Janus Cypher  

Book Two in The Time-Bridge Journals

Chapter One

~ Twin Fires ~

 

Darach Tor, Ireland

Beltaine Night, 3rd of May 1102 AD  ~ Sunset

 

   Having crested the windswept summit of Darach Tor, Jarl Hrogn Hröreksson turned to look out towards the western horizon. A few wisps of clouds were shading into gold there, as they bore witness to the sun’s last rays retreating into twilight. Just as its final embers were extinguished, the winds picked up, whipping Hrogn's crimson cloak behind him, and in that same instant, as sap and tinder kindled together with one crackling whoosh, the great twinned bonfires of the Beltaine celebration were set alight - and a cheer went up from the folk gathered there. It had taken them the better part of three days to haul the logs up the winding track of the Tor, and if the fires were well tended, they would continue to blaze throughout the night, so as to greet the dawning of the new day, and with it, a new season of warmth and light.

   Hrogn paused there at the top of the Tor to consider the promise of that new season and what it might bring.  At first, all he could think of were the painful losses and gut-twisting turns they had all suffered at Urðr’s whim. And yet, by that same Urðr, goddess of fate, what they had lost and longed for over eight desolate winters would, at last, be restored to them before the morrow.

   Already feeling the heat at his back, Hrogn looked round to see the giant timbers begin to blaze in earnest, and then quickly spotted the man who had just set light to them walking away, with the torch still in his hand.

   “You, come here!” Hrogn ordered.

   Startled, the torchman stopped and looked in his direction, but then swiftly walked over to bow low to Hrogn. He well knew the torchman would have taken a full measure of him at his first look, and by his richly arrayed cloak and fine tunics, as well as the sword at his belt – and yet, even more, by his bearing and tone of command – the man would recognize him for a landed Jarl of significant consequence. If Hrogn were to take the same measure; by the torchman’s rough-hewn hands alone, he would suppose the man to be a capable blacksmith by trade.

   Speaking to him in the Gaelic, Hrogn inquired, “Tell me, can Chancellor Grimwaldt’s encampment be seen from here?”

   “The Chancellor’s encampment? Ah yes, Your Grace…” the man looked about, getting his bearings, and went on, "His Excellency’s encampment is…”

    The man stopped. A clutch of musicians, a little further off, had just started to play their whistles and drums - all in anticipation of the women-folk dancing to the tunes they would improvise that night. The crackle and roar of the bonfires grew even louder, as well, right along with the raucousness of the crowds mounting the Tor from every direction. Hrogn knew it would soon become a high-spirited cacophony that would go long into the night. As the noise of it all rose like a swift tide, the torchman simply motioned Hrogn in the direction of the Tor’s eastern verge.

   There at the far edge of the nearly flat hilltop, with few trees on that side of the Tor to obscure their view, the man pointed down the grassy hillside to where the slope leveled out, “The Chancellor and his delegation are camped there, Your Grace.”

   Even in the fading light, Hrogn could make out quite a large encampment already well lit by torches marking the camp’s perimeter, as well as a hub of pathways leading towards its center.  There was a line of small tents and lean-tos at the far edge, doubtless for household thralls and the like. More notably, were the two largest pavilions at the center of the camp. One of them was most certainly Grim’s. The other was fine enough for a Jarl of significant status. A third stood just beyond those two and appeared to be a barracks-tent. By Hrogn’s estimate, it was large enough for a contingent of at least twelve of the King’s own hirðmenn. That was not entirely unexpected, considering the Chancellor’s rank and purpose there; still, Hrogn knew it was something to bear in mind.

   Noting how far back from the main trails the encampment was set, Hrogn could not help but quietly laugh at the Chancellor’s squeamishness.  It bore clear witness to Grim’s aversion to any undue contact with the local populace since so many of them would be heading up the trails for the Beltaine festival that night.

   The torchman attended him as Hrogn moved further to his right, away from the din of the musicians and the gathering crowd, and soon he heard what he was searching for – the unmistakable sounds of his own men setting up the Hrörekshold encampment. It was being directly situated below the south face of the Tor, and would, therefore, be entirely hidden from the Chancellor’s own camp. He knew full-well that was not by happenstance, but rather the result of careful planning by Úlf and hirð-Captain Drengr.

   Having walked up from the base of the Tor as soon as they had arrived, he knew his men were at least six boat-lengths further down the slope from him. Although he could not see them, as that side of the Tor was thickly forested and the trail from the top meandered and quickly disappeared amongst the trees. Nevertheless, Hrogn knew that his men, along with those servants of the other nobles who had accompanied them to the Beltane festival, would have already laid out the bundles of canvas, along with the guy-lines and poles for the camp’s pavilions. Those of his holding were well-disciplined in the set-up, and soon enough they would be wielding mallets and pounding in tent stakes.

