Spirit of the Forest Cold
Rolf had been threatened with a beating for giving a loaf of bread to the condemned woman. They had brought her in a cage and put her in the city square that morning. Frail, thin, dressed in a short smock, she sat in the cage and endured the torments of the children in the settlement. They threw stones and poked at her with sticks. Someone mentioned she had not been given food during the week’s imprisonment prior to her execution. After breakfast, the children (boys mostly) brought bread and held it out in front of her. She reached to try to grab it with her thin arms and skinny hands, but the boys adroitly pulled it away, laughed, and ate it front of her, smacking their lips and chewing with their mouths open. She wailed in despair and beat her fists on the wooden floor of her cage.
Something about how they were treating her angered Rolf. He never thought of himself as particularly kind, but he remembered when his mother died. He was six. She had born a child but died of the fever women often get after childbearing. He remembered her anguish. She was in pain, but the greater agony was that she would leave her family and her children—and her newborn daughter, Gretchen. He had understood as much even at six years old. As he stood in the cold mud of early spring, his heart ached for the wretched woman who would hang in only a couple of hours. The day his mother died he had vowed he would always care for Gretchen, his sister. The woman in the barred cage somehow reminded him of her.
When the boys he had grown up with tired of tormenting her and went away, calling him to join them, he came up to the cage.
She lay on the filthy wooden floor crying. She looked as if she might break if you even touched her. Her knees were bloody from her being on all fours (she did not have room to stand up in the cage). He smelled filth and urine and knew she had to do her functions there then lie in and smell her own filth. He came closer.
She saw him, made a noise that was half a gasp and half a scream, and pushed herself back to a corner of the cage. Perhaps, he thought, she was afraid he would poke her with a stick. He held out the remainder of his morning bread—half of a substantial loaf, fresh-baked, its fragrance wonderful amid the smells of discharge, mud, and her unwashed body. He held it up.
Her eyes, hollow and terrified, fell on the bread. He had never thought a person’s eyes could look like they wanted to eat, but hers did. She looked up at him, thinking he meant to torment her. He pushed the loaf between the bars.
“No,” he said, “I’m not tormenting you. This is yours. I want you to have it.”
She still looked doubtful. Suddenly she lurched forward and made to snatch the loaf away but then slowed and took it in one easy, even movement. Rolf backed up a step. She opened her mouth to devour the food, but, again, stopped. She leveled her washed-out, exhausted gaze at him.
“Thank you,” she said, her voice small. “You are a kind young man.”
He only nodded. She began to eat the bread, taking small bites and chewing them well. She had just finished it when a strong, rough hand camped on Rolf’s shoulder. He looked up. Towering over him was Vorthr.
“You little shit,” he growled. “You gave her food!” He let go of Rolf’s shoulder and drew back his arm to strike him. Rolf adroitly dodged the blow and sprinted away. Vorthr, who was burly and slow-footed, tried to catch him but gave up after a short sprint. “You’ll answer for this,” he said, shaking his fist. “I’ll tell Horst and he’ll beat you to within an inch of your life!”
Rolf ran home. His father and two uncles were there as well as Gretchen, his three half-brothers, and one half-sister—and his step-mother. He wondered why they were here and not out hunting or tending the garden and fields. Then he remembered the execution.
“Rolf, you’re dirty as a pig,” his step-mother said. “Go wash. The hanging is in an hour and I will not have you parading before the whole village looking like a mud puppy.” She gave him a cloth and a basin of warm water. “Shout when you’re finished and I’ll bring you clean clothes.”
He went out behind the house. Rolf liked his step-mother, Helg. She was nice—a little nicer, he had to admit, than his birth mother had been. He took the water and the cloth, which had a cake of soap wrapped in it, stripped down, and washed. When he had finished and dried himself, he called her. She brought him trousers, a shirt, and boots.
“Do I have to wear boots?” he grumbled.
“The whole of our clan will be there. Your feet could be stepped on a hundred times. Put them on.”
“Why are they going to kill the woman, Mother?” he asked.
“She did a vile deed.”
“She joined her body to the body of a man who was not her husband. That is a sin. They fled. His family caught them. The man was killed, the woman will die today.”
“She seems”—he did not want to say “nice”—instead he said, “young.”
“She is hardly more than a child. It is a great pity, but she must suffer what the law requires.”
“They didn’t give her any food.”
She caught the look in his eyes, knelt, and took his hands.
“I think that was cruel, but the deed she did was vile. When she did it, she banished herself from the kinship of our tribe. I feel pity for her, but justice must be served. Now get your other boot on and come into the house. It’s almost time to go.”
Inside, his father and uncles had gotten out cudgels. He wondered what they were for. When a blast from the ram’s horn came, his sizeable family walked to the village square.
The whole community—all six villages that made up their extended clan—were there. He had never seen so many people in his life. They stood in a double line up and down the square that served on other days as a market. The men carried clubs. Two of his friends ran up to him and handled him pebbles.
“These are to throw at the whore when she walks the gauntlet,” one of them said. He rolled the small stones in his hand. “The chieftains say we can’t use stones bigger than this. Come on.”
He and the others slipped through the crowd and found a niche in front of a group of men. The crowd murmured ominously. After a moment, they brought out the cage and opened it.
The woman staggered out, took a few steps, and fell. She could hardly walk for being closed up in a small space for so long. The two men guarding her, Beorn and Alric, pulled her roughly to standing. She walked forward with a wobbly motion and then, seeing the crowd, stopped, her eyes wide with fear, mouth open, the fingers of her hands spread wide. Beorn poked her with a spear. She winced and began to walk unsteadily forward.
She went perhaps twenty feet before the crowd began to inflict harms on her. Boys and girls threw stones and mud. She covered her head. Some of the men hit her with sticks or cudgels. She screamed as she tried to dodge the blows. Twice she fell and was pulled to her feet. Once she staggered sideways and received vicious blows from some of the young men there to watch her die. She stumbled on until she came to the end where the noose waited her. Blood ran from her mouth and nose. Her thin arms were covered with welts and bruises. Her knees bled. Her feet were black with mud. Rolf wondered if she even knew what was happening. She stared out with blank eyes and then coughed up clots of blood that splattered on the front of her filthy smock. She could hardly stand. Alric tied her hands. Horst held her up as Alric tightened the noose. They both pulled on the rope and hoisted her. She died instantly. She did not even “dance,” Rolf remembered. He heard her neck snap like a dry twig.
Law required she hang till sunset. When the shadows were long, the people gathered outside of town. The magistrates had cut the rope but not removed it from around her neck. They left her hands tied and carried her body to the peat bog where murderers, thieves, and blasphemers were thrown. It was an unclean place, but to bury the body of a sinner would befoul the land, so she was not given a place amid the graves of the clan. Horst tied a heavy stone around her neck and four men tossed her, and the stone, into the dark brown water of the bog. That was the end of it.
At home that evening all of them were quiet. His mother and sisters knitted by the light of the hearth. His father and uncles drank but did not speak or sing; the uncles left when the moon appeared. He and his brothers played draughts but no one slapped the stones or cried out at a win. Finally his father rose and called the family together. They stood and recited a prayer to Odin and Freya and then went to their spots in the house to sleep. He and his step-brothers whispered about the execution until their father growled at them.
Rolf drifted to sleep. In his dreams, he saw her, but not as she had been at the execution. He saw her in a white dress and barefoot in the snow. She looked beautiful—no marks, wounds, or blood. She appeared cheerful and merry, like one of the maidens who served in Odin’s house and were solemn when he was near but smiled and made jests when their master was away. She put out her hands to him. He took them. They were cold.
“You are a very kind young man,” she said—the same thing she had said to him when he gave her the bread, but it was different. She was not abject and broken. Her eyes radiated joy and life. “Thank you.”
“What is your name?” he asked.
“Mathilda,” she replied.
As he held her hands, his body grew cold, yet it was unlike any he had known growing up in the northern lands with their long winters. It invigorated him and sharpened his senses. Finally she smiled and kissed him. Her lips, unlike her hand, were warm. He woke up to the stirrings of the house. His step-mother was cooking. His sisters were saying the benedictions to Freya. His father had just gone out to relieve himself. Rolf lay there, thinking of the lovely vision he had seen while sleeping.
As they sat down to supper the next night, Gundren said, “I think they should have given Mathilda a decent burial.”
Silence came. All eyes turned to the parents, who sat together on the west side of the war as custom dictated.”
“Eat your supper,” Helg said.
“No,” their father put in. “She is right. Throwing her in the peat bog was not a good thing to do. What she did was not a crime that called for defilement of her body. She was not a criminal—not a murderer or traitor. She was a foolish girl who let her buns get hot. That isn’t a crime that deserves defilement. They should have at least given her a proper resting place, even if it was away from the graves of our ancestors. She will return as a troll or a malicious spirit to punish us.”
“Her name was Mathilda?” Rolf asked.
“Yes,” Helg said evenly. “She was a very distant relative of my family; from another village. I only met her once in my life. The magistrates made an error, perhaps by throwing her in the bog, but we must not question their decision. If it was wrong, they will suffer for it.”
His father grunted. That settled the matter. The conversation went elsewhere. Rolf hardly tasted his food. It had not been a dream. It had been a visitation by her spirit. She had come to him through the corridors of sleep. How else could he have known her name? Some said dreams were only memories left from the day before, but he had no memory of ever hearing her name. She had not told it to him and no one else had mentioned it. He wondered what the visitation might mean.
He did not see her in his dreams again. Spring turned to summer. The gods blessed them. Their fields and gardens produced abundantly, as did their pigs and barnyard fowl. They hunted and killed deer, dried the meat and stored it, dried fruit, put away vegetables. Rolf’s father trained him in the art of war and complimented him on his progress. In the fall there was an abundant grain harvest, and feasting and rejoicing for the entire clan. As it turned out, they would sorely need the abundance they had stored away.
The snows came early that year and did not abate. By the yuletide season it had accumulated so it was half as tall as their house. By solstice it was even with the roof. The elders said they had never seen snow so deep. The weather was cold. Wolves prowled the forest in packs and killed the deer. Families ran out of food. The other families in the village shared with them. And as the tribesmen and their families huddled in their dwellings, news came that the Franks planned to launch a new campaign to conquer territory and convert the Saxon peoples to the Christian faith. Rolf and his father put on furs and practiced swordsmanship outside in the cold.
And people said they had seen the woman.
Several different people had been frightened by her and had seen her in different forms. Two women had encountered her near the peat bog. The waters of the bog had turned her flesh a murky brown, though her hair was still bright gold. She wore the smock she had worn to her hanging. Though stained with the tannic hue of the bog, they could see on its front the blood she had vomited. She had not menaced them, howled or threatened. She only walked toward the women, her smile ghostly, her eyes glowing with evil light. Others had seen different manifestations. Two men—hard-bitten warriors and family men not given to fantasy—saw her walking barefoot and bareheaded through the deep snow. She wore only the undergarment in which she died. Smiling, singing an ancient hymn, oblivious to the cold, she passed within a few feet of where they stood but did not seem to notice them at all.
The Village Council met. They considered searching the bog for the woman’s corpse so she could be given a proper burial. To do so, though, would disturb the spirits of the sinners who had been dumped there. The woman’s ghost had not seemed hostile. So far, it had brought no harm to the village. They decided to wait.
