~ JANUS PARADOX ~
St. Brigid's Day Excerpt from
Chapter 15 ~ Memory Entangled
Hrörekshold, Near Skerribriggan Cove, Kingdom of Meath, Ireland
First day of February 1088 (Olde Calendar) Imbolc / St. Brigid’s Day / Eve of Candlemas
...When Alyse next glimpsed Ælfwyn’s life, she could clearly sense the girl had endured a long and wearisome recovery as her leg healed. As the vision took over, Alyse realized that she was catching glimpses of the girl’s memories as well: Ælfwyn had been plagued with a spate of severe growing pains that winter, which had vastly multiplied the horrible ache in her healing leg, and further robbed the eleven-year-old Ælfwyn of her sleep, leaving her all the more exhausted. With her considerable knowledge of the healing arts, Kilda had done all she could to alleviate Ælfwyn’s pain. She confessed, however, that not even in Hrogn had she witnessed such a dramatic growth-spurt in so short a time.
For Ælfwyn, beyond the pain of her recovery, the greatest frustration was that Jarl Hrörek would not allow her to travel outside the main holding, nor was she able to help with any but the easiest of tasks within it. Either she sat amongst the old women to help with the spinning of yarn and weaving of tablet-trims, or she sang and told stories to the children of the hold, as they went about their own chores.
The eve of Candlemas was the feast day of St Brighid, which was also Imbolc, the beginning of the growing season and the bright-half of the year as marked on the ancient Celtic calendars of Ireland. On that night a great assembly of nobles, artisans, and freemen, along with their retinues, gathered in the Hrörekshold Mead Hall to celebrate.
Between removes, in the midst of all the wondrous array of the feast, Jarl Hrörek gestured to his Hall Steward who called for quiet from the revelers. As the Jarl stood up from his great oaken chair at the high table, all went silent as His Grace called out for his young ward, “Ælfwyn Gærethsdotr. Come, stand before me now.”
Astonished to hear her name, Ælfwyn glanced about at those in the hall. She was familiar with almost every face. There were some, like her, who owed Hrörek Gormrsson their fealty – a dozen or so families, with bondsmen of their own. Along with the freemen and artisans of the greater holding and its villages. Sadly, for her, Hrogn and Greffi, their dear friend Fyrgar was not in attendance, but Captain Drengr was there, along with the Jarl’s elite Hirðmenn. Every guest wore their best tunic or gown fashioned in the richest colors they could afford. Some trimmed their garments in colorful braids or incorporated semi-precious stones and intricate silk embroideries, even filaments of silver and gold. Depending on their function or rank, the Jarl’s guests and hirðmenn stood at guard or sat in places of honor about the Hall.
As confused as she was, Ælfwyn’s distress only became acute when she realized that neither Hrogn nor Greffi would look at her. As she carefully made her way forward from one of the side tables, Ælfwyn glanced down. Her rust-red overgown barely fit her anymore. It was at least a hand’s breadth shorter than the new linen kyrtle beneath it. That left her immensely grateful for one blessing, at least, as she and her thrall-maid, Runa, had finished the garment just the night before.
Still, a little unsteady, Ælfwyn made as careful and deep a curtsy as she could as she came before her guardian and said, “Your Grace. Your order is given and it shall gladly be done. How may I be of service?”
Without answering her, Jarl Hrörek called to his sister, “Roskilda Gormrsdottr, you are required to stand as witness.”
Mistress Roskilda had been seated at her brother’s side, but Ælfwyn noted she was no longer there, just as she heard everyone in the hall turn – as did she – to see Roskilda, Matron of the holding stride proudly forward the full length of the Hrörekshold great hall. Wearing a fine silk cap and veil, with her best gown dyed in the Irish purple and entwined with embroideries of silver and silk, Roskilda looked truly resplendent as she stopped in front of the High Table and inclined her head in deference to her brother.
