Janus Paradox

 

Chapter One

~ Full Circle ~

Darach Tor, Ireland    Beltaine Night, 3rd of May 1102 AD   ~ An Hour After Sunset

 

     A near-blinding radiance once again flooded Hrogn’s eyes. In the space of one soul-staggering instant, he and Ælfwyn had somehow re-emerged beneath the shelter of that ancient and long- forgotten oak, which stood guard at the foot of Darach Tor. They both gasped and struggled to catch their breaths, even as that eerie light still danced at the edge of his vision. Every one of his limbs was prickling near to the point of pain. The only pleasant sensation was an odd scent of mint, but with something more.

     He reached out for Ælfwyn and she smiled with relief but then, of a sudden, she winced and cried out in pain.

He caught hold of her and asked, “Ælfwyn? What is it?”

But the pain was clearly robbing her of any reply, as she bent down, clutching at her ears. Just then a deep throbbing tone subsumed every one of Hrogn’s senses and he too covered his ears as he groaned and fought to hold back the strain of it. Blessedly, the assault lasted but a few moments and finally receded as inexplicably as a riptide.

     He and Ælfwyn soon spoke in chorus their one overriding question, as she whispered and he demanded, “Where... were we!?”

     They swiftly embraced and he was sure it was not for the least part at hearing their own voices again. And though his pulse still pounded in his ears, with Ælfwyn there in his arms, Hrogn heartily welcomed the thought that they were safe-home at last.

     “At least for the moment.’” His doubts cautioned in swift rejoinder.

     Hearing sounds of celebration in the distance, they looked up through the dark canopy of branches that arched in a braided silhouette against the moonlit sky. They could just glimpse the twin fires of Beltaine still blazing at the top of the Tor. By what magic or miracle, Hrogn did not know, but it was plain that he and Ælfwyn had not been gone so very long – howsoever they’d been taken.
     Glancing round, he noticed they were still kneeling on his cloak, spread out on the turf beneath them. Hrogn labored to get to his feet but quickly sank back down again. The effects levied by their baffling sojourn could not be shed so easily it seemed. Ælfwyn caught him by the shoulders but she too was struggling, doubtless just as drained of her strength as he was of his.
     No matter how spent she might be, however, Lady Ælfwyn Gærethsdotr was still agile enough of mind, as she looked down at herself and then back at him, as she asked, “Hrogn? What did we just witness? Could that truly have been you and I?” She shook her head. “But how? What could have taken us – and what brought us back again?” Her eyes went wide, as she asked further “Oh Hrogn, could we truly have journeyed into the... the Annarr-heimr?” She glossed the ancient Norse term in a whisper, “...the Otherworld!”

     Still profoundly unsettled, Hrogn was about to give answer when Ælfwyn started to waiver. He pulled her close – in truth, to steady them both – as he said, “Those are all worthy questions, Ælfwyn, and...” He stopped to draw breath, as he forced the words out, “..and much the same as my own. Yet I would have no answers for you.” He paused, then added, “Still, I will have it otherwise – no matter how otherworldly those answers may prove to be.”

    She nodded, as Hrogn looked about and he soon noticed a thing that gave him some further measure of relief, as he nudged her and said, “Ælfwyn, look. The torch I brought when first I came in search of you; it burns brightly still.”

     His torch was indeed just an arm’s length away, wedged tight between the fallen spires of a stone-circle they had quite literally stumbled upon there in the clearing beneath the giant oak. The colossal central monoliths of that ancient construct were all that were still visible. Hrogn had little doubt that for hundreds of years, as the tree had grown and its roots gained strength; they had likely toppled those far more ancient and mysterious denizens of that place.

     Ælfwyn sighed and said, “Oh, yes. That is a comforting sight.”

     He looked at her and nodded, “To be sure,” as he went on, “I must tell you, when first I beheld this place – so very old and seemingly full of mystery – I was minded of the stories you used to tell of Ossian the Bard and his travels with the Queen of the Faery.” Ælfwyn nodded in recognition, as he lowered his voice to say, “As we emerged, just for an instant, I feared many lifetimes might have passed in our absence, just as it had for Ossian. And yet...” he pointed to the torch, “Clearly, no such far-flung future awaits us.” And yet, even as he said it, he wondered if the truth of his words would hold.

