Feb 14 2011 5:45pm
Kings of the North (Excerpt)
The two men were tending to the horses, Raef drawing up water from the well, Leif stooping to run his hand along the black mare’s foreleg. Neither of them was paying any attention to Laissa, and she slipped away from them into the market.
The wide village common boomed with people, haggling with the fishmongers and piemen, calling wares, arguing and yelling and laughing—crowds of children and animals. A pig had gotten loose, and two boys were whooping after it in and out of the packed shoppers. On the far side of the common, a stone church stood, and along its front porch a line of women sat with baskets of bread for sale.
She went that way. She had to find her mother; as if some blood memory warmed in her she knew she was near. For over a year now she had been hearing French spoken but never before with this accent, and this accent rang in her ears like silver bells. She had heard these voices before, a long time ago. Her heart was pounding. She was close, close, after all the years of searching she was very close.
She spoke French badly but she had memorized the words she needed, and she knew from experience to ask women. She went toward the church and the women with their bread, waited until a girl only a little older than she caught her eye, and smiled. The girl smiled back. Laissa sank down beside her. “Please. Maybe you can help me?”
The girl gave her a puzzled look. “I must have money for my bread.”
“No, I am not begging. I want—I look for my family, my home. I think I am from here, when a little child, very little. Somehow I am—was lost. I was found alone in Constantinople, many years ago.”
“Constantinople!” the girl gasped, cast a look around her at the other women, who were turning to listen. “How could this be? That’s the far side of the world. Why do you think you are from here?” Her gaze searched Laissa’s face. “But yes, I see it. You are like us, your hair, your eyes. You look Norman.”
Laissa gripped her hands together. It was all she could do to keep from throwing her arms around the other girl. “I am. I recognize the way you speak. He called me ma p’te cherie—”
“Ma cherie,” the girl repeated. All the other women were crowding around her now. Laissa’s head reeled. When the girl spoke, for the first time she heard a woman’s voice in her memory.
One of the other women murmured, “What a sad story this is! And you’ve come all this way alone?”
She slipped over that. She did not want to explain about Raef and Leif. She said, “Do you know of anyone—around the time your King Hugh is crowned—.” She had practiced this much; she knew what would fix the time for them. “Anyone who went eastward, on the pilgrimage to Jerusalem, maybe.”
They bloomed with sympathy; they gathered her in, womanly, motherlike. Someone pressed a piece of bread into her hand. “Poor thing!” Their gazes on her were lively with curiosity. “Poor girl! No mother?”
“Constantinople!” said an old woman. “The city of gold! Why did she ever leave?”
“What is your name?” someone said. “She’s not that old,” said another. “King Hugh was long ago.”
“I was very young. My name is Laissa.”
The girl she had spoken to first was shaking her head, her brow furrowed, her eyes soft with feeling. “But this is so sad. You remember nothing?”
“I remember some words,” Laissa said. “Ma petite. Ma cherie. Sacre coeur. Rawn.”
The others sighed. “Laissa. How strange. That’s not French, surely. Would that we could help you.”
“Rawn,” said a man’s voice, behind her. “That could be Rouen.”
At that a quiver went down her back; she wheeled toward him. “Rouen. Rouen.” She strained to make it sound familiar.
He smiled at her, a fair young man with red cheeks. He said, “They keep rec ords in the church. Let’s go find the priest. Maybe we could find something there.”
“Oh,” she said, almost breathless. “Would you help me?”
“Yes, of course. Come with me.”
He started off toward the church, and she followed. The women turned at once to one another, their voices rising, excited at new gossip. The young man led her down a lane beside the church, away from the market. The lane turned, following the church wall, a graveyard on the other side.
Over her head, a hawk screamed, and she looked up, startled. It was Raef’s hawk. She seldom followed them into towns. Laissa’s hands prickled up with warning, but she thrust that away. She was finding her mother. The young man ahead of her led her on. Records, names and places, written in the church, at last something solid. He turned another corner, so they were behind the church, and wheeled and grabbed her arm.
“Now,” he said, “be good to me, and then I will help you.”
She went stiff with fear. His high-colored face had changed, not smiling now, not kind, and she wrenched at his grip. “No—”
He wrapped his free arm around her and clapped his hand over her mouth. “Do as I say. If you fight I’ll tell them you came lewdly to me. They’ll have no mercy on you for that.”
