Hild (Excerpt)

In seventh-century Britain, a new religion is coming ashore and small kingdoms are merging, frequently and violently. Hild is the king’s youngest niece, with a glittering mind and a natural authority.

She is destined to become one of the pivotal figures of the Early Middle Ages: Saint Hilda of Whitby. But for now she has only the powerful curiosity of a bright child and the precarious advantage of a plotting uncle, Edwin of Northumbria, who will stop at nothing to become overking of Angles.

Hild establishes a place for herself at his side as the king’s seer, and she is indispensable—as long as she doesn’t lead Edwin astray. The stakes are high—life and death—for Hild, for her family, and, increasingly, for those who seek the protection from this strange girl who seems to see the future.

Drawing from the few records history has left us, Nicola Griffith has brought the young Saint Hilda’s harsh, but beautiful, world to vivid, absorbing life in Hild, available in paperback from Picador on October 28th.

 

 

Chapter 4

In days past, when Morcant the Murderer was king of the Bryneich and Hereric the ætheling expected to be king when his father died, and Edwin was only the spare, the track to the coastal hill fort of Colud had seen more than one ambush. And, indeed, as the war band—Lilla in front with the great banner, then Edwin riding before three hundred gesiths and their hounds, with Hild at his left hand and the æthelings Eadfrith and Osfrith at his right—rode out of the late-afternoon sun towards the sea, Hild saw that armed and mounted Bryneich awaited them. But the shields of the men and their lord, Coledauc ap Morcant, whom men called prince, were slung on their backs not their arms, and between them, instead of a hedge of spears or a burning barrier, lay a heap of tribute.

It was a small heap, and painstakingly arranged to show all the gold on the side facing the Anglisc and gleam in the westering sun. Similarly, though the hill ponies of the Bryneich had been combed and their manes plaited, though they glittered at mouth and headstall, their tail pieces were plain, and when one stripling leaned forward to get a better look at the Anglisc, the saddle revealed by his swinging cloak looked lumpy and forlorn, showing gaps where jewels and inlay had been gouged out. Hild became aware of the height of her own gelding, the weight of her luxurious piled-weave cloak, and the great kneecap of a brooch pinned at her left shoulder.

The brooch was new to her. Earlier that day, when the war band had reined in to form up before riding out of the hills, Edwin had kneed his chestnut in front of her grey and crooked a finger at Coelgar, who turned from some serious talk with the young æthelings and tossed something gleaming. Edwin caught it. It looked heavy. He leaned forward, pinned it to her cloak, and sat back. “Better,” he said. It weighed three times the gilt-copper brooch that had seemed so massive and rich at that Modresniht not so very long ago. “Pin that other trinket out of sight. I can’t have my niece looking like a beggar.” He wheeled his horse. “Ride close to me.”

And now a Bryneich, one with a harp slung on his back rather than a shield, stared at her, at her brooch, leaned to Coledauc and whispered, and Coledauc looked directly over the heap at Hild.

Hild straightened and looked right back.

Watch men and women, her mother had said, put yourself inside them. Imagine what they’re thinking.

The little muscles around Coledauc’s eyes tightened. He was weighing information.

Perhaps her mother had already paid for stories to be sung, and Coledauc was thinking: It must be true, for no king in his right mind would bring a child on the war trail. The childlike thing sitting on a cygnet-coloured gelding with a silvered saddle and wearing a brooch worth a son’s ransom must be the princess niece with a reputation as a seer and sorceress. Dunod said she’d known of Ceredig.

Coledauc’s mount stepped in place then tossed its head. His fist on the reins clenched briefly and Hild imagined him wanting to back away from her: Aiiee, look at those eyes! They were boring right into him. Could she read his heart?

She gave him her best fathomless look.

Without taking his gaze from her, Coledauc nodded to his bard, who bent from his mount to lift something from the heap to join the items already lying ready across his saddle bow. The bard now fixed his gaze on her—they must think she could cast spells—and Coledauc turned to Edwin. He closed his eyes briefly, then smiled, as men do when they’re about to do something difficult but want to seem at ease, and walked his mount forward.

The tension in his shoulders and the ripple in his jaw shouted Usurper!, and when he spoke he shaped the Anglisc carefully, like a man mouthing something disgusting. Hild realised that every shape the man’s body made refused the words, and that the bard was nodding along. The bard had made the speech.

“…pleased to offer you a portion of the great Bryneich treasure so that we may continue to walk side by side in friendship…”

Hild watched his body and ignored the words.

Friendship! When the fathers of these Anglisc beasts had crushed his people, driven them from their rightful strongholds.

“…and welcome you to our hall.”

He braced himself, tightening down in his seat, waiting for the usurper to laugh in his face and dare him to do something about it. But Hild knew he knew there was nothing he could do. His men numbered only fifty, if you counted boys and grandfathers, and those mounted on hill ponies whose ears barely reached the Anglisc mounts’ withers.

But Edwin nodded as if to a trusted right hand, made no mention of the pitiful nature of the tribute, and began a pleasant speech back about eternal friendship and valued counsel and allies against the wolves of the Irishmen and Picts who, as everyone knew, had no honour.

Coledauc, who had been slowly loosening, stiffened at that. Hild considered. Honour. Perhaps Coledauc thought Edwin was making sly reference to the shameful deeds of Morcant, his father. Perhaps the king was.

But the king’s voice was smooth and Coledauc seemed to let go of his tension: If the Anglisc king spoke lies they were pleasant ones. And eventually he was done.