Two weeks after their decision, Rolf saw her.
He had been splitting wood. The snows were still deep even in mid-March. Food supplies had shrunk to dangerous levels. After finishing his chore, he spied a deer, quickly put down the ax, took up the bow he had brought to use against wolves if any appeared, and began to stalk the creature.
It was a grey deer, a doe, large and, he thought, well-fed. It did not run but sauntered through the forest at a slow enough pace that he could keep up with it. Rolf followed, bow tucked under his arm so he could keep his hands in his mittens until time to take his shot. The deer rambled for a mile or so and then stopped to graze by what looked like a hot spring. Through the cloud of steam rising from its surface, he saw green grass around the edges. The deer lowered her head and began to munch. He stared a moment, thinking he should take off his mittens, nock an arrow, and kill the animal, but, absurdly, he thought this would be wrong. It looked peaceful and innocent. He heard snow crunch and turned. Three feet away stood Mathilda.
He gaped. She smiled brightly. She looked different from the only time he had seen her (aside from in the dream). Her face, not emaciated, radiated humor and intelligence. Her eyes, bright blue, communicated wisdom—not the stern wisdom he knew so well from his encounters with the old and the venerable, but wisdom that was humorous and self-effacing. She had gained weight, though her body was marvelously slender and trim. Her golden hair fell in abundance over her shoulders and down her back. She did not have on the smock others had seen her in. She wore a long white dress embroidered with gold at the hem, the neck and the sleeves. She was barefoot and wore no gloves, no cloak, and no boots. Rolf did not know whether to flee or kneel and worship her. She did not look like a spirit or specter. Her body was solid. She blinked. He could see the shape of her breasts rise and fall as she breathed.
“Greetings, Rolf,” she said.
He fought to speak. “Greetings, Mathilda. I am honored”—
“You are astonished,” she interrupted merrily. “Come in. You’ll catch your death out here. Since I’ve already caught mine, I don’t have to worry about such things, but you do. And thank you for not killing my pet deer. Come.”
She turned. He followed her. In a moment they came upon something he had not noticed, though now it was impossible to miss. A stone house with a slate roof, large, built of stacked grey rock stood maybe twenty yards away. The door was open, the windows not shuttered, but once inside he felt warmth and saw light. A table sat in the middle of the room. Two mugs sat there and a loaf of bread. She motioned for him to sit and then gestured to the food.
“Eat and drink. I know you’re hungry. And the food is not enchanted. In fact, once you taste of it, I have extended hospitality to you and am under obligation to care for you always.”
“Are you a ghost?”
“Do I look like a ghost?”
“No—though, I’ll admit I’ve never seen one before.”
She laughed. “I’ve been reborn.”
“But you died. I saw it.”
“The faerie folk revived my soul. They can do that for those who have died unjustly.”
“Did you die unjustly? I mean, I don’t know.” He was afraid he had made her angry but she showed no signs of anger.
“Yes. I’ll admit I did sleep with Hengist. But I was only one in a procession of women he had. And my father sold me to him, so I had no choice in the matter. It was his sister who revealed our liaison and caused both of us to perish.”
“Why did she reveal you and bring about your death and her brother’s death?”
“You don’t need to know that—at least not yet. Eat. You look famished.”
He had been skipping breakfast so there would be more bread in the larder. He took a slice from the loaf she had provided, which was warm and full of nuts and cherries. The wine, sweet, spiced, tasted as if it derived from the vineyards of paradise.
“Will you tell me more?” he asked. “More about you?”
“I told you: the elven folk brought me back to life.”
“People have seen your ghost.”
“She has an existence, yes. Some of my spirit lies there in the burning fluids of the bog. You can expect her to emerge from time to time. She is angry and vindictive.”
“No,” she said thoughtfully. She interlocked her fingers on the table and looked thoughtful. “I guess I’m not angry. After all, I came out better off than I was in my mortal life. I’m not angry with your people, though they were cruel to me. They thought they were doing the right thing and I will at least grant that they were obeying the laws. But there was no reason to starve me for ten days and make me lie in a cage in my own filth and urine and be tormented day and night by taunting children and villagers. Is it not enough that a person condemned will suffer loss of life? That in itself is a fitting torment without all the other cruel devices to which I was subjected.”
Rolf looked around him. “Is this your house?”
“I live here and it is also a temple. I am the Spirit of the Forest Cold.”
He blinked in amazement. “You are a goddess?”
“Goddesses sometime go on to rule of other realms and other demesnes. So it was with the goddess of this site. She has relinquished the governance of it to me. I assume her title now. It is I who control the snow for this forest—when it falls and ceases to fall, how dense and cold it is, how deep and thick it will cover the land.”
“Have you sent this deep snow to punish us for what we did to you?”
“I suppose so. When I came to this duty I was angry over the torment and cruelty the villagers inflicted on me. But I see now that it is also cruel and pointless to cause people not directly responsible to suffer for the sins of those who are directly responsible. That is what I want to do now. I want to punish the woman who is directly responsible for my torment. Will you help me, Rolf?”
“Of course,” he said, fear rising in his chest. “I’ll help you as much as I am able.”
“It may be a painful journey.”
“Whatever pain I might feel, it will not be half of what you’ve known.”
She smiled kindly. They finished their wine. She saw him to the door. “I will send three deer to your door. It’s admirable that your family is willing to share what they have with those who were not wise enough to store the abundance that came in the warm months. I’ll send a wind to melt the snow. I feel like an immature child who is tired of throwing a tantrum. My vindictiveness against your people will end. I will focus on the one truly responsible for my torment.”
“His sister—Bertina. She sold herself to the Franks and is in a Christian haven for virgins. She’s taken their vows.”
The Franks had been hammering the Saxons for years, taking their territory and forcibly converting theme to the Christian religion. They had never penetrated the dense forest land where Rolf lived. It protected his tribe so they were free from Frankish control. But some of their own people are now allies of the Franks and some had converted to their faith by their own free will.
“It would be hard to get her out of such a place.”
“Time will weave her fate upon its loom. You will have a part of it. Wait and see.”
Silence came. Both of them stood awkwardly on the threshold of her dwelling.
“I’ll see you again?”
“Of course you will. How could I not love you and desire to see you after the kindness you showed to me?” She put her arms around him and kissed him. Her lips were warm and he felt the warmth of her breath, the warm wet of her mouth, the heat of her tongue as she briefly touched the tip of it to his. And, amazingly, he felt cold fill him—sharp, hard cold that enhanced what he felt for her and that drew his senses of a point. It suffused his body and then faded as his own warmth returned. “Remember, cold is not an evil thing,” she said.
They lingered, sharing several more kisses. He finally took his leave and walked out the door. When he turned to say good-bye again, the stone house had disappeared. In its place stood massive snow-covered trees. He saw the deer still feeding at the hot spring. Rolf approached it cautiously. It eyed him and jerked as if to run away but stood its ground. He reached out, moving his arm slowly, and scratched its face. Like a hound, it closed its eyes and moved its face around to enjoy the scratching. He smiled, turned, and set out toward his house.
When he came near his family’s dwelling, he spotted the three deer and brought them down with three shots. Not wanting to leave them for fear of predators, he yodeled. After a moment, a response came. His father and one of his step-brothers appeared. They rejoiced and marveled at what he had done.
“I’ve never known anyone who could bring down three deer on one spot.” He slapped his son on the back. Rolf only grinned. When they came back to the house, he saw his sisters kneeling by the wood pile. One held a wooden cup of what might be ale above her head. His mother watched solemnly. He came up to her.
“What is this?”
“They are pouring out a drink offering to Freya. The weather has turned. A warm wind blows. We will be able to plant on time. Breathe in and feel the fingers of spring knead the air, Rolf.”
He took a deep breath and did feel it. Warmth tinged the air—warmth he had not felt when he set out this morning. Mathilda had been true to her word. He watched his half-sisters. Drink offerings had to be poured out by virgins, so his step-mother could not participate.
They butchered the deer, stored their hides for tanning later on, and fed the entrails to their dogs. Rolf was thankful they had not had to eat any of the dogs, though they had lost one to a neighbor who was later caught. In the justice system of the village the offended party pronounced the damages. His father said the neighbor must replace the dog when he was able. Times were hard and forbearance in order. His father made certain the family of the offender got an ample supply of deer meat.
“He’s an honest man,” he told Rolf. “He would never have stolen if necessity had not compelled him.”
The warm winds blew. Snow melted. By the end of March it was gone. The steady breezes had also dried the soil so it was not saturated with melt. They could plant early crops. Mathilda had once more showed her truthfulness and good will. He wondered when he would see her again.
It would not be for another two years.
During that time, the village prospered. Crops were abundant. Many children were born and most were healthy. All was not good, however. The Franks had defeated the southern tribes, invading and setting their eyes on the lands further north. The priests and holy women established houses of worship and tried to convert the tribes and clans at the edge of their realm. War was inevitable. Though the Saxons were fierce fighters, the Franks were a formidable foe and had weapons and tactics the Saxons found it difficult to overcome.
Still, all of that seemed far away. As he entered his seventeenth year, he began to notice women more and more. He had noticed them before, but now he desired them and kept alert to those who seemed friendly. The Saxons valued chastity, but there were always young women who were willing to break the rules and young men more than eager to assist them in doing so. It happened for Rolf at the house of a girl his age named Steora. She invited him in and he lost his virginity to her. After that she became his regular lover.
“Don’t let Father find out,” she warned. “He’ll cut your balls off. I hate to think what he would do to me. He wants to pledge me as a temple maiden at the shrine of Odin in Geestendorf. I’ll be damned to hell if I’m going to do that. It’s a city on an island and there are hardly any trees. I don’t think I can live there, Rolf. I’d go crazy out of the forest.”
“If you tell him you can’t be a temple maiden, will he beat you?”
“He might kill me. If he does, fine. At least I’ve had it a few times, which is more than what I would have got if I were pledged to some temple on a stinking, dirty island in the North Sea.”
He and Steora were lovers through the spring, summer, and fall. Her father never confronted the issue of her virginity or lack of it because that summer the soldiers of Charlemagne made a foray into the forest. They captured Steora and carried her away in the raid. By that time Rolf had established relationships with three other women.
The other villagers recognized him as a leader. He was conscripted to fight in a campaign against the Franks in the southern marches. Though the youngest member of his unit, he fought with distinction, killing the champion of the Frankish contingent, a thing that disheartened them and caused them to withdraw. Rather than celebrating with the others, he and his squad pursued the retreating enemy troops and overran their camp by night. Though superior in numbers, the Frankish soldiers fled, thinking a larger force had attacked them. They abandoned their baggage and Rolf’s squad captured one of their commanders, whom the community ransomed for a sizeable sum of money. He also was able to find out where Steora was being held.
When the snows began, he and his village, and the Franks, settled down for the winter. Armies seldom fought in cold weather. Harvest had been good again, the villages were well-supplied, and Rolf knew the snows would come at the usual time this year. When they did, he saw Mathilda once again.
She came to him one night as he was slopping the hogs. He had poured the table scraps, grain, and milk into the pen. The hogs, who were and fat, and who would mostly be slaughtered in a week or two, grunted happily as they ate. Snow had started to fall softly. He heard a noise and saw Mathilda behind him. He put down the slop bucket.
“I remember doing that in my mortal days. When my brothers were gone I had to slop the hogs. I hated it because the bucket was always so heavy.”
