Continuing the time-slip story, Can of Worms, a 16 year old girl’s rune-aided hunt for a serial-killer . . . Read on
Woden was walking across the hospital lawn. Not some imaginary Woden, conjured from an artist’s pen but the Woden I’d seen in the Rune-World, that perplexing place of swirling sea-clouds.
From Ethel to Eolhx to Cen to Rad to Os, I repeated as if a magical formula. Woden, there, had been Os—at least, that’s where I’d seen him. Yet here he was, Woden, and garbed just the same in a long shift of washed-out black linen, his straw-coloured hair cropped short. Only this time he was absent the ravens. Instead, he was enveloped by a halo, but not at all like the greenish-blue watery light I’d seen held close around Gunnhild, and chaotically fluxing about Guillan. I’d taken that misty haloing light to be characteristic of the Bellinn—though what it meant to be Bellinn I still didn’t know. But Woden’s light—prismatic, yea, that was it: a prismatic bright and perpetually breaking light, the colours dancing, all woo-woo-woo.
I stared, I don’t know for how long. Long enough to see him linger in front of the day room window. I had to go to him. I had to. But here I was in hospital issue PJs and dressing-gown. And worse, my feet slopped around in hospital slippers. Argh, I was torn. I felt a sweat sweep through me. I bit my lip deep. I needed clothes. I looked round at Madeleine.
Arvina, just by thinking, could influence the thoughts of others. I’d seen her do it with the sheriff and his reeve. Could I do that to Madeleine? But that was a Bellinn trick, and I wasn’t a Bellinn (whatever were Bellinn) for see, no light.
“Madeleine . . .” I tried to keep the obvious wheedle out of my voice. “I know I owe you for the books and stuff –” she waved that aside “– but could I ask another favour. I need clothes. I can’t always be in this dingy old gown.” The dressing-gown and PJs, though once of quality fabric, had since been laundered to thinness and drabness. “Or,” I said, thinking better of it, “might you visit the farm, go see my mother, and ask for some gear from my room? Please?”
She smiled. “I’ll see what I can do.”
Yes! I gathered the brown envelop, and the books, and skipped back to my room. Or, rather, my heart skipped while my feet tripped in the slippers.
. . .
Another dream. Again, I’m with Arvina in Failan’s hall. It’s the end of the day, the family is gathered. Arvina’s mother, Gunnhild, is coughing. But her mother never is ill. And neither is she now. Just clearing her throat, attracting attention.
“You’re wanting?” the old woman Lifa asks her.
“I’m wondering which is best at throwing knives, here?”
What . . .? The word rises from every head. Arvina squashes her laugh. Her mother certainly has their attention now.
“I want my daughter to learn how to throw knives. Accurately.”
“But she’s a . . .” Ulfkin splutters, and Arvina knows well what he’s about to say. She’s a girl.
“Why?” his father Eadkin asks—which saves Arvina the same. This is the first she’s heard of her mother’s idea.
“I believe it might be wise,” her mother says, “with my daughter now at that age, for her to have some physical form of defence.”
Arvina’s mouth drops. She knows exactly what this is about. Guillan.
“She won’t go killing any Frenchies will she?” Ulfkin says in alarm. “Only, she kills a Frenchie, she gets the entire tything charged with it. She has got that law, hasn’t she?” He looks at Arvina, more sullen than ever.
Her mother answers him, “She knows it. And I said to defend, not to kill.”
“Accidents . . .” Syllan puts in.
“Aye, and that’s why I’m asking for your men-folk to teach her. So accidents won’t happen.” To Arvina she says, I will not have a knife in your hand without the training to carry it. That lad you tackled in kemping was long in repairing.
Arvina smiles, the memory reeling from three years back. Aye, she’s especially proud of that injury inflicted. He’d been a big lad, mighty-much older than her.
But to learn to throw knives? Now thought on, aye, she could enjoy that. Though as a defence against the sheriff’s son? Fu-ssum! She’d have to be lightning-fast to thwart a Bellinn in his actions.
“Well?” her mother prompts when no one volunteer.
Quicker to put it straight in their heads, Arvina says. But these are her kin and her mother won’t have it.
It’s Eadkin who answers. “I don’t see she’s got knives. She can’t throw if she’s not got.”
