EXCERPTS FROM THE RHYMER AND THE RAVENS,
the first volume of Nordic-Celtic historical fantasy trilogy by Jodie Forrest
copyright 1992 Jodie Forrest. All rights reserved. FRONTISPIECE
Tomas would sometimes consider, in later years, whether there were any chance that his Fate might have been different. Yet only upon occasions of the greatest rarity would he so wonder, when gripped by a black and somber mood, perhaps, or perhaps when drifting through the gates that link wakefulness to sleep–or Elfland to other realms. For Tomas had grown to understand, far better than most mortals, that to questions about Fate there are no true answers. There are only, sometimes, reasons.
PROLOGUE: TOMAS AND SIGRUN
In the kingdom of Vestfold, in what would become southern Norway, early in the month of sowing-tide, 871 A.D., Christian reckoning.
A jab in Tomas’s ribs. Another jab, and the insistent push of a small warm hand. There was rustling, then muffled thumps, as of furs tossed from the bed-closet. Cold air struck his bare shoulders.
“Wake up, Tomas!”
Sigrun Bjornsdottir’s voice. The flower of the court: Sigrun of the swaying walk and the thick amber braids that fell, when unbound, to the deep curves at her hips. Of the frozen blue eyes that had followed Tomas of late, when her husband Torbrand’s attention turned elsewhere.
Ah, yes: Earl Torbrand himself was elsewhere these several days past, errand-riding for King Harald. More than Sigrun’s eyes had thawed. Tomas sat up and reached for her.
She cuffed his arms away. “The bondmaid says Torbrand’s home early. Get out!”
Tomas slid out of bed and into his clothes. Should Sigrun be found with a lover, Torbrand could kill them both without legal reprisals, most likely. And would probably kill them regardless. Tomas yanked his soft leather boots on, grabbed for his harp.
“Take this.” Sigrun clapped a runestick into his hands; it was carved with verses he’d written her.
“Don’t you want it?”
“You know I can’t read, Tomas. Take it and go!” It was evidence. If adultery were proved, the full weight of the law would fall upon Sigrun.
Tomas gripped her wrist in the darkness. “Come with me.”
“Where? Are you mad?” She jerked her arm free.
“Any court in the North–”
“Would welcome your poems, but that old horse of yours won’t get us far.” The flintiness of her tone came as a shock; he would have wagered his flute that she’d leave with him. “Torbrand would track us with all of his men. Now go! Do you want to die?”
On the following afternoon, in the main hall of his father Sigtrygg’s longhouse, Tomas said carefully: “No, I don’t want to die.” Sigrun’s refusal still smarted, but that wasn’t the worst of it.
“One would think otherwise.” The earl Sigtrygg’s brooding blue gaze was remote. Straight-backed as always, his wheat-colored hair scarcely touched by the years that had etched grim lines about his eyes and mouth, Sigtrygg sat upon his high seat of carved wood. Tomas stood before him. Smoke rose, thick and greasy, from the low, stone-lined central hearthfire and the tallow lamps to pool at the one opening in the arched and sloping roof. Fickle light played against the empty sleeping benches that lined the walls, peopling the room with shadows. Before this discussion, Sigtrygg’s latest wife, thralls and concubines had all been dismissed, along with his numerous progeny. All but Tomas and his half-brother Olaf, Sigtrygg’s oldest legitimate son and heir.
Standing beside Tomas, Olaf’s heavy features were immobile; his eyes, not one whit less hostile than usual, were level and clear. None of his berserker rage, not here in his father’s hall. Still, a pulse beat at the side of his throat, no more muscular than Sigtrygg’s own. Tomas had inherited none of that breadth of chest. Olaf said, “If Torbrand brings a complaint and starts a feud over it, our whole household could die. Down to the last child.”
King Harald’s law-court, where such accusations were brought, convened in a few days’ time. Blood-feuds often began when the injured parties believed themselves insufficiently avenged.
“Rumor gives out that Torbrand has little evidence,” said Sigtrygg coolly. “But he may well lodge a complaint. He’s a prideful man, Tomas, and a hard one to cross.”
Tomas nodded, and considered the facts.
Just before Torbrand’s return, one of his slaves, riding a little ahead, had seen a tall blond man leave the earl’s longhouse. Although nothing was found missing, the man carried something flat and angular wrapped in cloth. Despite the lateness of Torbrand’s unexpected arrival, he found his young wife Sigrun, who’d unaccountably dismissed her bondmaids for the night, bridling and disheveled in a disordered chamber. Before Torbrand’s thralls were silenced, these intriguing scraps of information had made the rounds of the court.