Coledauc beckoned to his bard. “In addition to this treasure from the Bryneich, my family wishes to offer more personal tokens of friendship. Accept, from our son, Cuncar”—three months old, Hild knew, probably blissfully sucking his toes by the hearth with his mother—“gifts for each of your own sons, and for your”—he cleared his throat—“your relative. The seer.”

A gift. For the seer.

The wind from the hills was picking up, blowing Ilfetu’s forelock this way and that. Hild leaned forward and brushed it out of his eyes. She felt every hair, distinct as flax.

On the beach, gulls squabbled. The bard was looking at her still. She kept her face as calm as the pool at Goodmanham as her thoughts boiled.

A gift. From a king. To her as the light of the world. What should she do?

Coledauc gave Eadfrith a sword. Eadfrith unhooked his own sheathed sword grandly and offered it in return, with a flourish and a smooth and princely speech. Except that Hild knew his sword had a great blue stone set in its pommel and cunning gold wires twisted about the lip of the red leather scabbard, and the sword he gave Coledauc was scabbarded in black, with a silver-gilt chape and red glass in the pommel.

He’d been expecting this.

Osfrith also gave and received a sword. His pimples burnt a deep and ugly red and he looked younger than his fifteen years as he began to stumble his way through a prepared speech.

Everyone knew their words but her. Why hadn’t anyone prepared her? Did they think the light of the world would foresee it? She looked down at her brooch. Her uncle had foreseen it. But he’d said nothing. He hadn’t been sure. And if he’d admitted he expected his niece to be gifted by Coledauc, and then she wasn’t, he would have to take notice and assume insult. This way was better—for him. But she didn’t know what to do.

Her mother would know. But her mother wasn’t here, and Onnen was back with the other women, with Cian.

The brooch at her shoulder was a graceless thing, but massive. Worth more than anything this king was likely to give in return. And her uncle had told her to pin the gilt-copper brooch out of sight. Perhaps he meant that if they gave her a brooch or other jewellery of sufficiently low worth she should give them the gilt-copper wheel now pinned inside her cloak.

As Osfrith stumbled on, the wind twitched briefly and blew from the east, the fort, bringing the scent of roasting meat. Behind her, a horse stamped and tossed its head, setting others to the same with a great clinking of bits and harness jewels. A gesith coughed. They were getting restless. They wanted the feast they could all smell cooking.

Osfrith finished his speech and backed his horse into line.

A gull wheeled overhead, its underside lit to pink and gold. Gold. Gold was power. Power was safety. What should she do?

And then she saw what the bard handed Coledauc, and, as it had long ago with Cian by the pool, her mind turned smooth with want.

 

Hild leaned back from her half-eaten bread trencher and fingered her black-handled seax. It was a big blade, far bigger than any ten-year-old should wear by rights, a slaughter seax. But it was a gift from a king and to not wear it in his hall would be an insult. Though judging by Coledauc’s pale lips when the bard had handed it to him, she thought perhaps the choice of gift would not have been his. But she’d kneed Ilfetu forward, unpinned her great gold kneecap of a brooch, held it to glint in the last of the sun, and proclaimed in a strong voice, in British, a thousand blessings upon Cuncar ap Coledauc and his house and their renewed friendship with the house of Yffing, which would last forever, in token of which she hoped they’d accept this trifle to remember her by. Then she’d said it less well in Anglisc, adding that the food smelt fine and they were all happy to go eat now. And the gesiths and Coledauc’s men had roared and banged their shields, and it would have taken more than two kings to get between the warriors and their mead.

At their high bench the two kings huddled together as the first casks of ale—sweet brown wealh ale—were broached. When they broke and clasped arms, both looked well pleased with their discussions. It seemed they found it convenient to take Hild’s proclamation as prophecy: a thousand blessings on Coledauc and his house and eternal friendship between Yffing and Bryneich. A prophecy sealed with a blade gift. So despite Onnen’s pointed look as she poured Hild’s mead, Hild had smiled and told her she would keep the blade and wear it. Anything else would risk the prophecy. And then she grinned at Cian, whom she’d made sure sat next to her.

Feasting and song followed, with very free drinking—Edwin’s forces outnumbered those of the Bryneich prince so heavily that it was no dishonour to give tribute rather than battle, and hearts were high; no one would die that week—and more than one joke about a marriage in the future between Hild and the baby Cuncar, who had been brought out by his nurse briefly, and who to Hild looked remarkably like a sucking pig. Even the two packs of war dogs made a kind of peace and lay down together.

The seax was handsome, with a black horn hilt and a blade inlaid with patterns in a silver-and-copper mix, and hung edge-up in its supple black sheath suspended by two loops parallel to her belt, silver chape to her left. It had a battle edge with a very hard, sharp point. It could open a man’s throat, or cut the twice-baked road bread, or joint a roast. That is, she was sure of the two last because she’d already tried it out, and had no doubt of the former.

Cian tried hard not to be jealous, and something of his look, or perhaps the fact that he was allowed to sit with Hild, and that she laughed as he made puppets of his mutton ribs and spoke for them, alerted one of the Bryneich lords, who whispered in the ear of his prince. They didn’t know Cian was wealh like them, because he was tall, like the Anglisc, and he dressed like them and spoke like them—even Onnen spoke nothing but Anglisc among the untamed wealh—and during the toasts the prince had grandly given Cian an old but beautifully painted shield with an enamelled boss, and a sound little nut-coloured pony for his own, which he promptly named Acærn.