Her mother Gunnhild smiles at that—and hitches her skirts to mid-calf (ever the modest nun) from where she pulls out a knife. Arvina’s are not the only eyes popping. What, the former nun carries a knife? Arvina almost laughs for the shock of it.
“This . . .” her mother holds out the knife for her to fetch “. . . is a gift, shall we call it.”
Arvina is slow in responding. She couldn’t be more surprised if a deep chasm had suddenly opened across the hall floor. And questions, so many questions. How long has her mother carried it? Did she have it when locked in that convent? How came she by it? Was it gifted her by her father, or by the cuckolded Harold? Or . . .?
Her mother answers some. “It was given me, Arvina, by your father, before ever you were born—on that day he took me from the convent.”
That makes it a precious thing, to be treasured. Le Roussel’s knife! She has nothing other of him.
“It has a sheath,” her mother says, “. . . but later.”
Arvina nods understanding. Her mother has it secured somewhere beneath her long-skirted gown.
Ulfkin takes the knife from her, her grasp weakened with awe. He weighs it. “A good thrower, this.” He sounds surprised. “See? Blade sharp one side only. And not hefted with wood or . . . Balance good, too. So, tomorrow, after chores, I shall show you.”
Ulfkin, sullen Ulfkin, is offering this? The day has become riot-full of surprises.
. . .
Ulfkin has already set the target, though not the straw-stuffed sack Arvina expected. A wood-plank, smaller than the expected sack. And neither will the knife sink in unless hard-thrown. She knows his intent, to prove women are weaklings and can’t throw a knife no more than a ball. Obviously he hasn’t heard of her kemping skills.
Her first throw thwarts his gloat. And the next. And the next. He stretches the distance tween her and the target. And her every throw hits and sticks.
“So you’ve got a strong throw,” he grunts. “But still you need practice. You’ve yet to get how to judge a distance.”
She throws another three hits—and is suddenly still, waiting for the man who’s trying to creep up on her from behind. Eadkin. She’s glad he is there. She wants to speak to him,. But not with Ulfkin listening.
He takes the knife from her.
“See that crow?” He nods to a nearby tree. He brings the crow down. “How often, you think, is the quarry a woodblock? Mostly, you’ll find them moving. You want to get to do that, bring a bird from the sky? I shall teach you.”
Arvina restrains her smile. And she hadn’t even laid it into his head.
“Also, I shall give you where on a man’s body is best to aim. To not inflict some fatal damage. The aim, so I see it, is to disarm? Wouldn’t do for you to go killing the sheriff’s son, eh?”
He laughs at her shocked recoil.
“So our sheriff’s son comes visiting here. And next we know you’re to learn throwing knives? Takes some great power of deduction, that. Yet your ma surprises me, not wanting to welcome him as a suitor. Both offspring of near-earls, you’d make a good match. Is it that you were born without a priest’s blessing?”
“But that’s not so,” she objects. “Le Roussel married my mother properly. Abbot Baldwin witnessed the deed at Saint Edmundsbury. But . . . as I hear it, then the French came.”
She knows that’s a vast compression of the facts but it serves for Eadkin. Was she to explain how young her mother when they wed—a scant nine years old? And how Le Roussel was then a guest at King Edward’s court? Then how Harold had packed her mother away into a convent to wait out the years till old enough to climb into a bed? But by then Edward had died and Harold became king, and Harold had set Gunnhild’s mother aside in favour of a political union with the Mercian dynasty. That’s when the slighted Edgiva brought Gunnhild back to Haganword—only to be fetched back to the convent by the dowager queen after the calamity at Hastings.
“Well, whether you were or whether you weren’t born of a priest’s blessing, you might go talk to old Beraht Kena, our Vidarr’s widow, now over at Felebruge. I hear she can tell some pretty tales of our sheriff and his kin. And while you’re there, you might ask her to rune-cast for you.”
“But I thought you . . .”
“Aye, I do. But I don’t cast for girls. Nah, you go see Aunt Beraht.”
“But, Lifa, hasn’t she the skill?”
He laughs. “Nay, that’s just her fierce look. Nah, you go see Aunt Beraht.”
Next episode, A Desire That Drives