Tomas knew, additionally, that there’d been no time for Sigrun to bathe, to change the bed linens… If Torbrand had deduced the cause of his wife’s disarray and beaten her, Tomas couldn’t blame the unfortunate woman for whatever she might have said. Spurned or not, he felt a little sick: at least he wasn’t legally bound to his accuser.
It would help his case that perhaps half the men in Vestfold were tall and blond, though few matched Tomas’s height and fairness. And that cloth-wrapped object could have been many things other than the harp of a skald.
Popular sentiment could run as easily for as against him. The favored new poet at King Harald’s court, Tomas had excited attention and envy before now. Others had noticed Sigrun’s growing awareness of him. Some of those others, Olaf among them, had already tried and failed to attract her chilly regard.
“The sworn word of Torbrand’s slave would not weigh so much as that of Tomas. He’s a free man,” said Olaf now, watching Tomas steadily. “Still, his word weighs less than if he’d been born free.”
Sigtrygg stirred in his chair and made no reply, as Tomas met Olaf’s unwavering blue-eyed stare with a grey-eyed one of his own. His long-dead mother had been a Welsh concubine, taken prisoner during one of Sigtrygg’s raids in Waleis. Tomas might well have remained a thrall himself except that Sigtrygg, ambitious to number a court poet among his sons, took notice of Tomas’s musical gifts, and freed him.
For which act Olaf bore him a grudge, chronic and venomous, though Olaf as the firstborn son would inherit the vast majority of Sigtrygg’s estate nonetheless. Tomas would receive little if anything; too many freeborn and legitimate sons preceded him.
But at court, now, a skald could win prestige and gold, should his minstrelsy please the King. Courtiers would also pay a poet handsomely to chronicle their exploits at home and over the sea–if the poet were alive and at court.
Banishment was not at issue here. Not caught in the act, Tomas would be fined at the most. But Torbrand’s sense of humiliation might prompt him to step outside the law and murder Tomas on his own. In that event, a blood-feud would follow, if Sigtrygg’s household cared to preserve its honor.
With a deepening of the crow’s-feet about his eyes, Sigtrygg considered his sons. “Olaf. Do you still propose to go a-viking within the week?”
Turning his gaze to his father, Olaf nodded.
“Hire Tomas to go and write of your raids. By the time you return, tempers will have cooled somewhat at court. Where Tomas should plan to recite his finest work yet,” said Sigtrygg dryly.
Sail south with Olaf and his berserkers? Twinges plucked at the muscles along Tomas’s spine; he’d sooner take his chances here with Torbrand. Olaf dared not lay violent hands on his own brother with so many witnesses in the crew. Still, something about that journey felt ominous indeed…
“He hasn’t the stomach for it. Let him contend with his own trouble here in Vestfold, if you please, my lord,” said Olaf. His tone was respectful enough, but a knot worked in his jawline.
Sigtrygg studied his heir without expression.
There followed a taut silence which Olaf, shifting his weight, broke at last: “Tomas must learn some restraint; he’s overfond of women.”
A corner of Sigtrygg’s mouth twitched. “No more than you or I, Olaf. He just has more skill with them.”
Olaf went rigid, then swallowed. Very slowly, he let out his breath.
“And less sense about their husbands,” said Sigtrygg to Tomas, his voice now deadly soft. “Torbrand’s coveted my lands since we were both your age, and he stands next to me in Harald’s trust. Are you a fool, boy? If you’d create such an enemy, you’d bestfindthe stomach for it.” He glanced at Olaf. “Take him with you. It’s as easy to disown a son as to acknowledge one.”
Olaf’s eyes widened. In one sudden motion, Sigtrygg rose and struck the flat of his powerful hand across his heir’s face. “Get out, the pair of you, and leave Torbrand to me. Don’t let me set eyes on you again until you’ve returned from the South.” A hard stare at Tomas. “With something to sing about.”
CHAPTER ONE: THE FIRST OF MAY, 871 A.D.
“Shall I take the figureheads down now?” Tomas asked Olaf.
They stood on a raised deck at the bow of the Brilliant Dragon, Olaf’s longship, as it glided up the River Saefren that divided Waleis from Wessex. Murky water slapped the clinker-built hull, but the long wooden oars, in skilled hands, made remarkably little sound. Olaf’s raiding party had just lowered the mast and lifted their iron-rimmed wooden shields from the timber rail. Axes, spears, swordhilts and the ringshirts of wealthier men gleamed in the waxing light of dawn. From a village on the Welsh side of the river, hearthfire smoke smudged a paling marsh-scented sky.