She thrashed in his grasp; he shoved her against the wall, trying to hold her and at the same time get her skirts up, and then from the sky the hawk stooped at him.
He screamed. In a wild flapping of wings the hawk thrust her talons at his face, and he let go of Laissa to strike at the bird. Laissa turned and ran. At the corner of the church she glanced back and saw the hawk beating her wings, climbing up and away, and the young man swaying, dazed, his red cheeks streaming blood.
He lurched after Laissa, screaming. “Liar—Stop her—she’s a whore—she’s a witch! She did this to me—”
“No,” she cried, but she ran down the lane toward the market. Before she reached it Raef burst into the narrow way toward her, his face wild, and she flung herself into his arms.
The young man was still coming after her. “She attacked me—” His voice high, panting—“when I took her to the church—when she stepped on holy ground she turned into a demon—”
“No,” she cried, again. Raef spun around and thrust her ahead of him toward the market.
“Don’t talk. Run!”
“Pagans!” the bleeding man cried. “Stop them—they are devil spawn—”
Laissa burst out into the market, past the women selling bread, their heads all swiveling at once toward her, openmouthed. Around the market everybody was looking toward her. After her came the shriek of the bloody man.
“Get them! Stone them! For Jesus’s sake fight the evil!”
Leif surged up before her, mounted on the bay horse, leading the mare by the bridle. Half a step behind her, Raef got her arm and boosted her onto the black mare’s saddle. “Go!” A stone caromed off the horse’s flank, and it bolted.
Laissa almost fell off. She dug her fingers into the mane, her feet kicking frantically for the stirrups. Leif had her reins. He led her at a gallop across the crowded market. People scattered out of their way, but now the cry came from all sides.
“Pagans! Stone them—”
She clutched the mane, her breath sobbing through her teeth; and Leif led her at a dead gallop out of the village.
* * *
The road led them northwest, and, only a few miles later, they reached the edge of the sea.
Leif wrestled the horses to a stop at the lip of a little grassy bluff. The pale sandy beach swept away down to the water. The wind blew the tang of salt and seaweed straight into their faces. Raef jogged up beside them, panting from the hard run. When he saw the water he cried out and went down onto the beach and stood there, staring out to sea, the wind lashing his cloak and his long hair.
Leif twisted to look behind them. “They’re still coming.”
Laissa glanced over her shoulder. A crowd of men was struggling along the road half a mile behind them. Even from here she could see the blood on the face of the man leading them. Her heart hammered. He had turned the sin on her. To save himself he was damning her. Overhead the hawk screamed again.
Laissa looked up. In the sky the hawk was struggling to reach them, fighting the wind, circling higher and then tumbling down the wild air. On the beach, Raef turned and held up his arms, and she fell toward him. As she fell she seemed to stretch, a long ragged russet robe of feathers.
Leif said, “We have to get out of here.” But he dismounted and helped Laissa slide off her saddle so they stood in the lee of the bluff. He put his arm around her. Raef came toward them, his cloak folded around the hawk.
He came in among them and drew the cloak back. Where the hawk had been was an old, old woman in a russet gown, her eyes huge and fierce, her nose like a beak.
She was tired. There was blood on her mouth, and she leaned on Raef as if she could not stand without him. Laissa had seldom seen her in this, her real form; the girl lowered her eyes, shy, murmured “my lady,” and bowed. Leif backed away and went down on one knee.
“Raef,” he said, “they are still after us.”
“They don’t matter.” He drew the cloak around the old woman again, holding her against him. “Gunnhild. England is just beyond this water. We are almost there.”
Gunnhild laid her head against his chest and shut her eyes. “You must go on without me. I am done.”
“Did he hurt you? I’ll kill him.”
“No, no,” the old woman said. “This is my ending, long foretold. I dare go no closer to her. Already I can feel her power.”
Raef said, “Who? Whose power? You only said we had to go to England.”
“You must. Because of her, the other, the enemy. The thief of souls. Who has no name in this world or maybe anywhere else.” Her eyes closed. “You know who she is. You were born in her house.”