He gaped at her. Her beauty, and its contrast to the wasted, half-starved girl he had seen when she lived her mortal life, still amazed him. And, now that he was older, and experienced from sharing the bed with Steora and his other lovers, he saw her as an object of desire.
She smiled at him. “Cat got your tongue?”
“I don’t know what to say to a goddess.”
“Come with me.”
“I have chores to finish.”
“Come. Someone else will do your chores and no one will know you are gone. I promise you. Come with me now. Come on.”
She reached out his hand. Once more, he felt the peculiar cold she imparted.
“Where will you take me?”
“I want you to come to my house again.”
He nodded. She turned and walked into the woods, her embroidered dress white with highlights of red and gold woven into it. The snow fell more heavily. He noticed she was barefoot and wore no cloak. He followed. Soon he saw the hot spring and her house. They went inside. She turned to face him.
All through the walk he had felt his passion for her increase. He had felt it so strongly the night he dreamed of her. He was experienced now. He had slept with Steora, Ingrid, Edina, and Steffi. This and battle had sent him across the line into young manhood. Somehow he realized her summons had something to do with this. She turned to face him.
“You know why I’ve brought you here.”
“You know the passion of the goddesses Freya and of Aine and Clíodhna. There are goddesses of chastity; my own name means battle maiden, woman and strength and power. But there are goddesses of love and of childbirth and lust. My lust for you has grown since you showed me a simple kindness, Rolf. Now you’ve crossed the line from a boy to a man.”
She came forward and put her arms around his neck. For the second time he felt her kiss. Her lips, warm, moved against his. He knew the strangeness once more: cold, more stark and absolute than he had ever known in the winters of his life, filled him. Yet his strength increased as the cold filled him. He suddenly felt more powerful than Mathilda, goddess or no goddess. He picked her up and carried her into a back chamber of her house that he somehow knew was her bedchamber.
A low bed filled the center of it. Colorfully woven quilts and deer and bearskins covered it. He lay her down, kissing her all the while. He pulled her white dress up around her waist. She sat up so he could pull it over her head. He saw now her breasts, lovely and round, with dark nipples, the reddish hair under her arms, between her legs, and on her legs. Strong but gentle, her body shone in the dim lamplight. He wondered if they needed cream, like Ingrid and Steffi used, but when he felt her she was wet with her own fluid. She laid back down, one leg bent up, and her hands extended above her head. He lowered himself, kissed her breasts, stoked the hair beneath her arms, and ran his hands down her sides, over her stomach and beneath her to the soft flesh of her buttocks. She gasped in delight. He took her in his arms.
As he began to move, she gently embraced him, putting her arms around him and wrapping her legs over his. They moved in a rhythmic dance. Delightful confusion came over him. He felt warm and cold and simultaneously in a cloud of fog and in the stark light of a winter morning when the sky is frosty and the sun comes up clear and pure to light the world. He felt the power of wolves and bears in his body and the swift beauty of deer and fox in her. He felt as if he were tumbling through space but, at the same time, felt rooted to the earth like an oak is rooted or like a gigantic rock that thrusts upward through the soil, the bulk of it deep in soil. She seemed earth, sun, and frost. He felt her body buckle and heard her cry out. He followed shortly after. Silence came—so quiet he would testify that he could hear the snow falling, flake by flake, and piling up amid the trees of the vast forest of which she was now the genius and deity.
She opened her eyes and puffed out a breath of air.
“I’m not used to being a goddess,” she smiled. She looked at his questioning eyes, her smile broadening. “I’m not use to the . . . strength with which love comes to me. It comes with such power, with the power of nature and of the forest roots, the power of spring and of the winter wind.” She stroked his face. “You are my lover. You’re the first for me since I was granted to be a goddess. Before, I had many men. I will admit that. I started pretty young.”
“How old were you when they killed you?”
He looked surprised. “I thought you were younger.”
“I always looked younger. My lovers liked that. Hengist liked it. And when you saw me I hadn’t had anything to eat and I’d lost weight. I looked like a waif.”
He laid his head against her breasts. He was in the arms of a goddess. When mortals fell in love with goddesses, the result was usually not good. But she had been mortal once. He let it drift out of her mind.
“I brought you here,” she said, “to share my love with you. Now you must go on a quest. You must rescue Steora. She has escaped. The Franks are pursuing her. If they find her, she will die a cruel death.”
“Where is she?”
“I don’t know, but your soul will know. You simply need to go. I’ll bring a horse to you. Trust your instincts. They will guide you.”
“Can’t you come with me?”
“I must stay here. I need to direct the snow to cover your tracks when you find her. You will go in my protection.”
He did not want to leave her. She sensed this and touched him gently. “You need to go. She is in danger.”
She washed him. He dressed and stepped outside. When he turned, the house was gone.
He stood in the falling snow. Out of the woods a white horse ambled toward him. It had a bridle and saddles and saddlebags. It came up, sniffed him, and whinnied. He patted its nose. A gentle-looking beast, he thought, a stallion, but it seemed more peaceful than most stallions he had ridden. Rolf looked at the scrim of trees and the snow coming down in the spaces between them. He should go home and tell his parents he was leaving, but Mathilda had said to follow his instinct, and instinct told him he needed to leave now. He mounted the horse. It reared just slightly and snorted. He patted its neck. “Easy,” he whispered in its ear. “We’ve got a long ride ahead of us. I’m Rolf. I don’t know your name, but let’s call you Aarn. Probably that is your name and Mathilda told me by her magic. I don’t know how we’ll survive or how I’ll feed you, Aarn, but let’s go.”
He flicked the reigns. The horse took off of at a good pace, its feet sure on the snowy forest floor. A mile or so on, he met Vorthr and told him to let his family know he had gone a quest to the south and would return in a in a week or two.
They rode through the snow, taking the southern road. Aarn trotted along obediently. They stopped at a hot spring like the one near Mathilda’s place with grass growing around the edge. Aarn grazed. Rolf stretched and looked in the saddle bags. He found wine, bread, and dried pork. He ate and drank. In the bag on the other side of Aarn he found socks, pliable boots, a cloak, and small stone jar sealed with a thick layer of black wax. For Steora, he guessed. He replaced the items, mounted up again, and continued on. Snow coated the trees. It covered the ground in a thin layer. Ferns and shrubs poked through. He saw deer tracks and scats, rabbit trails, and, more ominously, formations of tracks that indicated wolves. He rode on. His hands began to ache from cold. The light diminished. As the darkness began to gather to such a degree he could hardly see the road he came upon a house. The family offered him hospitality, an ancient custom of his people.
The family was like his—three boys and three girls. The patriarch and his wife were younger than Rolf’s parents and seemed prosperous. He washed, warmed himself by the fire, and dined with them. The onset of winter always meant slaughtering animals that had little chance of surviving the cold weather. He ate roast pork in abundance. The ale they had begun fermenting at the beginning of the summer was rich and full by now. They sat with cups in front of the hearth. He told them he was going south to seek the release of a woman from the Franks.
They were troubled when he said this. He looked at the mantle above their hearth and saw Christian symbols there: the crossed pieces of wood and two clay statuettes he took to be icons of that faith. They had converted.
“She is being kept in a house of Christian holy women. I hope to negotiate her release so she can be released.”
“That is unlikely. They pressure our people to convert. We ourselves were baptized. There consequences of apostasy are dire.”
They all knew how dire apostasy could be. At Verdun, Charlemagne had executed 4500 Germans who had reverted to the worship of the old gods. He felt sympathy for the family. Fear would keep them in the Christian fold. He wondered if the entire area had been converted.
“Religion doesn’t mean much to me,” he said, “but I do not think the young woman I am seeking should be held against her will.”
“If you pay them enough they may let her go.”
Of course, she was an escapee. He had to be careful.
“How far is their territory from here?”
“Perhaps ten leagues. Many have fled further into the forest lands. You’ll have trouble finding people to stay with as you approach their marches. Most have gone to the northlands.”
He slept and departed in the morning. The snow had stopped. Aarn, rested and fed, bore Rolf through a deep, powdery covering. Silence filled the forest. Now and then snow slid from the tree branches. He saw more deer and two lynx.
Riding on, he passed abandoned homes—walls falling in, thatched roofs sagging, fences of what were animal stalls and rotted garden plots. He rode until he came to a structure that was more intact. The roof was made of boards, not thatch. He went inside. Looking around, he saw no animals had broken in. The walls and doors were all intact. A stack of dry wood lay beside the hearth. Rolf scooped the snow out of it and kindled a fire. He walked back and found some clean hay in the barn out back for Aarn, who munched it thankfully. When he went out back he noticed a spot on the snow.
It was yellow and melted. Someone had urinated here. The spot was directly under the two footprints in the snow, which meant it had been made by a woman who squatted rather than stood. He looked around. There were no tracks. Whoever it was had covered them. He followed the uneven mounds of snow until he found bloody footprints. He knew it had to be her.
Rolf followed the tracks into the wood. He had only gone about a hundred yards when he saw her.
Steora was moving at a slow pace, staggering. He rushed up behind her and shouted out her name. She turned suddenly, lost her balance, and fell.
He rushed over and scooped her up. Her lips were blue, her limbs thin, and her feet oozing blood. She wore a dress and had wrapped herself in a blanket.
“Steora,” he said, shaking her. “Can you hear me?” She moved her lips but no words came out of her mouth. “It’s Rolf. You’re safe with me. No, don’t go to sleep.” Holding her in his arms, he ran back to the house.
Inside, he sat her down by the fire. Looking at her feet, he shuddered. She wore thin shoes that had soaked through. He pulled them off. She screamed. Her feet were raw and bleeding, though it did not look like her flesh had frozen. He gave her wine to warm her. She still did not seem sensible enough to know who he was. She drank the wine. He had brought the saddlebags inside, took the cloak from it, and threw it over her, leaving her feet protruding. After cleaning them with melted snow, he poured wine over them. They were bad and would require days to heal. He wondered how far they were from Frankish territory and if she were being pursued.
Rolf went out to check on Aarn. He had settled in the barn. He took down more hay, got Aarn up, and scattered some for him to lie on. He settled into it and whinnied appreciatively. Rolf went back into the house. Looking down at Steora, he checked her feet again. He could see no red streaks indicating poison spreading through her blood. She stirred and smacked her lips. He knelt down to be close to her. Her face look grey, her lips blue. He kissed her softly, took off his outer garments, climbed under the cloak, put his arms around her and his body next to her.
She was cold. He snuggled against her. Then he remembered Mathilda’s touch. If he could not import his warmth into her body, he could draw her cold into his own. He relaxed, not certain how to recover the feeling he had known when he had kissed Matilda and lain in her embrace. Eventually, though, he felt the chill and sharpness. It drew the cold out of Steora, as a dry cloth will draw moisture when it comes near water. He felt it course into his body and combine with the cold he felt inside him. His hands and arms sensed warmth return to her body. In the flickering light of the fire, he saw color come to her face, the red of blood return to her lips and to her cheeks. He touched her breasts and felt the spreading warmth move downward to her stomach, her opening, and her thighs. When he was certain the cold had gone out of her body, he let it go out of his. He sat up, making certain it had not returned to her. It had not.
Then he remembered the ceramic jar in the saddle bag.