The rowers nearest Tomas tilted their heads at his question. Oddi, the navigator, looked particularly somber. “I’d have taken them down before now,” he muttered. “I saw an Elf in Gotland knock holes in the hull of a ship that docked with its dragons on. And the land-spirits like it no more than the Elves do.”
Ignoring Oddi, Olaf and most of his berserker guard scowled at Tomas. Both in Vestfold and on board ship, he’d chanted verses in their honor, and they bore him no personal malice. But now two or three men chewed their lips and eyed him with mindless ire as he stared back at Olaf.
In a voice that wouldn’t carry to the shore, Olaf said, “I’m not taking them down. We may not be the only Norse in these waters; Ivar the Boneless sails to Dubhlinn with slaves from hereabouts. But I needn’t explain the slave traffic to you.”
Tomas gave a curt shake of his head.
“Closer to shore,” Olaf told the oarsmen after scanning the narrowing channel. “If our dragons offend any Elves, so be it. I’m more wary of Ivar. And the Welsh are your greatest concern.”
The last remark was a reference to the nerves that they both knew were splintering Tomas’s midsection. Of Sigtrygg’s household, Tomas had shown the least enthusiasm for weapons training, much of which Olaf gave him. With a shrug, Tomas glanced at the crew: little enough tension there, though others besides himself made their first journey beyond the North. Almost all the men were veterans of several viking expeditions, undertaken for adventure or as likely for gain. Divided inheritance of the scant fringes of arable land that edged the fjords inspired fierce competition. Odin might well favor their raiding party; every man aboard worshipped the Lord of Battle, though not all so fanatically as the berserkers. Some of the crew invoked Odin for His other powers.
A man named Egil caught Tomas’s eye. But for poverty, Egil would captain a ship of his own and could do so yet. Grinning, he jerked his chin at Olaf’s massive back; the two disliked each other heartily. “Don’t trouble yourself about Tomas. He turns white at hog-slaughter, but Odin grants more than one gift. The Poet-Lord’s hand lies upon him,” Egil said loudly.
Olaf gave no sign that he’d heard.
Egil rubbed his sun-bleached beard and said, as if the idea had just occurred to him, “Perhaps Odin gave some of His magic to Tomas. That would explain Sigrun–”
Guffaws from the crew.
Olaf rounded on them. “Enough! D’you want to be heard?”
Egil subsided, his face bland and earnest. As the longship eased closer to the bank, Tomas peered into the thick knots of trees crowding the shore, then eyed the dragon figureheads. What manner of Elf did they risk provoking in Waleis?
This foreign country, unknown people and strange lone dying god were the land, kin and deity of Tomas’s mother. She had taught him to speak Welsh, and the English of the Saxon realms that bordered Waleis. When Tomas was a child, she often talked about her god from Nazareth.
“Odin hung on the World-Tree to receive knowledge of the Runes, and He survived too,” Tomas would say.
She would smile. “It is not the same. But tell me a tale, for I have told you one.”
Now Tomas unclenched his hands and examined them. Shaped like hers. She gave him his first harp lessons; he had her grey eyes.
The chiseled dragon-head knifed into the riverbank, and Olaf shouldered past him. “Move.”
With a strip of leather, Tomas hastily tied his long hair at the nape of his neck. Hair like his father’s, paler than freshly split birch wood, thick and almost straight. He caught up his shield.
Among the mossy trees and reed-choked silty underbrush, none of the Norse perceived the tall graceful figure, dressed in dark green, who had marked their passage up the Saefren. Who had tracked them, listening judiciously to their talk, and now watched them come ashore.
With Olaf and his guard leading, some thirty men disembarked, raised a shield-wall overhead and filed silently down a damp shadowy path carpeted in moss. On the wooded trail they met a short tanned boy who carried a basket and reeked of marsh salt and fish. After a panicked struggle, the youth went limp. First in Welsh, then in English, he begged the strangers not to kill him. No one but Tomas understood a word.
The berserkers, some now racked with tremors from head to foot, strangled the boy. Then, as an offering to Odin, they hung the body from the nearest sturdy tree. It was the last event of that morning that Tomas would remember clearly.