   Starting at the center of his encampment his men would start by setting up his own well worn but still impressive campaign pavilion. In recent years it had seen him through many forays and skirmishes on behalf of his kinsman, Magnus - King of Norway and the Isles. Almost a twin to his own pavilion would be that of his hirð-commander, Greif Úlfgeirr Sweynsson, which his men would set up beside it.

   The newest addition to his encampment was a pristine circular spire that would stand well-protected between his and Úlf’s pavilions that night. All that was left to do regarding this, his most recent acquisition from the Continent, was to gift it to their honored guest – and yet, not their guest at all, Hrogn mused with a smile. Close by those three pavilions would stand the vast Hrörekshold Great-Tent. It was almost a third the length of his Father’s Mead Hall, and Hrogn always felt a swelling of pride, knowing that he was renowned across Ireland and beyond for welcoming with magnanimity both allies and adversaries under its vast roof.

   Just as he was considering what other pleasures the evening might bring, Hrogn caught the scent of roasting venison and smiled to himself as he drew in a deep draft of it. That set him in mind of the rest of the magnificent feast planned for that evening, and he realized Roskilda must already be directing the servants to be readying it all. Many had taken part in the carefully planned preparations, and he knew the feast was being eagerly anticipated by every one of his guests, but most especially himself.

   Intent on knowing what progress had been made, and in particular what had been learned concerning the arrival of their guest, he turned and nodded to dismiss the torchman. However, just as the man bowed to take his leave, Hrogn said, “Ah, I will need that…” as he took hold of the man’s torch and swiftly headed down the nearest trail.

 

 

*************************************

 

   Lady Ælfwyn Gærethsdotr had to force her way through to the edge of the crowd but soon broke free to run across to the far edge of the Tor.  A few moments before, she had glimpsed a dark-haired man wearing the fine crimson cloak of a Danish nobleman, just as he descended one of the trails, and she was desperate to discern his features. The light was swiftly deepening from dusk to twilight, however, and the man had such a quick stride that his form was already barely distinguishable from the landscape.

   Even as she watched the torchlight diminish, Ælfwyn, herself, shone resplendent in the full grace of her twenty-five winters. To any who might have looked upon her, as she stood at the edge of the Tor, her fine-boned features and glorious halo of golden red hair would have easily revealed her mixed Gael-Dane heritage. In much the same way, her unmistakable bearing, taken along with her luxurious garments woven in a splendid array of colors, marked her as a noblewoman of some means and notable connections.

    That night she had chosen to wear her new hooded cloak, dyed in the Irish-purple, which was further lined and trimmed in silvery-grey fur. At that moment it was thrown back over her shoulders to reveal a form-fitted peliçon crafted from the finest deep blue wool she’d ever seen, let alone worn. That would have been luxury enough, and yet, it was also embellished with silk-corded braids and embroideries that flashed with beads of amber, amethyst, and quartz. The peliçon’s wide sleeves, neckline, and calf-length hem revealed a pale gold linen undergown beneath, with similar embellishments at hem and cuffs. Under all, peeked a camise of fine white linen twill. Each of these garments was laced-up tight over a lithe and graceful form, such as Ælfwyn had never had as a girl growing up in Hrörekshold. She was most certainly not the podgy young girl whom the King’s Counsel had compelled to become a peace-forger bride for the all too young Fynn Uí’Néill eight winters earlier – and well she knew it.

   Knowing how those eight long winters of heartache and exile would soon come to an end, Ælfwyn could not help but recall how she had waited and watched as her once intended husband’s ‘coming-of-age’, came and went, and without his once expressing a desire to take her to wife. And yet, she took great satisfaction in knowing that just days before the two of them had parted as friends. And further, even after eight winters amongst the Uí’Néill, Ælfwyn still counted herself enormously blessed, as it all might have been a much greater horror. Instead, from the moment Hrogn had been forced to give her over to the Clan in Athlone, she, along with her dear friend and handmaid, Katja, had traveled under the protection of Ollamh Conal O’Guaire. He was the clan’s noble Master Bard, and a greatly respected chief councilor to the clan’s young princeling, Fynn. In truth, Ollamh O’Guaire had proven to be a genuine guardian to all three of them. And with that recollection, Ælfwyn closed her eyes for a moment, asking heaven to bless Master Conal who, less than a month before, had shrugged-off all the pains of his elder years at last.