 

As the waning moon stood high and the boasting and singing surged and the flames roared, Hild slipped away to sit in the moon shadow of a tufted dune with the sheathed knife in her lap and listen to the night breeze in the grass, and think about nothing in particular.

She woke to the sound of a man and woman panting with each other, like overheated hounds, and then laughter. They talked. Hild recognised Eadfrith’s voice, the elder ætheling, and then her own name. “…that knife?” the woman said. “A slaughter seax, for a maid!”

“Oh, she’s no maid,” Eadfrith said. “She’s a hægtes in a cyrtel.”

Then they stopped talking for a while. Later Eadfrith agreed to help the woman haul her share of the water from the stream to the fire, as long as no one would see him doing women’s work, and if she agreed to dally further, later.

Long after they’d gone, Cian found her. She wouldn’t speak to him. He left. Onnen came. She sat beside a wide-eyed Hild and wiped at her cheek with her thumb. “So you’ve heard what your own people say. Does it surprise you?”

Hild said nothing.

“Now, see, this is one reason they think you strange. Your eyes flash, but you never speak.”

“I’m not a hægtes.”

“No, no. Of course not.”

“I’m not,” Hild said. “I’m not a seer, either. I just notice things.”

“If you don’t want to be a prophet then stop prophesying. Or at least mix prophecy with some other talk. People know you’re thinking, but they don’t know what. It frightens them.”

“Does it frighten you, too?”

Onnen’s face was white and black in the moonlight, like a mummer’s face smeared with ash. After a moment she said, “I caught you as you slipped from your mother. I taught you your first words.”

It was neither yes nor no. But then Onnen folded Hild in her arms and that familiar sharp woman smell overlain by peat smoke. “Oh, my little prickle.” And Hild breathed deep and wondered why her own mother never held her this way. “You’re like a sharp bright piece broken from a star. Too sharp, too bright, sometimes, for your own good.”

 

Two days later Hild was back on her gelding, Ilfetu, and Cian on Acærn, travelling west on the road by the wall with the dogs running back and forth alongside. Hild was mesmerised by that road, so straight and wide and hard, rounding up in the centre like the horizon. The gesiths had spent countless summers on such things, and the few women of the band were so busy foraging for figwort leaves in the hazelwood understorey and nettle leaves in the ditches, bog myrtle for their travelling mattresses, wild garlic for the stewpot, and birds’ eggs for when game was thin on the ground, that they couldn’t care less. Cian was lost in the endless tales of glory the gesiths told each other as they rode, so Hild was left to muse on her own of the people who would build such a thing and then leave. She tried to remember to talk to people sometimes, but she recalled that Eadfrith thought her a hægtes and could not think of anything to say.

On some days Hild rode beside Edwin. Mostly the king was happy. In his winter campaign, he had taken the Isle of Vannin from Fiachnae mac Báetáin for the loss of only one ship, and that mainly carrying horses; the isle’s fort had surrendered immediately when they saw the size of Edwin’s band. And now the Bryneich at their backs were sworn to eternal friendship. And so, mostly, he was content as they rode to point out—sometimes just to her, sometimes to his sons, who had heard it all before, but it never paid for even blood relatives to ignore the king—some valley where in years past he had driven a rival king’s sheep, or the hilltop where he had fired a fort, or a lightning-blasted tree he remembered as an omen of a flood. But other times he would grow pensive at the sight of a flock of magpies shrieking in a field of spring barley, and he would pull at the stained leather of his reins until his mean-mouthed chestnut snorted and stopped, and demand that Hild tell him what the birds augured. She didn’t like those days. Nothing pleased him. He would constantly shift in his saddle and finger his sword; his eyes would become green and shimmery; he would make Lilla ride close and keep his shield unslung. She hated having to give him omens. And then one day she thought of Cian laughing and telling stories with his mutton ribs, and she spoke as though she were one of the birds: that fat one, there; no, the one with the uneven tail, he is cross with his brother, there, the one with the worm in his beak, because they had a fight over who should have the thorn tree for the nest and his brother won. And, ha!, Edwin said, then the fat one is not king. And he laughed and called over the æthelings, and then Lintlaf and Blæcca, and had her tell more stories about the birds and their wives. The gesiths roared. And so some days she rode surrounded by beefy warriors laughing at her imaginary conversations—birds, clouds, mice, dogs, furze leaves— while on others the king frowned and demanded a prophecy, and she gave it: The bird flies in from the south, as will your future wife, my king, for Hild remembered that long-ago talk of Kent, and where else would he be seeking a bride? Or: See how the thrush drops the snail on the stone? So will you crush Fiachnae mac Báetáin if he should rise again and creep forth from the Emerald Isle. For everyone knew Fiachnae would rise again, it’s what the Irish did, and mac Báetáin was cannier than most. As she watched the thrush beat its snail on the stone and saw its eyes like apple pips, she remembered Coifi’s eyes as he had watched her in the rain by the daymark elms, as a stoat watches a fledgling. And she said to Onnen that night by the fire, “Onnen, when you steal eggs from the nest, where are the birds who laid them?” and Onnen said, “Off finding worms for breakfast, no doubt. Why?” And Hild, who was tired from talk talk talking, all the time talking, couldn’t bring her thoughts from behind her eyes to her mouth. When she fell into sleep it was to evil dreams: Who protected the nest while the king was away finding worms? Who protected her mother and Hereswith? Old Burgræd and young Burgmod?