He dug it out and cut the wax seal with his knife. A fragrance of apple blossoms filled the room. He put his fingers into the jar and, as he had thought, it was ointment—healing balm. Mathilda had known the sort of shape Steora might be in; or had foreseen it through some prophetic power she possessed. He gently spread a layer of it on the raw flesh of her feet. She shuddered when his hands first touched her but then seemed to settle into a deeper sleep, as if the balm had soothed her. He wondered if it were a medicine people knew or some enchanted substance. It could be both. He climbed under the covers against and put his arms around her. She was warm now. He knew she would live.
As he lay there he remembered the first time he had made love to her—his first time, her third (or so she said). He was awkward and afraid, but she combined understanding and the passion she felt for him, and the time was sweet and magical. Steora was a strong girl and had stretched and contracted her body beneath his. The grip of her arms around his back was powerful. She had big breasts (Mathilda’s breasts were smaller and more delicate) and the body of a farm girl who had worked in the gardens and the fields all her life. She had a body for love, for work, for childbearing. It would have been a pity, Rolf mused, for her to have been consigned to virginity, either as a temple maiden dedicated to Odin or a Christian holy woman. He would return her to her father.
He slept. In the morning, he went outside to relieve himself. More snow had fallen. A good three inches covered the ground and it continued to fall steadily. Her tracks would be erased, he thought, and the snow would discourage anyone pursuing her. He went back inside. Steora was awake.
She looked up at him. “Am I dreaming, mad, or awake?”
He knelt beside her. “You’re awake. I was told you had escaped and came to find you. The Spirit of the Forest Cold has brought us together.”
“Blessed be her name,” she muttered piously—a reflection of how religious her family was.
“How are your feet?”
She wiggled them. “I can feel them. They hurt a little.” Rolf examined them. They had begun to heal. They were scabbed, and the scabs were thin and would break if she tried to walk just yet, but he could see no streaks. They would be whole in a few days if properly cared for. He stretched out beside her.
“How long ago did you escape?”
“Three days ago. I’ve been hiding and running through the snow all this time.” She paused and then added, “I killed a woman. I killed one of the women in the maiden house. If the Franks catch me, the gods alone know what they’ll do to me. I must get back home.”
“I’ll get you home. First, you have to heal—your feet. Lie here. It’s snowing. I think we’re safe here, at least for now. Let me get breakfast and then you can tell me about what happened to you.”
He got out bread and dried meat. Steora sat up and ate.
“How did you escape?” he asked.
“For all this time they tried to convert me to their faith. They deprived me of food and frightened me with stories of torment in the afterlife for all who do not bow to their gods. I would not consent to enter their faith. Finally they told me I would be burned alive because I persisted in my trust of the old gods. They set a day. I escaped two days before. I tore two planks out of the door to my chamber and managed to get out. The woman who had been the cruelest of all to me met me at the door. I knew she would alert the others, so I strangled her with a piece of rope I found hanging on the wall. I didn’t want to kill any of them, as they are pledged women and are holy, but it was her or me.”
He went out and checked on Aarn, who seemed to be in good spirits. He gave him more hay and, finding an old brush, groomed him and let him trot through the snow. He cleaned his stall and came back to the house to find Steora trying to walk.
“Damn it, no,” he said to her, rushing over and helping her sit down. “Your feet are healing, but they are still tender. Give yourself a couple of days more. We can wait here. We have food enough for a week there is hay in the barn for my horse. Be patient. You must be patient with a wound.”
“They may come here looking for me.”
“The snow will keep them away.”
“It will trap us here too.”
“I don’t think so.”
They had long hours to pass, and, as Rolf suspected she would, Steora began to come on to him. She had been isolated from men for months. He knew Mathilda would not be offended and made love to Steora. She moaned and writhed, moving her limbs in a slow rhythm, taking his love as a man who has not eaten days but is disciplined and self-controlled takes food: savoring it, extracting every bit of satisfaction he can from it. When they were finished, they lay next to each other. She took out a packet of dried green leaves.
“Above all else, I guarded these,” she said. I wrapped them in cloth and stuffed them into my opening—an irony, because they are the herbs that keep me from getting pregnant. I chewed the juice out of them last night. Just thinking about you got me so worked up I could hardly sleep.”
By the fourth day her feet had almost healed. He took Aarn for a ride and managed to shoot a small boar and bring it back to the house. They butchered it and feasted on the meat, smoking some of it to take on their ride back. Rolf found some withered apples hanging on the breaches of an abandoned orchard by one of the empty houses and picked them for Aarn. He rode south and came to a swath of the road that had been cleared out. He saw oxen tracks, the tracks of horses, scats, and a wide, compressed path of snow. The Saxons were clearing the road. Only they had the assets to do something like this. He turned Aarn about and headed back to the house. Steora was by the hearth, naked, washing herself with warm water.
“How are your feet?” he asked.
She turned. He saw the muscles in her back ripple beneath the cascade of dark blonde hair.
“My feet are fine, Rolf.” She saw the concern in his face. “Why?”
“We need to go.” Then a strange feeling overtook him. He knelt down. “You have to go. The Saxons are clearing the road. They’re coming here. We can’t risk you getting caught.” He got the socks and boots out of the pack. She got dressed, put on the socks and supple fur-lined boots, and threw the cloak on. He told her to mount the horse.
“What about you?” she asked. “You can’t stay here. They’ll kill you—or enslave you.”
“I feel I need to stay. Aarn is a good snow horse, and you know how to ride. You’ll find forest-dwellers who will show you hospitality. Some of them are converts to the Frankish religion, but they are our people and will care for you. Go now.”
“I won’t leave you here.”
“I’ll be fine. I’ll head through the forest and find my way back. It would be too tricky for the horse to make his way through the snow with two people on his back. Go on, Steora. When you get back, tell your father he needs to get you out of Saxony. You said you had relatives in England.” She nodded. “You need to go there. Leave now.”
“I love you.”
He could only nod. Atop a strong horse, the wearing the boots and cloak, her hair shining in the winter light, she looked like a queen. After a moment, she lightly spurred Aarn. He trotted off. Rolf watched her until she disappeared into the distance.
Quiet settled. Rolf went inside and threw more wood on the fire. He did know where he planned to go, but he felt Mathilda had impressed on him to stay. He ate more food even though he was not hungry. He spent the day drying meat and trying to decide which way to strike out. If he could get to a friendly village, they would care for him. He could eventually get back home. Walking the road would be too dangerous. He would have to strike out through the trees. At this time a year, with the snow deep, the wolves and other predators hungry, and the enemies of his tribe possibly lurking about, trekking would be fraught with danger. It was his only choice and he felt that Mathilda had instructed him in this. He would leave at first light.
He expected Mathilda to appear to him in a dream, but she did not. He woke and looked into the embers of the fire, packed up his belongings and food, and set out, walking through the trees, following the same path he had seen Steora take five days ago.
The ancient forest towered above him. Wind or the settling of a bird on a branch shook snow down now and then. The drifts were not deep. The cover of trees absorbed some of snowfall, so walking was not difficult. He had a sword, dagger, and bow. The listened carefully for sounds that might indicate wolves, wild dogs, or boar. In cold weather even lynx would occasionally attack humans. Rolf walked steadily in the silence of the cold and the stark beauty of the massive trees, the rocks jutting out of the ground, and the swell and fall of the land beneath his feet.
He walked until he came to a hill devoid of trees. It looked vaguely familiar to him. He stopped and puzzled a moment. It was still relatively early in the morning. He found stone steps covered by the snow. He walked up three of them and stopped. He remembered.
The snow filtered down, though the sky looked to be clearing off and the light increasing. Looking about, he noted the land, the trees and the rock formations. He had been here. He had come here twice—once right after his mother died and once again five years ago when his step-brother, Eric, was ill and near death. It was a shrine. There had been priests and a prophetess. He stepped back and stood a little distance from the sacred stones. He saw no buildings now. The area around the stones was overgrown with brush. The shrine had been abandoned. The Franks had destroyed the building and killed or dispersed the clergy. They had not, though, destroyed the standing stones. As he puzzled over this, the clouds cleared and the light of the sun broke out.
The ground around him glittered. Rolf’s pulse quickened as he remembered. He had not been able to see the moon or the stars, but he knew it must be near, if not the very day of solstice. Now the sky had cleared. The cold blue of dawn rose over him. Mouth dry, he mounted the steps. The stones, five of them, formed a circle. They were granite. No one remembered the day they were place here. Some said the gods themselves had arranged them in this formation. Four stood taller than a man—probably eight feet tall. One was shortened, about three feet, and its top curved gently. Straight across from it a flat stone sat on the ground. The light in the sky increased.
He hurried up the steps that led to the top where the sacred circle stood. Kneeling on the lowest stone, he waited. The granite felt cold against his knees. A breeze stirred blowing wisps of snow from the trees around the shrine. A moment later, the sun appeared. He had been right. Today was solstice. He had come, a lone worshipper, to the abandoned shrine.
Rolf unbuckled his sword and laid his dagger and bow aside, wrapping both in his cloak. The sharp cold made his blood flow and focused his senses. After a few minutes, the sun, a bowl of white light, appeared above the stone that marked its ascent. He watched as it moved upward, its light glinting on the stones’ ice crystals and glimmering on the snow, driving the shadows back, warming Rolf’s face. It rose steadily until it stood above the curve of the stone, which cradled it in the half-circle. It hovered in the sacred space, conjunction of the world and the candle that lit it by day in winter and warmed it like a lover in summer. It hung there, perfectly framed. Too stunned to pray or speak, Rolf knelt—but only a short while. The sun moved to the side. The moment had passed. He stood, stepped off the altar stone, and walked down the steps.
He strapped on his sword and threw on his cloak, stuck his dagger into his left boot, and slung on his bow and quiver. He had worshipped. He had felt the power of the sacred moment that came once a year. The gods would bless him. The gods would speak to him.
After his mother died, his father had come as a pilgrim to the shrine. Rolf accompanied him. He was seeking guidance on whether he should marry Helg. They had made an offering of gold, seen the sacred moment (many other worshippers were there), and then gone to the house of the prophetess.
She was a tall woman with dark braided hair, sacred to the gods, never married and a virgin (just the same as Steora’s father had planned for her to be). She sat on the floor in prophetic trance. The priest stood by. The woman looked up at them—a stream of quiet glossolalia issued from her throat. The priest nodded and told them to step outside. He said the gods would bless the marriage—and, Rolf mused, they had. The same thing when Eric was ill; the prophetess, older and going grey by then, said he would live, and he did.
The sun rose higher in the sky Squirrels skittered in the trees. He stepped over to the area where the buildings had been, finding the ruins of the prophetess’ house. The charred brick told him the Franks had burned it. He recognized the suppliant’s door, where those seeking oracular answers came. Walking through it, he stood in the limits of the gutted structure. Snow began to fall again. Mathilda stood beside him.
“Why did not pull down the stones?” Rolf asked.
“Their men are afraid to. They burned the buildings but the left the stones in place.”
He looked at her. She smiled and extended her arms. He took her in an embrace and kissed her. He felt her cold fill him and felt the paradox that her cold made him feel warm.
“What do I do now?” he asked.
“In most prophetic lore there are no answers, only choices. You can continue west where you will find people who will return you to your home; you can walk back to the road where the Franks will capture you.”
“Will they kill me?”
“No. They will take you as a captive.”
“Will I find Bertina?”