Raef let go an explosion of breath. “The Lady of Hedeby.” Beside Laissa, Leif shaped his fingers into a sign against evil. Raef said, “But Corban destroyed her.”
“No—Corban and his sister and his wife only bound her. This is my fault, son of my soul, curse me for it if you want, but you must make it right.”
“I have never told you this—I feared your anger. I deserve it. You remember when I left you years ago in Denmark, after King Bluetooth died. I went to Hedeby, where she was bound, and I freed her. She must have a woman’s body to inhabit, and I gave her mine. I thought to hitch her power to me, you see, and become great again thereby. But I miscalculated. She is much greater than I, and she would have consumed me. She may consume the world. This much I know—you can stop her. Somehow, if you can get to Jorvik, you can defeat her. And so I went and found you and brought you this far. But now I am done.”
Laissa turned her head; even with the wind in her face she could hear now the cry of the mob. She turned back toward Gunnhild, who mattered more than that. Leif tightened his arm around her. “We’ve got to get moving, Raef.”
Gunnhild said, “One last thing I can do. Howe me.”
Raef leaned over her, sheltering her in the hollow of his arm, his cheek against her hair. “I won’t let you die.”
“Obey me, damn you, Raef!” Her face quivered. She seemed thinner, as if she were fading into the air. Laissa whimpered. Gunnhild said, “Remember what I taught you. Howe me here, now.”
He lifted his head, his gaze on Laissa and Leif, standing there, watching him. The grief harrowed his face. He said, “Help me.” He bent and lifted the old woman’s body in his arms, carry - ing her like a child down onto the beach.
* * *
He wrapped Gunnhild in his cloak. He laid her on her back on the sand, with her head toward the north—where the North Star would shine when the night came—and drew the edge of the cloak over her face. He put his long knife at her right hand, because she was a warrior. He set the last of his money at her feet, a cup and a hunk of bread there also, to keep her on her journey. Finally, he cut off a piece of his hair and twisted it into a knot and put it inside the cloak above her breast.
Laissa and Leif brought the horses down after him and helped him gather stones, and quickly they laid them around her in lines that came to a point at each end, the bow and stern of the ship that would carry her home. As they finished this the fair young man and his mob panted up onto the edge of the sea bluff behind them.
Laissa and Leif shrank back away from the mob, almost to the water’s edge. The sun was setting. Raef kneeled by the old woman’s body. He could not bear to cover her. The young man was shouting at him. Raef ignored this; with his hands he began to heap the sand onto Gunnhild’s body.
The bleeding man cried, triumphant, “You see—I told you—see what they do? They are evil—stone them to death!” Raef ignored him, piling the sand up into a mound over her. Down, at the edge of the shore, the sea growled up a white froth. He knew this was not the broad ocean, but it was close enough. If he stopped working even a moment, his grief and terror drove sharp into the center of him.
“God, strike them down. God, give us the honor of killing them in your name!”
Someone in the crowd had cobbled together a torch and lit it as the darkness fell, and the light flickered out over the beach, cast Raef’s shadow down toward the sea. He put stones onto the howe. He set them down gently, to keep from hurting her. He wished he could cut out the stone of his heart and lay it there with her. He went down toward the beach, looking for more rocks.
The mob rushed forward toward the mound. The young man cried, “Get them—as we are Christians, we must stand for our faith—God will not forgive us if we let them go!”
Leif called, “Raef, someone else is coming.”
From the mob came a pelting of stones. Raef faced them, angry, getting between them and the howe; a rock glanced off his shoulder. Several horse men were galloping down the beach from the north. The mob swarmed toward Raef, the torch blazing overhead, the young man howling as he came in an ecstasy of righteousness.
“Heretic! Devil’s spawn—”
“This is no matter of yours, or your god,” Raef said. “Why don’t you leave us alone?”
“You admit it,” the young man cried. The crowd gave up a huge yell.
“Kill them! Kill them all!” The young man lifted his two hands and formed a cross of his forefingers and thrust them toward Raef, and the torchlight cast the shape out over the howe.
The howe exploded. For an instant it shone bright as the sun. Raef felt the blast against his back and saw the white blaze glare across the beach; he felt the fire pierce him through and through. The young man tumbled backward, his arms over his face. The rest lurched away, screaming, and many ran and many fell down and all prayed. Down the beach, the oncoming horses skidded to a stop, neighing and rearing.