Market day, it must be, or the day of a fair: the village’s main square was trodden into pockmarked mud. Roaring, the Norse sprang into the small crowd. The villagers scattered, overturned stalls, dodged terrified livestock and flung barrels and benches into the path of the approaching Norse. Surprised, underarmed and demoralized, most of the Welsh fled or were gutted as the raiders advanced towards the Nazarene temple, which promised trappings of gold and silver, and perhaps refugees.
Gripped by the worst nausea of his life, his shoulders braced against a wall, Tomas stood and stared. He had grown up with stories of the rage, fearless, bloody and ecstatic, that Odin granted some of His worshippers. At the whim of the god, that violent trance possessed and deserted them, and for its sake they were at once revered, scorned and shunned. But Tomas had never seen berserkers fully transported. He could neither lose himself in their fury nor join the rest of the crew in their cooler but efficient slaughter, all bolstered by the faith that if they died in battle, Odin would welcome them to Valholl.
Bellowing, a Norseman churned through the mud past Tomas. The man’s face was livid and contorted on one side, slack on the other, and his mouth bled from gnawing his gaudily painted shield–Egil’s shield. During the voyage, Egil had sometimes looked at Tomas’s harp and asked questions about how it was tuned. Now his red-veined gaze speared a point directly before him. With a howl, he swung his axe at a wounded man in his path.
Tomas shut his eyes. He heard babbling, a pulpy thud and an aborted groan. Bending double, he retched into the mud.
When he straightened up, having made no conscious decision, he ran towards the Saefren. He jumped over bodies, slipped on objects he didn’t care to examine, dodged Norse and Welsh alike. Twice he stumbled but he kept moving. Once he heard Olaf roaring at him, calling his name.
A peculiar tingling in the air began to intrude on his attention, while at the edge of his vision, something oppressive and crackling hovered. Storm clouds? He glanced overhead.
Swirling, incandescent lines of energy seared the sky. It was a Rune: Perthro, the Web of Fate.
Ankle-deep in mud, Tomas halted. The air, although vibrant, was eerily still as the Fate-Rune throbbed above the trees. It was drawn with absolute, transfixing symmetry. He gaped at the long vertical slash, then at the two V-shaped lines that reached to the right from either end of the vertical: two cones, mirroring each other.
The Nornir, the three Fates, must have sketched their Rune in the sky. Was the omen meant for the village or the raiders–or for Tomas, because he was deserting? He had learned the Runes by rote, as both alphabet and oracle, so well that shock could not drive the knowledge from him. Perthro signified: “The seeker cannot comprehend the fateful flow of events, because his own lot numbers among those cast.”
Never had he experienced such a vision, though skalds of Odin often did. He was abandoning a battle, but Odin’s hand must lie upon him still–or the hands of the Nornir. A tremor shook him, just as the Rune blazed.
Three enormous women, grey of face and eye, their snarled ashen hair frothing down their backs, materialized in the sky next to Perthro. They stood around a tremendous loom, across which stretched heddle rods made of ash-wood spears. Arrows served as the shuttles, and the dripping crimson warp was weighted with severed heads.
Tomas bit his knuckles to stifle a moan. The Nornir wove the Fates of men and women–what if they looked down and saw him? He ached to run but he could scarcely breathe, and achieved only a painful limping gait as he peered overhead.
The Nornir–Urd, Verdandi and Skuld–walked to and fro before their loom, throwing the shuttle-arrows through the bloody sheds and beating the weft upwards. Sharper than ice-coated trees against a midwinter sky, the grisly weights were etched against the dawn. Stumbling along with his face turned towards the sky, Tomas saw the loom as distinctly as he might have seen the full Moon, with the Moon’s creamy glow. But now he could focus on only one of the Nornir. Her two sisters moved in a billowy haze like fog rising above water. The one that he could still see must be Urd, she who wove the thread of that-which-has-become. Verdandi and Skuld, that-which-is-becoming and that-which-shall-become, were shrouded from his vision now.
When he reached the footpath to the river, he clutched at a willow tree for support. Urd, bending her solemn face to her work, trudged past the dangling heads. One head rotated slowly towards Tomas; its blind, swollen eyes met his. The last thread of his reason broke.
He raced down the path to the Saefren and turned north at the river without slackening speed. Breathing in labored gulps of air, he ran until his chest burned, ran until his legs grew leaden, ran until smudged spots collided before his eyes.
When he came to a tributary of the Saefren that bore off to the west, he veered away from the main body of the river. His new path along the tributary’s bank was narrower and more winding, forcing him to slow his pace and taking him past quieter backwaters.