Raising his voice, Jarl Hrörek declared for all to hear, “Ælfwyn, I am informed that for this entire winter now passed, you have neglected the levy you owe me as your guardian.” Ælfwyn’s heart cringed at those words, as Jarl Hrörek continued, “The duties appointed to you – aiding Mistress Roskilda in the kitchens and in the holding’s sick-house, as well as serving here in my Mead hall – these obligations and many others have all been eschewed in favor of a trifle of efforts amongst the spinsters and children this winter. Is this not so, Roskilda?”
Roskilda responded; “It has been so Your Grace – until recently.”
Jarl Hrörek replied, “Ah, yes. It has also been made known to me, Ælfwyn, that you were seen troubling Master Skaldi, Hirð-captain Drengr, even my own horse-master, and many others for these songs and stories of yours, to noise about later. All this has been done while leaving the balance of your chores for others to do. In short, you have re-fashioned your obligations as though they were a new gown to fit your own fancy.” As he stood upon the dais, Jarl Hrörek looked down at Ælfwyn as he declared in his most powerful voice, “From this day forward, far more will be expected of you, Ælfwyn Gærethsdotr.”
Clearly recalling Jarl Hrörek’s many explicit admonitions that she remain within the closest precincts of the holding until Roskilda declared her healed, Ælfwyn was horrified, unable to fathom how she could have misunderstood her Guardian on so many occasions throughout the winter months. She immediately went to kneel before Jarl Hrörek, fighting through the stiffness in her right leg that still would not bend without considerable effort. The biting cold of the stone floor beneath it set her knee afire, as she gasped from the sensation and glanced up at the sound of both Hrogn and Úlfgeirr starting out of their seats, only to check themselves with one glance from the old Jarl.
Ignoring all, Ælfwyn bowed her head deeply, as her words tumbled forth, “I beg you to forgive me Your Grace. I do not know how I could have been so foolish as to have mistook your words. I would never willfully offend you. You have but to say the word and I shall do all in my power to make amends.” Ælfwyn looked over at Roskilda to add, “…and most certainly to Mistress Roskilda as well. Please…” Ælfwyn’s voice caught for just a moment, and then summoning her courage she spoke as clearly as she could, “Please… Your Grace, please tell me what I must do to heal this breach of your affection.” She lowered her voice, afraid to offend, but intent on making her remorse clear, as she said, “I would do all as though I were your own child.”
She looked up, straight into the old Jarl’s eyes as he gazed back down at her. The only sound in the hall was a high-pitched whimper from Argus somewhere behind her. Scowling, Jarl Hrörek walked around from behind the high table to stand directly before her. Bending down, he simply shook his head at her as he took Ælfwyn by the shoulders and raised her to her feet.
His scowl was replaced by a bemused smile, as his voice gentled to a degree she had never heard before, “Ælfwyn, if you believe for one instant that I have seen aught but the fierce courage of your father’s heart in you, all this winter, then this ruse has gone too far and I’ll not let it continue one moment longer…” He turned to his sister and said, “Have it brought in, Roskilda.”
Bewildered, Ælfwyn looked to see Roskilda’s expression give way to a smile, as she inclined her head once more to her brother. Looking to the back of the Hall, she motioned someone forward and Ælfwyn saw Runa walking ahead of another thrall-servant carrying something large and encased in sheepskins. They took great care as they placed the object at Jarl Hrörek's feet. Runa, along with the bearer, then bowed deeply to him and to Roskilda as they quickly withdrew to one side.
With his great weathered hands on her shoulders, the old Jarl turned Ælfwyn around to face those in the hall as he announced, “This is Ælfwyn Gærethsdotr, the only surviving vessel into which Jarl Gæreth Oswulfsson poured the treasure of his lineage. Through her mother, Ciara, so recently lost to us, their daughter, Ælfwyn also stands in a direct line to the Ui’Briain. She is no child of my loins and thus I say this marks her service to me as all the greater.”
Ælfwyn barely breathed as he continued, “In the midst of the storm that struck us with such fury over Michaelmas, Ælfwyn faced down a host of Fenrir’s sons in order to save Argus, my most valued hound from the vile snare of a poacher – now dealt with.” He spat.