She missed them. Oh, not her mother’s perpetual watching and thinking and manoeuvring for position, not her sister’s talk of Mildburh and husbands, alternating with the silent superiority of a sister with a girdle for one without. No, she missed their smell. Here it was all horses and man sweat and the stink of the bushes in the morning, which she walked half a mile to avoid when she emptied her bladder. She missed the scent of weld growing in its pot, of cheese crumbling on a plate and fresh-baked bread.

Even the songs were different. On the road, between one settlement and another, as they swung along, sometimes on foot, their songs were not the heroic songs of the hall but coarse drinking songs that, when she understood them, she didn’t like. She didn’t like the way they made the men smell, the way they fingered under their tunics and looked at the hard, thin-faced camp women—strange women who spoke Anglisc and wore knives and strike-a-lights on their belts, but no distaffs, no spindles; women who darned and mended but never spun, never wove.

She befriended a one-eyed war dog by feeding him scraps and never teasing him the way the gesiths did, and by mastering her fear of him, most of the time. At night she curled with Onnen on her unrolled leather mattress with her cloak around her and her belt loosened but not removed— she could reach out and touch her seax—and listened to the long churr of the nightjars. She longed for the sound of girls’ voices or a woman singing as she fed chickens. They were moving through wild country now, nothing but moor and road. Onnen said that she’d heard from one of the bony camp women that by the time the larks had sung their last for the summer and the figwort flowers in the little wooded valleys had turned white, they’d be in Caer Luel, and then, oh, the wonder and the glory! And Hild fell asleep that night thinking with a smile of old Æffe’s scepticism about fountains and the young man of long ago hung like Thuddor the bull, and it was only later that the dreams turned to nightmares.

Crossing the Pennines was hard and cold; Hild learnt to use the slings the women used to bring down red squirrels and the occasional hare; she learnt to sit with them in silence, for the women didn’t mind silence, as they cut up the tiny morsels to mix with dried peas in a pot.

Hild was almost as thin and flint-faced as Onnen’s road friends the day they made camp by a rushing stream and Coelgar set every last man to searching for firewood. Hild went to find her uncle to ask him why. He was sitting on a tree stump overseeing the unfurling of his blue-and-red banner with the Deiran boar stitched in gold. The garnet eye, secured with silver thread, was loose, and Edwin was shouting good-natured orders at the two wealh holding the staffs and the woman with the needle and thread. He was in a good mood, for the only man he’d lost on the whole journey so far was Eadfrith’s friend, a young fool who’d boasted about his horse one night after drinking too much and felt obliged to race it the next day and had fallen and broken his thigh.

“Why are we stopped?” Edwin said. “So that we may make fires, and eat hot food, and have light to clean our equipment by and warmth in which to sleep. So that the lookouts of Rhoedd of Rheged will see our fires and think us many hundreds strong. So that we have the leisure to sort through our baggage and choose our finest tunics and our brightest rings. And so that when we ride into Rhoedd’s stronghold tomorrow, we will look sleek and rested and well fed, our armour well tended and our swords sharp. And he will smile and open the gates to Caer Luel and prepare his tribute.” He laughed. “Oh, yes, in public he will smile. In private he will chew his moustaches. Last year his tribute was only ships to the Isle of Vannin, and he got them back safely, bar one. Plus sacksful of Irish gold and silver as his share of the booty. Rhoedd is the son of the brother of the son of a great man, and perhaps for a while he felt as big and fine as his grandsire, a real king. He might have got to thinking perhaps a king shouldn’t pay tribute. Yet here we are. We outnumber his war band three to one. We’re hard and blooded, bearing bright bitter blades.” He laughed. “Even you.” He scratched his beard, looked around at the hundreds of men, the boys, the women. “Rhoedd is prideful. It is easier on a man’s pride to truckle to a great king than to a starveling. And so we preen.”

Even the dogs were fitted with bright collars. Od the One-Eyed’s was spiked bronze.

Cian was beside himself with excitement. Lintlaf had lent him a bottle of linseed oil to tend the straps of his new shield and the hooves of his pony. Hild found him cross-legged on a flat stone by a gesith fire. He was trying on and taking off and adjusting his straps, over and over again.

He saw Hild and said, “Perhaps he will speak to me!” His eyes shone in the firelight.

“Who?”

“Rhoedd, son of Rhun, who was brother of Owein!” Owein, Cian’s hero, who had died at Catraeth. It was strange to hear his name surrounded by Anglisc words.

“We shall make sure of it.” In the firelight Cian’s hair was showing chestnut at the roots. Hild hoped Onnen would persuade him to rinse it before long. Though perhaps the time for that was past; Hereric had been dead seven years. Edwin was secure on his throne. Then she remembered the way he sometimes turned in his saddle and touched his sword, remembered the relief when the son of Morcant did not fight, and understood that a king never felt safe.

 

They stayed with Rhoedd for six days. Edwin, Hild learnt, was good at keeping his underking in countenance. He praised him lavishly, and toasted him heroically, and bade his own scop sing of Rhoedd’s illustrious forebears, back to Urien. He sang only the warrior songs, though Hild knew much of the cycle was written to make men laugh. As old Ywain, the bard of Ceredig’s hall in Elmet, had told her, a bard could sing anything of a man, that he is lazy, that he is stupid, that his word is no good, he could make all men assembled laugh at his subject—as long as he suggested that the man was the very god with the lasses, left them stunned and sighing and sated. Get them drunk, sing of their prowess between the thighs, and be showered with gold.