     Ælfwyn stared at the torch for a long space, until at last, she said, “Yes, but Hrogn, I fear something... unfathomable stole us away.”

     He drew her close and said, “Aye, but it brought us back, as well.”

     She nodded, but he felt a shiver run through her, all the same. Hrogn knew there was no denying Ælfwyn’s misgivings. A baffling mystery had intruded upon them there and he doubted they could solve it alone.

     Looking deep into the hazel-thicket that edged the clearing, Hrogn silently wondered, “Úlfgeirr? Where have you gotten to, my friend? I would have thought you close by. What did you witness here?”

     Ælfwyn drew back to look at him, and asked, “Hrogn? Did you just say something of Úlfgeirr?”

     Taken aback, he replied, “I... spoke of nothing, Ælfwyn.”

     Clearly confused as well, she said, “Oh, all right,” and then asked, “Hrogn, what should we do now?”

     He shook his head once more, “I don’t know, Ælfwyn – as much as it disturbs me to say it. What is plain to me at this moment is that we are much like the survivors of a harrowing battle. We require time to mend. Come; let us sit...” he said, as he gently coaxed her to settle back upon the reassuring warmth of his thick crimson cloak.

     As they rested with their backs against the time-weathered granite of the fallen circle-stones, sunk deep into the turf at the tree’s roots; he and Ælfwyn sat shoulder to shoulder and watched as the wind breathed softly through the interlace of leaves, even as they themselves still tried to catch their breaths. Looking up into the tree’s furthest limbs, Hrogn’s gaze drifted slowly down to where its massive trunk grasped the earth. Taking in the new-borning scent of spring all around them, Hrogn felt his strength renewed, even as the foreboding in his heart loosened its hold a little.

     As if still seeing the sights of that Otherworld place from which they had just escaped, Ælfwyn leaned her head on his shoulder and said, “It was all so very beautiful, was it not?”

     “It was...” he replied, somewhat amused at her shift from fearful apprehension to a kind of awe-struck wonder.

     At last, better able to discern their dim surroundings, Hrogn spied Ælfwyn’s cloak and reached over to catch it up. He wrapped the luxurious purple mantle about her and then grasped her shoulders, as he looked directly in her eyes; “It was beautiful, Ælfwyn – beautiful and beguiling – as were you.” His gaze lingered, “Even though, in truth, it was not you, my Lady.”

     “Nor was it you, m’lord...” Her voice trailed off, though it soon betrayed even greater consternation, as she insisted, “And yet it was!”

     Hrogn nodded, but quickly sensed something more just at the edge of his awareness and held up his hand for her silence. In hopes he might grasp the elusive thing, he focused on the torchlight as it chased the shadows weaving through the moon-glow. In the next instant, a firestorm of images ignited his memory...

     Once again, he was in that Otherworld-place, walking past a long row of columns colored as crimson red as the cloak he wore in his own world. In turn, that colonnade led him into a broad stone courtyard, with its expansive flagstones swiftly transmuting so that in the next instant, he was within the palace itself. The throne room and audience chambers were thronging with people. On every wall, he saw murals and stone mosaics crafted in the most vibrant colors. They depicted birds and animals Hrogn had never seen, and yet, he knew them all.

There too, in those dream-glances, was a girl – a girl he loved. The instant he saw her amidst the crowd, Hrogn recognized her as Ælfwyn, yet in that same instant, she was not. He watched as she danced in a body more slender and lithe, but less bright of countenance than Ælfwyn’s. She moved like a whirlwind in a gown crafted out of layer upon fluttering layer, creating a storm of color. Her dark curls fell across her nearly bared breasts, as she danced in intricate steps, swaying and turning to music he had never heard before and yet, it too was completely familiar. His love for her was just as familiar, but still, it was somehow different in that place.