As Jarl Hrörek recounted the story in his own way, Ælfwyn knew not to contradict her Guardian’s over-generous interpretation of two young whelps likened to a ‘host of Fenrir’s sons’. Though she could not help smiling as she saw old Argus look up from where he lay near the central hearth, as he heard the sound of his master say his name.
Jarl Hrörek went on further, “In making her way back to the holding with Argus, Ælfwyn went to cross the river’s flood, but the ice and wind of the storm flung her against the rocks where she broke the bone so grievously it pierced the sinew of her leg. She has paid dearly for her service to me and my holding, through pain bravely suffered, throughout a long winter’s healing.”
He gently turned Ælfwyn back to face him, smiled at her, and said, “If any one of us could choose our own children, Ælfwyn – and without depriving my great friend Gæreth of such a daughter – I would have chosen you for mine.”
The sting of tears came instantly as Ælfwyn squeezed her eyes shut and bowed her head, while he went on, “Now as Imbolc heralds the spring and we partake of St. Brighid’s feast, it is well that we raise our thanks for Ælfwyn’s recovery to Brighid, the patroness of healing.”
A generous cheer went up from the gathered guests, as Jarl Hrörek continued, “Just this fortnight I am returned from attending on the court of Godred, King of Dubhlin, where I chanced to share the story of Ælfwyn’s courage. In hearing it, the King made known to me that in years past he had visited Oswulfshold and heard Ælfwyn’s own mother, Ciara, play upon her Irish harp. And this is as the King himself described it: ‘The Lady Ciara played with incomparable beauty, as though she were a goddess of the de Danann brought back from the ancient days’…” Hrörek stepped over to the bundle on the floor and asked, “Do you remember your mother’s playing, Ælfwyn?”
Blinking away tears, Ælfwyn looked up and nodded to him, whispering, “She sings in my dreams still, Your Grace.”
Jarl Hrörek smiled, “That is good. For you should know, Ælfwyn, that Brighid is also the patroness saint of learning and of poetry. And since both are talents within the scope of a girl with such a heritage as yours, I think you will learn to give Brighid thanks for those gifts as well.” He said more quietly, “I made no jest when I said I would expect more of you in the future, Ælfwyn.”
Her gaze did not waver as she simply nodded her assent.
The old Jarl gave her another smile as he pointed to the bundle at her feet, “Your work shall never be muted in my Mead Hall, Ælfwyn Gærethsdotr; it lies before you.” He turned to Runa and ordered, “Help her take it from its wrappings, child.”
To the wonder of all, as the thrall-girl took away the sheepskin case, Ælfwyn drew out a splendid Irish harp. She noted that it was even finer than what she remembered of her mother’s harp. The one before her appeared new and richly carved, with bright bronze strings that caught the light of every flame in the hall.
As she stared amazed at the incomparable instrument, Ælfwyn heard a chair scrape back and looked up at the high table to see Hrogn standing, his drinking horn raised as he shouted, “I stand as witness to my father’s generosity of words and deeds. Likened to old Baldur himself. He is a wolf-kin bestower of ring-gifts. Grant you all witness to Ælfwyn’s courage, as well as her sacrifice of blood and pain. Cry ‘Witness’, All!”
With that, every guest stood and every voice echoed Hrogn’s call of, “Witness…!” so that the timbers of the hall itself echoed with it.
Truly humbled by the old Jarl’s tremendous generosity, as well as Hrogn’s words, Ælfwyn was nearly oblivious to the pain as she slowly curtsied to both and bowed her head again in wordless thanks.
ICU – Squamish General Hospital
Later the same evening Thursday, January 7, 2010
Feeling more disoriented at each turn between the modern and medieval scenes playing through her mind – or was it her mind playing through those scenes...? Alyse was completely mystified as she opened her eyes, half expecting to see the great hall of Hrörekshold before her. Instead, she saw a dimly lit hospital room and smelled neither feast nor fire, but the sterile scent of bleach-washed sheets...