   With the setting of the sun, the air was taking on a chill, as Ælfwyn pulled the cloak tight about her and drew the hood up. The soft rich warmth of its fur lining fully enveloped her, at the same time muffling the noise of the crowd. She smiled at the sensation as she recalled how, just days before, Fynn Uí’Néill had gifted her with the cloak, over the bitter and thoroughly ignored objections of his Clan Council. It, along with an entire wardrobe of finely wrought garments, might once have been intended as bridal gifts, but instead, they had become a personal bequest from her former betrothed.

   As she stood there at the brink of the Tor’s summit, Ælfwyn was feeling thoroughly uneasy as she nervously smoothed the front of her gowns for at least the twentieth time. There was no question in her mind as to the reason. Byrna, a bent old woman wearing the short-cropped hair and rough wool tunic of a thrall-slave, had just slipped up beside her with the vaguely sickening smoothness of her master, Chancellor Grimwaldt Thorgoodsson. Over the years, the Chancellor’s role in selling off Ælfwyn’s betrothal to the Clan had become an open secret. She loathed the grasping, dishonorable, crabbed-faced git beyond all others – save one, perhaps – and his thrall-woman was no less despised.

   Although she and Katja were no longer hostages to the clan, neither were they yet free. They were still Gisl, nobles being used as pawns in some further political intrigue that Ælfwyn did not fully grasp. Certainly, she had noted little difference between their years of confinement within the precincts of the Uí’Néill and the Chancellor’s dubious ‘care’ the past three days. Even more disturbing, however, was the fact that Katja had fallen mysteriously ill the first night after their release. Katja should have been standing there with Ælfwyn at that moment. Instead, it was the nearly insufferable Byrna, serving as Grim’s guard-dog that would leave her neither peace nor privacy.

   Glancing over at Byrna, an old woman with the dung-colored, short-chopped hair of a thrall-slave with the marks of her servitude lining every other feature of her bent, but wiry frame, and Ælfwyn knew there must be a reason Grim’s thrall-dog had been so relentlessly attentive to her every move over the previous days. Ælfwyn could not help but think that by comparison to kind-hearted Katja, this Byrna was a rabid she-bear. Her kind-hearted Katja had served as her Lady-in-Waiting with the utmost devotion, even as they both endured so much heartache while banished from their beloved Hrörekshold. Thinking upon it only caused her to miss her dear friend’s presence all the more terribly at that moment.

   With Katja’s unexplained or more likely, contrived, illness, Ælfwyn knew that it was even more important that she find Hrogn somehow, and as swiftly as possible. But still, the Chancellor had informed her that they would wait there at Beltaine Tor for three more days before the contingent from Hrörekshold was expected to arrive. Grim would then act as Magnus-King’s official witness and give over the Clan’s Gisl in exchange for whatever ransom Hrogn had apparently agreed to pay.

   As she strained to look down the darkening path where the red-cloaked nobleman had just passed, Ælfwyn whispered to herself, “Could that truly have been you, Hrogn…?”

Startling her with too quick a reply, Byrna creaked, “I surely doubt you could have seen Jarl Hrogn, my Lady.” Ælfwyn turned to stare at the thrall woman in unspoken reproof, as Byrna admitted more quietly, “Though I did not see the man…”

   In anxiousness and frustration, Ælfwyn rejoined, “But I did see him, and I should know him. I should know Hrogn anywhere.” More to herself, she added, “Why did I not see him sooner?” She turned back to stare down the path that was deepening even further into shadow, as she sighed, “Oh… Have I so ached to see home again that I merely singled-out the first dark-haired Dane I saw?”

   Nodding a little too eagerly, Byrna replied, “That is surely the truth, my Lady. And it would be no wonder to me, for you have suffered so many trials over these eight winters past – a hostage to the hateful Uí’Néill – even I cannot imagine it.” She looked down to add, “But then I am only thrall-scum…” Ælfwyn began to deflect yet another of the woman’s common disparagements, but could not get a word in, as Byrna continued,” Still, my Lady, I’m sure my master would remind you that His Grace, Jarl Hrogn, sent word he would not be here for the Beltaine celebration. In truth, my master said His Grace would not arrive for two, perhaps three more days, yet. And I am told that you have hardly slept since the Uí’Néill gave you over. Mayhaps it is simple weariness that has you seeing such things that cannot exist.”

