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 again, 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?”

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