Day-set and beyond, and Hrafn Hauksson hasn’t yet kept to his word. Arvina blames Geirri, her father’s trusted steward here at Oddessey Chase. He had followed them into the odd gate-straddling hall, almost snapping at their heels. And when Hrafn said of taking them into Tree Brunna, Geirri refused him.
“What? Snatch Lady Gunnhild and her daughter away from my hall without first we extend hospitality?”
“But Aunt Mæru says to . . .”
Is this Hrafn—dark eyed, dark haired—really a high nock Bellinn? Yet he defers to his uncle and his uncle’s wife, and they mere mortals. That uncle’s wife, Aunt Mæru, is full in a tizzy: “They must be gone from our hall, they must. If any should see them . . .”
“None will see them,” Geirri Oddsson told her. “Not while Hrafn is here.” And he ordered Arvina and her mother to sit and to sup and to break bread with them. Aye and sure, Arvina would fain that than to be moving again. The sun had been little advanced when she had last eaten.
But now, with night full around them, they must leave their hall and go to Tree Brunna. Wherever that is.
. . .
They don’t leave the garth, but follow a track that leads deeper into it. There is no moon—it’s due to rise later—yet they can see their way well for Hrafn’s light. Whether a high nock or low, a Bellinn’s light will respond to the thrum of emotions. Yet being a high nock, Hrafn’s control of this exuded luminescence is greater than either Arvina’s or her mother’s. Even so, it seems a strange time to travel. And how far must they go? Is it a solid walk, with no horses, no cart? Where exactly is this ‘Tree Brunna’?
It is here, says a voice—Hrafn’s—inside Arvina’s head. Or what is left of it. In the days of the haugs it spread from the Renegale-Wentsum to the Tais and the Garen, beyond.
The Tais and the Garen are rivers familiar to her. But the Renegale-Wentsum?
He leads them along a scarce-used track, the encroaching grasses spreading their runners around its gravel-ish stones. It follows the silent Linn, but a short distance from it. Around them lies the deer-cropped graze-land. A hall—smaller than the ones by the gate yet too big for a cottar’s dwelling—shows as a darkness against the dark trees. As they pass it, Hrafn’s light catches and teases a riot of carvings.
If the carvings on the Oddssons’ hall at the gate had wrought surprise, these, here. warranted awe. She hears her mother’s part-breathed comment: Heathen.
Aye, heathen, and they cover the wall, entirely. With scarcely a slow to her step, yet Arvina catches intriguing glimpses of intertwined beings—an antlered man, cross-legged amongst contorted beasts—real beasts, beasts of the chase. A deer stands startled. A furtive wolf stalks him. She sees a bear and a fox, a hare and a weasel. She sees hawks—hawks everywhere. And there, a woman naked, her body swarming with birds and berries and nuts and flowers. Hrafn not waiting, walking steadily, his light moving on, the beasts and the gods fade again into darkness. Arvina would stop here to fully examine but dares not be left behind, alone in the dark of the garth.
They cross the river, the Linn, by a flat bridge. The boards creak as they tread them. There’s a strong smell of fish held on the mist-thickened air.
“If Tree Brunna is here . . .?” she starts to say, but doesn’t know the question to ask and her voice sounds unwanted in the dark. She wants to know if Tree Brunna’s an Eldsland, like the one in the north where Zelina rules.
An Eldsland, aye—it is all around us, Hrafn says in her head. But there’s a trick to seeing it. First you must break the common world’s hold of your senses.
And apparently that requires them to walk a long path. Only the garth isn’t that long, and so it seems they must spiral around. See, here again they cross the Linn. Again, the worn planks of the bridge that protest their crossing. An owl hoots as if in return and then is answered by another. Its mate? In the water, disturbed by their treading, lit by their lights, shoals of silver fish frantically dart.
In the hallowing silence, a bark of a beast strikes Arvina’s heart, as if clanging on stone.
A fox, her mother says. And you’re the one who would venture to sea in a keel?
Woodland closes around them. Were it not for Hrafn’s light she’d not enter here. The trees’ sturdy trunks are lit, not lit, lit, not lit as they pass them. Ghoulish faces appear. Everywhere around them, unnameable sounds. She seems ever startled by every odd one of them. Her every breath is tainted with the reek of last season’s leaves, decaying. More-one, she thinks there might be something other . . . putrefying.
The lady Arvina is too long amongst men, Hrafn says, sounding amused. Here, death succours the burgeoning life.
A meadow opens out from the woodland . . . she’d fain walk there than in this wooded darkness. There the thickly grown grasses sparkle with elfin tears caught in Hrafn’s silvery light. Yellow flowers—kingcups, flags and vetchlings—make sudden shows in the greyness.