   Pressing her further, Byrna went on – and on, “My master did command me to ask you again if you truly desired to dance this night amongst this rabble.” Byrna looked about at the still gathering crowd, and went on, “He bade me to urge you to remember that you could easily return, even now, to the comfort of your pallet, my Lady – and you must know…”

   As Byrna prattled on, Ælfwyn recalled what she had actually learned that morning as she lay in the so-called ‘comfort of her pallet’. In truth, it was no more than a pile of straw stuffed into a sack of rough-woven blankets, placed amongst the Chancellor’s female servants. Ælfwyn felt sure that she was not put there for her comfort, but rather, so that she could be watched – and closely. In a conjured fear of contagion, Grim had forbidden her to even see Katja, let alone, sleep in the same tent. Unable to truly sleep at all, for worrying over the fate of her friend, by that morning, Ælfwyn had been slipping in and out of a fitful sleep from sheer exhaustion.

Confused by something she thought she had heard, as she lay on her pallet, Ælfwyn had suddenly found herself fully awake and aware of her surroundings. Yet, she was not certain if what she had heard was real or merely part of a dream. Suspicious that she was indeed being watched, she tried to look about while still feigning slumber. She quickly noticed a torn slip of parchment under her hand. Gently cupping it within the curl of her fingers, she drew her hand close and rolled over as though still asleep. Barely opening her eyes to read the message written there, Ælfwyn was once again grateful for that skill so highly prized amongst the Irish nobility.

 

The message read:

Do not trust the Chancellor - Jarl Hrogn arrives this night - Go to the top of the tor to dance - Defy Grim if you must - Your champion

will find you there

 

   Ælfwyn’s heart had skipped a beat at reading that message. Placing great faith in her unknown ally, she had risked the Chancellor’s genuine ill humor that morning by insisting that she be allowed to go the top of the tor and dance between the Beltaine fires in celebration of her release from captivity. However, from the moment she headed towards the top of the tor that evening, Ælfwyn’s true intent was to flee the Chancellor’s grip for her Champion’s protection.

   In recalling that morning’s revelation and having just caught sight of one who stood so close a match to Hrogn, Ælfwyn could only hope that same man would soon return to the top of the Tor. Elsewise, she would have to go in search of him – and that could prove a knotty problem indeed. And yet, she knew that if it were Hrogn, she and Katja would soon find themselves under the protection of the Jarl of Hrörekshold once more. With the realization of just how close Hrogn might be, a chill of anticipation ran her spine.

    Brought back to the moment by the thrall woman’s sickening tendency to repeat every word out of Grimwaldt’s mouth, Byrna blathered on. “…My master also said…”

   “No Byrna!” Ælfwyn raised her voice in frustration, as the old woman went awkwardly silent. She gentled her words a little, as she went on, “Thank you, Byrna – and you must thank your master for his concern, as well…” She said it, even as the mere thought turned her stomach, and she further qualified, “Howsoever that might be, I care not for what little sleep I may have had. As I have already told the Chancellor, I will dance this night to welcome the summer and my future with joy. For I know that Jarl Hrogn’s steadfast determination to secure my freedom has delivered me from what might have been a horrid and dismal life. Whether he has arrived yet or not, still, I will stay here all night, if I can muster my heart, and honor this prize of freedom my champion has won me.”

   Byrna merely looked down, as Ælfwyn noted the thrall-woman pointedly had no response for her praise of Hrogn.

   Wondering where Byrna might plan to watch her from, Ælfwyn asked, “Will you be dancing with the older women, then, Byrna?”

   “Oh no, my lady!” Byrna was clearly horrified at the suggestion, “That cannot be allowed for thrall-scum such as I.”

   Ælfwyn knew this to be untrue. Even in her limited experience, the late night Beltaine festivities were infamous as a great equalizer of social station. However, having made several attempts to dissuade the old woman from using such expressions – demeaning, even for a thrall – Ælfwyn had given up trying to convince Byrna of anything that contradicted her hateful master, as she simply responded, “Oh… yes, of course. Well, perhaps you will be allowed to rest yourself on the great stone block near the top of the trail then?”

   Byrna merely nodded.

 

*****************

 

   Further down the track, Hrogn strode towards his encampment, just as Úlfgeirr Sweynsson mounted the trail to waylay him. Assessing his old friend with a glance, Hrogn noted that in contrast to his own darker features, Úlf had grown to embody the very model of the golden-maned Norseman. The long yellow braid of hair down his back and his perfectly trimmed beard echoed precisely what all the bards and scalds spoke of in retelling their stories of legendary heroes and epic deeds. They were traits well admired amongst his countrymen – as well as the ladies of many lands.

