Flavia had been waiting for the end of the world all her life. They all knew it was coming. This year, next year, in three years time perhaps - the Saxon tide would sweep in and carry away the beloved little farm on the Downs, like a sandcastle in a wave.
She had never thought about what she would do after that.
She had expected to die. That was how it was supposed to go: the world ended and you died.
It seemed feeble to meekly wait in the house behind the men, most likely to smother under a falling roof, so she took the knife from her brother’s belt, and tried to make a stand against the raiders running out of the flaming dark. But the Saxons were all, it seemed, seven feet tall, strong as oxen. The knife was knocked from her hand as if she were a child. They pulled her away from her brother’s side as one of the Saxons knocked him down with one great blow, and she could not see him after that. He was certainly dead though, dead along with Father and everyone else.
And now, here she was, the next day, the day after the world ended, on a shingle bank with the sea sighing as the little waves broke, staring at the back of her hands folded on her lap.
They were smudged with ash and her nails were broken, and she should probably stop looking at them and try to kill herself, because that was the proper thing to do. That was what good Roman girls did, and she was a Flavian, after all, a Flavia of the Flavians: of excellent family, as Mama always used to say, so proud of her husband’s aristocratic connections. A Flavian was not supposed to become the slave of straw-haired barbarians. She rubbed her broken nail with her thumb again. It hurt, but not enough.
Two inches in the right place, her brother had told her, showing off a little, a thousand years ago when he came back on leave after he had started his military training, and they had sat under the damson tree and he had shown her his new dagger, military issue.
Two inches to kill a man - or to kill a woman. But they had taken away the knife, and she wasn’t sure where the right place was. And in any case it all seemed so difficult and unreal.
Yesterday, Aquila had come home, and the day had shone, as it always did when her brother came home, even though this time it was different. The last of the Eagles had flown from Britain, but her brother had come home for good, and that was enough.
And today... today was sitting here on this empty shore with her hands dirty and the cold wind cutting through her thin tunic, as the sun rose, blood red through the mist on a shore scoured by the Saxon tide, while the Sea Wolves swore and grunted as they shoved their long slim deadly ships down into the cold grey waves.
And now they came again, the giant men, blond, huge, speaking a harsh language she could not understand, pushing her towards one of the ships. She felt like a child, looking up at them, helpless. They seemed as strong and incomprehensible as great beasts. She held her head high and refused to look at them.
When Flavia was a little girl, when the Sea Wolves rarely ventured West as far as the white cliffs of the Isle of Vectis, they had often taken a small boat across the shifting blue-green waters to visit friends who still lived on the island.
Once, she and her father had travelled further, from the old grey port of Magnus Portus, where the rotting beams of what had been Roman warships could still be seen dark above the silt at low tide. They had sailed all along the coast to Isca Dumnoniorum, the great red-walled stronghold of the Dumnonii, where ships still came and went carrying tin and silver across to Gaul, and returning with the cargoes of olives, wine and oil that were already becoming hard to find in Britain. Father had bought her a citron, all the way from distant Assyria : it was too tart to eat, but oh, the scent of it!
The movement of the ship, the scent of the sea and the wind on her face took her back to that other ship, just for a moment, as the dragon’s-head of the Sea Wolf longship pointed out beyond the shingle bank, but they came out from behind the shelter of long Vectis Isle into the Mare Britannicum, the ship began to lift and dance like a living thing on the grey waves, light, nimble: a raiding ship, not a fishing boat. The other two longships followed close behind.
Flavia sat near the prow, where they had pushed her out of the way of the rowers, watching the dark shadows under the waves and the red flame of the sunrise spreading across the sea under the heavy blue clouds to the West, as the cliffs of Vectis grew smaller.
She longed for the sea to rise up and take the ships and all their crews, and her along with it. “Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord” her old tutor Demetrius had read, by the little shrine with the sign of the Fish painted over it in the old farmhouse atrium, but Flavia in that moment did not believe it. If there had been any vengeance within her power, she would have taken it.
Out of that great dark western cloud a wild summer squall blew up, running fierce across the wide waves as grey as tears, and bringing a sharp shower of rain. The narrow vessel heeled over sharply as the squall hit. The Sea Wolves hurried to reef the small sail and balance the ship, though they did not come close to Flavia. Even the laughing giant who had carried her off over his shoulder kept to his oar. It was a small relief.
