The Hanged God – 03

Chapter Three

It took us two hours to reach the Lady’s Hall, sheltered from the weather in a depression between two low hills. It was a long, well-built thatched-roof house capable of comfortably holding every one of the Fylgjas and their maidservants, with room to spare. Various outhouses, storerooms, cisterns, middens, goatpens, and kennels lay at the back. My mother knocked on the door and waited.

Our visit was short. They offered us heated wine, and then goat-milk and cheese. They were stern yet not unfriendly. And for the first time the veil of awe lifted somewhat from my eyes and I saw them as women rather than a race apart. The Lady who sat down and spoke with us was old and wrinkled and I remember feeling surprise, as though I hadn’t realised that a Lady could be aged, though I could not remember why I hadn’t.

My questions were few and silly, and I blush to think of them now. But the Lady answered kindly enough. And when I left my steps seemed lighter. Neither of us spoke a word until we neared the village. Then my mother stopped and turned to me.

“You want a man,” she said. And it wasn’t a question. I was dumbstruck. It was the naked truth. But my entire soul rose up against it and I denied it without even thinking.

“I will arrange a man for you.” My mother said. And the fact that this was a great honour for someone still as young as I did not occur to me. Neither did the burning lust inside me seem to touch my tongue. For I refused my mother’s offer even more vehemently, my eyes now hot with anger.

My mother stared at me for a long, long time. Then she said, with a firmness I had learned with bitter experience was not to be questioned, “You will raise a hearth and take a housebond of your own, and you will be a woman of the village.” And even though I had always assumed this would be my future I almost burst into tears on the spot.

But I was a woman then, and not a girl. And tears would not avail me. So I mastered myself and stared my mother straight in the eyes, realising then that I didn’t have to look up at her as I used to. And I stated just as firmly that I would not do anything of the sort. And then she smiled. And she turned. And the moment had passed, and we went home. And she never offered again. But a few days later I was visited again by the Lady that we had met and she took me down to the river and we walked, and we talked about what I would have to do to join them.

So hearth and home was not to be my Fate after all. I left the other girls behind me, and the dreams I had made swinging on the gate and watching the boys and talking with my friends were abandoned like smoke in the sky. The deep mysteries called to me, the ways of my people, the truths of life and death, of Warp and Weft. I was not to be one of my people any more, but I was to accompany them, to be a wandering spirit among them, unattached to the land. It was a harsh life, and lonely. But I was not afraid. Not then. I was young of course, and proud, as the young are. And I thought I knew my own mind.

It was then that Tack came home. I had not joined the Ladies yet. I was in discussion with them, but to join them was an arduous process, one of long study and of secret rites. And one of suffering too. I will not speak of it. Though there is no reason now to hold on to those secrets I gave my word at the time. And though so much is gone, my word remains, for as long as I do. I was an initiate, still living at my mother’s hut, but being taught by a Fylgja at the hearth instead. My lessons were arduous, but I still had some time to walk under the sky, and watch my former friends play and talk, and hang on the fences. And of course I was freed from my studies on Great Days. And one of the greatest of those was the day when the Warriors returned.

I did not sit with the young women beside the road as I had done when they left. I stood tall beside the Ladies, standing across the road, and barring the way. Not a part of them yet, but beside, a short gap between us. Yet even so, the proximity filled me with a burning pride, and I felt ten inches taller. We had received word from a runner that the men were coming and so the whole village had turned out to greet them. Not their wives and mothers and mistresses of course. They would wait at the thresholds of their homes for their men to come and lay their spoils before them, to judge their offerings with a stern countenance and a critical eye, before they would judge the men worthy to return inside. But the slaves, and elder men, the housebonds who had not gone out, and all the children and young women were out, waiting and watching. 

When we saw them on the horizon we cheered. And when they came within earshot we beat the drums and the children danced. And the sight of the young women at the side of the road made the men’s backs straighter, and their strides longer. Their wounds were forgotten, and the dead they carried on their shields seemed lighter.

And they marched up to us, and blew their trumpets and beat their swords on their shields. And though they were exhausted, broad grins still split their faces and they held their heads high. And then my breath caught in my throat. For I saw at their head the boy I had almost forgotten. He was taller, broader-shouldered, but it was the look on his face that had changed the most. I cannot describe it. But the boy I remembered had become a man. And the look on his face both terrified me and fascinated me. I could not look away.

He had no wound, and he carried a heavy iron sword at his hip, an expensive weapon. And he carried a large bag that hung heavily in his grip. As the other men slowed he continued, striding forward to stand before the Ladies. He did not bow. But he opened the bag before us and emptied it, and fifty gold torques fell out. They were huge, the kind that warriors wore on their necks or their upper arms. And the design upon them was strange and alien. Among them we saw torques with gems encrusted, facets gleaming in the sun.

