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saga hwæt ic hatte

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I came cold out of the earth-hall, though I had gone into it warm with love for my lord. It had run under my skin like hot mead, like sparks shivering through straw. A fierce love, and a hot one, although I knew even then that my lord’s love had always been cold.

He was the second son of the house, steady-eyed. Careful, even in the battle-games played by the boys, who would yell and stamp before the great doors of the hall, kicking up clouds of dust, while the fields around sighed with green barley and slanted silver with each sway of the wind. Once I saw him scratch up a handful of that dust and let the wind take it, straight into the eyes of a bigger boy who was holding him down. Like I said, careful. A child who knew which way the wind was blowing. Though I saw him, as well, sitting on top of that other child as the boy rubbed at his eyes and wailed, and stuffing soil down into his open mouth, so that he retched and heaved and spat out clods of earth as if he had been bespelled, his insides cursed to mud.

It was rich earth, fat and black, meaty with goodness, and a rich land, the air above golden as honey, coming in long slants over the low hills, under the deep green trees. Down by the river, willows showed their red roots in the bank and herons stood, ragged-chested, holding their spear-beaks ready above the water. The air was thick with the smell of meadowsweet, like summer and warm hay, even in the mornings when the air over the wetlands was rank with mist, milk-drifts of it, glowing blue-gold where the sun shot through. Alders and stands of coppiced hazel grew down by the water, and came through the mist in ragged-shouldered huddles, like armed men coming from the sea, storm-bitten and hungry. There were small sharp reeds, as well, which we picked for rushlights, growing out of tussocks out where the earth was dimpled and dotted with water, sheened with oil like a magpie’s feathers. Further up the valley-slopes there were stands of blackthorn, frothy with grey-green lichen and, in spring, with blossom, small and star-white. I saw him once, standing among them, watching me pick rushes. The mist lay heavy that morning and we were both casting shadows through it, longer and greater than ourselves. But his was muddled among the spines and flowers of the blackthorn, so that the mist and the blossom and the black branches hung at his back like a wave about to break.

I broke my song then, and thought to call out to him, although I knew that the armed and hungry men in my mind's eye were willow trees and alder stumps, and that we were far from the sea. But he raised his hand and spoke first, telling me to keep singing. It was a fine sound, he said, and he called me by name, although he was the lord’s son and I was a stranger who ate down at the bottom of the hall on feastdays, with the dogs. I remember, down there in the mist-dazzle, he was smiling.

 

He was not the first to think that my songs had strength in them, though I did not know it then. In truth they were only half-remembered words from my mother and her women, from before I had been taken as a peace-token when my father’s thegns were defeated in battle. I strung them together and sang them to myself, and if men looked askance at me I took no notice. I was used to slant looks, being as I was a stranger. It was this singing, I think, which caught the ear of Ælfgifu the cunning-woman, who took me into her charge and taught me charms. From her I learnt to call bees and ward off snakes and devils and shaking fevers, how to bless fields in the spring, close a wound with wax and pitch and sheep fat, keep away crows, and make thin sour beer. She had me sing my small songs into wounds and over women in labour, and I grew myself to believe, almost, in their power.

My lord watched, I think, and waited. When his brother and some older boys - young men, now, gangling and bristling - caught me alone in the ash grove, and tore my mother’s piece of amber from my neck and threw me down, meaning to have me there on the ground like a slave girl, it was he who came at the sound of my shouting. He pulled his brother off me by the scruff of the neck and told him to remember that I was a pledge, a sign, a thing of value to the lord their father. I was grateful to him, after that, and I watched him in turn more closely.