Near the dragon’s head, the woman of the Wealas sat, still, her back straight as a spear, eyes dark as thunder. She did not weep, but the rain running down her pale, set face soaked her black, coarse hair until it fell like tangled seaweed down her back.
Garmund had laughed as he seized her, small and precious from her home, as he might have seized a jewel - but he was not laughing now. He was watching out of the corner of one eye, every so often, as he pulled his oar in time, wondering, wondering, how a girl who had felt all warm flesh and passion as he knocked the knife from her hand and pulled her onto his shoulder could sit there so cold and distant, like one of the painted stone goddesses of the South.
“She’s a witch” said one of his shipmates, half-teasing, half trying the idea on for size. “Brings no luck on a far-faring, hauling a woman along.”
“Bollocks to that!” said Garmund, firmly “You shut your face, Wulfgar! It’s good luck for me. You’re only jealous because you didn’t find one for yourself.”
The crew laughed. It was true that Wulfgar had been talking, ever since they had landed on Tanatos Isle, of catching a girl of the Wealas for himself. But Hengest had given orders that they were to seek out that only that one little farm, and leave again swiftly before the Wealas came down on them like hornets, so Wulfgar’s chance to catch a woman for himself had been small.
Most of Hengest’s people at the new settlement on Tanatus were young men, warriors. Well, a few shieldmaidens too, fierce as the men and bearing their swords like any other fighter, but they were hardly the kind to warm a man’s bed for him and bake his bread - and there were nothing like enough of them to go round, anyway.
“Don’t you fret, young Wulfgar!” Wiermund said. Garmund’s father had taken his oar with the rest, even though he was quite an old man now. “There’ll be women following us over the wave-road in time, once the word gets about at home about British corn and British gold. You’ll be fighting them off with a stick.”
“Even Wulfgar?” Garmund laughed. Wulfgar farted loudly and deliberately, and made a rude gesture.
“Don’t be so smug, just because you grabbed one for yourself!” he said “Tanatus Isle will be a better place when we all have our women with us. ‘Tis a sad and quarrelsome place without them.”
Garmund grinned to himself. He had pulled his ship ahead of the others, and would have a woman of his own. She was a fine weregild for the loss of his uncle Wiergyls. Who would have thought that slight Roman lad with that little stabbing sword would have had the strength to overcome Wiergyls, and he a seasoned warrior with his shield-brothers at his back?
Garmund glanced over his shoulder again at Flavia, sitting straight and cold in the poor shelter of the tiny foredeck. She seemed so poised, neither seasick or fearful, though the waves were building again, lifting the deck powerfully, and she wearing nothing but that thin little dress with the short sleeves. Maybe she was a witch. A dark witch, calling up the power of this green Western sea against them... No. No that was absurd. Garmund touched the cold iron of his dagger hilt, to avert any ill-wishing.
If she had that power she would surely have used it before they reached the sea, or when they were labouring to pull the Sea Beast clear of the shingle. Here on the waves, under the open sky where the wind would blow away any sorcery, they had the ship-spirit to protect them from strange powers. She was sitting right next to the dragon’s head too.
He tilted his head as he pulled the oar and took another glance at her, over his shoulder. A tiny thing, but perfect in a strange, delicate way, with clear olive skin and raven’s wing hair, more like the men of Romeburg in the south than the freckled peoples of the Wealas. Not a buxom girl, it was true, for she was slight as a boy, but slim and elegant as a dagger blade. She was like a dark jewel, he thought, a garnet, shining against the red sunrise, like the garnets set in the heavy red-gold armbands that the Wealas king, Vortigern, had given to the lord Hengest, when Hengest had agreed to settle his warriors in this Western island and defend it .
When his father Wiermund gave the order to ship oars as they ran before the wind, Garmund borrowed the spare cloak that his shield-brother Freawine had picked up, somewhere on the raid, and tucked it round her stiff shoulders. After all, she was his woman now, and it would do no good if she caught a chill, sitting there so still with her hair and dress all wet.
She did not speak or look at him as he pulled the heavy wool around her shoulders, but he caught her eye for a moment, as he stooped over her, and although her face was still and cold as stone, he fancied there was a glint there, like the fire in the heart of a garnet.
Flavia had expected rape, had held herself rigid with the threat of it until she was exhausted, for three long days as the ship sailed East into the sunrise, hugging the coast.