She wonders, again, how long it takes for the common world to release its hold of them. She swears it’ll be the old of the night before they’re there.
Her mother breaks her silence to tell her: Your brother Edmund was conceived by here.
By here, where?
By that well.
With careful listening she hears the burbling water, though still doesn’t see it. But she thinks on what her mother has said. And did I need to know that?
Her mother retreats into her silence, her light held sheathingly close. She’d not held it that tight before; it was Arvina slighting her. She ought to apologise. What memories is this place stirring in her? Memories of her beloved, Le Roussel. But it’s not something Arvina can begin to imagine.
Around the well, she just can discern, a willow and two ash-trees heavily hung with ancient tatters of cloth. Prayers for fertility. Aye, an apt place for her parents to . . . ‘make merry’. Arvina shudders at the thought. And hears a howl.
There are wolves in this garth? But there can’t be, not with the deer. It’s the garth-keeper’s duty to ward them—and Hrafn, if she’s understood rightly, is that same garth-keeper, its healdman, (though he has said he merely serves his father, Hawk Oddsson).
He leads them over the well’s overspill that trickles and swells and becomes a stream. He leads them through rushes, through hazels, their rough leaves brushing, twixt willows and ferns and . . .
There before them . . . “Regin-yorl’s hall,” says Hrafn.
. . .
“And who is Regin-yorl?” Arvina asks even while her eyes feast on the veritable village of Dane-made longhouses, each with its own enfenced yard, that stretches from hall almost down to the river.
And what is that? Beside two steep mounds—are they haugs?—rises a sky-scratching pole topped by . . . is that a wheel? And in the same ill-defined enclosure . . . she guesses that’s not a church. A temple?
“Regin-yorl,” says Hrafn, “is lord this east side of England. This country your ancestors called Danelaw. Or, I should say, he is again lord now that Zemowit has left us. This hall is . . . it’s his favourite amongst his many.”
“Because of your mother?” Arvina’s mother asks him. There’s obviously much here that Arvina doesn’t know.
“You know of that?” Hrafn answers her, though it’s not quite a question.
“You much resemble Ragen Jarl,” her mother says.
“Would someone like to tell me . . .” Arvina interrupts them. “I mean, what’s this about?”
It is about us, sounds a voice in Arvina’s head. It could be Hrafn’s yet she knows that it’s not.
The hall door opens. Light, blindingly bright, streams out, illuming the plank bridge that crosses a dry moat. Two beasts stand guard of that door—giant carvings of wood, realistically painted, a bear and a wolf; though impossible they seem to be moving. From within—Arvina grins—music. Women singing in rounds. And drums. DRUMS! And the rhythmic thud of people dancing.
Arvina can hardly contain her joy. What cares she where she is, and who this Ragen Jarl might be. Here she can dance. Here, again, she can be alive.
A man, full at ease, saunters through that door, his dark blue ankle-length coat heavy around the hem with deep-red embroidery and gold-thread laid-work. Though Arvina catches only part-glimpses of the design, she can make it out to be elongated, stylised horses. But, nah, she’s wrong. Not horses. Wide-horned cattle. Six armed men follow him out, to spread around him. Not all have the familiar flowing bluey-green light of a Silver Fold. One is Flame Fold (as is Hegrea); one is Crystal. But Silver, Flame or Crystal, they all bear the same badge. That same wide-horned bull.
This man in his dark blue ankle-length coat—looking remarkably similar to Hrafn Hauksson in every particular—fixes on Arvina’s interest in his badged men. “My Stoats,” he tells her. “But do not fret your head of them.”
Inside the hall, the music and singing has stopped. Colour-decked Bellinn crowd out behind the Stoats, straining to see past them. Straining to see her and her mother.
“I welcome you, Lady Gunnhild, and Lady Arvina,” says this Ragen Jarl, “to Tree Brunna. I invite you in. It is to our honour that you visit, though you are not of our kin.”
He turns then to speak to Hrafn—surely his brother? “Those people following? Dealt with? I will not have our bounds broken by death-fraught mortals.”
What people following? Arvina looks to Hrafn.
“The sheriff,” he says. “But he lost your trail soon after you entered Lord Richemont’s lands.”
She grimaces, head abuzz. “Seems things are happening here I know nothing about.”
And to compound her bewilderment, a lyrical voice calls from within, “My sons, will you hold Lord Richemont’s kin at arm’s length for a year and a day? If you’re to invite them in then, by all that’s rich in heaven, open your ranks and allow them.”
Cesar? her mother gasps. But, an Asar, she should be gone at the Atonement.
Next episode, Togrim