     In the midst of it all, Hrogn and Ælfwyn had somehow been able to hear each other’s thoughts but their thoughts had had little effect on those bodies. The one he inhabited felt just as different to him as Ælfwyn’s appeared. His hair was like hers, blue-black as a raven’s wing. Their arms were bare of cloth but enspiraled with gold. The entire fleeting reminiscence continued to fascinate, even beguile him, and yet, too soon the questions and confusions that accompanied it clouded his reverie so that they vanished altogether. As his own surroundings came back into focus, Hrogn looked at Ælfwyn and realized that she too had just relived their recent sojourn.

     Bewilderment was not a thing Jarl Hrogn Hröreksson readily accepted, as he finally yielded to pure pent-up frustration and growled, “Aachh!” His outburst startled Ælfwyn and he quickly took her hand to say, “Oh, I did not mean to frighten you. It is only... This entire night, from the moment Úlf and I saw you at the top of the Tor, down to this very instant has seemed bespelled somehow.” He paused, still fighting to make some sense of their situation, and finally said, “And given all that has happened to us, I cannot say if we have yet seen the end of it, Ælfwyn.”

     She nodded, but just for a moment, Hrogn was certain he had heard or perhaps glimpsed, something more from her.

     Allowing his vexation to subside a little, he asked, “Ælfwyn? It would seem something between us is still being...” He lowered his voice to a whisper, “..bespelled. Do you feel it?”

     A little smile crossed her lips, as she simply nodded, “Yes.” She turned to face him and grasped both his hands to say, “I feel the bond between us weaving tighter and even stronger than ever it was before, Hrogn. It seems to be strengthening almost by the instant, between both our hearts and our minds.” Hrogn nodded, as she thought for a moment and added more forcefully, “Still, though we may not know what the heavens intend for us with these visions...? If all of this only deepens what we have always shared, what harm can befall us?"

     “Hmm.” he couldn’t help but grumble a little, “As the purpose of it all remains a blind mystery to me, I could not tell you, Ælfwyn.” He shook his head, “Though you are right, I’m sure. There must be something in what we have endured that holds the key to it – and every other bafflement we have borne this night.”

     As they continued speaking, Ælfwyn told Hrogn of her time amongst the Clan Uí’Néill, “But for the protection afforded Katja and I by Master Conal, the men of the Clan would likely have used and disposed of us that first winter.” She looked away, clearly discomfited.

     Hrogn growled his displeasure, even as she insisted, “But Hrogn, Master Conal did keep us safe all these years.” She paused a moment, “Still, it was such a slow march of days, and so many of them without any word of you and all those at Hrörekshold.” She shivered, as she dropped her voice to a whisper, “Eight long winters...”

     Hrogn replied, “Do not for one moment believe that I was not acutely aware of that slow march of days, Ælfwyn – all three thousand one hundred and forty-seven of them.”.

     As the import of his words bore into her, she gasped at the revelation, and said, “I confess I was uncertain until now... my love.”

     She smiled at him, warming his heart all the more as he recalled how they had recognized and rediscovered one another that very evening, surrendering in an ardent and passionate reunion there upon his cloak beneath that venerable tree’s branches

     She went on with her tale, as he reluctantly pulled himself out of that memory, “As I said, Master Conal kept Katja and I well protected” She smiled again, “Oh Hrogn, he even gifted me some of the stories from his word-hoard,” although she quickly added, “Still, my only true solace came with my continued failure.” Confused, he shook his head, as she explained, “My failure to simply surrender as Fynn Uí’Néill’s peace-forger bride as Chancellor Grimwaldt intended.”

     “Ah...” Hrogn smiled back at her, as he kissed her hand, and said, “And never will I be more grateful for such a failing, Ælfwyn.”

     She smiled, “Of course, he was all too young at first, but soon I discovered that Fynn was... well, disinterested in the arrangement. Once I understood that I worked to gain his trust as our ally.”

     “Fynn Uí’Néill was your ally, with no desire to be your husband?” “None.” She said, simply adding, “For a long time we were both quite guarded with each other, but at last, we came to trust one another. Finally, with the aid of Master Conal, we convinced the clan elders to once more consider your proffer for Katja and I.”

     Hrogn’s gut tightened, as he stared straight ahead, and replied, “Indeed...” He was hard-pressed to keep his roiling fury contained.