As the light faded, one rider forced his frenzied mount up toward Raef. His voice thundered with authority. “What is this? What just happened? Who are you?”
The dark closed down on them. Raef could make out the big man’s form, the horse still jumping and snorting under him, its eyes white. “I am Raef Corbansson. Who are you?”
“My lord.” The young man struggled up to his feet, his gaze on the first horse man. “Thank God you have come. These are heretics—they have made this heathen altar—” He staggered forward, his arm thrust toward Raef. “Take them!”
Raef folded his arms over his chest, looking up at the horse - man. The rider glanced at the young man, took his foot from his stirrup, put it on the man’s chest, and kicked him flat to the sand. To Raef, he said, “I am the Duke of Normandy, and nothing happens here save I permit it.” He turned his gaze on the howe. “This is a grave. A Viking grave. Whom have you buried?”
“The Queen of Norway,” Raef said. “I obeyed her wish, which is higher to me than anything of yours.”
The horse man stared at him a moment, silent. The mob had mostly vanished. The young man crawled off into the grass on the bluff. Finally the Norman lord said, “I have never heard of you.” He turned, waving toward his horse men, clustered a good distance away down the beach. “Come with me while I think about this.”
Raef glanced at Leif and Laissa, off by the surf. The mob was gone. Gunnhild had saved them again, one last time. He looked back at the man looming over him and shrugged one shoulder.
“Very well. There’s nothing more to do here. I will go with you.”
* * *
Richard FitzRichard liked to call himself the Duke of Normandy, which sounded loftier than just count. He had some vague idea it was Latin. He would have preferred to call himself king, but the French king claimed suzerainty over Normandy from old times, and Richard could not deny what had been sworn, even though this king was not the man or even the grandson of the man it had been sworn to.
In fact Richard was master over all Normandy, and no one was master over him, no matter what had just happened on his beach. The Queen of Norway, he thought, and some words of an old tale rose into his mind. He had heard the name Corbansson before too, with a different forename.
What this Corbansson had done, back there on the beach, the old Normans would have understood. Richard’s father would have understood, who had favored Vikings above all others. The present Richard rode over the bluff, his men coming after him, and the tall stranger with the long white hair walking beside him, his two followers on their horses just behind.
Nonetheless, Richard was supposed to be a Christian, and this would not sit well with the Christians, especially the King of France. He said, “You are not staying here within my country.” The tall man walked beside him, keeping up effortlessly with the long-striding horse. “I am going to England.”
“Ah.” Suddenly Richard’s interest sharpened. He glanced at the man beside him, the homely face, the pale hair hanging in its matted braids almost to his waist. “Why?”
The tall man shrugged and said nothing. They were riding away from the beach, along the road that wound north. In the dark the broad country spread around them, picked out here and there with the faint lights of home fires. Richard said, “You are Ethelred’s man?”
Corbansson gave him a brief sideways glance. “I am no one’s man. Is Ethelred Edgarsson then still King of the English?”
“Yes. My sister is his queen.” Richard remembered something else. “I have heard this name before—Corbansson. Together with Sweyn Forkbeard’s.”
“I pulled an oar once for Sweyn Tjugas,” the tall man said. “I have not seen him in a dozen years or more.”
Richard frowned. He wondered if mere chance brought this Viking with the strange name here now, on his way to England. For a long time Richard had been playing his own game in En - gland, in which marrying his sister Emma to Ethelred had been a key move. Between him and Sweyn Forkbeard, the King of Denmark, and Ethelred, the King of the English, there had grown a dense, constantly shifting web of ambition that many would-be spiders danced upon. Emma had been more use in this than he had expected. He wondered if the white-haired stranger was a spider or a fly.
In any case it did no harm to help him along. He lifted one arm and pointed.
“Yonder is my hall, where I am stopping now. You are going on your way. Here.” He took a ring from his finger and held it out. “Show this to anyone who bars you or anywhere you need help. Go north on this road and in three days’ time you will come to Sainte-Valerie. There you will likely find a ship to take you to England.”