   In the years since Ælfwyn and Katja’s exile amongst the Uí’Néill, he and Úlf had been well-hardened from fighting alongside Magnus-King through many voyages and battles. The King himself had noted more than once what a formidable brace of warrior-kin they were, and that none were better matched for their skill, audacity, and courage than Hrogn, whom the King called, Stormbringer, and Greif Úlfgeirr Brandrsson. Hrogn smiled at the recollection of his King’s praise. Certainly, he and Úlf had proven themselves to have few equals.

   Just as his hirð-commander stepped up to him, Úlf said with a keen enthusiasm, “The camp is nearly set-up and I’ve left the rest for Captain Drengr to put to rights. Shall we go relieve the Chancellor of his burden before he takes note of our presence?”

    Startled, Hrogn asked, “Ælfwyn?”

   Úlfgeirr smiled as he delivered his news, “Word was just sent; Ælfwyn is there!” He pointed to the top of the tor.

   “Is ‘Grim’ with her?”

   With a single shake of his head, Úlf answered, “Just a thrall-woman.” However, he added more seriously, “But it seems, Katja is not with her. It is reported she took suddenly ill right after she and Ælfwyn were released and none have seen her since.”

Shaking his head, Hrogn said slowly, “This illness comes at Grim’s advantage, I think, for Katja is as hail and strong as any girl who ever lived.” He asked further, “Could he mean to cut Ælfwyn off from her only ally?” Before Úlf could answer, he concluded, “Mayhaps before making some unexpected move…?”

   They stared at one another just for a moment and then turned to charge up the trail at a run.

   By the time they arrived at the top of the tor, there were more people than the hilltop could easily hold. It was difficult to work their way through the crowd of such a diverse assemblage of peasants, freeborn and noble. That, coupled with the darkness and constant shifting of the crowd, meant their efforts to recognize Ælfwyn out of the gathered multitude was being sorely tested.

   As they continued looking about, the great twin columns of firelight drew him and Úlfgeirr towards the large circle of folk watching the women as they danced around and between the twinned-flames of the Beltaine celebration. The rhythm of many drums was all but overwhelming the high-pitched melodies being improvised on the wooden folk whistles. It mattered little, however, considering the overall enticement of what they were feeling in rhythm with the dancers. It was quite apparent to Hrogn there were no churchmen wandering about the Tor to witness – and therefore condemn – that ancient and time-honoured ritual for welcoming the summer days of the Gael-folk’s calendar.

   He and Úlfgeirr skirted the inner perimeter of the crowd, meeting on the far side. Although they were clearly both enjoying the view, as they judiciously scrutinize the group of attractive and spirited dancers, distinguishing Ælfwyn from any other girl her age was proving more difficult than Hrogn had imagined.

   The crackling roar of the fires coupled with the music and noise of the crowd forced him to lean close and ask, “Úlf? After all these seasons, I am uncertain how best to distinguish Ælfwyn. I recall her hair as a splendid reddish-gold. Yes…?”

   Úlf nodded, leaning close as well, “I would have judged it a fine thick braid of red-gold, down to her waist – when last we saw her, at least.”

   “And how tall should we judge her to be now?”

   Úlf shook his head and replied, “I warrant she would not be much taller than she was when she left us.”

   He stared at Úlf and prompted him, "And therefore...?"

   “Ah, perhaps to here?” Úlf held his hand up across his chest in a visual estimate of Ælfwyn’s height, “Mayhaps a little more…”

   Standing a little behind Úlfgeirr, Hrogn was looking towards the circle of dancers just as a wondrous flash of golden hair, loose to the dancer’s hips, flew past, and he quickly urged Úlf,  “Show me that again!”

  Úlf complied; bringing his hand back up, as he swiftly looked over his shoulder in the direction Hrogn was staring. They both watched as a young woman danced past them wearing a near-capelet of golden-red ringlets and exhibiting a rare charm of both form and visage, coupled with a stunning grace. For a moment, both men stood entranced, along with everyone else watching her – and Hrogn could not help but note that many were watching her.

   Doubting the vision before his eyes, he forced the words out, “That… That could not be our Ælfwyn. No… How could it be?” He was trying very hard to dismiss the idea, even as he did not fully understand why.

   “But Hrogn, her hair is exactly as I recall Ælfwyn’s to be. Do you not see it?” Úlf looked back towards the dancers, tracking the girl’s path as the entire host circled the fires, and added, “And she is as tall as we should expect, I think – most especially after eight winters.”