     He could feel Ælfwyn’s deep concern at his response, as he never would have before. The next instant, in a kind of blinding exchange of thoughts, images, even senses, like to what they had shared in their Otherworld guises, Hrogn knew that Ælfwyn was experiencing the source of his anger. And just as she was trying to fathom it, she was drawn even deeper into Hrogn’s memory of a nighttime raid three years before while peaceably on their way to negotiate for her and Katja’s release, he and his hirðmenn had been attacked by the MacUaise. Hrogn knew Ælfwyn held just as fierce a loathing for the MacUaise as he, as that sept of the Uí’Néill clan possessed few talents outside their exceptional lack of honor, expressed through centuries of one bloody betrayal after another. However inexplicably,  Hrogn realized at that moment that both he and Ælfwyn were reliving the dark scene of intense carnage when their dear friend, Fyrgar Drengrsson, had stepped squarely behind him to block an oncoming assault by Dugan MacUaise. Glancing behind him, Hrogn saw an intense exchange of blows between Fyrgar’s axe, and Dugan’s sword, even as Hrogn was fighting off another MacUaise, whose intent had clearly been to distract him, while Dugan skulked in to deal a deathblow from behind.

     Hrogn nearly severed his attacker’s sword hand, sending the man scuttling away like the vermin he was. Just as he turned to help Fyrgar, Hrogn saw him raise his shield to block Dugan’s sword blow from crushing Hrogn’s skull. Except, it was a ruse. MacUaise swung the blow high only to sweep it around with force to come up underneath Fyrgar’s shield with crushing power; a move followed by the sickening sound of breaking ribs and tearing sinew.

     Spitting blood, Fyrgar screamed his curse at MacUaise as he collapsed into Hrogn, who caught him just as Úlfgeirr stepped in to block Dugan’s continuing assault. As Úlf pressed Dugan back even further, Dugan looked about and must have realized the MacUaise ambush had failed, as he broke and ran for his life into the darkness.

     Úlfgeirr shouted, “Hirðmenn of Hrörekshold, track down the MacUaise, pile their dead and feed their corpses to the sea! Huscarls tend to our wounded. Set a watch on the camp. Stay vigilant!”

     Hrogn sank down, holding Fyrgar, as he threw off his helmet and removed Fyrgar’s, as well. He looked beneath Fyrgar’s fighting-jack, but at one gruesome glance of the blood and bone beneath, Hrogn knew there was aught anyone could do to ease, let alone mend Fyrgar’s injuries – and with one look at Hrogn’s face, Fyrgar knew it, as well. Úlf threw off his own helm and rushed over, dropping to his knees beside them both. He quickly reached to lift Fyrgar’s jack, but Hrogn grabbed his wrist and shook his head. The pain Hrogn saw in Úlfgeirr’s eyes matched Fyrgar’s own.

     Fyrgar tried to speak, but Hrogn stopped him, laying a hand on his shoulder, as he said, “But for your keen eye and fearsome strength, Fyrgar I would have been gutted and dead by Dugan’s hand. The finest hirðmann ever born, your father himself, could not have done more.”

     In that moment Hrogn saw Ælfwyn’s own memory of all three of them, training as brothers in arms from the time they were boys. And then he recalled Fyrgar looking from him to Úlf with tears in his eyes, as he labored with what little breath remained, to say, “Hrogn, bring Ælfwyn... bring her home... Tell her I... Tell her we...” but with that, Fyrgar’s breath left him forever as the life in his eyes went dark.

     Úlf bent over Fyrgar and shook with grief, as he clasped Fyrgar’s hand around the weapon that had saved their Jarl’s life.

     As that last memory-image faded, Ælfwyn seemed to awaken as if from a horrible dream. She was shaking and near to tears, as she looked at him, and said, “Oh Hrogn, to lose Fyrgar to such betrayal...” Hrogn did not trust himself to speak as his throat tightened and he simply nodded. Ælfwyn squeezed her eyes shut against tears that fell like a sudden spring rain, as she whispered, “I knew... somehow. Three years ago I felt some terrible loss to all of Hrörekshold. I feared it was you at first. No one, not Master Conal nor Fynn, would believe me until word came to the Clan. We knew nothing else except you still lived. And I tell you, Hrogn, the fury Master Conal called down upon the MacUaise was terrible. They sank back into their filthy holes in utter dishonor.”