And as the last one hit the floor all the men let out a yell that made me jump, to my shame, and beat their swords upon their shields in a frenzy. It was deafening and it took me some time before I realised what they were roaring.  “Valtam” they cried. Again and again. “Valtam! Valtam! Valtam!” And we women could only stand there in shocked silence as they cried his name.

It meant Warrior.

I later learned that Valtam had spent the previous autumn and winter wandering in the hills. Somehow he had survived by himself. He had fought off the huge mountain wolves, the descendants of those wildmen my mother had told me of as a girl. He had hunted rabbits and deer for meat, and built a shelter of sticks and moss.

When the men had marched out to war in the spring he had come down and joined them. They had been suspicious of him at first, for he was still at least a year younger than the age at which boys were allowed to fight in battle. But he had shown them the skin and skull of a giant wolf he had killed and they let him join them. In the first battle, with a small party of raiders travelling up from the south, he had distinguished himself by taking a party of two others around the side of the battle lines, hidden by a copse of trees, and attacking the enemy from behind.

He had killed two men personally and they had all chased the survivors for several miles, tripping them and tying their arms as they caught them. As well as the two men Valtam had killed, he captured two others. But he gave them to the War Chief as a gift, who had them sent back to the village earlier. He was loved by the men after that.

The Warband then travelled through a pass to the east which they had not been through before. The Chief had said he had heard tale of roving warbands across the pass who carried gold in their baggage trains. But his risk proved foolish. For seven days beyond the pass, when they met an enemy band, they found themselves outnumbered and the Chief was struck down by an enemy champion before the shield walls met.

The men almost broke in their terror but Valtam rallied them with his words and his presence alone, and led them in charge after charge until they broke the enemy wall. The slaughter upon the field was great, and the majority of the great torques were taken there. The enemy had been a people the men had never seen before, shorter than we were, and with dark hair, narrow eyes, and flat faces. But strangest of all, their chieftain and his guard rode on the backs of horses, their legs dangling either side, gripping the animals’ flanks with their knees, running and fighting as though they were one beast. These horse-men fled the field despite our victory, faster than even the fleetest of our warriors.

And during the night our men heard war cries and great yells that kept them awake until dawn. And in the morning the camp was surrounded with hoof prints, and dung. They were terrified, imagining a great horde of warriors, but Valtam knelt and examined the marks, and told the men that they were from only a handful of horses. The defeated chief was trying to frighten them like they were children, because he could not defeat them in battle.

Valtam rallied the men and they stayed together as they retreated from that land with their slaves and their spoils. Though they marched swiftly seven nights later they awoke to find their way blocked with horse-men. Almost thirty of them, armed with short bows.

They charged and Valtam made the men stand firm in a tight circle, their spears stuck out, and the horse-men swept to either side and circled the shields firing arrows into the shields as the warriors sheltered behind them, the horse-men unable to hit more than a handful of our men. And then Valtam roared and the men flung their javelins and struck down seven of the horse-men, and then he made them charge with their spears and the horse-men fled in disarray. Most escaped and yet they did not return again, though the journey home took several more weeks.

The story was incredible, and I do not doubt it was greatly elaborated in the telling. But there were at least twenty neck-torques alone, and that was evidence of at least that number of dead. Unfortunately the dark-haired captives had been killed in the retreat to quicken the pace. So we could not see evidence of the men’s descriptions. Either way, it gave us pause, and the Ladies spoke long into the night, interrogating the elder warriors one after the other.

I was not part of the interviews, but I was permitted to sit against the walls, and listen. And I remember when they called Valtam into the Hall. He walked across the floor straight-backed and unbowed, as though he owned the place. His eyes were bright blue, and clear as the sky. His face gave nothing away. He answered in monosyllables in answer to their questions, looking calm and unconcerned. He gave no honorifics, or expressions of respect, though he was not uncivil. Yet still I felt the women bristle at his presence. His lack of awe before the Ladies was felt as an insult in itself. And I now think he knew that, and relished it. Though I was too innocent to see anything untoward at the time.

The interviews over, life went on as before. After long discussions the Ladies concluded nothing except a prohibition on future adventures beyond the eastern pass. It was felt that further raids beyond the pass may be too risky, but that otherwise there was no need for concern. Perhaps we should have been wiser.

We could not have known what we later discovered, but we should have perhaps sent out others to investigate the mysterious foreigners.  It was not our way though, we had our village, and our valley. Travelling merchants came and went like the birds, and they would bring us news of the wider world. And we sent out a raiding party on certain years to keep our closest neighbours weak and fearful.

And beyond that, what need was there for anything else?

> Chapter Four (Coming Soon)

Chapter Two <

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