The body of the Saxon lord that her brother had slain lolled at her feet where the raiders had laid it, like a pig with its throat cut. She could feel his dead eyes watching her. That first day, she made herself close his eyes. It was not easy, but she poked and prodded until the dead Sea Wolf lay straight and seemly, with his eyes closed like a Christian. Then she laid an old sack over him so she did not have to look at him.
After that, she said the prayer for the dead, not exactly for the Saxon - she could not bring herself to forgive him. But for his victims at least, for all who had died, both at the farm, and along the coast. She did not pray for mercy for herself. She was supposed to be dead, too.
Still, none of the men came near her, not then, and not even when they went ashore on the evening of the third day, though she was nearly collapse by then with exhaustion and the effort of not letting them see her terror.
And then there was a voice speaking words she knew, and a short woman with dark eyes and hair covered in a red scarf. It was difficult to make out anything but blurred figures and meaningless noise by then, but she remembered the hound, the frantic hound, running from man to man as they came up from the sea, and the whimpering when it found its master’s body. The dog’s grief was the only thing that seemed real, in that shadowy world of harsh voices and confusion.
Then, a bed in a new built cabin that still smelled of sap and thatch, and at last, Flavia slept.
Hengest’s new burgh was barely half-built. The sound of it, as Flavia always remembered it from those first days, was the endless ringing sound of hammers and axes, as trees were cleared, foundations dug and wooden houses hastily erected to house Hengest’s growing army. There was no stockade, no fortifications completed yet. Flavia found it bafflingly alien. The building was relentless in pace yet haphazard: each man building in the spot that seemed to him best, with no attempt at alignment with his neighbours.
Their ways of dealing with prisoners seemed just as slipshod, at least at first. Flavia was not bound, or even watched for long. The household of Wiermund of the White horse had a funeral to organise, the funeral of Wiergyls, last Chieftain of the White Horse, and in the fuss over that, nobody seemed much inclined to bother themselves with watching over the woman that Garmund had stolen.
On the first day, she slept and the rest of the time, watched, huddled in a corner of the cabin of the laughing giant - Garmund, she knew his name must be, from the way that people were always calling it and he was always striding over on his long legs to talk to them - while busy Saxons came and went, babbling incomprehensibly. The little dark woman in the red scarf came to her, bringing barley cakes and soup and watered ale, but was in too much of a hurry to speak more than a few words to her. She saved half the barley cakes, but drank the soup and ale eagerly. She had to get her strength back.
The next day, she slipped away: easy enough, for the Saxons had all gone off in a great squabbling cackling gang, toward the beach where the ships were drawn up to see their dead hero burned. She had the barley cakes, and hoped she might find more food as she went. Perhaps she could find some British village where she might find help. Beyond that she could not see, apart from a faint desperate hope that she might find some friend of her father’s who might take her in.
She walked for a few miles, before she realised the truth. The Saxon burgh was defended by more than armed men and rough, half-built barricades. Flavia was on an island. Tanatus Isle, it must be: and the tower she had seen from the ship must surely be Rutupiae, where her brother had served with the last of the Eagles, such a short while ago.
She walked, following the shoreline, for several miles, before she had to admit the truth to herself. The only way to leave Tanatus Isle was through muddy salty channels, through which the turning tides ran fast and lethal, often in two or three directions at once. It was utterly unlike the millpond where Flavia had swum as a child. She had no idea which way to go, among the long hissing reeds that reflected greenly in the estuary, and the ground was slippery and sucked at her feet. The main crossing to the mainland was guarded, and in any case, the ferries needed two or three strong men to pilot them, and Flavia was alone.
She thought longingly of her brother- he had known these strange sighing reedlands and their endless winding channels, he had hunted here with his friend Felix. If only she could step through time, such a short time, and find him again, hunting in the reed marshes, before Rutupiae was abandoned. He would know what to do. He could probably sail a boat, too - all the things that Flavia did not know! How to swim a river, sail a boat, kill a man...
Flavia only knew how to read in Greek and Latin, how to quote from Homer, or Livy or the Letters of Paul, how to weave a blanket and milk a cow and say the prayer that would help a sick lamb through the night, and what good was any of that, when the end of the world came screaming out of the flaming darkness? She should have had a sword. A sword, and the strength to kill with it, not merely a sword to polish and place into the hands of her blind father, so he could die with honour and leave her alone.
Flavia looked at the muddy grey swirling water, and knew she could not swim to the far side. She could go, anyway, lower herself into the water and let herself go, call an end to it all that way.