“The prophecy is dark at this point. I can only say there is a good chance of it, but I can’t say for certain that you will find her.”
“I don’t suppose I came here and knew the sacred moment just so I could return home.”
“You did not come here for no reason. You freed Steora.”
He kissed her again. “Is it wrong to kiss you in a sacred space?”
“The space is no longer an active site of prophecy. And things change. They have to change. I must go now. Remember, the choice is yours and one path is not better than the other.” With that she was gone.
Rolf looked around for traces of her. The wind blew snow from the trees. No flakes fell. He saw no tracks. Walking down the hill from the shrine—carefully so as not to slip from the light layer of frost Mathilda had brought with her—he followed his faint tracks through the trees and out to the road. He stood there a moment, heard the dint of horse’s hooves, and saw four riders approaching—three soldiers and a man who dressed and wore his hair like a Christian priest. They slowed their horses and circled him. The priest hung back.
“Who are you, traveler?” one of them asked.
“I am Rolf, son of Fredyk, from the forests of the north.”
“This is Frankish territory. What are you doing here?”
He pointed back. “I just came from the shrine. This is the day of solstice and I witnessed the sacred moment of the sun’s rise on the shortest day of the year.”
Their eyes filled with rage. They leaped from their horses. Rolf drew his sword. They reached for theirs but could not extract them from their sheaths.
“You must be southerners,” he said. “The ice crystals here bind metal to metal and your swords stick in their hangars. You should always keep them under your cloak in winter.” As they frantically tried to get the swords free, Rolf slashed their cloaks where their hearts lay. “That was to show you I could have easily killed all three of you if I had wanted to. But today is a sacred day and a day of peace, not a day for conflict and violence.” Having said this, he sheathed his sword. The Franks gaped. The man on the horse spoke.
“Thank God you encountered a virtuous man,” he said to the soldiers. “Rolf, son of Fredyk, thank you. You will come with us as our guest. By the faith I represent, I swear no treachery will befall you.”
“I’m lost,” he lied. “Someone stole my horse. I will gladly accept an offer of hospitality.”
At that moment, snow filtered down, light at first but soon transforming to clumps. Rolf could see only a few feet beyond where he stood.”
“John,” the priest ordered, “ride ahead and fetch a horse. Hopefully, we can find our way back to the compound before the road snows over.” John bolted to his horse and rode off at a gallop. The priest dismounted and joined the others in walking to whatever was their destination.
They made their way through the storm. Clouds had been thin that morning and had cleared long enough for Rolf to see the sun at the sacred moment of solstice. Now, a thick, heavy mass of grey had rolled in. The clouds looked so close to earth he felt he might reach up and touch them.
“You worshipped at the shrine?” the priest asked.
“I witnessed the wonder of a sacred moment.” He paused and then added, “I’m surprised you did not pull down the sacred stones.”
“Our people still have regard for them. And sacred objects are to be venerated. They represent an awareness of the sacred. God has arranged the world as a witness to him—‘that men should seek after him and perchance find him.’” He seemed to be quoting. Rolf wondered if he was reciting their sacred book—a thing the Frankish holy men were fond of doing. “We opted to leave them standing.”
“A wise and compassionate decision,” Rolf said.
“I’m glad you think so. False religion can point the way to the truth. In the fortress to which we are going there is a small convent of women who have dedicated themselves to God and live as his pure, sacred devotees. One of your people is among them. Normally, they are hidden from the view of men, but I think Bertina might get permission from the Mother Superior to speak with you. She might persuade you to follow the Way of Life.”
His mind tingled when he heard the name. He remembered what Mathilda had told him. “I’ll be happy to meet her and hear her story.”
“You will need to keep quiet, though. Our people are angry. One of your women murdered one of our pledged virgins a few days back. She might have been the one who stole your horse. We know she is at large in this area.”
Rolf kept quiet. After a few minutes, John rode up leading a fine black stallion. Rolf mounted and the five of them rode at a good clip until they came to a cluster of wooden buildings surrounded by a stockade fence. The guards admitted them. They dismounted. Flanked by the three soldiers, Rolf followed the Priest, who had introduced himself as Father Ambrose, into the main building of the compound.
The structure, newly built, smelling of resin and fresh-cut wood, housed tables and chairs. A sacred image of the Franks’ crucified deity hung on the east wall. Three fireplaces warmed the room. A group of warriors eyed Rolf as he entered. Ambrose explained the conditions of Rolf’s capture. The warriors nodded, their eyes surly, their manner suspicious, but they brought him beer, flesh, and bread. He ate thankfully. The priest asked about his family.
“I have my father and my sister. My mother died when I was six. Father remarried to a woman, a widow, who had four children—a girl and three boys.”
“And your livelihood?”
“We farm and hunt, like everyone around us.”
“You fight well. Where did you learn?”
“Father taught me, along with other men in the village.”
Ambrose sipped his beer. “We spread the true faith. To the north we fight the worshippers of Odin. To the south we fight the followers of the false prophet Mohammed. Satan sends his legions against us, but we prevail through the power of God.”
Rolf did not reply. They ate in silence for a time. Noises came. He turned to see two women enter the room. One was a large Frankish woman; the other, small, thin, delicate, was unmistakably Saxon. As they approached him, he marveled that in a moment he would meet Bertina, the woman who had caused Mathilda’s cruel death. The men at the table rose. Rolf stood as well.
“Rolf, son of Fredyk, may I present to you Abbess Celia and Sister Caritas.”
He bowed. “I am honored.”
“Sister Caritas is from your tribe, I believe. She has converted to the true faith and submitted to baptism.”
Rolf drew upon all his self-control to maintain a benevolent demeanor. What had this thin-faced stringy-haired woman done that led to Mathilda’s cruel, abject death and her brother’s too?
“Welcome,” she said in the Saxon dialect.
“Thank you, sister Caritas,” Rolf replied in that tongue. “I am flattered that you have come from your place of sanctity so you may speak to me.”
“All of us are praying you will see the true light.”
His mind worked rapidly. Rolf knew that in battle instinct provided the surest guide. A warrior followed his instinct even if what it suggested seemed too dangerous or risky. Instinct alone saw through the outward conditions to the core of reality that could undo even a formidable enemy. Time to strike, he thought; time to charge through, piercing the superfluous line of her politeness and formality and engage this conflict’s substance.
“You were Bertina of Neiderwald before you entered the convent of the Christian faith and took a sacred name.”
She looked wary when he said this. “Yes.”
“I know your family. I knew Mathilda.” The look he gave her told her he knew everything: Mathilda’s betrayal, Bertina’s role in it, and the terrible consequences. A small tremor ran though Sister Caritas’s face.
“I feel deeply for Mathilda,” she said, “but holiness demanded her sin be found out.”
“We miss her greatly.”
“So do I,” she murmured. “But”—and here her expression changed to one of pious obfuscation—“the peace of Jesus Christ is my comfort. I hope, Rolf, you will rest in it as I have.”
It entered his mind to say that if the result of such a conversion were as horrid as Mathilda’s death, he would have none of it, but he only smiled. “I will listen to the story of your god. At this point I am not persuaded to leave the faith of our people.”
She looked down, which seemed to be a signal she had said all her intended to say. She and the other holy woman said good-bye to those around them and departed the room.
The next morning he rose with the others and attended their religious service. He had heard of the Christian belief system and did not believe it—did not believe in the significance of the things they called miraculous. Afterwards he talked with the priest, but his talk quickly bored him. You were born into a religion, Rolf thought. Why would anyone want to change their heritage? The Christians talked of dire consequence in the afterlife if one followed the wrong gods. But if the gods were so deceptive and treacherous as to show a false path to some and a true path for others, and then hold them responsible for choosing the wrong path, what did it matter anyway? Who could fight against divine deception?
He breakfasted and went out to watch the Franks train for war. Undoubtedly they planed an incursion into Saxon territory. He wondered what they would do with him. Ambrose had said no harm would come to him, and he seemed a man of his word, but Rolf sensed the hostility of the Franks. All it would take was one outburst from an angry warrior who had lost a kinsman in the fighting. Unarmed and alone, he was vulnerable. He decided that staying near Father Ambrose would be the best course of action.
“I must lead the nuns in worship this morning,” he said. “I am the only man permitted within their lodgings—and then only to say the religious service.”
“Can I wait outside? I am wary of your people. I think it best if I stay near to you.”
He pondered. “I suppose that would be permissible. You must wait outside, though, and not come into the cloister house—unless your life is in danger.”
Rolf nodded. The two of them traversed the compound to a wooden building with a cross on top. Rolf waited on the east side, out of the wind. Snow began to fall. Ambrose went inside to lead the worship service. Rolf stood under the eaves. He watched the heavy flakes descend and add another lay to what had thickly accumulated on the ground. He heard crunching and turned, thinking it might be one of the Saxons come to kill him. He saw Bertina.
She wore a long black cloak and had tucked her hands into the folds of her cloak for warmth. Her white face shone in the dark of her hood. She looked thin and frail.
“Have you come here to murder me?” she asked.
“No. I am not seeking vengeance. I only want to know why you betrayed Mathilda the way you did.”
“Why do you want to know that?”
“My peace of mind, I suppose.”
“Is she dead?”
Rolf hesitated and then decided telling the truth would be best. “She was hanged and her body thrown in the bog near our village. But she has undergone an apotheosis. She has become a goddess. She has become the Spirit of the Forest Cold.”
A tremor ran through Bertina’s white, thin face. She looked down and then up. “I thought so. She comes to me in my dreams.”
“What does she say to you?”
“Nothing. She does not speak a word. But the sight of her torments me. I hardly go through a week without her haunting my sleep.”
“Why did you betray her?”
“Mathilda,” she began, “was a beautiful woman. Many men desired her, and she readily returned their favors. She had more than one lover before she met Hengist. One of them was a man I desired. She took him from me. They parted, but after that he would have nothing to do with me. I had slept with him; given him my maidenhead. Still, he abandoned me.”
“Do your superiors here know you have been intimate with a man?”
“No. I would not be permitted to dwell here if they did.”
“And you betrayed Mathilda, knowing it would mean her death?”
“I didn’t think it would mean her death. I thought the leaders of the village would make her marry my brother. I thought that would make the man I loved return to me. It cost my brother his life . . . and Mathilda as well.”
“Is that why you came here?”
“Yes. Their faith offers forgiveness. But Mathilda torments my soul. Sometimes she comes as I knew her. Sometimes she comes as a hideous troll with hollow eyes and skin turned black and green. Sometimes I see her filthy and bloody and half-starved. Her spirit comes to me in many forms.”
“She is not merely a spirit—though I think part of her spirit walks as the thing you see and call a troll. She is a goddess. A goddess can walk into your soul as you walk into his building. You will never be rid of her.”
“Is there any hope for me?”
“You must seek her out for reconciliation.”
“How could I ever be reconciled with her?”
“I don’t know. If you really want this, however, I imagine she could bring it about. Do your superiors know you are speaking with me?”
“I told them I was ill and had to stay in bed this morning.
“You had better go. It isn’t safe for either of us to be talking this way. If you really want to be reconciled with Mathilda, she will make a way for that to happen. You can see that you’re not safe here and that the religion of the Saxons is not a shield against her. That she is kind and forgiving is clear from the fact that she has not destroyed you. I would be cautious, though, Bertina, and not presume upon her kindness. The part of her spirit who still dwells in the blog might not be so benevolent.”
