
"Don't you fuss at me too, girl," he said sharply as she came forward with a frown on her face.
"I'm not fussing, I'm finding out what's wrong!" she said sharply, and pressed down on his shoulder.
He winced again, but was silent long enough for her to probe the muscles along the ridges of his spine with ruthless fingers.
"All right, good father," she said briskly. "On your face. This bench will do."
"Thank you, girl, but—"
"But nothing. I grew up on a farm too, old man; do you think I've never seen a man who's pulled his back before? And I know what to do. I've done it often enough for my father and my brothers!"
The glare turned to a wry nod. "Oi wonder if my boy knows what 'e's gotten 'isself into," he said, and obeyed. "Damned if Oi don't loik you, girl. You go straight at things."
"See if you like me so well after I'm finished; this is going to hurt," she said.
Asgerd looked along the bottles and jars racked behind the workbench. There would be oil, and...
Her nose led her to a small vial. "Wintergreen, good," she said. "Too strong, though. I'll mix it with some oil. Now let's get to work."
She rolled up the sleeves of her shirt and did. Her father-in-law's breath caught once or twice, but he made no other sound. When she was finished he sat up cautiously and worked his shoulders while she cleaned her hands on a rag.
"Believe that's eased it," he said.
"Now go and rest for a few hours," she said; when he bridled, she shook a finger in his face. "You wouldn't over-burden a piece of wood, why do you think your spine is any different? Do just as you please, good father, but if you don't rest now you'll be stiff as driftwood tomorrow again, and as brittle."
He laughed softly. "Yes, ma'am," he said, and got up.
The door from the inner house opened, and a faded woman in her fifties with yellow-brown hair liberally streaked with gray came in. She was not in the usual Mackenzie kilt, but in the shift and tartan arsaid that older woman often preferred—an arsaid wrapped around the waist to make a long skirt under a belt, and then one end was thrown over the shoulder and pinned. She was taking off the apron she'd worn over that, and dabbing at a flush of sweat on her face with a corner of it that wasn't stained or flour-coated.
"Sam?" she said. "Are you all right the now?"
"Better than Oi was, luv," he said.
His expression made the leathery weathered surface of his face crinkle into a web of wrinkles, but also made it seem younger too as he smiled at his wife. His daughter-in-law could feel the love there, not much spoken but as comfortable as a low fire of coals on a cold day.
"Asgerd 'ere gave me back a bit of a rub, where it were stiff this last while. Now I'll 'ave a nap, if you can spare me. Be fresh for the big dinner, eh?"
The woman blinked. "That's a fine idea, we'll be eating about sundown. Nola and Nigel are in their truckle beds there too, be careful not to wake them, now. It was hard enough to get them asleep and out from underfoot."
"Oi will, luv. They sleep Ďard as they play, at that age, eh?"
She looked after him and shook her head, then looked at Asgerd. Blue eyes met blue.
"Well, and how did you manage that? Without clouting him hard enough to crack the thick stubborn skull of him, to be sure."
Asgerd ducked her head. Edain's mother was mistress of this household, and she knew her manners.
"Good mother, I... I just told him I'd been raised on a farm and knew what to do when a man pulled his back, and not to be foolish but to lie down so I could fix it."
She indicated the bench. Melissa Aywlard came over and looked at the dish of improvised liniment, sniffing at it.
"Essence of meadowsweet and sunflower oil. That would do nicely. I add a little mint-water when I make up a batch for the stillroom."
"My mother does too," Asgerd said. "But there wasn't any to hand."
Melissa nodded. "So it isn't all swords with you, then, girl?"
"Oh, no," Asgerd said, surprised; though they hadn't had much time to talk, or she thought much inclination on the older woman's part. "I trained to arms, we all do in Norrheim just as you do here, but I wasn't a shield-maid until my man Sigurd... the one I was to marry... was killed. By the Bekwa savages, led by a red-robe, a trollkjerring of the CUT. I heard that the night I first saw Edain."
Quick sympathy lit the other woman's face, and Asgerd turned her head aside slightly.
"That is a good loom," she went on determinedly, walking over to where it stood tall at the other end of the big room. "My mother has one much like it—a bit higher, a little narrower."
"Sam made it for me... sweet Brigid, twenty-three years ago last Imbolc," Melissa said.
Asgerd touched the satiny finish of the wood, pegged and glued together from oak and ash, beechwood and maple, and carved with running vines at the joinings. Just now it was set up to weave a stretch of blue cloth with yellow flowers at the corners, half-done but already lovely. One of the good things about weaving was that it could be interrupted for something more urgent and taken up again an hour or a day later; she supposed that was why it was usually woman's work, though she'd known men who did it well. If there was anything that made for interruptions more urgent and more often than a small child, she'd never heard of it.
Melissa went on: "He copied it from Lady Juniper's that she had from before the Change—she taught me to weave, like many another. We like to work here together in the winter afternoons, Sam and I; he'll be at the bench, and I at the loom."
Asgerd looked more closely, whistled under her breath, and traced one of the joints with her thumbnail. It was so close-set there was hardly even a catch when she ran it across the surface; the whole of it was like that, mortise-and-tenon joins pegged together with almost invisible smoothness. Even the king-bolts that could be taken down to disassemble the whole thing for storage were countersunk to be out of the way yet instantly accessible.