She was thinking about that, when the hound, the dead chieftain Wiergyl’s hound, which had taken to following her about, thrust its head against her leg, and she put her hand down automatically to rub a soft ear. It was that connection, that reaching out from another living thing that held her then. Flavia looked down at the dog. He looked solemnly back at her out of huge dark eyes, and behind her, knowing nothing of death or the end of the world, a blackbird began to sing, joyful in the late-summer sunshine under the wide blue sky.
And Flavia knew that she would not kill herself, that she was not yet finished with life. She turned and retraced her steps, drearily, back to the thatched wooden house surrounded by the sound of axes, with the hound by her side. There was nowhere else to go.
Garmund stood in the rowing boat, balancing carefully as the little craft rolled with the swell, with the pot of glowing coals in his hand: holding it at the far end of the pot-handle so as not to burn himself. This would be the delicate bit: throwing the coals up onto the straw and kindling piled on the ship’s deck, without getting himself singed in the process. It was a good thing the sea was calm today: rolling very gently and sparkling peacefully under clear blue skies.
With one great swing of his arm, he flung the coals, and yes! they had landed in just the right place for the whole thing to catch well alight. He stroked the elegant curving stern for a moment, gently, a last farewell, and then bracing himself in the little boat, gave her one final shove.
Wiergyls of the White Horse had set off on his journey to meet his mighty ancestors, in a warship of the Angles, having died proudly in battle, as a man should die. The straw blazed up fiercely, and Garmund pulled hard on the oars to take the little rowing boat swiftly away in case the wind came round and took the smoke and sparks towards him. The ship was before him as he pulled back towards the point, and he could see the beams beginning to blacken. His father and brothers were on the shoreline behind him, with the Lord Hengest beside them to do his fallen uncle honour. It was all just as it should be.
Except, except... one thing was not quite as it should be. Garmund frowned to himself as he pulled on the oars. He had stolen a woman, and it appeared that stealing away a woman on a raid was rather more complicated than stealing a brooch, or a ring, or a side of ham. The woman had an opinion on the matter too: something that had somehow not occurred to Garmund before. When other men had stolen women, it had looked so simple.
But this woman - well, there was no question about it, she was not just another woman, and Garmund should probably make some sort of offering to the Lord Yngvi for protection as quickly as might be, lest he had inadvertantly offended the Lady Nerthus. And yet, every time he thought of the stolen woman’s face, he found his own face softening into a smile.
As Flavia made her way between the rising wooden house-frames she saw a Saxon man with a broken nose and stains on his tunic, sitting with a dark-haired girl on the trunk of a newly-felled ash tree. The big Saxon was pawing at the girl in a clumsy way, and had worked one hand inside her torn chequered green dress. She turned away her dark head from him, sobbing silently as Flavia watched. The man was drunk, she thought - she could smell the sour barley-beer even from where she stood.
Someone, Flavia thought, should do something, and she looked down, and away, for what could she do about it? And then it came to her that perhaps the somebody was herself, and without really ever making the decision, she changed her path.
“Stop it! “ she said to the man in the British tongue of her childhood, without stopping to think that he would not understand a word. “Stop it! She doesn’t like it!” and she flapped her hand at him as she might have flapped at the young bullocks in the fields at home when they got excited and would not go through the gate.
It was, she thought afterwards, probably the single bravest thing she had ever done, but at the time, it didn’t seem brave at all. Not brave, in the way that trying to stab a huge Saxon warrior with the knife had felt brave. It just seemed like the only thing to do.
There was a moment of complete silence. Their eyes met, dark Roman to grey Saxon eyes, and a long strained moment stretched taut like a bowstring. Flavia could feel, all around her, pale Saxon eyes looking at her. Even the sound of the hammers had stopped.
And then, behind, her, moving slowly, she heard the rumbling of wheels, and turned to see a cart, pulled, rather strangely to Flavia’s eyes, by a pair of milch-cows. It stopped before she had to step aside, and the cows snatched happily at the long grass around the tree trunk. Where the driver should have been sat a tall figure, the figure of a woman, crowned and very still, for she was made entirely of corn stalks. The figure was clad in a long green gown, with heavy gold around her neck and wrists. The cart was decked with flowers, and there were men and women walking behind it garlanded with flowers too. The Saxons working all around bowed their heads.
The man that Flavia had flapped at pushed the British girl hastily away from him and fell to his knees before the cart. The girl pulled her torn dress close and stumbled to one side, and Flavia took her wrist and pulled her hastily away. Behind her, she could hear the Saxons beginning to sing. It was a strange, unmelodic sound, more chanting than true singing, and someone was playing a harp in a peculiar jangling way that set Flavia’s teeth on edge.