She looked up at him, turned, and hurried to an entryway in the other side of the building—the maiden place where the holy women lived, he supposed. Rolf turned and watched the snow descend. So he knew why now. He could tell Mathilda if he ever saw her again.
If he ever saw her again, he thought as he sat down for the noon meal. After they had finished and were sipping wine, a hubbub arose in the winter silence outside. Rolf thought for a moment his people might have attacked. Still, he heard the sound of horses and the clatter of arms and armor. Everyone in the room rose, but he soon heard the Franks cheering. He got up and walked out the door alongside Father Ambrose.
An entourage—undoubtedly a military unit—came riding up the road. Twenty to thirty mounted soldiers led the procession. Ranks of infantry, four abreast, stretched out as far as Rolf could see. Shoulders and hats covered with snow, they made stoic progress toward the compound. The commander of the stockade came to greet the man at the head of the column. Rolf’s blood froze. He thought of trying to get away, but where would he go? He stood by Ambrose as the man dismounted. Salutes and greetings ran around. The commander of stockade gestured to Father Ambrose. The commander of the army that had just arrived at the compound strode over. He greeted Ambrose, but already his eyes were dark with rage. No way out, Rolf thought. He wondered if the man would kill him on the spot. He stared for a full minute before speaking.
“I see that God has brought justice at last,” he said. “I’ve lived to see you die. And I get to kill you myself.”
Ambrose looked over at Rolf. “My Lord, I don’t understand. This man has my protection.”
The commander, who had been introduced as Clodion, spat on the ground.
“He will die on the spot.”
“I took him captive in battle,” Rolf said, looking over at Ambrose, “at the skirmish at Wendon Brook. We imprisoned him and held him ransom. During the imprisonment he was honorably treated. We care for his wounds and nursed him back to health.”
Clodion said nothing. Ambrose repeated, a little more loudly, “This man is under my protection.” Clodion gripped the hilt of his sword. To Rolf’s surprise, Ambrose stepped between them. “Leave your sword in its scabbard, Clodion. I swore an oath in the name of God that no harm would come to this man. Do not unsheathe your sword, lest you cut your soul from the Kingdom of Heaven with it. No harm will come to him. Remember who is the King of the kings of the Earth.”
“Not you, Priest.”
“No, not me. And keep your blasphemies to yourself. No harm comes to this man or you break an oath to God and face his wrath—and the wrath of his Church.”
Clodion probably did not fear God, but Rolf could tell from his reaction that he feared the Church. He glared at Rolf and then at Ambrose and walked off. Ambrose watched him go his way. “We probably ought to come in out of the snow,” he said.
They went back into the dining hall, deserted now. They sat down and finished their wine. Rolf told Ambrose more of the details on the fight with Clodion.
“Don’t fear. I’ll see to it that he doesn’t harm you.”
They had just finished their wine when four armed guards came into the room. The men converged on Rolf. Ambrose rose.
“No harm will come to this man,” one of the guards said. “We’re under order, though, to take him into custody and confine him. He will be well-treated. Clodion has ordered us to do this. He will speak to you about his reason, but we’re under orders to restrain him and we have to follow orders, Father. Please don’t oppose us.” He looked over at Rolf, who nodded affirmatively. Ambrose went off to see Clodion. Rolf went with the four armed men.
They crossed the compound. The snow has stopped falling. He could see the soldiers who had just marched in setting up tents and lighting fires for cooking. Hundreds of troops had bivouacked at the fortress. Their presence could only mean an invasion of Saxon territory. His escort marched him to a small house and led him inside.
The house contained a cot. Beneath it was a chamber pot. He noticed the floor was stone. A small fireplace blazed in on the east wall. The soldiers shoved him inside and closed the door. He heard the noise of a bolt thrown across the outside; scuffling, voice, and then the tread of feet. They were guarding him. He stepped up to the fireplace and warmed himself. He looked around. Other than the light from the fire, a small barred window in the door let light in. He noticed there was a sliding panel for him to close or open it.
Rolf sat down on the cot. He wondered what now. His thoughts strayed to Mathilda. Was she all-knowing as a goddess, or limited? The stories were inconsistent. The gods knew all, it was said, yet in the legends they could be deceived and tricked—only by other gods? It seemed that at times mortals fooled them as well. And the gods were not all equal. The highest gods knew what went on upon the earth, but Mathilda seemed more a local deity, a genius of the vast forest his people inhabited. Her power might be limited to that territory. Yet she had appeared to him out of that territory, or at least on the fringes of it. He wondered how he would pass the time during his confinement.
After a few hours Father Ambrose came.
“I’ve talked with Clodion. He will not be persuaded to let you go. He respects the conditions I set, so no one will hurt you. I’ll keep persuading him to give your liberty back, but I’m not sure it will make much of an impression.”
“He is leading a force, and undoubtedly it will go against my people. I can see why he would not want me free. I might escape and alert my people.”
“This is so.”
“I thank you for protecting me, Father.”
Ambrose opened his mouth and then closed it, not saying whatever it was he intended to say. Rolf imagined it was some kind of pious statement about how he should thank the Christian god and the love that founded their religion, but he thought better of it. Rolf respected him as a man, and he could tell as much. It would seem dishonorable to use mutual admiration for purposes of crass proselytization. Ambrose bowed and took his leave.
He spent two days in the confines of the room. As promised, he was not harmed. Guards delivered food and firewood to him and emptied the chamber pot. Once Ambrose did come in and outline the tenets of the Christian faith. Otherwise, Rolf passed the time recalling lines from the heroic poems and sacred hymns he had heard often enough to have half-memorized parts of them. On the morning of the second day, two soldiers escorted him out of the cell.
He crossed the snowy grounds the stockade enclosed. The soldiers took him into Clodion’s presence.
He sat at a table. Big, formidable, with the rough face and steely gaze warriors often possess, he looked at Rolf.
“Saxon, your name is Rolf, son of Fredyk?”
“That is my name, yes.”
“Do you know the village of Baldenmarsh?” Rolf did not answer. “I’m told you grew up in a village near to it.” He gazed directly at Rolf. “The woman we’re going to burn this afternoon, Bertilda, told us as much.” He waited for a reaction.
“Why are you going to burn her?”
“She is a blasphemer. She claimed to be a virgin and took vows dedicating herself to our Lord. We have since found out, from two soldiers who are of your people but have been baptized, that the woman is far from being a chaste maiden—that, in fact, she was quite the flaming whore before coming here. She has defiled the holy place where the true maidens live. She admitted as much when the Abbess confronted her. She is being held pending her death this afternoon.”
He rose and lumbered out of the room. Rolf followed him. The two guards trailed behind. They traversed the interior of the stockade. He noticed the soldiers had broken camp. They had pulled up their tents and were loading gear. A smith had brought a grinding wheel. Men were lined up to sharpen swords. Rolf saw the showers of sparks and heard the grating of metal. Pairs of men practiced their swordsmanship. Other tended to bowstring and used flints to sharpen the barbs on their bolts. They were ready to move out for an attack. The village of Baldenmarsh was only ten miles from where he lived.
Clodion came to a door. One of the soldiers rushed up and opened it. He stepped inside and gestured for Rolf to follow.
Even as he came into the room he heard sobbing. His eyes adjusted to see Bertina. They had hung her up by her wrists with her feet off the floor. Like Mathilda at her execution, she wore only a thin smock. Blood ran from below her hands and her face was drawn in agony. Clodion walked over and pushed on her with a finger. She screamed, the slight movement sending a shock of agony through her body.
“Too bad she’ll have to hang here for another three hours,” he said. “She thinks she is in agony. She doesn’t know how much her pain will increase in the remaining time she is here. Then, of course, her execution. The wood is wet and the day windy. It won’t be quick.”
He looked at her in her mute agony. Clodion regarded him.
“My troops plan to support an attack on the center forest of Saxony. If you cooperate with me, I can assure your safety and safety and freedom for the girl. You must agree to lead my troops to Badenmarsh. If you agree to lead us there, we will release you and the girl. Ambrose gave his word that you will not be harmed, and you will not. But her . . . it won’t be a pretty thing to see. I feel for the poor child.”
He looked at her again. His mind raced, covering the things that Clodion had just said. The Franks attacked on horse supported by infantry. If they planned to use the village of Badenmarsh, they would have to assemble in the meadow of Nerthus, a place where both horse and foot could easily maneuver. If the Franks could get the Saxon army into the open and then hit them from the direction of Badenmarsh, it would be a route and possibly destruction for the entire Saxon force. He only hoped they did not know the terrain that well.
“You will give freedom to both of us?”
“We will. We know you came here to free this woman.”
“I love her and want her as my wife. To have that, I will lead you to Badenmarsh.”
He nodded to one of his men, who undid the rope and let her down. He untied the knot enveloping her wrist. She wept and writhed, licking the raw places on her arms and sobbing.
“Fetch some healing balm for her wrists,” he said.
Clodion nodded. One of the two men left. Bertina began to wail and sob. Rolf knelt by her side.
“We’ll send a physician to bind her wounds. I’ll leave it to you to tell her she will not be burned. We march before the morning light.”
He departed. The door closed. He stroked Bertina’s long, thin hair and touched her face.
“It’s over,” he whispered. “No one is going to hurt you.”
“Burn me,” she sobbed. “They’re going to burn me.”
“No. Not now. You’re coming with me. I can’t guarantee that we’ll live through this, but they’re not going to burn you.”
She opened her eyes and looked at him. “Why?” she asked after a long moment.
“I couldn’t bear to see you suffer like that. And I need you to help me save my village and my people from Saxon conquest.”
She seemed to want to ask more but pain overcame her. She fell to quiet weeping once more. A physician came in, cleaned her wounds, rubbed healing balm on, bandaged them, and departed. Rolf knelt for a time and then, unable to kneel any longer, stretched out beside her. She cried and shook. He reached over and massaged her shoulders, which he knew were more a source of pain than her wrists. Eventually she fell asleep.
Rolf got up and walked outside. Two guards were posted outside the building, but they did not hinder him. The tents were gone. He saw Frankish troops carrying bedrolls into the various buildings of the compound. They were sleeping inside this morning so they could start out before dawn. The sky had cleared. Stars shown in an arch above him: Orion huge over the horizon, the Bear, the Sisters, and all the others gleaming around a gibbous waning moon. He asked one of the guards for a blanket. He flagged a soldier who brought them two. Rolf went back inside. Bertilda sat on the floor, examining the dressings on her wrists. She looked up when he came in.
“It’s going to be cold tonight. It will be better if we strip and sleep together. We can keep warm that way.”
She looked as if she meant to object but then nodded and pulled off the smock. He undressed and laid his clothing in a pile, putting one of the blankets over it. They stretched out and pulled the other blanket over their bodies.
Her flesh felt cold, but they warmed. She was a small woman but strong and shapely. As they clung to each other, the inevitable happened. Rolf felt coupling with Bertina would be a betrayal of Mathilda, but he did nothing when she pushed him so he was flat on his back and climbed on top of him. She reached down to guide his member into her and pushed to enfold him. She had been in the maiden house for months, he thought, and she had been a promiscuous woman in past days; so had Mathilda. Bertina began to move up and down in a slow, even pace, her breasts brushing his chest, her arms gripping his shoulders with surprising strength. Passion took her. Eyes closed tightly, teeth clenched and lips pressed together, she moved, tightening and loosening the muscles inside her, gasping and quietly moaning until joy shook her and she stopped. He thought she might go to sleep, but she dutifully began moving again until he was finished. She rolled off and went to sleep. That was the end of it.