   “Yes, but…” He shook his head. He could feel a war beginning to brew within his mind. Unable to admit to the possibilities that were suddenly there before him, he forced himself to find a reason to doubt, “What of everything else? That girl is far too slender and, well, graceful…” Clearly startled by that assessment, Úlf turned to look at him, as Hrogn went on, grasping for another reason to deny the girl’s identity, as he insisted, “And the age is wrong as well. That one must be years older than our Ælfwyn.”

   Úlf narrowed his gaze and asked, “Too old…?” He expelled his frustration in one breath, “Too old after eight long winters? Hrogn, have you seen yourself?”

   He laughed at that, but Úlf did not smile in return, as Hrogn finally said, “Hmm… We will leave this one – for now.” He tried again to smile, as he insisted, “Come, there is not much time. We must know for certain if she, or some other, is Ælfwyn. And without Katja here, we may need to unearth Grim’s chattel – the thrall-woman you spoke of?”

   Úlf shook his head in confusion, but refocused to say, “Ah yes, if it’s the one I’m thinking of, she’s a snaggle-toothed hag with a sickening affinity to repeat her master’s every word…”

 

*****************

   Despite her lack of sleep, Ælfwyn was dancing about the two Beltaine-fires with a renewed strength and vitality. She had just caught sight of the same handsome nobleman she had spied earlier. He was standing near the front of the crowd, watching her intently. Though she continued to dance, everyone and everything else was naught but a blur, save for him at the center of it all. He wore the fine red cloak she’d seen earlier, and a blue-black tunic – and both beautifully embellished as well, with the whitest linen shirt showing beneath.

   Whoever he was, this man was undoubtedly a high-ranking Jarl of the Danes or the Northmen, even though, just like Hrogn, he had not the golden mane of most of his northern cousins. Instead, this man had dark auburn curls – the same that she remembered so fondly in her champion, as well as the same commanding stance. He also possessed a handsome, well-muscled form, just as that which she cherished from her memories and even from her dreams of Jarl Hrogn Hröreksson. The only exceptions this dark haired Dane seemed to hold against her memories of Hrogn, was a broader chest and shoulders – changes she could easily attribute to the passage of time. To that end, she was also glimpsing what seemed to be fine threads of silver woven through his dark hair as well as a close-cut fighting-man’s beard, which obscured the strong smooth jawline that she recalled from her days growing up in Hrörekshold. That was perhaps the most startling of all the differences she could discern in this man, who in every otherwise appeared to be a close-kin copy of her champion.

   As she continued to wonder at the man’s identity, the wind caught up his great cloak and she saw the firelight glinting off of what looked to be a superbly wrought sword hung on his right side not his left, as those of most warriors would be.

   Her heart began to race. By that token, Ælfwyn was instantly certain it could be none but Hrogn standing there. The secret message passed to her was true. Despite Chancellor Grimwaldt’s insistence to the contrary, Hrogn was there, far earlier than expected, and soon she and Katja would be free to return to Hrörekshold, at last.

   For a moment, Ælfwyn was sure Hrogn was about to make his way to her; to wrap her in his arms again, just as he had when she was still a girl and he freshly returned from some voyage. That was the kind of welcome she had dreamed of for all the heartrending years of her exile. But no, instead, as she watched the scene with growing alarm, out of the darkness another nobleman appeared, trailing the she-bear – Byrna!

   Witnessing the arrival of the Chancellor’s thrall-woman gave Ælfwyn pause, but seeing a tall golden Norseman guiding Byrna over to the dark-haired Jarl only doubled her joy, and doubly confirming his identity as Hrogn. For she was equally certain the second man must be Úlfgeirr.

   Ælfwyn caught her breath, as she whispered with a thrill of pure excitement, “Greffi!”

Bound in by the throng of dancers, Ælfwyn was being pulled along in the opposite direction, tearing her away from the two men she desired to see more than any others the world owned. No matter how hard she struggled, she could not make her way back to them, which left her helpless as she caught only small poisonous morsels of the lies Byrna was serving…

 

 

*****************

 

   Grim’s thrall-woman bowed deeply to Hrogn, as she clutched a fine cloak and overgown. He could only suppose they belonged to her charge so that the girl might dance between the fires without singeing or spoiling them.

   Without lifting her eyes to him, the woman creaked out, "Oh yes, Your Grace, I am but the thrall-scum of my master, Lord Grimwaldt, who must needs tell this poor slave nothing…”

   “Answer my question, woman. Is that girl the Lady Ælfwyn who was just given over as gisl by the Uí’Néill three days ago?”

