Janus Cypher  

Book Two in The Time-Bridge Journals

Chapter One - Excerpt

~ Twin Fires ~

 

Darach Tor, Ireland

Sunset Beltaine Night, 3rd of May 1102 AD

 

   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 as they bore witness to the sun’s retreat into twilight. Just as it vanished, the winds picked up, whipping Hrogn's cloak behind him and in that same instant, the great twinned bonfires of the Beltaine celebration were set alight. A cheer rose up from a crowd of folk gathered a little further off on the Tor’s broad summit. In one crackling whoosh of sap and tinder together, the flames were climbing into the carefully built stacks that would blaze through the night.

Already feeling the heat at his back, Hrogn looked round to see a man walking away with a torch in his hand, and swiftly commanded, “You! Come here.”

   Plainly startled, the man squinted past his torchlight, but then swiftly walked over and bowed low, as Hrogn inquired, “Tell me, can Chancellor Grimwaldt’s encampment be seen from here?”

   “Ah yes, Your Grace…” the man bowed again, and then looked about, getting his bearings, as he replied, "His Excellency’s encampment is…”

   The man stopped. The crackle and roar of the bonfires were growing louder, right along with the raucous noise of more folk arriving on the summit, and a clutch of musicians who had just started to play their whistles and drums for those who wished to dance. The entire spirited cacophony rose like a swift tide.

   The torchman showed Hrogn over to the eastern verge. The golden Beltaine moon was just clearing the horizon and they both paused to watch the synchronous beauty of its rising against the sun’s disappearance.

The torchman leaned close to Hrogn, pointing down to where the slope leveled out, and said, “The Chancellor’s delegation is camped there, Your Grace.”

   It was a large encampment set well back from the main trails leading to the top of the tor and already well-lit by a constellation of torches marking its perimeter. Assessing its layout, Hrogn noted the three large pavilions at the center of the camp. One of them was most certainly Grim’s, and the second was fine enough for a Jarl of significant status. The third was a broad canvas roof that looked to be a barracks-tent large enough for a contingent of ten to twelve of the King’s hirðmenn. And though that was not entirely unexpected, considering the Chancellor’s purpose, Hrogn knew it was something to bear in mind.

   Even over the noise, Hrogn could make out other familiar sounds. He walked around to his right and looked to where the south face of the Tor leveled out. There he caught sight of his household as they were spreading and staking down the vast Hrörekshold Great-Tent. He smiled, noting that the Hrörekshold encampment was entirely hidden from the Chancellor’s own. He knew full well that was not by happenstance, but by Captain Drengr’s careful devising.

   Marking the center of the encampment was Hrogn’s own campaign pavilion. Like Úlfgeirr’s, set beside it, the squared-off Roman style tent was noticeably weary from many brave campaigns. In bright contrast, the newest addition to his encampment stood well protected between those twinned battle canvases. They were both waiting to welcome the long absent bards-dottr of Hrörekshold, for whose return they had long negotiated. It stood as a pristine circular spire, its seams sealed and traced in blue and gold, with a wolf-serpent banner off his flagship, the Ulfgorm, at its doorway.

   The torchman approached to take his leave and Hrogn said, “Yes, indeed, but I’ll be needing 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 to the edge of the crowd, but soon broke free to run to the edge of the Tor. She had just glimpsed a dark-haired man wearing the fine crimson cloak of a Danish Jarl descending one of the trails and she was desperate to discern his features. However, despite the rising moon and the torch he carried, his form was barely distinguishable from the landscape.

   To any who might have looked upon her as she stood at the edge of the Tor, Ælfwyn, shone resplendent in the full grace of her twenty-five winters. Her fine-boned features and glorious halo of golden red hair, lit from behind by the Beltaine fires, clearly revealed her mixed Gael-Dane heritage. In much the same way, her noble bearing, along with the garments she wore in a luxurious array of colors, marked her as a noblewoman of both peoples.

   That night she had chosen to wear her new cloak, dyed in the Irish-purple and lined in silvery fur, and at that moment, thrown back over her shoulders to reveal a form-fitted peliçon crafted from a deep blue wool with silk-corded braids and embroideries that flashed with beads of amber, amethyst, and quartz. The gold linen undergown, with similar embellishments at hem and cuffs, shown beneath all. All were laced over a lithe and graceful form, such as Ælfwyn had never known as a podgy little girl growing up in Hrörekshold.

   As the air was taking on a chill, Ælfwyn pulled the cloak about her and drew up its hood, and as its soft rich warmth fully enveloped her, she smiled at the sensation and continued smiling at her memory of how Fynn Uí’Néill had gifted the cloak to her three days earlier - over the bitter, albeit thoroughly ignored, objections of his Clan Council…

   “Pay them no heed, Ælfwyn,” Fynn had told her. “It is my pleasure to gift this cloak to you, along with all the rest. As your once-intended betrothed, think of them of your long-awaited bride-price.” He lowered his voice, “In recognition of the eight years of grace you brought into my Uí’Néill purgatory.” He said as he touched her hair and then gently leaned his forehead to hers for a moment. Still, he soon stepped back to say to Katja, who stood nearby, “And for you, Katja, I have a parting gift as well. For your devoted service to your good Mistress all these winters, a cloak wrought in the blue of Ireland’s sky, to match your eyes…”

Fynn smiled as he pointed at the soft woolen mantle being held out for her by a servant, and Katja caught her breath at the sight of such a beautiful garment, as she slipped it on.