Often we would talk, down in the valley where I picked water mint and feverfew, henbane and deadnettles. I told him what Ælfgifu had taught me, under her low roof where in bad weather the hens rustled up in the rafters, shitting noisily into the beer vat, and where herbs hung higher up, drying out in the smoke under the thatch, their leaves curling up, moment by slow moment, as the water left them. I told him of her curse tablets, and how she had told me to prize my strange song, for all that it meant nothing to me nor any under roof, near or far. I felt odd, sometimes, me with my fingers dyed black-brown with fresh sap, and my clothes cut down from when his mother's women had remembered that I was meant to be under their charge. I smoothed my words out, listening to him. Staring at the bright bronze wound round the hilt of his dagger; the pin with red glass beads glinting from the folds of his cloak. But he never made me feel small or foolish by word or by deed, I can say that much for him. He listened to me. He listened to my every word.

We grew in liking, in something like friendship. Far away, my father grew again in power, and I was brought to the head of the hall and given mead to drink, and a gown of fine wool. But when I was asked about my own people, I could say nothing, for I had long forgotten their names and their faces, and even the meaning of the words I still sang. His older brother laughed at me, there in front of their blear-eyed father the old king, and I remembered that it was he who had had his mouth stuffed with earth, when we were children and he wrestled with his brother before the hall’s carved doors. I wished him harm, then, though I did not say it.

How small those days seem now. Like a reflection in a red glass bead.

When his brother died some while later, falling and frothing in the rushes before the fire, all my songs could not save him, and I was glad. My lord, his brother, Eadwulf the king’s son, saw me looking sideways and unweeping, and he bent his own head forwards, and he smiled.

 

We were wed in the summer, after the king his father’s death. There was May blossom still on the trees in the valleys, smelling sweet and heavy, the dense knots of flowers turning brown. My own people sent gifts, purple silk from the south woven with copper thread, and gold rings, and pearls like great pale beads of fat. I could not understand their way of speaking, though I gave them gold rings in turn, and a fine box made of whalebone, and sang a little for them to see if they would show they knew the words, which they did not. They left, and I was glad again, although this time I did not wish to know it.

My lord Eadwulf ruled well. The barley grew up green, and the wheat too in the low fields, and we ate soft bread and fresh meat, and cheese, and butter weeping softly where it was studded with sharp salt-crystals. I gave Ælfgifu my old piece of amber, smooth and warm. We built a new stone tower for the church, as high as four men or even five, using fine stone from the old giant-works two days away across the marshes, and we paid a Frankish carver gold and two cows to put great beasts on either side of the door to frighten away devils and make the old stone holy. I brought my husband drink in hall, and lay with him, warm and close and sweet, at night, and woke to bright straw-coloured light, dust-shuddered, coming through the high beams of the hall, as if the world outside was solid gold.

 

Darkness came quick, in whispers after a bad harvest. The new church was nothing but a tower, still, and it stood up among the yew trees like a challenge, with the beasts snarling in stone beside the door. Men muttered in corners against my lord, and chewed over his brother’s strange death like an old bone. One evening, mead-mad and reckless, his brother’s young son raised up his sword against him in the hall, and my lord spilled his kinsman’s blood across the hearth. The blood blinked on the rushes, and the fire spat and burned bright where it fell. The hall grew quiet.

My lord asked me that night to sing sickness into the boy, there on the hearth where he lay with his wounds still seeping blood. He spoke softly, against my shoulder, his mouth warm and wet as earth in summer after rain.

I knew it then, that he had killed his brother, years ago. Had used my own herb-knowledge to do the thing, for as I say I had often talked with him, when we were young, and told him what I knew, which plants could turn the drink in a man's horn to lust, or sleep, or poison. I turned and stared up into the darkness, black as a burnt thing, as a wet dark thorn, as old wood pulled out sucking from the marsh.

He had done it for me, perhaps, in part. I did not ask him.

 

Later, when the whispers grew louder and the fields grew dull, and they pulled Ælfgifu out from among her hens, feathers flying, and made her say things with their fists and swords, later when my lord fled in the night for the sea, later in the dark hall, with the ashes cold on the hearth and my husband’s kinsmen crowding round like alder trees in marshland, mist-rotted, ugly-tongued, I said no word for or against him.

I wept, and when they sent me outside the walls, far from the hall’s splendour and the great stone tower, I went silent, weeping.