The tall man took the ring, “Thank you.” Even in the dark Richard saw the piercing attention of his look. He had the sudden sensation that the tall man was looking straight through his eyes into his mind.
“I need no thanks. I am getting you out of here. Give the ring to the priest at the Church of the Sacred Heart in Sainte-Valerie.” Richard lifted his arm. “Farewell.” He swung his horse around and galloped off toward a distant cluster of lights, glad to be getting away from this.
* * *
They walked along the road awhile, in the dark, until they came to a stone barn. There was nothing inside but old straw, and Leif and Laissa flopped down on that and were asleep almost at once. Raef went to the other side of the barn and sat down.
Remember what I taught you.
Nothing. A handful of chants and phrases. “You won’t need these after a while,” she had said. “When you’re used to it.” He had never gotten used to it.
Part of it was the way he had always been. He had always felt laid open, exposed, as if his body were inside out, his nerves on the outside, stretching into the world. He had always known more than he should. Often he could tell what the people near him were thinking, what the land around him was shaped like. Gunnhild had said, “Yes. You have your mother’s gift, her widemindedness. And you were born of an act that shattered her body, so you were more of her mind than her body.” Then she taught him another mysterious rhyme, which did nothing.
She had tried over and over to teach him how to leave his body behind, to follow his nerves outward into the world. “You can do this!” He couldn’t. Finally she slapped him, shouted, “You are such a coward, Raef!” and walked off. A moment later, astonished, he found himself floating along beside her, in a strange blue twilight where she seemed almost transparent, his own body lying slack and empty on the floor behind him.
Now she would teach him nothing more.
He sat in the dark, longing for her. Across the wide barn Leif began his whistling snore. Raef thought of going over there and rolling the fat man over or stuffing something into his mouth. Instead he closed his eyes and let his mind drift.
He could stretch out some little way without even leaving his body. His senses grazed over Laissa; he had wanted to lay her under him for a long while now, but he had known her first as a child, and she had grown up day by day before him, so he still thought of her as a child. In the past sometimes when he dealt with women that way, they gained some momentary power over him, and he was wary of that also. When she was deep in sleep he spread his mind down on her, covering her from head to foot, and she moved, opening, her lips parting. She did not waken, but her hand slid down between her legs. He felt, in her belly, a rising lust.
Let her dream. He let go, his mind drifting past her, his body behind him now. Across the cold meadow and the horses grazing, through rows of trees and another hall, where men lay sleeping, mounds of dense, bloody, sweating flesh. The cold air was blue under the rising moon. The air tasted of grapes and lime. Like a wave in an ocean of light he flowed on past the wall, in all directions, through peasants in their huts with their sheep and goats beside them, their heads on their pigs, past haywains, sleeping cattle, a fox trotting down a road with a chicken in its jaws. A monk praying among monks sleeping. In the other direction, he lapped up against the rock mound, where he had left Gunnhild.
She was gone. He knew that at once, drifting through the piled stones. But even as he knew that, he felt something coming over the misty sea toward him, and he caught a stiff of something more horrible even than the stink of death.
The reek panicked him; instead of pulling his mind back into his body he let his whole awareness flow to that one place, beside Gunnhild’s empty grave. Like a child running to its mother. As if she could still help him. Out over the sea, through the milky moonlight, rushed something churning and filthy like a foul smoke. He could not make it out. It seemed either to have no form or size or to be many forms and sizes, changing faster than he could see. Yet he could see it even in the dark, somehow.
He turned and fled in a blind terror, trying to get out of her way. She stopped behind him at the grave. The rocks and sand flew up and around in a fury, a whirling wind in the center. She was looking for Gunnhild. He forced himself to face her.
Before him was only a prickling in the air, a whirling, and then a shriek so loud it pierced his head like a lance. He shouted back to make another noise, to be there. He shouted his name at her. She swarmed at him, a swirling filthy mist with claws.
She needs a female body. He thought, Maybe she cannot hurt a man. Testing this he ran straight ahead, into the choking awful crackling miasma.
The thick gritty air battered him from all sides, up and down, like huge fists. He whirled helplessly in a black and terrible mist; his mind stretched toward some limit, some safety, and found nothing, nothing.
The call came from somewhere outside and roused him. He clutched at that, who he was: himself.
