Authors: Diana L. Paxson
Paul Edwin Zimmer
My special thanks to Heather Rose Jones, who took time off from her doctoral studies in Welsh philology to advise me on the mysteries of fifth-century British spelling. I would also like to thank Winifred Hodge for her comments and for correcting my Anglo-Saxon.
For those who would like an excellent historical overview of the Arthurian period, I recommend
The Age of Arthur
by John Morris, recently reprinted by Barnes & Noble. There are many works on the Anglo-Saxons, but I suggest in particular the fine series published by Anglo-Saxon Books, 25 Malpas Dr., Pinner, Middlesex, England.
Through the fields of European literature, the Matter of Britain flows as a broad and noble stream. I offer this tributary with thanks and recognition to all those who have gone before.
N THE BEGINNING WAS THE BREATH
When the first Fire met primal Ice there came a wind, released by their meeting, feeding the flame. By virtue of that third element, the breath of life and the spirit that moves through all the worlds, matter and energy interacted.
It moves upon the face of the waters, and life begins to stir; the trees of the forest exhale it; the newborn babe breathes it in and becomes a child of time.
In the beginning was the Word.
Invisible, essential, it moves through all that lives, knowing everything, itself unknown. Aware, it wills the world to change and grow. Conscious, that will is borne on a breath of wind in the form of sound. .Â .Â .
In the morning of creation the god who gave men breath hangs on the Worldtree. Nine nights and days he hangs suspended, neither eating nor drinking, until out of his agony comes understanding, and he calls forth the primal energies of the world in sacred sounds. One by one he calls them into manifestation as Runes of might and power. And then he gives them to the world.
The Breath carries the Word.
In a northern forest, a rune-master chants, calling the wind. All through the night the wild storm rages. He stands to face it, hair streaming, garments blown to ribbons, shouting out the names of his god. When dawn breaks and the wind grows gentle, he sees before him the limb of an ash tree that the storm has speared into the ground.
Whispering a prayer of thanks, he pulls it free, finding it exact in weight and balance for his needs. From fallen wood he builds a shelter at the foot of a hill, and there, for nine nights and days he labors, eating nothing, drinking only from the sacred spring.
Carefully the wood is smoothed and polished, all irregularities planed away. As he works, he sings of the sun and rain that nourished the tree, the earth that bore it, the wind that ruffled its leaves. When he is finished, he holds a smooth shaft, almost as long as he is tall.
With his graving tool, he carves into the ashwood the angular shapes of the runes. One by one he carves them, chanting their names so that the wood vibrates with the sound. With the sounds come images, each rune name is a doorway to another realm. With blood and breath and spittle he colors and consecrates them, and as each one is added, the shaft gains power.
On the eighth night he is finished. To his eyes, the rune staff seems to glow. Now, it contains, but does not yet direct the power. In the dawning of the ninth day, he draws forth from its wrappings the one thing he himself has not made. A cleanly polished leaf-shaped blade of translucent, smoky stone, it came to him from his father. But it is far older.
When he holds it images come to him of hide-covered huts beneath a northern sky, and he feels the icy breath of eternal snows. The soul of the shaman who made that blade still guards it, whispering of ice and fire and monstrous enemies. Since the time when the fathers of the fathers of his people first spoke in human words, this blade has warded them; it comes from a time even before they knew the runes.
Handling it with reverence, he eases it into the slot that he has carved into the shaft, bedded in glue made from the hooves of stallions. With the sinew of wolves he wraps it, and ties two raven feathers so they will flutter in the breeze.
When he is finished, the wood feels different. It is not only that the balance has shifted. The power that was inherent now is focused. As the ninth night falls he climbs the hill. The wind that has sprung up with the coming of darkness is whispering in the trees.
He turns to face the breeze and it blows stronger. With both hands, he holds up the spear. Wind shrills down the shaft.
“Gungnir I name you, to Woden I offer you, to bear his word and his will throughout the world!”
IND GUSTED AROUND THE FEASTING HALL, SHRILLING
through the thatching and shaking the pillars. Oesc, leaning against the posts of his grandfather's high seat, could feel the wood trembling beneath his hand.
Maybe this will be the storm that destroys us,
he thought with a shiver in which excitement mingled with fear.
The wind will knock down the hall and then the sea will pour in over the fields and wash us away.Â .Â .
Storms were common at this season, when the forces of winter fought a rearguard action against the advance of spring, but in all his nine years Oesc could not remember so mighty a wind. For generations the Myrgings had held this land, stubbornly clinging to their homes when other tribes passed away. Men spoke of gentle winters and good harvests when they sat around the fires, but since his birth, it seemed, the weather had been bad, and this was the worst year of all.