   Standing there at the Tor’s edge, Ælfwyn’s gentle recollection of her parting from Fynn was rudely trodden upon, as Byrna, a bent old woman wearing the sawed-off hair and rough brown tunic of a thrall-slave, slipped up beside her – “..like a she-bear or wolf stalking a lamb”, Ælfwyn thought, as she nervously smoothed her gown. If not strictly speaking a wolf, Byrna certainly served as Grimwaldt’s guard-dog that night. Though she knew better than to give voice to her loathing of the man in front of his thrall; Ælfwyn could not help but wrinkle her nose at the mere thought of him. She knew and despised Grim as the one who had conjured her exile from Hrörekshold, to force her upon Fynn Uí’Néill as a peace-forger bride.

   Glancing over at Byrna, whose years of servitude under her hateful master clearly weighed heavy on the rickety thrall, she asked, “Do you think the Chancellor will let me see Lady Katja tonight, Byrna?”

   A kind of fearful amazement showed on Byrna’s face, as she sputtered out a reply, “Oh… Oh, I… I think not, my Lady. Oh no, that girl is too… too…”

   “Too what, Byrna? Has she a fever? Why will no one tell me what ails my friend?” Ælfwyn demanded.

   Byrna’s eyes went wide and her mouth gaped, as she shook her head, finally saying, “Oh, my lady, you need not fear for her. I am sure she will recover.”

   “Recover? What do you mean, Byrna? If there is any doubt of Katja’s recovery, someone should be with her. I should be with her! And you should inform the Chancellor that as Magnus-King’s witness in this matter, he should be far more mindful of his obligations to Katja and I, as the gisl in this exchange.”

   Ælfwyn looked back towards the Chancellor’s encampment trying to assess the situation. Although she and Katja were no longer hostages of the Uí’Néill, neither were they free. They were gisl; nobles being used to further some political intrigue.

   All she could think to say further, was, “I want to see her. I want to see Katja…”

    To which Byrna instantly replied, “No, no, my lady. The Chancellor will not allow that…” She hesitated.  “No, he said to tell you there was still fear of… of… contagion!” Byrna said it with such triumph in her voice, doubtless for recalling a word that was completely foreign to anything within her own ken.

   With so little truth in Byrna’s voice, all she could hope was that Katja was not sick at all, but simply being kept from her for some reason. And with that realization, she turned from Byrna to look down the darkening path where she had caught sight of the nobleman in the red cloak.

   Whispering to herself, she asked, “Could that truly have been Hrogn?”

   Startling her with too loud and 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 a gut-churning mix of anxiousness and frustration, Ælfwyn replied, “And yet, I did see him, and I should know him. I should know Hrogn anywhere.” She turned to stare down the path again, as it gathered in even more shadows, and she sighed, “Oh… Have I so ached to see home again that I merely singled-out the first dark-haired Dane I glimpsed here?”

   Once again nodding a little too eagerly, Byrna replied, “That is surely the case, 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, “But then I am only thrall-scum…”

   Ælfwyn shook her head, but could not get a word in, as Byrna continued, “Still, my master would remind you that Jarl Hrogn sent word he would not attend the Beltaine celebration. In truth, my master said His Grace would not arrive for three more days. Mayhaps it is simple weariness that has you seeing such things that cannot exist. My master did command me to ask again if you desired to dance this night amongst this rabble. He bade me urge you to return to the comfort of your pallet, for you must know…”

   As Byrna prattled on, Ælfwyn closed her eyes, desperate to close her ears as well, that she might ignore the woman entirely. She had hardly slept at all the past two nights worrying over Katja’s fate. That very morning, as she lay awake in the so-called, comfort of her pallet, she was confused by something she thought she’d heard. The next instant she was fully awake and aware of the prickle and stench of the old hay stuffed into the threadbare wool blankets that made-up her pallet and the thick drizzle of light leaking into the dawn sky. Still, she was uncertain if what she had heard was merely part of a dream. As she was likely being watched, she looked about while still feigning sleep, and noticed a tiny slip of parchment under her hand. Gently cupping it in the curl of her fingers, she drew her hand close and rolled over as though still asleep.  Barely opening her eyes to see the message she was sorely grateful for that skill so highly prized amongst the Irish nobility, as she 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

She felt her heart shiver a beat at that message. Placing great faith in her unknown ally, later that day she risked the Chancellor’s genuine ill humor by insisting that she be allowed to celebrate the end of her captivity by dancing between the Beltaine fires that night. Her true intent was to flee the Chancellor’s grip for her Champion’s protection...

Look for more when Book Two, Janus Cypher is Released...