I went to the earth-hall, where they sent me, because they were afraid to kill me on account of my father, and because they also feared my knowledge and my songs. I went knowing that my lord had told me himself to take refuge there, to stay and wait. I went, weeping, loving still my lord.

But, as I have said, my love grew cold.

 

The earth-hall had been the house of the old gods, and the place where they had been burned was still barren. The oak-branches over it were black and cracked.

They left me food, sometimes, and I slept under the oak-roots, in the old god-room, where they had once slept and waked and been fed honey and milk, and the blood of slaves with golden hair. Their marks were still carved into the roots; I found them by feel, there in the dark.

Ælfgifu had given me a charm, once, after I gave her my mother’s amber bead. It was saint’s blood mixed with bread and clay and wrapped in waxed cloth, and I had worn it around my neck with pride, even when I had gold and glittering gems to wear as well. On the night I first spoke against my lord, I put it in the fire. The saint's blood burnt like any other thing.

The rain was spitting down that day, and the old rooks were swirling round the sky, flighting before they came to roost. The sun was low, making a pale piss-yellow bar between the clouds towards the west, between the tall grey hills. I thought then of my lord Eadwulf, out beyond the sea, salt-bitten, coarsened, crouching in the spray. The clattering caw of rooks became the sound of gulls, as I had heard it when I was a small child and his father’s men came from the sea, sharp-eyed and hungry, and took me away.

I cursed him then, him and all young men like him, all young men. All the years that turn, and twist our words out of our mouths, our loved ones into ghosts, our gods into small devils, snuffing around the strong church door, smelling the blood of giants, the work of dead men, lost.

I used strong English words to do it, too: words any person near could understand.

 

It took some time before the gods replied. And when they did it was Erce who came, Earth out of the ground, out from under the roots. She came without my knowing: I looked up and saw her sat behind my small fire, wearing fine clothes the colour of new blood. She had hair the colour of freshly-cut gold, and her eyes were marked around with black.

I was afraid. My heart clenched in my chest and the Paternoster rang through my mind like a bell, back and forth. But she stayed, smiling a little. That reminded me of my lost lord Eadwulf, and my heart slowed and grew hard, water glassing over into ice. She spoke then, although her words came halting, unsound, ugly from her mouth.

“You called me here,” she said.

“How long have you been there?” I asked. I was, I understood at last, angry as well as sad. Wrath burned inside me where my love had been.

She laughed then. “As long,” she said, “as that curse of yours has been around. When you fitted those words together, I became.”

“They burnt you and your kind,” I said. “Out under the trees.”

“They burnt sticks,” she said, “and stones.”

“What do you want with me?” I asked.

“I am old,” she said, dragging her words like sticks, like stones, “and tired. I have seen cities fall, and some great works of men turned all to dust. My tale is done. I could tell you, before I go, to let your anger rest.”

I laughed, in turn. “Not until my lord suffers as I have done,” I said. “Not until all men taste how bitter it can be to be a woman, friendless and alone.”

I saw my mother, then, where the men from the sea had left her, her hair all undone and blood clabbered around the piece of amber on her chest, the charm which was meant to keep her and her songs safe.

I saw what they had done to Ælfgifu, whom they had not been afraid to kill; I saw her bones hung up, under the trees.

I saw my lord stroking my hair, under the blossom, set about with thorns. I’d boasted of the poisons that I knew; I’d sung to him in my own mother’s tongue.

“Not until then,” I said. My words, I knew, had power.

“I do not think,” old Erce said, “that day will ever come.”

“Then until all the seas burn dry,” I said, “kings close their eyes, and tall stone towers fall to dust and ash. Until each word of my fine curse fades out.”

“No-one has heard your curse,” she said, “except the woods and rooks and hills. You could leave this place still, and find your father’s people. Go and live.”

“I will go,” I said, and knew it to be true, although before I’d never disobeyed my lord. “I will go out across the seas, and find Eadwulf. I will whisper my curse into his ear, and he will hear more than the waves and gulls, more than the wind howling against the cliffs. He will hear,” I said, “what he has done.”