A cold blast whipped up the flames in the long hearth as the door opened. Several drenched figures pushed through and slammed it shut, stamping their feet and shaking themselves like wet dogs. Oesc listened with interest as they swore, testing the forbidden words with a silent tongue.
“The etins are pissing up a storm, curse them!” exclaimed Ãthelhere, flinging his cloak at one of the thralls. “I swear the rain is coming in sideways, straight from the sea!”
“âAnd cold as the milk from Hella's tit, too!” echoed Byrhtwold, following him. Their boots squelched, and water ran down their necks from their wet hair.
“What of the tide?”
Oesc looked up at his grandfather, who had been sitting motionless since noon, listening to the wind.
“It will be high just past sunset, lord,” said Ãthelhere. “If the wind has not dropped by thenâ” He grimaced and shook his head.
He did not need to say more. At this season the wind, adding its power to that of the tide, could turn back the Fifeldor in its course. The storm tides and the flooding river between them would drown the newly planted fields.
“The Norns have cast for us an evil fate .Â .Â .” muttered Eadguth. “If foes attacked us I would go forth in arms, old as I am, but no man can hold back the sea.”
Oesc looked up at his grandfather. Eadguth had always seemed eternal. Now the boy saw the sunken eyes and furrowed brow, the transparent skin on the thin hands, and knew that the Myrging-king was
not as a standing stone is ancient, its rough surfaces weathered by the years, but like an old oak, decaying from within until it has no strength to withstand the storm. Already this wind had torn limbs from several of the trees that had rooted themselves in the wurtmound on which stood the royal hall. What would it do to the old man? He crept closer and clasped his arms around Eadguth's leg as if his young strength could root him into the ground.
The old man's hooded glance turned downward and his lips twisted.
“Is it a curse on your line, boy, that has doomed you to find rest nowhere? I am glad that your mother did not live to see this day. .Â .Â .”
Oesc let go and sat staring. He did not remember his mother, a fair woman with eyes the rich brown of tree bark in the sun, so men said, who had run off with an Anglian adventurer called Octha and crept home again, heavy with child, when her man went over the sea to join his father in Britannia. Eadguth's sons had died in battle, and his daughter had been the apple of her father's eye.
“Or is it you who are the doom-bringer?” The king's gaze sharpened. “Doom to your mother in child-bed, and now the doom of my land?”
Oesc edged carefully away. He knew Eadguth's black moods too well. When he was smaller he had tried to say he was sorry, though he did not know what for, and only been beaten harder. He looked like his father, said the women. Perhaps that was why. But the old man, he could see, was too weary to strike him now.
Byrhtwold glanced from his king to the boy, pity in his eyes, and gestured toward the door. The old warrior would never criticize his lord, but he had showed Oesc what kindness he could. Nodding his thanks, the boy reached the shadows behind the row of pillars and slipped down the aisle between them and the bed boxes until he reached the door.
His grandfather, king of the Myrgings and lord of their land, was the supreme power in his small world, but Eadguth had ever been a chancy protector. Still, he was not the only power. Oesc slipped through the door, straining to hold it against the wind, seeking the one person by whom he had never been betrayed.
Before he had gone three steps he was soaked to the skin. The storm was driving down from the north, cold as the seas from which it came, lashing the land with rain. With each gust the big oak tree beyond the palisade thrashed wildly; the ground was littered with leaves and branches. Bent nearly double, Oesc splashed through the puddles, shielding his eyes with his arm. Even so, the wind slammed him against the weaving shed and sent him sprawling beside the storehouse before he came under the lee of the log palisade and crept along it to his goal.
HÃ¦thwÃ¦ge's hut was partially sheltered by the wall; the horse's skull on the post before the doorway rattled in the wind, and the raven feathers tied beneath it flapped wetly, but here Oesc could stand upright. He took a deep breath and wiped his eyes before knocking at her door. The moments seemed long before there was an answer. Surely, he thought, on such a day she would stay indoors, although the wise-folk were not like other men, and if her magic required it, even a woman who was a wicce might brave the storm.
The weight of the spindle drew out the thread, spiraling ever round and round like the turning of the seasons, the lives of humankind. Half-tranced by the motion, HÃ¦thwÃ¦ge did not at first distinguish the knocking from the sound of the storm. It was the flare of emotion that got her attention, rather than the sound. In another moment she sensed a pain more of the mind than the body, and recognized, as one identifies the pungence of bruised pine needles on the wind, that Oesc was waiting there. She twisted the thread through the notch in the shaft of the spindle, and before the knocking could come again, opened the door.