   There was a long pause before the cow replied, “Though he needs tell me nothing of such things, Your Grace, my Master has clearly spoken within my hearing that the girl you see dancing there is indeed the Lady Ælfwyn, whose freedom the proud, powerful Jarl – the Great Jarl – Hrogn, has long worked to secure…”

   Her half-answer left Hrogn more doubtful, as he looked over at Úlf.

   The Thrall-woman looked from side to side, peeking up at them both, as she hesitated again and then finally added, “Of course, I have never been so fortunate as to see the lady before this. But, even those among the thralls have heard of Ælfwyn Gærethsdotr, a skaldmaer and bardsdottr of much renown, they say. Although…” She broke off.

   Already fully distrustful of the woman, Hrogn said, “Speak your thought woman, if you have one worth speaking.”

   This ‘Byrna’ was clearly considering her words carefully before she continued, bowing even lower to Hrogn, as she said, “Please forgive me, Your Grace. This thrall-scum will tell you whatever you wish,. I… I would only say that it was always rumored amongst the most unworthy set that the Lady Ælfwyn was a bit… uh… ‘round’ in her appearance.” The woman stopped, once again clearly calculating as she added, “How fortunate for the lady that she has plainly outgrown such an unattractive trait.” The woman attempted a broken-toothed smile, as she turned and pointed to the girl and said nervously, “But I am sure you will be pleased to know, Your Grace,” she bowed yet again, “..that my master, Chancellor Grimwaldt Thorgoodsson, has called the girl before you, ‘Lady Ælfwyn’ within my hearing. He has indeed, Your Grace, and therefore it must needs be the truth, for my Master says it, and he only speaks aught but the truth…"

   She broadened her gaping smile all the more before dropping her gaze to the dirt at his feet from which Hrogn felt certain she was clearly issued.

   Hrogn looked again at the lithe and perhaps, too beautiful, dancer the thrall woman pointed to, interpreting the slave’s over-enthusiastic assertions, along with her repeated use of Grim’s name, as a forceful witness wholly against the girl’s stated identity.

   With that conclusion, he barked, “Leave my presence, you liar’s slave!”

   With that, Grim’s wretched thrall-woman shrunk into the darkness, backing away into the shifting host of people watching the dancers.

   As he turned to gaze at the girl again, even in the midst of the warmth of the celebration, Hrogn felt his blood run cold, as he considered the heart-rending consequences of his growing suspicions.

   He expelled a shuddering breath, and then looking at Úlf, he shook his head, barely keeping a war of emotions in check, “If Grim found a way to leave her with the Uí’Néill – while we were laying claim to Fyrgar’s blood-price that same night…” He looked down, squeezing his eyes shut. He had no desire to see what his mind was forcing him to envision. Opening his eyes with reluctance, he said with utter exasperation, “How did I not foresee this?” Taking another labored breath, he added in grim surety, “Ælfwyn will be dead by now - and in as wretched a way as the Clan could possibly have devised.”

   Stone-faced, Úlf stared straight ahead, as he blinked hard once, and then turned to him to say, “He must have known that. We have always suspected it was Grim who was blocking our every move to regain her. Now he cuts the thread of her fate rather than allow her return? But how – with Thorfinn present as witness?”

   “Might Thorfinn recall Ælfwyn any better than we could just now? And if you were he, would you not happily accept that one for Ælfwyn? I suspect that is exactly the response Grim hopes for from all of us.”

    “It would explain why Katja was suddenly taken ill.” Úlf added as he looked down, “or lies dead somewhere, as well.” Úlf moaned as he briefly turned his face away and said, “Ah, Ælfwyn, no…” He turned back and added, “Your Grace, I believe we need to pay our respects to the Chancellor. As you recall, he was not expecting us this night…”

 

*****************

 

   Continuing to be carried along with the circular tide of the dance, Ælfwyn was doing her best to watch the men as closely as she could. When the she-bear pointed straight towards her, it inexplicably prompted a sharp exchange between Byrna and the man she took to be Hrogn. There were angry words she could not make out over the din of the crowd, but at the sound of it, Ælfwyn swiftly redoubled her efforts to quit the celebration and make her way to them, pushing hard against the nearly tidal force of the other dancers.

   As soon as she was within their hearing, she called out his name, “Your Grace? My Lord, Hrogn!”

   But her words only incited a furious response that stung her to her soul, as he charged past, “You! Whatever you are; you will stay out of my way!” He was swiftly down the nearest path. The other nobleman – Greffi – was at his heels, though just for an instant, he glanced back at her.

  Shocked into silence by Hrogn’s heart-crushing retort, Ælfwyn followed them a short distance, continuing to force her way through the crowd. Finally emerging, she whispered to herself, “Whatever you are…?”