Even after all these years, Hild found it strange to hear those songs in Anglisc and accompanied on a flat, gut-stringed lyre.

In the crowded hall, Hild and Cian listened, rapt, as Rhoedd’s bard Gwaednerth then took up the tale, singing in British of the men of Yr Hen Ogledd, the Old North. Tales of Coel Hen, who ruled the whole of the north from Ebrauc that was, the York of long ago, when its walls were whole and its paint undimmed and the smell of the redcrests with their olive oil and grey wheat bread lingered in every corner. But as an old man, when the Scotti came from Ireland, Coel overreached himself. Cunning as only old men are, he conceived a plan to foment war between the Picts and the Scots. With his chiefs and lords and sons he camped by the waters of the Coyle and set out to fight first one side and then the other, wearing each time the captured regalia of the enemy…

Firelight ran along the harp’s bronze strings and the bard’s voice rose and dropped, not unlike the fells to the east, making a twisting, hypnotic rhythm of poised and perfect words. He was younger than old Ywain, his voice as supple as a withy-wound chariot. He could send his words trilling into the roof corners or scuttling through the floor rushes. As he sang at first of Coel Hen’s victories, of driving the Scots into the hills with shields flaming like bright wings in the sunlight, and of the evening’s fine triumph and boasts and eating of the hero’s portion, his voice was thrilling. Hild found herself thinking of her seax and how fine it might be to swing a sword whose blade ran like a river of silver in the moonlight, and whose battle cry made the enemy throw down his blade and crouch and shiver in the sedge, unmanned. But then the bard changed step, as suddenly as a horse reined in by its rider for a fence, and his voice became a hollow moan; his harp echoed as melancholy and strange as a song from Arawn, the otherworld. Now he told of the desperate Scotti, slowly starving in the hills, committing to one last desperate attack. On a moonless night—not unlike this night—the lords stripped their fine fish-scale armour, and their men their leather, hid their swords under the furze—not unlike the furze close by—and, knives clenched between their teeth, wormed through the heather to the camp by the waters. Coel’s men were drenched and drunk with glory and gloat. They were warm and well fed and gleaming with gold—not unlike tonight, Hild thought: even the sentries had set their spears against the doorposts to sing. And the Scotti crawled closer, closer, faces smeared with dung and ash, hearts beating like the drums of their enemy, blood surging stronger than wine.

Hild found herself listening beyond the hall, beyond the crackle of the fire, beyond the thumping scratch of a dog under the trestle, half expecting to hear an unearthly shriek as the sentry’s throat was cut.

Cian looked about uneasily. Lilla’s lips were parted and his great ham hand kept reaching for his baldric then stopping as he remembered his sword, like everyone else’s, leant upon his shield against the wall. He moved slightly closer to his king, whom he was sworn to protect with his life.

Hild saw that the bard was tapping his foot like a heartbeat, tapping doom doom doom—not unlike Coifi’s attempt by the daymark elms, but Coifi had been trying to sway men in cold morning light, not men full of wealh beer and yellow mead and sitting in the flickering hearth light of a strange hall a hundred miles from home. She smiled and considered nudging Cian and pointing to the tapping foot but he was lost and wouldn’t thank her for it.

 

Two days later, sitting in the middæg sun in the ruins of Broac, Brocavum that was, Cian was still lost in tales of Yr Hen Ogledd, this time of Ceneu and Gorbanian, the sons of Coel Hen, as told by Uinniau, Rhoedd’s younger sister-son, who had ridden with them to the remains of the fort. Hild, settled on a grassy earthwork, hair tucked behind her ears, listened with only part of her attention; the rest was lost in the flash and colour of the beads around her wrist: another gift, this time from the infant princess Rhianmelldt, a strange, ravaged ælf of a child whose eyes slid side to side ceaselessly. Hild forgot about the princess’s eyes when she saw the beads: seventy-three faceted carnelians.

She had fallen in love with the carnelians there and then. They were all different. In the light of the peat fires and wall torches of the hall, some had gleamed like the jewels of her mother’s dream, garnets in milk; others were more like pearls in blood, or amber in wine. But in the sun, they burnt like a living legend, something forged by a god from a dragon’s heart. They were strung on a cord of yellow silk braided with gold, fastened with a cunning interlocking gold clasp, the string long enough for a grown woman to wear around her neck and draped over her breast. Hild wore them wrapped four times around her left wrist. When the sun struck them, the toasted-bread colour of her skin, of the stone, of the gold and yellow silk was like a world she had never dreamt of.

She asked Uinniau where the beads came from—they had a redcrest look—and he beamed and said he could show her, if she liked, and Cian, too, and in fact it was most curious because it was just two summers ago, at old Broac, not far from the church named after a long-dead relative, Saint Uinniau. Had Hild heard of him? He was a very great saint. Would she like to see the church after they’d seen the fort?

And so she saddled Ilfetu, and Cian his Acærn, and Uinniau, small like many sons of wealh, climbed upon a mare far too big for him—he looked like a freckled apple perched on the saddle—and they trotted off. That is, Ilfetu and the mare trotted, Acærn had to break into a canter every now and again. Hild couldn’t help but think how much better Cian would look on the mare and Uinniau on Acærn. But the life tree didn’t always fruit as expected.

In the ruined fort, Uinniau was now talking in a singsong of Peredur ap Eliffer, beating on the sun-warmed turf with his hand, and Hild recognised the signs; any moment, he and Cian would leap up and start whanging at each other with sticks, and yelling, and trying to persuade her to play the to-be-vanquished enemy.