"This is beautifully made, so light and yet so strong!" she said.
Every ounce of unnecessary weight in a loom's moving parts was something you felt in your shoulders and back after a day spent weaving; any half-competent carpenter could knock together something that relied on sheer bulk, but paring weight to a minimum without losing strength or rigidity took real art at every stage from selecting the materials on.
"Like fine cabinet work," she went on. "I've never seen better."
Melissa swallowed. "Sam always has been proud of his carpentry and joinery, though sure, he didn't talk about it much," she said. "People came from all over to learn it from him, those first years. Bows yes, but not just those, and he made... oh, looms and churns and a dozen other things, getting ideas from books and old things from museums and then figuring out how to do them properly. And they came to learn farming from him, too, the old ways of doing it, he'd go 'round giving a hand to all and showing the way of it. There's many alive and well today on the ridge of the world with children and grandchildren of their own, who would have starved half to death or outright died without my Sam!"
Asgerd nodded. After courage and loyalty, a man's pride was in the strength and skill of his hands, the work that fed his children and made strong his house and kindred. She knew that love of craft as well, and the kindred pride in keeping going uncomplaining when your bones groaned with weariness and all you wanted in the world was food and bed.
"Lovely," she said again, and sat at the weaver's bench.
When Melissa nodded permission at her enquiring glance she ran her hands over the heddle and beater, touched her feet to the paddles that would shift the warp and weft and the cord and lever that would throw the shuttle, looked at the little wheeled baskets that held supplies out of the way and yet to hand.
"This would be a pleasure to work at," she said. "I can feel how everything's just where you want it."
"That cloak you brought, was that your mother's work? It's well done," Melissa said. "Only a little worn, and you must have used it fair hard on a journey like that."
"She taught me but it's my work, good mother," Asgerd said, letting a little of her own pride of craft show. "That journey cloak, I sheared the sheep and cleaned and spun the wool and wove it; it's a twin to one I made for Sigurd to use when he went in Viking to the dead cities. Just plain weaving, of course, nothing fancy like this, but it has worn well, and it's kept me warm and dry many a time."
"It must be nearly waterproof, done with the grease in that way," Melissa said.
Then she sighed and sat on the bench before the loom, beside the girl.
"I'm... I know I've been less welcoming than I might. Than I should have been. I've been... anxious about things, sure and I have, and more things than one. And the Lady is taking me out from under the dominion of the Moon now, into the Wise One's hands and near to my croning."
That puzzled her for an instant; her people didn't have a formal ceremony for that, as they did for coming of age. Then she nodded understanding.
"All of which I offer as some poor excuse," Melissa said.
"Good mother, I didn't expect a dance of joy when your son came home with a stranger, a foreign bride. You don't know me or my kin or my very folk. I could have been an ill sort, one who did him no credit. I'm not like that, but I expected to have to prove... Well, if a man of my kindred, say one of my brothers, had come back with a Mackenzie maid for handfasting, it wouldn't have been all hot mead and kisses at first from the women of my kindred either!"
"It's been hard, with Edain away, hearing nothing but the odd letter, and those often of some battle or peril he'd been in and me not even knowing," Melissa said softly, her eyes seeming to look beyond the wall.
"I can see that. I've been frightened for him more than once myself, even there with him! Though it was a comfort to have Artos King on hand."
Melissa nodded. "Rudi... Artos... is a great hero, one whose song will live forever. Yet it's perilous to stand too close to a hero in a tale! He's been in and out of this house all his life, and I love him too; Lady Juniper was my sponsor in the Craft, and... But Edain is mine, my first son, the babe I bore beneath my heart and carried in my arms, new life in those years when it seemed death had swallowed all the world."
"And he always will be your son," Asgerd said. "You and the good father raised him to be a fine man, strong and kind both. My man, the one I will walk beside all my days, shipmates through life, and who will be the father of my children. The grandchildren I will lay in your arms, good mother."
"I would like that, sure and I will like it very much indeed," Melissa said.
Then unexpectedly, she chuckled. "Though with twins only two years old myself... I hadn't expected that, after twelve years without a hint and not for want of trying. There's a good many infants around this house the now!"
"The twins are fine children!" Asgerd said, with genuine enthusiasm. "So strong already, like little Ratatoskr-squirrels for dashing and climbing, so bold and fearless!"
"So hard to keep out of everything that might burn, cut, drown, crush or poison them!" Melissa said. "The great thing with grandchildren is that you can hand them back to their parents and get a moment's rest now and then!"
Then she extended a hand. "Shall we start again, and see what comes of it, Asgerd Karlsdottir? Asgerd Aylward Mackenzie, too?"
Asgerd took it in both of hers. "I would like that. And now let me help with the rest of this feast. I can chop and mince and peel a potato and knead bread and roll pastry and baste meat, even if I don't have all the kitchen arts you do."
With a wry smile. "Of which I have heard the praises sung near every evening for full three thousand miles of campfire meals, let me tell you!"
Melissa laughed again, carefree this time. "Girl, with that in your ears day and night, it's surprised and astonished I am you didn't hate me already by the time you arrived!"
They stood and made for the door, arm in arm
Copyright © 2011 by S.M. Stirling <email@example.com>