The girl’s name was Rosula, and Flavia thought, from what little she was able to tell Flavia about her home, that she had been brought down the coast out of the old Iceni lands, those lands where Hengist’s folk had first been settled by Vortigern, six years ago or more now.
Rosula had been a farm slave there, on what must have been one of the few Iceni farms to survive the Pictish raids, and she had never been away from her home village before. That morning, she told Flavia, she had been sent to fetch a new bucket for the farmstead where her new Saxon master lived, on the outskirts of the new burgh and had become lost in the baffling complexity of the bustling new town.
“There’re so many more people here than I ever saw!” she exclaimed with an excited smile, as they wandered down a lane next to a busy blacksmith’s forge, looking for the farmstead. It seemed to Flavia that the shock of her encounter with the Saxon man was already falling away from her mind.
“You must be careful though. Anything could happen to you here,” Flavia told her sternly, wondering if it was true and for that matter, what would happen to her.
“I will, ma’am, I promise... I think it was down here somewhere, maybe?”
It was the hound that led Flavia back to the low wooden house, as the sun was dipping down golden into the West: she would never have found it again without the dark-eyed hound to lead the way.
The blond giant who had stolen her away, Garmund, was there before her, scrubbing the mud from a pair of short seaman’s boots with dry grass as he sat on the cabin steps. The fading golden sunlight caught on his hair and beard and dyed them a coppery red-gold, like the gold that comes from the mountains of the Cymru. Seeing him at her own level, she noticed that his eyes were golden too, not blue like those of most of the Sea Wolves, but a golden brown like sun on autumn leaves. She came and stood before him, and he looked up with a start and put the boots hastily to one side. He bowed his head as if to a great lady.
“Come in house,” he said, in barely comprehensible Latin, and led the way into the shadows of the house. There by the door stood a great leather jug of ale and a pair of cups. Garmund gestured to the cups.
It passed through Flavia’s mind that she could throw the jug on the floor, but that seemed unworthy - the action of a sulky child, not a woman beyond the end of the world. It seemed that today was a day to do the thing that came to hand, without asking why - so she took the jug and filled the cups to the brim, and passed one to the tall Saxon.
The ale tasted well enough. It was not strong, but as she looked up from taking a sip, she saw that Garmund had not drunk. He was looking at her in puzzlement. Clearly something else had been expected. She raised her eyebrows, enquiringly. He seemed encouraged.
“Eow,” he gestured, rather formally with one large hand towards Flavia.
“Eow, ‘Waes thu hael’,” he said. The last words were said rather shrill : he was clearly acting the woman’s part.
“Mé,” and he made an elaborate wave towards himself. “ Mé ‘Drinc hael’,” and he spoke the man’s part in an elaborately deep voice. If things had been different, it would have made Flavia smile. It could not do that, not now - but she spoke the words anyway.
That night again Flavia slept only with the old hound, curled against him for warmth and a measure of comfort. Garmund did not force himself upon her, in fact, he treated her with the greatest courtesy. She refused to be grateful, but she was baffled, and Flavia could never bear to be baffled, even now.
She questioned the British thrall-woman, old Conna, who served not only Garmund, but all his brothers, and his father Wiermund too as baker and brewer for the household - but it was hard to find the words to ask. Flavia had never had any difficulty finding words before. She tried to ask what Garmund wanted of her - but Conna would not answer, or perhaps she did not know the answer, and she was the only person Flavia could ask.
The Saxons - or at least, the men of Garmund’s family, for she had little contact with any others - had a little Latin of a barbarous and illformed kind, but it was not enough for conversation. Flavia became - not bored, because boredom would be a betrayal of those who had died - and anyway, she had begun helping Conna with the baking, just for something to do. But she was lonely, terribly lonely, and she missed, with a passion, having books to read and educated people to speak to.
Garmund was, at first, simply a puzzle to solve: something to do with her mind that was not grief or regret or domestic drudgery. Garmund, and his strange, ridiculous, barbarian language that seemed to turn everything into a riddle or a coarse joke, from an onion to a loaf of bread. Even when he seemed to be trying to help her understand, he was prone to bursting into sudden fits of laughter or declaiming what seemed to be a kind of poetry. It was very annoying.