“I am going to the water’s edge,” she said, gesturing over to the bank where the hobbled horses cropped the grass near a stand of birches, and Cian nodded without taking his eyes off Uinniau.

Hild climbed the tallest birch. She settled in the saddle of a thick bough hanging over the water and thought of nothing in particular amongst the coin-size leaves whose undersides shimmered with water light.

A thin veil of cloud slid over the sun, turning the river from polished silver to dull pewter and the leaves back to matte green. A flash of brown in the reeds told her this would be a good place to find duck eggs in the spring.

From here, all that remained of the fort where they’d dug up the treasures and her beads were two turf banks. Once it had been home to half a hundred horse soldiers from far away. Perhaps their herds had cropped the same grass that Ilfetu nibbled now. She gazed down at the shoulders of her mare, the whorls of grey hair, the fly about to bite at the base of her tail.

She imagined the fort as it would have been in Uinniau’s ten-times great-grandsire’s lifetime: a square of tall wooden walls built of whole trees with their bark still on them and their tips sharpened, neat ditches and banks, a gate in the centre of every wall, the scent of fires cooking unimaginable food, and over everything the smell of horses, the sound of horses, the vibration of horses galloping away.

She always imagined them galloping away, leaving. That’s what the redcrests had done; they’d left. They left behind their stone houses in Caer Luel and beautiful white fountains, their red-tile roofs and straight roads, their perfectly round red bowls with pictures of dogs hunting deer around the rim, their exact corners and glass cups. And now the marble statues had lost their paint and stood melancholy white streaked with moss; tiles had blown off in storms and been patched with reed; men built fire stands directly on the cracked and broken remnants of once-brilliant mosaics.

But the fountain still worked. It was a series of white stone bowls arranged on a white stone stem, like a flowering pinecone made of cold, smooth marble. The spout, taller than Hild, was a leaping fish—a porpoise, said the town reeve. He seemed to know a lot. So Hild had dragged him around the town for hours and made him explain how the water came through pipes, pushed by its own weight downhill, from the hills to the north, how the baths and the hypocaust worked, where the redcrest chief had lived. After she had sent the reeve on his way, bowing and scraping and walking backwards, she returned to the fountain. She sat on the lip of the lowest, widest bowl and dabbled her hand in the cold, clean water and lifted her face to the spray. She thought of Cwenburh and the slow seep of bright blood. Cwenburh should have seen a fountain before she died. But if she had lived that long, Hereswith might not be peaceweaver, and Hild might not be on this journey, might not have seen the glory of water squirting into the sky like a whale’s breath.

 

Caer Luel was where she saw a Christ bishop snared by a spell, sitting at a bench holding a strange folded square of leather sewn from smaller pieces towards the light and murmuring. But when she pointed out the blackskirted bishop and asked if it was a ritual to do with light, Uinniau laughed and said he wasn’t a bishop, he was just a priest, and he wasn’t under a spell or making a spell, he was talking with a book. “Bishop Rhuel says a book is full of secret signs that tell a story. A god’s story. It sounds as though it should be interesting, but it isn’t. When he tried to say the story to me there were no heroes, no swords or galloping to battle. Just moony stuff about…” He frowned. “Well, I don’t remember. It was boring. But his book was covered in gold and jewels. Not like that old thing the priest’s reading. Perhaps because Rhuel was a bishop, an overpriest.”

Book, she thought. Secret signs. And gold and jewels. Hereswith might like that. And then she wondered what Hereswith was learning from their mother, and she missed them both.

 

It grew colder. They travelled north to Alt Clut, to the great rock fortress in the river mouth ruled by Neithon and his son, Beli. She was excluded from the war councils of Edwin and his sons and chief gesith, for Neithon and his sons were superstitious in the way of Christ people, and they kept making the fluttering sign on their chests when they saw her. Christ people didn’t hold with seers, and maids were not allowed in council. Unlike Rhoedd and the men of Rheged, the men of Alt Clut thought of themselves as equals to Edwin, allies, and he was unwilling to trespass upon their goodwill by insisting she be present. He told Hild this angrily, but he wasn’t angry with her; he was puzzled by something. Being puzzled made him anxious. Being anxious made him angry.

Osfrith, the younger of the æthelings, would sometimes tell her what he knew of the councils but he never remembered very clearly, just shrugged cheerfully and said, Well, it was boring—old men’s talk of corn yields and signs and portents. Hild was left to ask casual questions of the housefolk who carried the wine and built the fires for such meetings, to listen to songs— the Alt Clut seemed obsessed by tales of the Dál Riata to the north and west, of Aedan the Treacherous, who had died before Hild was even born, and of his son, now king, Eochaid Buide. Hild put together her information like a broken redcrest pavement and pondered the picture.

King Eochaid and his Dál Riata were enemies of the Irish Dál Fiatach. Everyone knew this. The Fiatach in turn were enemy to the Dál nAriadne whom Edwin and Rhoedd had beaten soundly on Vannin, and Eochaid was sheltering the Idings. Well and good: Edwin and Eochaid Buide of the Dál Riata were enemies. That was clear. Nothing puzzling about it. So what was bothering Edwin? Whatever it was, it was getting worse.

Now not only did Lilla accompany him everywhere, shield unslung, but Lintlaf, and Coelgar’s son, Coelfrith, shadowed the æthelings. In addition, instead of heading south then east to collect tribute from many, ending with the Gododdin, before joining the women at Yeavering, Edwin began a series of interminable meetings with his own men.