   As Byrna yet again, skulked up to her side out of the darkness, Ælfwyn asked, “Byrna? I saw you. Was that Jarl Hrogn? What did you say to him?”

   Byrna shook her head, “Oh, my Lady, which of the nobles do you mean?”

   But Ælfwyn was not truly listening. Instead, she relived the ferocity of the man’s angry words as they had struck out at her like a physical blow. It sent a great shudder through her entire body.

   In frustration, she asked aloud, “How could I be mistaken?”

   Byrna shook her head, yet sounded quite confident, “I do not know, my lady, but if they have gone to the Chancellor I am certain my master will explain all.” Ælfwyn turned to watch, as Byrna added with a self-satisfied smile, “All is well, and now you may return to your dancing.”

   Eyes wide, Ælfwyn stared at the thrall, “What? Byrna, do you not understand? If that truly was Jarl Hrogn, he did not recognize me. Worse, he accused me of being an impostor! If he has gone to the Chancellor, as you say, what must he think Chancellor Grimwaldt has done?”

  That realization terrified Ælfwyn, as she whispered, “If he catches the Chancellor unawares… Oh, great harm could come from this!” She turned and demanded, “What did you say to him, Byrna?” But the woman had no answer, as Ælfwyn turned back to head down the path.

   Seemingly confused, Byrna blocked her way, and said, “Oh no - no, no, my lady, I am certain they would stop His Grace before he did any injury to my Master. I… I’m sure… ”

   Attempting to adjust her eyes as she gazed down the dark, almost invisible track, Ælfwyn looked back at the thrall-woman, and said, “Injury? Byrna, the King himself, calls Jarl Hrogn Stormbringer for a reason. Even when I was a youngling, Hrogn’s focus and ferocity in battle were legendary. Wait… Did you not just call him ‘His Grace’…?” With a dawning realization, Ælfwyn shouted, “It was Hrogn – you horrid wretch! Do you not know what you have done? Whatever words you have used to poison him, Hrogn will exact from the Chancellor for trying to deceive him!  For such an offense Byrna, Hrogn might strike your Master down before a word is uttered!” Ælfwyn turned away to look down the trail again, and under her breath, she concluded, “And however loathsome Grim might be, I fear the King will not overlook the murder of his own uncle…”

   With that, she started for the trail again, but Byrna grabbed her arm, desperately shouting something unintelligible.

   Taken aback that a thrall-woman would attempt to exert any sort of physical restraint upon her, Ælfwyn shouted, “Yield your hold, Byrna!”

   Pulling away hard she came near to slapping the woman. In that moment, Ælfwyn was even more convinced that Byrna purposefully deceived Hrogn. She grabbed for her gown and cloak, which Byrna was still holding, but the thrall-woman wrapped both arms around the bundle and refused to loosen her iron-clawed grip on one thread of it.

   Finally, desperate to catch up with Hrogn, Ælfwyn actually pushed the thrall-woman to the ground, as she turned and headed for the trail, leaving Byrna looking stunned, even terrified.

   Though still nearly blinded after being so close to the Beltaine-fires, Ælfwyn rushed down the dark meandering path leading to the base of the Tor. Still quite shaken by her encounter with Hrogn, she was still half-questioning whether it truly was Hrogn. Her genuine shock at the confrontation, taken along with the chill of the night air, as it penetrated her perspiration-soaked gowns, had Ælfwyn beginning to tremble. She was swiftly regretting that she had not fought harder for her clothes, or at the very least for her cloak.

 

*****************

 

   Hrogn strode down from the top of the tor with a focused fury, as his thoughts raged aloud, “Mark my words Úlf, Grim has betrayed us all and forsaken Ælfwyn to her death. Knowing what we were about to do, the coward must have cringed from encountering the Uí’Néill alone to affect the exchange of hostages.” He looked back at Úlf and added, “Doubtless, he found this imposter to put in Ælfwyn’s place just long enough to hand her over in the night - and then run for his life at the break of dawn.”

   He faltered for a moment as a sick feeling overwhelmed him, like a frigid ocean wave rolling over him, forcing Hrogn to stop where he was and at that moment he heard a voice in a language not his own, and yet from inside his own mind, “No! Don’t believe it! It is her…! It is… It’s… It’s… Oh, crud! Pull back! Pull back, Roderick! You’re too close to the surface. He can hear you!” And with that, an unfathomable pain pierced his head directly between his eyes, as he staggered back a few feet.

   Úlf immediately stepped to his side and caught him, as he asked, “Your Grace? Hrogn… Hrogn, what is it? What ails you?”