He seemed to have no idea of how to begin to teach her the grammar of the language, and what was worse, as soon as she thought she was beginning to grasp the the formal pattern of his tongue, he would be called away, rushing away to help with the war-fleet or the building work, or to attend on Hengist in his new-built hall. And she had nothing to write on, not even so much as a wax tablet and a stylus, so every detail had to be held in her mind.
It made her long for her old tutor Demetrius, and his careful instruction in Greek and Latin - languages that made sense, that dealt with the world as it was, without using such a web of ill-structured jokes and allegories. But slowly, she began to understand: a word here, a phrase there. And there was one thing you could say for Garmund: he was a great deal more pleasing to look at than old Demetrius the Stoic.
The tired summer’s end was just fading into a kind golden autumn when Rowena arrived on Tanatus Isle. Rowena, with her golden hair and the edge of her kirtle all dark and wet where she had caught the edge of a wave, running like a little girl into her father Hengest’s arms.
Rowena, with her harshly accented Latin, which was still much better than the Latin of any other Saxon that Flavia had spoken to, who came seeking out the only British woman of good family in the whole sprawling, noisy camp, and would not be ignored or dismissed, coaxing Flavia to speak a word or two in reply. For Flavia, who had always been among her friends, until she lost everything and everyone, it was hard to go on fighting. After all, she thought, Rowena had never hurt her, and she sorely needed a friend.
“But you must know why Wiermund’s boy Garmund - why he will not touch you?” Rowena and Flavia were setting up a loom. It was a Saxon loom, taller than Flavia was used to, and she found it rather confusing, but it was something to concentrate on that was familiar, though not too much so. She shook her head, face defensively blank, looking down to sort through the bobbins.
“He knows, everyone knows you are...” Rowena struggled for the word, reaching out with one strong golden hand as if to snatch it from the air. “A gealdorcræftiga. A sing-woman? No... A woman of the singing-power? A Nerthusgeféra. A servant of the Lady.”
“A witch?” Flavia asked, dark eyes wide.
“Witch,” said Rowena, thoughtfully, tasting the word. “Perhaps yes, witch. It is a strong thing, to be a witch. They tell me when I come here, they say, the Lady Nerthus, she come to visit this Roman woman, this Flavia. And I say: I must speak with this woman!”
She licked her forefinger to get a better purchase on the thread.
“ And also,” she said thoughtfully, “This Garmund, he is wanting a wife-woman by his side, not a thrall-woman to do his bidding. He is a little afraid, I think. Perhaps he is afraid you will sing his frigu-plóg and it will fall off,” and she laughed her deep, musical laugh and reached into the web of threads to add another strand of brilliant crimson.
This was a new idea to Flavia. Garmund did not want her as a thrall - well, so much had become clear, but here at last was why: something - this Lady of which Rowena spoke - that had made him afraid. He thought she had a power - she, who had been powerless. And that power - it was a power that she had thought of before, had chosen not to use, to call her brother back, to take away his choice, to leave or to go.
That would have been cheating, would have been unfair to the thing that was between a brother and a sister. But now the world had ended and there was almost nothing left in the ashes, perhaps here was a weapon. Not a weapon a good Roman woman, a good Christian woman should use, not at all. But a weapon, still.
“I make the singing-power,” Rowena said, unexpectedly. She was leaning forward so her golden hair fell across her face, and Flavia could not see her expression. “The singing-power, the gealdor, and the herb-power, too,” She sat back on her heels and looked at Flavia with blue eyes the colour of periwinkles in the sun, a faint smile on her face. “ I show you? And you show me the singing of the Wealas.”
“Not Welsh!” Flavia said, annoyed without thinking about it “British. We call ourselves British. I’ll teach you a song of the British.”
“So then! You are British, and I am Angle. Not Saxon, Angle. You teaching me the singing of the British, and I teaching you the power of the people of the Angle.”
“Singing? Or power?” Flavia asked, confused.
“Same thing,” Rowena said, and smiled her beautiful smile.
Flavia thought carefully about what she might teach to Rowena, in payment for her own lessons. Nothing too important, nothing that might carry a power of its own.
So then: nothing of the life of the Christos, or his lady mother, or the promise of peace eternal - there could be power there that must be kept out of the greedy hands of the Sea Wolves. Nothing, either, of the tales of Odysseus that Demetrius her tutor had read to them so beautifully, that last day before the world had ended in flames. There was power there too, and besides, Flavia could not think of Odysseus now without tears starting in the corners of her eyes.