Edwin’s temper grew fouler day by day. He had a woman whipped for spilling ale on his shoe. Eadfrith, only five years older than Cian, swung his new sword at a man at mead for calling him a stripling. He opened the space below the man’s ribs the way the butcher at Yeavering split a side of beef with a cleaver. Hild saw the bloody gape, the flash of white bone and sliced liver, a bubble and then a spurt of red. The man died a day later howling with pain and fever, and Eadfrith had to give up his fine new sword as weregild.

Hild’s dreams of birds stolen from their nests by stoats became so evil Onnen started to stuff her ears with tallow and threatened to find another sleeping place.

“He won’t decide!” Osfrith said one day to Hild, who caught him striding from the hall, his usually sunny face tight with displeasure. “Men will say he is afraid.” He kicked idly at a piglet rooting at the base of a dead section of hedge that ran along the inside of the great ditch before the wall. The piglet, used to such treatment, ran, ears flapping, under the hedge before Osfrith’s shoe connected. His pimples were fading and his jaw thickening. His shoe, once bright red, was now scuffed and mud brown. They had been on the road a long time.

Osfrith, cloakless like all the warrior gesiths, hunched a little and turned away from the wind coming off the river.

“So men will say he is afraid,” Hild said. “Would men be telling the truth?”

“Thunor’s breath!” He stared. “You are stranger than they say. Any man who says the king is afraid will have my sword to face.” He laid his hand on his sword hilt—his battle sword, not one of the new ones he’d received as gifts over the summer.

“I am not a man,” she said. “But nor do I say the king is afraid. I ask about those men who do say so, or might say so. Would they believe what they say?”

Osfrith looked baffled.

Hild sighed to herself. She needed Osfrith to sit a moment, to think. She considered. Boys and young men liked to eat. “Did the king feed you?”

Osfrith shook his head. The wind gusted hard and he hunched tighter.

“I know a woman in the kitchens. There’s a warm fire and cold hare and bannock bread.”

 

The bannock was nothing but crumbs, the hare splintered bones, and the pot of ale almost empty. Osfrith picked meat from between his teeth with a sliver of bone, looking more like an ætheling. “No,” he said, “it’s the boats that have Beli and his father muttering like old women.”

“Boats?”

“Irish boats were seen crossing the North Channel from Ireland to the Dál Riata.”

“When?”

“A month past. Or more. And many more than usual. More than enough for an army—”

An army.

“—but there’s been no fires,” he said, “no fighting, no stream of homeless south, no slaves for sale at the port. There’s been no battle.”

“Not here,” said Hild, and her hands were cold with dread. Where are the birds when we steal eggs from their nest? Now she knew.

 

Grey sky, grey rock, grey water. Edwin sat on a boulder overhanging the great flat estuary, throwing stones. Eadfrith ætheling and a knot of the younger gesiths stood nearby, but not too close. It was clear by the set of the king’s shoulders that he was best left alone.

Hild checked to be sure her mantle fell in deep folds, that the hair she’d had Onnen dress that morning was in place, that her pair of huge gilt brooches, Neithon’s gift, were not crooked. She adjusted her carnelians for maximum flash and sparkle, and laid a hand on the hilt of her slaughter seax. She stood tall. She was the bringer of light. Let them call her hægtes if they must. If she didn’t speak, her mother and Hereswith might die.

“King.”

He ignored her. One of the gesiths shouted over, “He’s in no mood for games, princess.”

“King.”

Another gesith detached himself from the knot. “Come away, little maid.” Lintlaf. “Come away.” He reached for her arm.

Hild drew herself up, fixed Lintlaf’s brown eyes with her fathomless gaze, then sought and found Eadfrith’s. In her seer’s voice she said, “You know I am no maid. And I have a dream to tell the king.”

That got Edwin’s attention. He held his hand out to Lintlaf: stop. And jerked his chin at Hild: speak. His eyes crawled green and black as buzzflies on old meat.

Last time her mother had been there to explain. Last time the king had been in a good mood.

“King.” The words, as they almost always did in Anglisc, caught in her throat like a bird bone or a mouthful of feathers. “The stoat steals fledglings from the nest when the birds are away catching worms.”

No change in Edwin’s expression. Why couldn’t he see? Why could none of them see?

“King. We’re the birds.”

Now his face was stone. “I am not a bird.”

“Boats,” she said desperately. “I dreamt of boats.” His whole face sharpened. “The stoat is coming in a boat. To the nest. My mother is there. And Hereswith.”

“Your— Bebbanburg. You’re talking of Bebbanburg?”

She nodded.

“And who is the stoat?” He was standing over her—when did that happen?

Her eyes were level with his throat apple. She raised them to meet his. “Fiachnae mac Báetáin. In a boat, going the long way around to take Bebbanburg.”

 

Edwin, once free from trying to make sense of a puzzle as ungraspable as mist, and with a clear prophecy to hew to, marched his war band south at lightning speed, ignoring the coastal strongholds of Galloway and their expected tribute. As they passed Dumfries, he said to Hild, “I know to the ounce what I should have taken from them. You’d best not be wrong.”

At the wall, they reloaded the pack ponies and Edwin detailed Eadfrith and Coelgar and twelve gesiths, including Coelfrith, to escort the treasure directly to the stronghold of York while the lightened war band rode for the port at Tinamutha and thence up the coast to Bebbanburg. Onnen gave Coelfrith a significant look as he mounted, and Hild knew she had reminded the steward’s son that some of the treasure belonged directly to the princess Hild, that there would be an accounting.