“You will live even then,” she said. “Until every last word of your fine curse burns out. You will weep again,” she told me, “for cities you have never seen.” She drew closer to the fire, and shivered, then. “Night covers all,” she said, “as if nothing ever was. I did not think that it would come so soon.”

I had always been told that the old gods were weak. “You are a guest beside my hearth,” I said. “I have bread for you, at least. And rowan-beer.”

She shook her head, and smiled. She did look old, for all her golden hair. “Time’s up,” she said. “I can hear people calling in the streets.” She turned then, quickly. “I meant to ask,” she said. “Tell me, what is your name?”

I opened my mouth, but paused. A name is a strong thing to give away, and I had a new kind of faith in words, and in their power. And while I gathered breath, she flickered bright like lightning and was gone.

Blinking sight back into my aching eyes, I thought that I had seen, through her flesh, the fires of hell: a whale-jaw open wide on plains of fire.

The earth-hall closed around me like a mouth, and I fell sideways, then, into the dark.

 

I was sick after she left: god-touched. My hair came out in clumps, and blisters bloomed like pearls on my slack skin, blisters and red marks just the size of grains of corn. I thought, for some small while, that I would die: they’d find me curled inside the earth-hall, underneath the roots, and leave me there in that accursed place.

But I grew strong again as the year turned, and blossoms came out in the deep grey valleys. Jackdaws and rooks came down and cocked their heads at me, and thrushes sang from ivy on the old half-rotted trees. Wrens stotted under brambles, through the leaves. The sky through the close branches shone bright blue.

I left one morning, making for the sea.

 

It took time for me to earn my passage, selling charms, singing the sick into new health and babes into the world, grubbing under new trees for herbs, boiling red willow-roots in strangers’ black iron pots.

I sang my curse, as well, as soon as I thought it was safe. It rose into the air with the fire’s smoke, and drifted low among the trees, for the spring air was cold, and the smoke clung. The men and women listening took the words, I could tell, and found them sweet. They carried them away.

Once, a young monk, his forehead already shaved, hung round with holy relics, sat with me as I mixed him salve for chilblains on his swollen, red-knobbled feet, and wrote my words down on a clean-scraped piece of parchment, almost as quick as I could speak. He was a soft one, that, and wept a little as I patted down the salve. I wondered, later, what became of him, and of my words. How they were saved. I see those pen-strokes still, shaping their way across the page, like rooks circling ink-black against the evening sky. Words coming home to roost. I helped his chilblains, that at least I can say. And he, I remember, lent me a lump of mutton-fat to rub into my shoes.

I had shoes then, and a bag full of coins. A reputation, too. I moved from place to place as the time ran, closer and closer to the sea. I heard the gulls cry in my sleep, and when at last I bargained for my passage, and saw the shore move away, rocking and growing small, the grey waves breaking green and white against the ship, I felt my heart lift, and the ice around it shift and soften, growing amber-warm.

 

It took me longer still to find Eadwulf. He was beside the sea, alone, in a dwelling botched half out of a boat. Salt-fish were drying on a rack outside; seaweed was piled up outside the door, to spread around his meagre field of green, sea-stunted oats. The cliff-tops all around were yellow-gold with gorse, and the air dizzy with the honey-smell of heather. Far below, on the black rocks by the sea, cormorants were holding out their wings to dry, and gulls were bobbing, white upon the waves.

Eadwulf did not know me, not at first. He was old, and seamed with the sea, with salt and staring out over white-topped waves towards some far horizon, to cliffs made of ice like water turned to bone. I had seen such things, now, myself. I had seen gannets pierce the sea like needles, seen seals nose their snow-furred pups towards the waves. I had seen a lodestone turn itself towards the north, and whales moving like islands in the sea-mist, huge as any hell-mouth, spewing spray.

It was dark inside the half-house, dark and drear. Eadwulf smelled of old flesh and of fish. His voice had changed; had twisted northwards like a lodestone, so that he sounded like the sailor he had long since become. He asked me if I had been sent to heal him; warned me that he could not pay with gold.