He wondered if Mathilda, in her new role as a goddess, would know what he had done. He thought she might appear to him and rebuke him. He did see her in his dream, but she said nothing and did not look angry. She stood in the crumbles the guarded the village of Badenmasrsh. As he watched, she extended her hands. Snow fell in billows from the sky. She had confirmed what he had planned to do. A trumpet awakened him. Though still dark, it was time for the Frankish army to move out.
He and Bertina rose and got ready to go. The physician who had examined her brought her a dress, boots, a cloak and mittens. He removed the dressings and examined her wrists. Pleased that they were healing, he said it would be best to leave them open to the air. She should be careful not to break the scabs and, above all, not to scratch no matter how badly her wounds itched.
Clodion, mounting on a large black horse, rode up to them. He smirked, thinking (correctly) they had enjoyed each other during the night. He imagined (incorrectly) that they were lovers emotionally and physically attached to one another. Not wanting to shatter the illusion, Rolf looked just slightly angry when Clodion leered at them.
“Horses for you and your companion,” he said. Rolf helped Bertina up on hers and mounted his own. “You’ll ride with me and my generals. If you attempt escape or treachery, you will be killed, both of you. You will lead us to Badenmarsh—to the most advantageous approach to the village. When victory is ours, I give you my word I will set you free and send you on your way with ample funds to establish yourselves wherever you may want to go.”
Rolf nodded. The stars had shifted. The moon had gone down. The sharp cold made everyone move quickly. Clouds of steam rose from the horses mouths. His fingers and ears stung. A trumpet sounded and the army started out, Clodion, his generals, and Rolf and Bertina, leading on horseback. The other soldiers—Rolf estimated the force at a thousand—marched behind, armor clanking, spears bristling above their ranks.
Clodion had prepared well, Rolf noticed. The snow had been cleared by oxen pulling logs. It was easy for the horses and, more importantly, the foot soldiers to make their way forward. They seemed like a disciplined army and made good time. The sun turned the horizon pink for a moment and then to the white light so characteristic of a winter dawn.
Rolf ran over his plan. It could go wrong, he knew. The Franks might recognize what he plotted. They were not familiar with the territory or they would not have impressed him as a guide. Still, it would be easy to tell, just from the lay of the land, what he would lead them to. Only a good covering of snow would deceive them, and the snow seemed to have thinned the last few days. Besides this, a group of Saxons had joined them. They might know the area—though, he pondered, if they did why had Clodion not simply used them as guides? Still, it was a possible danger.
They rode, stopping after four hour’s march. The soldiers broke into squads. Clodion gave them bread and wine. He seemed lighter, almost chipper, flushed with the possibility of victory. “This day the forest will be ours,” he said. Rolf only nodded. Bertina drank wine. After a short rest, they went on. The land grew more familiar. Rolf noticed formations and landmarks he knew; after that, he rested in the familiarity of his homeland. Clodion turned to him. “We are near the precincts of the village where the attack will take place.”
“It’s three miles from here. Your best course would be to get off the road and go through the forest. There is a path wide enough for horses and wide enough for your soldiers to march by twos. It will bring us in sight of the village.”
“Won’t the road take us to the lea side of the village?”
“It will, but you will not escape detection. My people will harry you and shoot arrows from the shelter of the trees. If we come the other way we will escape detection.”
“If you’re lying, leading us astray, or deceiving us in any way, boy, I’ll have this woman skinned alive in front of your eyes. Then it will be your turn.”
Bertina blenched. Rolf thought for a moment she might faint, but she recovered. Dread shone in her eyes but she kept quiet. Satisfied that he had frightened them, Clodion told his commanders they would be cutting through the wood to approach the village from the rear.
He formed his troops into a double rank. All were armed with swords, a few with bows that shot bolts, and with oval shields. On his order, they advanced at a slow pace toward Baldermarsh. A light snow began to fall as they moved out.
Ahead, Rolf could hear the sound of battle. As he had anticipated, the Franks had attacked the Saxons at the meadow of Nerthus, which was a sacred site. He heard the whinnying of horses and the cacophony of war—screaming, shouting, the ringing sound of sword on sword, the blare of trumpets ordering troops to different locations on the field. He waited. The snow increased in velocity. Looking about, he saw Clodion and three of his officers, three guards, sitting on horses. Four foot soldiers stood behind them so he and Bertina could not escape into the forest.
Rolf held his breathe, waiting. He reflected, ironically, on how would die in the battle without lifting a sword in his defense. He hoped they would not have time to torture Bertina to death as Clodion had threatened. He waited for the deception that would mean their deaths to unfold. The ranks of Frankish soldiers advanced toward the meadow, keeping quiet, shuffling down a bank toward the marsh now entirely concealed by deep snow. They moved, shuffling through the accumulation up to their thighs. Rolf held his breath. In a moment, he heard the sounds he had been waiting to hear: the sound of ice cracking, of water and mud splashing, and, after a moment, shouts, cursing, and screaming.
The snow cover had concealed from Clodion’s force that they were advancing over what the locals called The Crumbles. The Crumbles was a wet, marshy area of land where the soil was supersaturated with water—not a lake or pond but a bog. In winter the surface froze enough that you could walk over it, but the weight of an army had broken the ice and the frozen mud on the surface. The Frankish soldiers began to sink into the frigid mire.
Rolf also noticed that the snow had begun to fall hard—so hard you could not see more than a foot beyond where you stood.
In the next moments several things happened at once. The cries of dismay, angry, and annoyance from the soldiers turned to cries of fear, anguish, and pain. The crumbles was not deep, but in winter it could be deadly and people who had wandered into it were trapped and died of cold. The icy water would suck the heat from one’s body in minutes. The muck would encumber the soldiers to the degree that they could not extract themselves. And they were in armor and carrying weapons. The sound of the Frankish company turned from cries of anger and dismay to cries or astonishment and terror.
The snow fell in clumps and clusters. Rolf heard Clodion’s horse stir, though he could not see him now even as close as they were. Clodion roared out an imprecation. Rolf wheeled his horse about, seized the reins to Bertina’s horse, and spurred the animal in what he thought was the direction of the path they had come down. He heard a thump and realized he had hit one of the foot soldiers guarding them. He heard the clatter of chain mail and military equipment. He needed to be armed. His horse whinnied loudly. He had not found the road. He and Bertina had come to a line of trees too dense to ride through. He leaped off his steed.
“Stay here,” he said. “Don’t try to ride away.” Rolf sprinted through the curtain of white following the fast-disappearing tracks his horse had made. The soldier he had hit lay on the ground, stunned. Rolf stomped on his arm, wrenched the sword from his hand and killed him with one stroke. He took his dagger as well and turned, looking for Clodion and the remaining Franks.
He bumped into one, briefly engaged and dispatched him. Not able to see, he listened. The sounds coming from the crumbles had altered. Now he could heard, besides the screaming and shouting of the trapped army, the sound of bolts released and of arrows flying. It was hard to use a bow in wet weather, but he knew the rear guard left behind to watch Badenmarsh, had seen the situation and fetched bows out of their houses. Arrows whizzed making a swishing sound. Men cried out in pain as the arrows reached their marks. He heard the clattering of armor. Out of the curtain of white, another of the infantry soldiers charged him. Rolf parried his thrust. He slipped and fell, the weather making him invisible. Rolf listened but only heard the pandemonium from The Crumbles. He waited, sword at ready, but did not hear the soldier again. He decided it was time to find Bertina.
He tried to remember his direction and stumbled across her. Snow had coated her cloak. Off in the distance, the din of the battle rang in their ears, carrying through the stillness of winter to such a degree that both of them heard words, curses, prayers, oaths, as clearly as if the men speaking them were only a few feet away.
“Come on,” he said. “If we skirt this line of trees, it will take us back to the pathway.”
As he said this, he heard hooves. Someone was riding down on them. He turned and stepped away from Bertina. A dark shape formed through the snow. Someone was trying to ride him down. Black horse. It was Clodion.
Fear should have gripped him at this point, but he had fought this man before and knew that, whatever his reputation, however he had risen to a command position in Frankish army, he was not a particularly good fighter. Rolf had disarmed and captured him once before. He was too hot-headed to master the discipline and concentration necessary to become a consummately skillful solider. And like most cavalry officers, he put too much faith in the strength of a horse. All of this went through Rolf’s mind in only a second, and by the time Clodion came close enough that he could see his face, he knew what he course of action to take.
Rather than fleeing from the horse, he stepped directly into its path, waited until he could see its eyes and nostrils and suddenly brandished his sword so it pointed directly at the horse’s muzzle.
Horses would not charge into sharp objects. The animal cried out and abruptly twisted sideways to avoid Rolf’s sword. Clodion flew out of the saddle as the horse skidded past Rolf, its legs askew, hooves trying to find traction. The animal righted itself and galloped off into the white curtain obscuring the world around them.
Rolf crossed over to where he lay. He was hurt. He poked at him with his sword.
“Finish me, Saxon,” he said.
“Your army is destroyed. The main body was counting on your attack from the rear.”
“If you have any regard for me as a soldier, don’t make me face my shame.”
“I would have done that except that you tortured Bertina and threatened to flay her alive. I’ll take you captive a second time. We’ll find out if your King sees fit to ransom you again.”
The billowing snow had already covered Clodion. Rolf heard a noise, the movement of a horse. He turned. A few feet away he saw one of Clodion’s lieutenants leveling a crossbow at him. Before he could move, the soldier pulled the trigger.
The next three things seemed to happen in time slowed down but also to happen so quickly they blurred into one. The bolt did not strike him. Mathilda stood beside him. She had caught the missile in her hand. When the soldiers saw this—all of three of Clodion’s lieutenant’s had ridden up by now—they turned and fled down the path that Rolf knew would only lead them to the main Saxon force.
They faced each other. Mathilde handed him the bolt.
“Keep this. It would have killed you.”
“I’m not sure my people would have made you immortal—otherwise I would have let it go into your heart. Get Bertina for me.”
He nodded. The snow diminished so he could see her and her horse only a few feet away from them. He walked over and told her to dismount.
“We’re safe now. Come on.”
She climbed down, sensing something in the tone of his voice. He took her hand and led her over to where Mathilda stood. When she saw her, she went pale and sank to her knees. Mathilda stepped up to her, reached down, and took hold of her chin, lifting her face so they looked into each other’s eyes.
“What do you have to say to me, Bertina?” Mathilda asked.
Rolf thought she would be too terrified to speak but she replied in a clear, even voice.
“I know I am face to face with a spirit. I am not worthy to even speak to you. My sin has found me out. Forseti the God of Justice has delivered me into your hands. Do to me what you wish to do. I am not fit to live.”
“It should hearten me to hear you say that, but I realize I was partly to blame for what you did. You loved Dedrik. I should not have stolen him from you.”
“It did not justify what I did to you.”
“We were two vain, foolish women. We’ve both learned wisdom by what we’ve suffered. The Fates have kept us alive, though in different ways. We should both be thankful for that. Dedrik is here. He survived the battle. He knows the wrong he did in abandoning you for me. If you can forgive him, you two might be reconciled and you might marry him as you always dreamed.”