But some things she could teach: the British tongue, clearer and more elegantly than the scant handful of words Rowena already understood. Songs of her childhood: the birds of Rhiannon and the silver apples, the quest for the cauldron of Annwn, a silly song about a pig-hunt gone wrong, tales of silver towers vanished in the lost land beneath the sea. How to play the hand-harp in the British way. Nothing dangerous. Nothing of real power.
And in return, she began to learn of the singing-power of the Angle, and the meanings of the sacred runes , and the use of the herbs that could bring sleep, or death, or catch a man into a waking dream, from which he would awake and swear he had seen great marvels.
She learned too, of the secrets of Nerthus, the bringer of life, and her mother, and the young hero Yngvi, and the praise and sacrifices due to each. That was harder, and she longed for someone she could talk to about it. Someone who she could ask whether in stretching out her hands to Nerthus, she would lose the promise of the Christos forever. But that was the one thing she could never speak of to Rowena, or to Garmund, or to any other of the people of Hengist’s new burgh that she had begun to know, just a little.
Rowena had brought with her to Tanatus bottles of ink, wooden sheets and pale calfskins prepared for writing. All of these things had to be prepared in a special way for the making of runes and spells, but they could be used for ordinary writing too, and Rowena was generous with them.
It was wonderful to be able to write again. Flavia wrote in Greek, because it seemed most unlikely, if there was anyone in Hengest’s camp who could read, that they would read Greek, and because there was nobody left alive to write to, she wrote to Mama. Mama had died when Flavia was twelve years old, but the sound of her voice, the touch and the smell of her was still clear in Flavia’s mind.
Sitting under a tree, a little way from the noise of the burgh, with the dark-eyed hound lazing by her side, Flavia wrote, slowly, thoughtfully, with many pauses for reflection:
“If I keep myself wholly to the Christos, then - I must be weak. I must count on a distant salvation beyond death, and then in the meanwhile - I cannot kill myself, Mama, and I cannot believe you would really wish me to.
If I have no power of my own, they will force me anyway, and what good will that do? Perhaps not G. - I do not think he would do that, not now. I do not think it is in his heart to hurt me. But stolen once can be stolen again.
I hate being weak. I hate it. “
Flavia stared at the last line, frowning so that her dark brows almost met. She underlined it three times, fiercely.
“If I follow Rowena’s path, then I will not be weak. It will mean a sacrifice, but I have lost everything that matters already.
This power of the Angles, Rowena says, is a power of the earth, a power of women. To use it to the full, I must needs become a woman. Is it wrong? The Church Fathers would say so, I think. But they are men.
Mama, I have been thinking of the story of Lucretia, who killed herself after Sextus Tarquinius stole her honor. But would it not have been more honorable if she had lived, and he had died? You know, I cannot imagine Rowena the Angle killing herself for her honour. And yet, I think she is an honorable woman in her way. I am inclined to think that honour may not be entirely to do with things that are forced upon you, nor yet with what women do in bed.
Rowena says that we women may yet weave a new peace, Angle and Briton, Saxon, Roman and Jute, in the years to come. If I could help to weave a new peace, would that not be an honorable estate? Nobody says that the Sabine women should have killed themselves, they who were stolen by the first Romans, and were the mothers of Rome. I do not think they had an easy thread to spin, at least at first. At least they had each other.
But then, Mama, I am not sure if I wish to weave a peace with Vortigern and his people. If Wiermund’s raiders were the knife to our heart, then Vortigern was the hand that guided the knife. He sent the Angles to kill Father. I hate Vortigern. I hate being weak.”
The old hound shuffled over to Flavia as she was thinking about Vortigern, and put his head on her foot with a sigh. She rubbed his head, absently.
“There are two things before me now, Mama. There is the power, and there is the hate. The power is - green growing things, and the seed-time and the harvest, and the promise of life, and the hate - the hate is blackness and rottenness, fear and the end of all things.
Mama, I do not think I can put away both of them. I have to choose to take one. I have to choose the power.”
And Flavia folded up the beechwood slats, very carefully, and she bound them with a string of rawhide, and set off back to the cabin with the dark-eyed hound trotting at her heel, to see if she should help with the brewing.
Flavia was wed to Garmund in the dark of the winter, on the shortest day when the fires burned to call back the sun. Her power, Rowena said, would be the greater thus, to become a wife on the sacred night of the Mothers, when the earth lay fallow and the Mother of the Earth called out to the Shield of the Sun to return to her daughter and make her fruitful.