“There’s nothing wrong with me in any case,” he said, “but age. It bites us all.”

“Eadwulf,” I said. “My lord.”

He saw me then, steady eyed, and my curse stuck in my throat. My hair fell forwards, black, across his face.

He smiled, and called me by my name. “I have loved the sea,” he said. “And hated it too, in the cold night, all alone. But I loved you, my sweet. I loved you first.”

“You were so good to me,” I said, “so good. At first.”

He raised his head. “At first?” he said. It was a question. He had never once thought, I understood, that he had done me any kind of wrong.

The curse knocked at my teeth, wanting to be set loose. I touched his old man's hand: the skin was thin, and yellowed at the knuckles as old bone. He had been worn down by the sea like stone. “Eadwulf,” I said, “listen. Can you hear the gulls cry, close outside?”

 

He nodded then, and smiled, and closed his eyes. He did not open them again. I gave him to the sea, later that day. It seemed no less than he, and I, deserved.

I felt the curse settle inside my throat, felt its sharp teeth dig in.

 

He had believed, I think, that I was dead.

For he was old and grey, and I, like my curse, was young - or young enough that I have worn my strange curse-knitted bone-house lightly through the years.

Until each word of my fine curse fades out, I said, and something heard. Or, perhaps, just that one time my words did hold their own power, there in the earth-hall, where the smoke hung thick, and the dead gods gathered on small feet under the trees, their blind eyes in the briars still blinking gold.

If I had known then what I know now, I might have stayed there, under the oak trees, eating acorn-bread and soaking rowan berries in spring water, where they glowed like bright red jewels. Like red glass beads.

His kinsmen would have forgotten my lord’s sins at last, perhaps, and I could have crept back, and gathered herbs for deaths and births, and huddled in the corner of the hall where I had once carried golden cups to the lord’s place, and heard men sing over their harps of my lord’s great stone tower and his gifts of rings. I could have looked among the thorn-trees in the marsh, and buried Ælfgifu’s old spider-white soft bones.

Or I could have gone walking out to find my father’s people; learnt their tongue again. I could have claimed my rights as daughter of his hall, perhaps, and seen him lead a war-band out against my husband’s kinsmen, spilling blood, finally, for blood. I could have walked the halls where once my half-remembered mother sang, and whispered my old broken songs through the still air.

But I let my curse out into the world instead, and wished for things that will not come to pass.

I have learned new tongues, now, and seen new lands. I have seen golden halls and bright blue seas, and burned incense before strange many-faced old gods.

I have borne children, and watched them grow old.

I have done some great things, forgotten, and some which are recorded, under other names. Some ill things, too.

I have seen where my curse is written down, and I have seen, in latter years, its words curl out across the world, like rooks rising in flight, twisting out in new-made languages, in this fresh English tongue, its long latinate verbs, its Frenchified and fanciful new nouns. Desire; romance. Equivocation. Compromise.

I have loved other men, yes, and women too, and I have wept for them.

 

I know, now, that my words will end in fire.

The world’s archives will flicker, bit by bit, and libraries will rot as the warm waters rise. And I know that when they do, when I think that the old cold-war's fearful and fearsome clock is ticking down to midnight, tock by tick, I will dye my black hair golden blonde (I've kept the necessaries ready, don't you worry), and I'll do my eyes - mascara, eyeliner, the works. Black paint. I’ll put a red dress on.

And I will find myself - quite how, I will admit that even now I do not know - sitting beside a small and smoky fire, opposite a pinch-faced young woman - young, by the standards of these later times - with a quaking fresh-curdled heart under her dirt-stiff dress. I will speak to her in words which I already know, and sow seeds which will grow a little, grow slow, grow late. Grow beside the sea, on the cold cliffs. I will try, I know, for kindness, small as a rushlight in the dark. It is something to hold on to, as the works of men, and women too, grow old.

And I will ask last of all one thing from my long years I have forgotten, for my sins. I will ask, I know, tell me - what’s my name?