Edwin watched the ponies disappearing in the direction of Broac and then turned to Hild. “The ride will be hard. You will keep up, if I have to tie you to your horse. You will tell me of every thought, every dream, every twitch of your eye or flight of birds. If you are right, you will be honoured beyond mortal ken. If you’re wrong and we fail, I will strike off your head, feed your offal to my dogs, and bury your hægtes head by your buttocks in an unmarked hole.”

Hild faced him, unflinching, because Edwin was like a dog: show fear and he would chase you down. But then she broke her gaze. To challenge an uneasy king before his men was to invite death.

Edwin raised his hand and shouted to the nearly three hundred gesiths remaining. “We ride in service to a dream from the gods. If our dreamer’s horse fails, you will give her yours. If her food runs low, you will give your own. She will light our way. And now we ride.”

 

A horse died—already tired, its leg plunged through a burrow and snapped—at Haltwhistle, and its rider was abandoned in a ramshackle farm holding with a thin woman and her husband, a witless farmer. No doubt the place would have a new master come spring.

The first snows settled in the folds of their thick cloaks as they passed Chesters. At Corabrig they found a farmer with a tall horse—a raw-boned roan, but fresh and eager—willing to part with it for a silver arm ring, and lots were drawn for a lithe, hardy rider to gallop for life itself all the way to Tinamutha to set in motion ships for Bebbanburg. Lintlaf won and light travel foods—twice-baked bread, dried berries, smoked meat—were offered from all sides.

As Lintlaf packed his saddlebags, the roan, a farm horse and confused by the press, danced and kicked but eventually Lintlaf boosted himself into the saddle. He was more excited than the horse, his lips red as carmine and eyes brilliant. He would ride for the king and glory!

Edwin kneed his chestnut close, clapped Lintlaf on the back, and slung his cloak back to show his royal arm rings. “If you’ve ships for half of us ready to sail when we arrive, you shall have one of these, and not the least.” And Lintlaf rode into the east to wild cheering.

Every morning it was dark when they woke, dark as they struggled into the saddle, dark as they plodded along, walk, trot, walk, trot, on their tired mounts, dark even at midday when they stopped in the lee of a hill that seemed to touch a sky as heavy as the dark stones of the wall. The wind was relentless, blowing dry snow up and about them like sand, even on the leeward side of a hill. Hild looked at the hot spark and flicker of her carnelians and pretended they were coals. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d been warm. Couldn’t remember even when she’d eaten something hot. Her jaws were powerful from chewing fire-smoked meat and waybread dunked in freezing water. Ilfetu’s ribs stood out like the strakes of a ship. Her dog, Od, was the only one of the pack that didn’t look like a hound of Hel, a running skeleton with burning eyes. And they all watched her, all the time, and none came near—except, in the dark of night, and only briefly, Onnen and Cian. She had accepted the mantle of the uncanny and until the end of this journey it was her fate. It was her vision they marched to, into a future she had dreamt for them.

She rode a thin grey horse, a thin grey hound ran at the hem of her blue-grey cloak, and she sat tall, an enamel copy of a ten-year-old girl, hard and cold.

 

It was just past a large farmstead by a bridge, where they’d flung hacksilver at the farm wife and taken every last drop of her milk, all her just-cured bacon, a great wheel of cheese, and a barrel of strange-tasting ale, and still been hungry, that the rider from Tinamutha found them.

“Lord King,” he gasped as he pulled up his foaming shaggy-maned pony. “Lord Osric sent me. He is besieged at Tinamutha. Your man got through, and there are boats aplenty, but no way of sailing them past Fiachnae’s hordes at the river mouth.”

The gesiths immediately began cursing, swearing vengeance and mighty deeds. The king looked shrewish and unhappy. Hild kicked Ilfetu until he shouldered the king’s chestnut, which made the king look at her. “Bebbanburg?” she said.

Osric’s messenger gave Hild a puzzled look. Who was this child? Then he saw her eyes and the huge seax at her waist. Perhaps she was an uncanny dwarf or a wall wight.

“What of Bebbanburg?” Edwin said to the man, as though Hild had not spoken.

“Fiachnae’s main force besieges the rock. They have slaughtered all the cattle on the moors.”

“How long ago?”

“A fortnight since. No more.”

Edwin shifted in his saddle, and Hild recognised the movement; he didn’t know what to do, and as a result wondered if he was being made a game of. She backed up Ilfetu, just in case.

A look passed between the king and Lilla, and the chief gesith took the messenger’s reins in his beefy hand. At his nod, a handful of warriors loosened their swords in their sheaths. Edwin half shuttered his eyes. “Two weeks? And no boats in or out of Tinamutha?”

“No, lord.” The messenger’s mount picked up its rider’s uncertainty. It snorted and tried to back up but its way was blocked.

“Then how did news reach your lord so fast if the way by sea is blocked?”

“My lord?”

“Dere Street is a fine road, but it’s a hard ride south and west to it from Bebbanburg. And then along this road east to Tinamutha, and then back west to us.”

“My lord?”

Edwin said, “We’ll eat the horse,” and turned away.

Lilla nodded to one of the gesiths, who drew his sword and swung at the messenger’s neck where it met his shoulder. The man shrieked and spurted and fell off his horse, which tried to rear, and the dogs did the rest.

 

Excerpted from Hild © Nicola Griffith

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