She looked up and met Mathilda’s eyes.
“This is sacred day of victory,” she said. “It is not a day for petty vengeance. I hope both of us have learned the shallowness of such behavior. I have.”
Bertina only nodded. Rolf heard noises and readied his sword. The snow had diminished now to the degree that he could see the soldiers approaching them were Saxon.
“Take Bertina with you. I’ll come to you tonight,” Mathilda said. She vanished. The soldiers who approached Rolf seemed not to have seen her. Among them was Fredyk. He threw down his sword, ran over and embraced his son. The others converged on the injured Clodion. Then they noticed Bertina. After Fredyk had broken off his embrace with Rolf, he leveled his gaze at her. He was a grizzled veteran of many campaigns. Rolf noticed he was bleeding slightly (his left shoulder). He looked over at Bertina.
“This woman is a traitor who converted to the Frankish religion. Hang her.”
“No.” Rolf stepped between them. “She was most helpful to me. She did convert but then realized the error of her ways. When she repudiated the Christian religion, the Franks tortured her, as you will see by looking at her wrists. She helped me escape. I ask that you spare her and receive her back into the tribe.”
His father nodded. More soldiers had appeared. The ones who had come with his father were lifting Clodion up. Ferdyk’s face twisted into something faintly resembling a smile.
“You’ve captured this man twice.”
“He’s not much of a soldier,” Rolf said.
“You led his army into the Crumbles. The whole force perished. They had attacked us with foot and cavalry but not a large enough army to have defeated us. They relied on stealth, planning to hit us from behind. They could have destroyed us if they had. We owe you our very lives and the lives of our people.”
“Destroyed or captured. It was a great victory. We were led by Teutorix.”
Teutorix came from the northern reaches of Saxony, by the sea. He was wild and fanatic—driven by religious fervor for the old gods. Many people said he had the gift of prophecy. His followers were wild with fanaticism. He had proved a strong leader and skillful tactician. Rolf was surprised he had come this far south.
“He led an army down this far?”
His father managed a full smile this time. “He came here to consult with our leaders and his heart was smitten by the sight of Steora.”
“Steora the daughter of Gerolt. I think you were friends with her, one might say. He merely set eyes on her and declared that the eternal gods had shown him his bride. They were married the next day. She rides with him into battle.” He looked at Rolf’s hand. “Why are holding that bolt.”
He glanced at it. “One of their soldiers let it fly at me. It glanced off my tunic and stuck in a tree. I was so amazed I retrieved it.”
“The gods were with you.”
“They certainly were,” he murmured.
The snow had completely stopped by now. He and his father walked to the edge of The Crumbles to see the results of Rolf’s deception. The frozen muck, churned up by the feet of a thousand advancing soldiers, showed black as the sun broke through the clouds, chunks of ice glistening in its light. The bodies lay or stood upright. Many had been killed by arrows but just as many had died from the cold. A few had stumbled through staggered to the far shore but were too weak to resist their captors. They had been taken prisoner. They would be killed or sold as slaves. The unit guarding the village was already beginning to lasso the bodies and pull them out of the cold, black mire to strip them of weapons, armor, and valuables. Rolf thought of how he had led them all to their deaths. He knew of the carnage, rape, and pillage invading armies engaged in when victorious. The Christian warriors saw the Saxons as pagans who were not fully human and so their morality did not apply to this conquered people. He had never relished killing and had to force himself to boast of his exploits when the men assembled after battle for wine and talk. He had a good record for his age. The older men respected him, especially for his first capture of Clodion. He would be a hero now and possibly be added to the village council, despite his youth, for his decisive action in the latest battle. He did not particularly relish the idea. As often as you defeated the Franks, they came back to fight again. They were numerous, organized, and determined. He wondered if his people could stand against them forever.
His father led him around to the other side of the village. In the meadow of Nerthus, the Saxons were rounding up prisoners. Some had been hanged. Some were reserved for burning in wicker cages as sacrifices to the gods. The others were being herded into groups of ten to be dispensed to various villages where they would be sold as slaves. Word of Rolf’s deception had spread through the Saxon camp. Men slapped him on the back and hailed him as a hero. After a while, he came face to face with Teutorix and Steora his bride.
Teutorix sat on a bay stallion. He was tall and strong, every bit the warrior. His armor soaked with blood, showed to the men and women there that he had been deep in the fray. Beside him, astride a white horse, Steora rode. She wore a buckskin dress, boots, and a cloak. A signet crown encircled her head. Her blonde hair flowed free as if she were a prophetess. She looked like Bellona, goddess of war. Rolf bowed to the couple who had successfully destroyed the Frankish army—with his help, no doubt. Teutorix, who looked wild-eyed and half-crazy, lifted his hand in praise.
“Rolf, Son of Fredyk. You have done the gods and your people a great service. We hail you as a hero and will reward your service.”
He bowed. Steora looked down at him. “We will enjoy hearing the account of his exploits at the feast tonight,” she said.
Rolf returned to the house in which he had grown up. His mother washed him. His sister Gretchen waited on him at table. His step-brothers and step-sisters ogled at him. They knew his previous successes in battle but never thought he would be a hero the entire village lauded. After eating and drinking, he rested in his own bed, which was a blessing. The journey here had been wearying. The tension of captivity and battle had drained him. He slept deeply until Helg woke him and told it was time for the burial and then for the celebration.
They walked out as a family. The village was assembled for the burial of the warriors who had been killed in the battle. Casualties had been light, but even light casualties meant grief and loss. His village had yielded four dead. Two of them were his age—young men he had grown up with. He wept to see them laid out for burial. He knew the older men as well. Their widows wailed. Their children wept. The village elders asked his help to carry them to the pyres. After burning their bodies, their bones and ashes were consigned to sacred ground. The people returned to their homes. The celebration would follow in an hour.
When he came to the gathering he found himself seated with the village leaders. During the course of the celebration he got to talk to Steora.
“I had an easy time of it,” she said. “I simply rode off. As you said, I found hospitality with a family who live nearby. The next day I arrived at my village. My family welcomed me back with open arms. Then Teutorix arrived. When he saw me, he cast his eyes on me and that night told me that Odin had indicated I was to be his bride. He’s a handsome man, Rolf, and I thought of you and of how much I loved you, but how could I rebuff him? I told Father I was not a virgin. I said the Franks had raped me and I could not show Teutorix a maidenhead. Father told him. He said he was fine with that. He insisted on wedding me and I had no choice but to consent. He called me Bellona. I thought he might want me for a chaste wife—Bellona is a virgin goddess—but that was certainly not what he had in mind. He always lays me before we go into battle. Once, when we were hemmed in by the Franks and regrouped our forces, he brought me into his tent and fucked me with all his strength. We broke out of the trap and marched home without a single loss. Of course, I’m pregnant now and won’t be able to ride with him much longer. Still, I see the touch of divinity in our marriage. I’m sorry, Rolf. I wanted to marry you. The gods intervened.”
The gods had intervened more decisively than Steora could ever imagine.
Rolf slept late. In the morning he knew she would be there. He dressed and made his way into a light snowfall. He saw her deer and followed it. He found Mathilda sitting on the trunk of a fallen maple tree. A snowy owl perched above her. Her deer came up and licked her hand. She wore her white embroidered robe and was barefoot. She wore no cloak or gloves. She smiled. Though still wary of her godhood, he came up and kissed her. He felt the seductive cold from her lips, felt it fill him and warm him. He took her hands.
“You’re not afraid of me anymore,” she said.
“You must be patient with me I’m not used to dealing with goddesses.”
“How will you deal with me now? Steora is out of your life. Bertina will marry Dedrik. You? Now that you’re hero, every family in the village will be throwing their eligible daughters at you—with sumptuous dowries.”
“Why would I care about that? Can a mortal love a goddess?”
“You’ve already loved me—with your soul and with your body. The question is, Can I gain immortality for you? Some of the gods get a little grumpy about dispensing it. They don’t want mortals to get the idea that you can just waltz into Valhalla and get made over so you live forever and have godlike powers. But”—she paused and smiled—“some very high-ups are impressed with your skill as a fighter and with your loyalty. They were impressed with the way you stood up to the Franks on Solstice and held out for the old faith when you were being proselytized. I think they will grant it. There are other reasons too.”
“The old ways are fading. The Franks will conquer our people. The old religion will pass away and we will live more quietly. Quite a few of them are gathering companions who will . . . admire them when their worship completely fades out. I’d say your prospects are good, Rolf.”
“I don’t care about prospects. I care about you.”
“That’s why I’m sure you will become immortal. You need to tell your family what happened. Tell them and don’t leave anything out. I will come to Helg in a vision. She is my kinswoman. She felt for me but had to think of what she would say to her family, especially to her daughters. I’ll speak to her so that when you leave it won’t merely be your word.”
“I’ll miss my family—especially Gretchen.”
“She will prosper. Your family will prosper. Go back now. When you come to me again, it will be to join me forever.”
Rolf returned and told his family—father, stepmother, Gretchen his sister and step-brothers and –sisters—what had happened. They gaped in amazement. He thought they might think him mad, but too many unusual things had happened with him of late for them to dismiss what he said. And the presence of Teutorix had increased religious fervor in the villages of his tribe. His father said they would miss him, and the village would know a sad gap in its ranks when he went away, but who could go against the immortal gods?
He spent a last night with them. In the morning, the buzz in the village was that they had found the body of Mathilda.
Rolf went down to the shore of The Crumbles. Washed up on north shore, one blackened arm extended as if she were trying to climb out of the mire, the body of Mathilda lay half in, half out of the water. She appeared as the villagers who had seen her walking, her face and body turned a dark color by the acids of the bog but her hair still gold. She wore the bloody smock in which she had been killed. The rope was still around her neck. It had broken off from the stone they used to sink her in the mire.
No one knew how she had come from the bog to The Crumbles. Some say she walked but many claimed an underground stream connected the two bodies of water and had carried her from one place to another. The Council met and stated that though it had not been wrong to execute her as an adulteress. It had been wrong to treat her so cruelly and to defile her corpse. The women of the village took her body, washed it, and dressed it in a new garment. She was buried among the people of the clan. The priests offered sacrifices to atone for the village’s sin and to quiet her vengeful spirit. When the burial was complete, Rolf went into the forest to find Mathilda.
He came to his house, much closer than it had seemed before. She stood by the front door to welcome him.
He sensed he was being welcomed to her house but also to his apotheosis.
“That easy?” he asked.
“Everything is done.” She took his hands. “And my blessing will be on your village. It was vexing that a small part of my spirit was broken off and wandered the earth. I never came to grips with my anger and anguish over how I was treated there, so that part of me was excluded from divinity and roamed the earth as an angry, vindictive wraith. Now sacrifice and repentance has placated my anger. I’m whole. Your people won’t see that part of me again.”
“I’m happy to hear this.”
“I know you are. The kindness you showed to me—to a woman you didn’t even know—brought you to this—and brought me to this as well.”
He wanted to respond but could not find the words. She took him inside her chamber. The words would come later, though perhaps now, with things changed as they were, words would not be necessary. Words especially failed when you were love, and love crossed the line from the mortal to the immortal. He followed her into the bed chamber as the snow fell, a white curtain, through the towering trees outside.