By one such almost-pool there towered a vast oak tree; its branches scraped gnarled and ponderous arcs across the sky. He sprinted for the shaded clearing beneath the oak, where its leafy mass blocked the Sun. At last he collapsed in a huddle between the great tree and the Saefren. Calm brown water was the last he saw before unconsciousness took him.
Even before Tomas opened his eyes, they felt scratchy and dry. He fished a sharp toothy stone from beneath his ribs and sat up. His vision clouded, and he leaned against the hulking tree trunk. When he could see again, he glanced nervously overhead.
The Sun flared in a glazed blue sky.
Mid-afternoon, probably, on the day of the raid. He shook his head to banish the memory of the Nornir and their loom. Moving with the painstaking caution of an old man, he crept down to the water to wash.
Soon, wearing only his trousers, he perched on the riverbank. His scrubbed and drying jerkin hung from a branch of the oak. Beneath the tree lay his boots, beside his belt and short knife. He’d lost his sword, round wooden shield and leather helmet during his flight from the village.
Cool and quiet, the river bathed Tomas’s feet. He stared into the mute and undemanding water, water that didn’t wash away what those feet had done. They had run from their first raid.
And were there a chance to do it over, he would run again. Sigtrygg and Olaf were right: Tomas hadn’t the stomach for it. Nor any shame about that. He simply was not like them.
After a while he said aloud, “Odin, Your battle-face is too fierce for me, and I fear You might take back Your other gifts. I may have no right to petition You now, but please, I cannot lose poetry.”
To have music but lose words… Woe for him that Odin ruled both verse and war. Tomas waited, but the All-father made no answer.
Return to the ship was out of the question. Olaf would certainly beat a deserter and quite possibly kill him. Tomas was in Waleis to stay for a while. Warily, he glanced up and down the riverbank. Any surviving villagers would cheerfully kill him as well.
But they needn’t know he’d sailed here with a raiding party. He spoke Welsh like a native. Not all the Norse who traveled to Waleis came a-viking; there were plenty of merchants. Perhaps he could find passage back to the North, though not to Vestfold. In the meantime he could claim to be a trader. Better yet: a bard. His mother had taught him every song and story she knew.
But his harp was back on the ship.
Still, he could locate a large town, recite there for coins and buy a harp or a flute. Or make them, with the right wood and tools. Or a lute, a fiddle, a drum. They used other instruments here that he’d never played, but he could learn.
Consult the Runes? They hung in a small pouch at his belt, left under the oak.
No, not just yet. Not while he sat on this mossy bank, calf-deep in the soothing river. How calm it was in this sheltered spot. He could see his own reflection in the water, his tousled hair freed from its lost leather tie, his bare chest and arms.
His own reflection, and another. Someone stood on the bank not far behind him.
But he’d heard no one at all. His throat constricted as he studied the water.
His observer was slender and tall, with long hair or a veil. Probably a woman. Then the figure stirred, and Tomas saw the reflected curves of a waist and hips that could only belong to a woman.
“I mean you no harm, my lady,” he said politely in Welsh and, as an afterthought, in English. “I’m going to stand up now.” Moving slowly, hoping not to alarm her, Tomas pulled his feet from the water, rose and turned around.
He stared in amazement.
The woman’s close-fitting silky tunic and divided skirt were a rich deep ivy green, embroidered with beryl stones. Black waves of tangled hair fell past her waist. Like ice-glazed bone, her skin was smooth and luminous, set off by the shining dark hair that formed a widow’s peak on her pale forehead. Her pointed chin would easily fit the palm of Tomas’s hand. High-bridged and long, her nose was perfectly straight. Beneath it, the deep coral of her mouth was lush and startling. Light moved in her heavy-lidded, enormous grey eyes. Set in a cat-like slant, they were thickly lashed in black.
No ordinary woman, this. Her eyes were too large, too tilted. All the angles and proportions of her face were slightly–yet exquisitely–wrong. Her mouth, for instance, was wider than it should be. But it looked soft, pliant…
Gazing straight into Tomas’s eyes, she smiled.
He inhaled sharply. She could not possibly have intended that her smile be so enticing. Blood began pounding in his ears; his body urged him forward. Yet an even deeper instinct made him edge a few paces away. He did not think that she was human.
His mother’s beliefs flooded back to him. Could it be? He’d just abandoned Odin. He dropped down to one knee and asked cautiously in Welsh, “Are you the Queen of Heaven?”
“No, Tomas.” The woman’s voice was warm and speculative, with an aromatic, briny resonance that made him want to hear more. “That name does not belong to me.”