All around the mist burned, hotter than fire, searing his lungs, his eyes boiling.
He had failed already.
raef, he thought, raef, raef, raef
he held to that last flicker
* * *
The sun was rising. Leif got up; they had brought in their saddles and packs and he got some bread, drank from the rain barrel at the corner of the barn, and sat down on the threshold. The horses were grazing nearby. The new sun felt good. Across the stretch of grass a strange man was walking toward him.
“You!” This stranger called. He spoke a kind of Frenchified dansker, like many of the Normans. “What are you doing here?”
Leif did not stand up. He knew of the duke’s ring, and he had no fear of this farmer. He said, “We’re only passing the night. We’ll be gone as soon as my friends wake up.”
The farmer stuck his hands on his hips. “Be gone now, or I’ll call my men.”
Leif suspected there weren’t too many of these men. He said, “The Duke of Normandy gave us word. I can fetch the ring he gave us, if you want.”
The farmer’s face altered slightly at the name of his lord. His eyes pushed past Leif into the barn; he started forward, and Leif swung his arm out to bar him.
“They’re still asleep.” This was true of Laissa, but he wasn’t sure what to call what Raef was doing. He could see Raef from here, sitting on the straw, staring into space, as if he had gone somewhere else entirely. Leif had called to him, when he himself woke up, and had gotten not a flicker of attention, and he knew better than to press it. The farmer’s mouth was working, uncertain.
“We’ll start on the road before too long,” Leif said to him. “We’ve done nothing to harm you.”
“My lord the duke sent you?” The farmer crossed himself.
“He gave us a token, if you need to see it.” Leif glanced over his shoulder. Laissa was awake, was rising up from the packed straw in the dim space and stretching her arms. Leif stood up, to keep the Norman farmer from being able to see her; as she grew and her body rounded, he imagined that every man wanted her. He saw them all seizing her, and he remembered what she had been, before. He looked back over his shoulder again, wondering where the ring was. The new sunlight spilled into the room behind him, and she turned toward him and smiled. Raef still sat motionless on the other side of the room. Probably he had the ring. Laissa turned toward him. “Raef.”
“Leave him be,” Leif said. “He’s dreaming again. He hates being wakened.”
The farmer said, “These are your horses? Only two?”
“My friend prefers to walk.”
Laissa stood, her head turning toward the door, and then looked back at Raef. Leif said, “Don’t worry, he’ll come to soon; he doesn’t do this much in the daytime. Laissa, come on and eat something.”
She was standing there, but she was looking at Raef, not at him. She went across the room to the other bench, sat before Raef, and looked into his blue eyes.
“Raef,” she said, again, and leaning forward gripped his shoulders, and then she cocked one arm back and slapped him. Leif gave a startled grunt. The farmer signed himself again. Raef jumped almost clear off the bench, still cross-legged, his skin flushing all over, his whole body knotting up, and his long arms reached out and caught hold of her. He was jerking and thrashing, as if in some kind of fit, and Laissa in a panic clawed at his hands on her arms, trying to fight out of his grasp. Leif rushed to help her, but before he reached her the fit suddenly ended, and Raef sat still on the straw, his hands biting Laissa’s arms, his wide blue eyes blinking, his breath sobbing in his throat.
His hands opened. She reeled backward from him, her hands on her upper arms where he had held her. Leif took a step and was between them, a hot churning anger in his liver. Raef put his hand to his face. He said, “We have to get out of here.”
Leif said, his voice stiff, “Then let’s go.”
Raef rose and went out the door; he gave the farmer an incurious glance and went to the rain barrel at the corner. Leif saw the farmer’s eyes slide down to Raef’s hand, to the heavy ring on his finger, and again the Norman signed himself, and he backed away. Raef scooped cold water into his hands and splashed it over his face.
Laissa came out, and Leif turned toward her. She stood there, her jaw hanging open, her eyes stunned. Her hands lay on her arms, but he could see the bruises already darkening her skin. Over by the wall Raef bent to drink from the barrel, ignoring them, as if he had not just savaged her. A hot reproach bubbled up in Leif’s throat, but he could not bring it out. The farmer turned suddenly and went away. Leif went out to catch the horses.
Copyright © 2010 by Cecelia Holland