Flavia only quailed for a moment when Garmund, tall and golden as the lord Yngvi, opened his hand to give her her own father’s ring, the emerald ring with the dolphin engraving and the green spark dancing deep within it, as her bride-gift.
He had really thought she would be pleased to have it back: she could see that in his face, and for a moment, instead of the centre of a hall full of people she half knew, she was in a den of wolves - savage, alien, dangerous.
And then she raised her chin and stiffened her back: reached out to take the ring from Garmund, before the puzzlement in his eyes could turn to fear.
Afterwards, when they lay together in the same bed for the first time, in the darkness of the cabin, she ran her fingers across his face, exploring with touch what she could not see: nose, moustache, the springy stiffness of a beard. Her feet were scratched where they had stumbled into a bramble together, there in the darkness of the sacred wood at midwinter, and still a little cold from the wet grass under the trees, but Garmund lying next to her was warm as a kind sun in springtime. That seemed right, for one who had played the part of Scyld the Shield of the Sun to her Earth Mother that day and she pressed herself close to him for the warmth.
“Cold feet!” he grumbled, but there was a laugh in his voice, and he did not move his legs.
She had thought of power, of womanhood, perhaps, in time, children - but now it came to her that she had not thought at all of what he might want. It was going to be interesting, finding out.
Little Mull was a quiet child, as his mother was a quiet woman now. He would play happily for hours with a puddle of mud or twigs, or the long ears of old Wudugenge the hound. The hound was very grey around the muzzle now, but still followed Flavia everywhere she went, watching her always with his sad dark eyes that were now just a little misty if you looked into them too closely.
Flavia sat in the warm spring sunshine, braiding her hair and watching Mull, as the women of the camp - many more women, now, than there had been only a year ago - bustled and ground their corn and tended bees and brewed ale and made bread.
Flavia Garmundswife did not need to do such work herself, of course. The thralls did that, so that Flavia had nothing she must do that morning, save sit in the sun in the new blue gown that she and Rowena had woven, with the runes of power in green and crimson at neck and sleeve. They had woven a gown for Rowena also, but that was crimson and the runes set upon it were gold. Vortigern the High King was coming to visit his loyal vassal Hengest, and Rowena must look her best when she poured the guest cup for him.
Flavia sang a little as she braided her long dark tresses: not a song of power, not just now - but a little quiet song for healing, and maybe even a little a song to carry that love of life that she had thought for a while had gone forever.
And then she looked up, and saw him staring at her - a brown-skinned, bearded man in a plain, worn grey tunic, with a heavy iron thrall ring chafing the skin red at his neck. Her brother, Aquila. He looked like, and yet, heartbreakingly unlike, her father as she remembered him from when she had been a little girl, and her breath caught painfully in her throat.
Three years of thralldom had changed him from a slender smiling boy, to a solemn man with a bitter shadow lying sharp across his face. But still, there he stood, alive when she had known for three years that he must be dead.
She never doubted who he was, not for a moment, but she did not know what to say.
She felt a rush of anger - how dare he come back from the dead now? Now, when it was far too late, long after she had needed his help. She had needed the protection of her family and it had failed her.
But that anger died, and instead a terrible pity swept over her. He was so thin, so ragged - and his face. His poor face which had been so proud, so confident and full of joy, now unsure and miserable, and marked with the lines of hate. It was terrible to see him so changed. It was terrible to see him glance at her fine blue gown, and understand what it must mean. The disgust on his face as he looked at her son made her heart feel as though it was ripping in half.
She had to help him. She had to get him away to somewhere - anywhere - where he could begin to find a way to heal. And she had to do it without telling him all the things he did not want to know, the things that could hurt him even more deeply than he had been hurt already. Flavia began to make plans.
That day, she gathered the things that she would need - food, some spare clothes, a file to remove that horrible iron ring from his poor neck. She brewed the drink that would bring the gate-guards sleep for a little while, as Rowena had showed her. Carefully, carefully, so many seeds to bring sleep gently, not so many that would risk a more permanent sleep.
And all the while she thought of Aquila, still alive and suffering: weak, powerless and alone, for all that he had had a sword. The anger had gone, but the pity remained, and something else, too. A love that had grown in understanding: a woman’s love, not a girl’s. She no longer needed her older brother to protect her: she did not need him to be strong, or wise. He had not been able to rescue her, but she would rescue him, because he was Aquila, and her brother, and she loved him.