     Hrogn nodded, knowing there was far more Ælfwyn would need to be told, but he held that news for later, while they continued to share their memories of Fyrgar. As they did so, they were further astonished to find they were beginning to converse with their thoughts alone, just as they had during their voyage into that Otherworld-place. They began to hear each other’s words without speaking, while the sights and sounds and memories they were describing were there in their minds the same instant.

     Thoroughly amazed, Hrogn paused and admitted, “It does seem, my Lady, that such skills as these could only be ascribed to a true encounter with your Annarr-heimr.”

     Barely above a whisper, she replied, “And so it would, my Lord.”

     Falling silent, Ælfwyn turned and leaned back, as he wrapped his arms around her from behind, drawing her into their shared warmth. She pulled her long red-gold hair forward and began to braid it. Through their growing bond, Hrogn realized she hoped doing something ordinary might help quiet the hammering of her heart.

     Hoping to distract her further, he pointed up into the arched and twisting limbs above them, and said, “If this is the tree I believe it is, her name is Arsadarach – the famed guardian of Darach Tor. It was thought she was destroyed by zealots of the Church, but...” Hrogn considered the surrounding line of evergreens, as well as the hazel- thicket which encircled the clearing beneath the oak, and said, “It would seem more than one generation has gone to great efforts to keep her hidden from those who would do her harm.”

     Glancing down at her, he spoke to Ælfwyn through their growing bond, “She looks to be the world-tree, Yggdrasil, herself, does she not? How ancient must she be? And what wonders has she witnessed, do you think?”

     Ælfwyn looked up into the tree’s softly illuminated limbs, as she too replied within their shared thoughts, “Doubtless she has witnessed the passage of centuries as easily as men mark the turning of the seasons, my lord.” She sighed with wonder, as she spoke the name aloud, "Arsadarach... Oh, but I believe there are bards who would do battle for the privilege of describing such a sight as this!"

     Hrogn felt a chill run his spine – or was it hers – as he asked, “And how would the Bardsdottr of Hrörekshold portray her then?”

     Plainly delighted to hear him call her that once more, Ælfwyn finished her braid and smiled at him, as she rose up on her knees to gaze at the stars.

     As Hrogn too looked up into the tree’s furthest limbs, Ælfwyn's carefully chosen words ignited his imagination, as she whispered, “Lying here, just beneath its knotwork of branches, it is as though we are watching jewels of moonlight being set into an ornamented clasp – as if Arsadarach herself had been fashioned as a wondrous brooch to pin to the earth the great-cloak of the wind and stars...”

     Hrogn smiled at the image she had conjured for him, and feeling restored, he pulled Ælfwyn back into his arms to resume the intimacies their Otherworld voyage had so contemptibly interrupted.

     As the moonlight danced across their own intertwining limbs, they were soon breathless beneath Arsadarach’s branches once more – but in a far more agreeable way. Ælfwyn welcomed Hrogn’s attentions that he was delighted to convey. She was weaving her fingers in his hair, sending a current of desire through every part of him. As he began to kiss and fondle her, he was aching to have her at the heights again. As the scent of her intensified, Hrogn was losing himself in the moment and yet, in the very next moment, his limbs began to tingle and a wave of dizziness came over him once more.

     Hrogn drew back and glimpsed something in Ælfwyn’s eyes. It was like to the hottest-blue coals in a smithy’s-fire, and in that instant, for all his strength, he could not pull away, as he felt himself falling upwards into a brilliant shower of fire and stars in the midst of a maelstrom of night.

     He barely got out a whisper, “Ælfwyn...!”

 

Cypress Bowl Olympic Venue, Vancouver, BC Canada

~ 10:00 PM Saturday, February 13, 2010

     With a forced effort, Hrogn opened his eyes and immediately fought to overcome the ills attending upon yet another Otherworld voyage. Once more his hands and feet prickled, as that unearthly light danced at the edge of his vision and a deep, disturbing tone assaulted his ears, while in his thoughts, he raged, “Not again!” as he shook his head to clear his senses. Still, he could make no sense of any of it.

     He and Ælfwyn should have been lying alone together, taking in the warmth of a spring evening. Instead, he was standing upright and could feel a biting chill against his face, as his breath rose up before his eyes. More disturbing still, even though the sky was dark, there was an eerie light everywhere. And far below the snowy mountainside upon which he stood, he stared down into a valley where there were globes of light illuminating a city, larger than Byzantium itself, made up of many square impossibly tall fortresses.

      As the ringing in his ears subsided, he heard a great throng of people somewhere nearby, and at last, he spoke aloud, “Ælfwyn, where...” Turning full-round, he gasped, “Good God, where is she?” as he called out, “Ælfwyn!”  Once more, he knew it was not his voice, but there was no time to puzzle over that, as he saw a man step out of a confounding blur of people, to walk straight towards him.

     Hrogn instinctively dropped his hand to his sword hilt, only to find there was no hilt, and no sword. Glancing down at himself, he saw a curiously dull array of garments that were certainly none of his. And although there was something heavy resting on his left hip, its shape was entirely foreign and it was most decidedly not a sword.

     Hrogn looked up just as the man came forward, inclined his head and began to speak, “Sergeant Roderick?” and then with more concern, “Sergeant, are you all right? Did you lose something?”

     The words were a tangle of an outlander’s expressions that left Hrogn all the more mystified when something of the man’s meaning began to come through. He quickly realized this stranger was speaking in a tone of respect, even concern. In truth, it was much the way his own men might speak to him. More confounding yet, there was something disturbingly familiar about the man.

     Familiar or not, Hrogn was waging a fierce internal battle as he struggled against the impulse to immediately take the man by the throat; declare himself a Jarl and kinsman of Magnus-King and demand to know where he was; where Ælfwyn was; and what power had brought them there! In such baffling circumstances, however, Hrogn knew full well that such brazen behavior might prove deadly for both he and Ælfwyn, wherever she was. With that in mind, he fought back all such urges and resolved to speak as little as possible. Still, the man was standing there, clearly waiting for him to make answer; prompting Hrogn to shake his head, hoping it would be enough to discourage further discourse.

     Plainly confused, however, the man went on in his largely indecipherable speech, “Oh. All right, uh...” He pointed over Hrogn’s shoulder at some strange pavilions, and said, “I’ll station myself near the Media Tent then...?”

     With a silent prayer to whatever god might listen that the man meant to take his leave and walk in the direction he had just pointed, Hrogn gave another more energetic nod, spontaneously adding an unintelligible grunt, “Umhn – Uhn huhn,” nodding again, altogether intent that it should grant the man his leave to... just go!

     The man nodded and grunted as well, “Uh huh.” even as he walked away in obvious confusion.

     Hrogn laughed but quickly looked away, covering his face, only to be shocked to discover he had no beard!  Finally, gathering his wits, he walked in the opposite direction to avoid any more such encounters.

     As he looked around, there was still a blur clinging to everything. Although, while his sight would not fully clear, an outright assault on his other senses began. Never in his thirty-two winters had Hrogn encountered anything like it. That great host somewhere nearby suddenly voiced a deafening roar. Whether they were shouting in fury or fervor, he could not tell, as an incessant clanging overrode all. The smells were far worse, including the stench of something akin to the muck and turds of a burned-out stable. It all began to overwhelm him. Hoping to gain some perspective in the lay of the land, if not his own mind, Hrogn stepped further back, almost stumbling up the slope.

     With a building frustration, Hrogn realized that for he and Ælfwyn to make their way out of yet another and far different Otherworld, he must fathom that which seemed unfathomable and without delay. Still, no matter how desperate his need, it was as though he were being asked to discern a path on an invisible map.

     His and Ælfwyn’s earlier venture had been unsettling in the extreme, and yet it had not held them long. The place he found himself in at that moment felt much more real and it was becoming more so by the instant. That he and Ælfwyn were separated in that place was beyond disturbing, and the consequences unimaginable.

     At last, as everything began to resolve into sharper focus, Hrogn’s thoughts were all the more so, “Ælfwyn! Where are you?”