Sunday
May292016

The Saxon Prize - Chapters 1-2

"The Saxon Prize" is a novel in progress and I ask your respect in not sharing or distributiong any part of it without my expressed written permission.

 

CHAPTER 1 – Setting Out

            "How do the sea people know the fish are coming?" the boy asked.

            “They say they can hear them," his uncle said. "Some say they can smell them."

            "From far away?" the other boy asked.

            "Very far away," the uncle said.

            "Like wolves," said the first boy. 

            They were two cousins and their uncle and were walking in the night through dense woods. The waning moon had set, The forest was as dark as blindness. The first boy, Gerulf, walked ahead, bobbing a pitch torch. Its small careless light cast dancing shadows on all the shapes around them and was just enough to show them the familiar path.

            It was the time of the change to the warm season. The ground was thawed and the predawn air was musty with loam and noisy with the fierce mating music of birds. Above the din, one voice—a loud, two-note cry—cut the air and echoed far into the trees. Gerulf knew the bird. It was small and black, its breast and shoulders gray, its beak bright red, and he was gladdened by its cry, for he too was small for his years, and loud and strong.

            Caewulf, his cousin, pointed. "Tyr's Fist," he said solemnly. In the weak torch light, beside the path, stood a tree trunk thicker around than six men in a circle could reach, its squat shape rippled like massive clenched fingers. Overhead snaked gnarled boughs as thick as lodge beams.

            Tyr, the old god. His fist marked the border of their land. The three knelt and touched their foreheads to the tree, saying together the old prayer, before continuing on their way.

            From Tyr's Fist the forest thinned, and the boys and their uncle began to see graying sky through the budding tree crowns. The sounds changed, too. Under the raucous birdsongs swelled a chorus of marsh frogs. Gradually the ground became damp and the trees ended. They found themselves on the muddy bank of the marsh, looking out across grassy waters under a thin mist. The pale sky with its fading stars colored the waterwater was colored by the sky’s first pale light. The stars faded. The air thrummed with the chants of uncountable frogs.

            Gerulf plunged the torch into the water. It hissed and died. It wasn’t needed. The dark shapes of the boats were easily visible along the bank.

            "Which one?" he said.

            "Arrow," the uncle, Dagaric, said. Arrow was the smallest of the five boats banked there. It was the boat Dagaric himself had helped his father and his uncle build when he was young, and he always preferred it. Gerulf did, too. Its hull was thin yet strong, and it was easy to paddle and light to portage.

            "No!” Caewulf said. “Let's take Floating Tree. It will hold more fish." Floating Tree was the largest of the village's marsh boats.

            "We don't need it," Dagaric said.

            "It will hold more fish," Caewulf insisted.

            "Our sea cousins will bring back our share of the catch in their own boats," Dagaric said.

            "We can bring back other things. Salt and seashells. My mother wants me to bring her back lots of seashells." Caewulf was growing angry.

            "Arrow will hold all the salt and shells we need," Gerulf said. 

            "You're just too small to paddle Floating Tree," Caewulf said sourly.

            "I am not."

            "You are. How small and helpless you’ll be in a sea craft on the ocean. You'll see."               "I will not!"

            "You will, little cousin.  You will!”

            Dagaric dropped his spear, shield and satchel into the small boat and waved to the boys to do the same. They did, still arguing.

 

            The herring were coming. Word arrived the day before with a runner from the coastal tribes. Each year runners fanned out from the coast along paths on both sides of the Rain River, racing from inland village to inland village, asking help with the great harvest. The inland tribes that could sent north to the coast an elder with one or two youth who had come of age since the last herring run. In return for their young men’s help, each village received a share of the catch

            This was the year Gerulf and Caewulf had come of age. After living all their lives in a village built on an earth mound isolated in deep woods encircled by the vast marsh, they were traveling into a strange land and would soon see the boundless sea for the first time.

            Dagaric smiled to himself, thinking of his own first time.

            The boys settled onto Arrow’s narrow front and middle seats. In one smooth motion, Dagaric nudged the boat from its muddy berth and climbed in to take the back seat. All took up paddles, and soon the light craft was gliding across the still water, skimming aside marsh grasses and sending frogs splashing off their perches. To their right, the flat horizon glowed brighter and brighter with the coming sunrise.

            They paddled for hours across the marsh, on open water, past rotted trees and tumbled towers of moss-covered rock. All the while, the sun climbed.

            Dagaric knew the way. They sang songs and recited stories, in turn, and were in fine spirit through to midday, when the sun began burning them and their arms ached and their legs cramped. They found shade on a small island with four scraggly trees. They sat on the passably dry bank, and before they could open their stores of bread and dried meat, clouds of small, biting flies formed around them. 

            “This is a miserable place,” Caewulf said, shooing the flies from his face.

            “The In-Between Land,” Gerulf said, from his memory of stories, “No one lives here and everyone hurries through.”

            Dagaric did not seem to mind the flies. As he chewed one crawled on his brow and another on his cheek. He continued to look out across the water. “A tribe lives here," he said.

            They watched a long brown snake swim past them in graceful, unhurried curves.

            “In this marsh?” Gerulf said.

            “Yes,” said their uncle.

            “They choose to?” Caewulf asked.

            “They were chased here,,” Dagaric said, “by others who burned their village and killed half their number. That was when I was a boy. They fled here and they stayed. The marsh protects them, because it is so isolated and it is land no one else wants. And that is what a home is about—protection.”

            Gerulf looked around for signs of the luckless tribe. Aside from the nub of land they sat on, there was little solid earth anywhere to be seen. “Where do they live?”

            “They live on the water,” Dagaric said, “in a floating village.”

            The boys sat silent, thinking about this.

            “Then they have no cattle or goats,” Gerulf said.

            “That makes them nothing,” Caewulf added.

            “They cannot even grow grain,” Gerulf said, “or flax for thread.” He turned to his uncle with an incredulous smile. “They could not live. You are storytelling, uncle.”

            “Yes! You are lying!” Caewulf grinned.

            Dagaric smiled back. “You are smart boys, but you don’t know enough about hardship.” As he had his first bite, Dagaric tossed the last bite of his bread into the water in sacrifice, whispering a prayer.  “Let’s go,” he said. “We are past halfway to dark.”

            They had ahead of them two more hours of paddling to where they would beach the boat and then hike more hours along an old cart trail. To make it to the village by nightfall, they had to keep moving. The alternative was a dreaded one: to camp in a strange wood.

            They paddled. They sang and told more stories. The heat and insects increased. The sights of the marsh faded from monotonous to tedious. They sweated out their water and exhausted their arms. The boys fell wearily silent, leaving Dagaric to encourage them with bawdy rhymes and tales of his own long-told exploits.

            They reached the bank late in the day, in dull spirits but close to the cart road. They dragged Arrow into a deep water cut in the bank, secured it with hemp line and stakes, and covered it with fresh limbs, then shouldered their satchels, took up their spears, and walked north on the road. 

            The woods thickened and the afternoon sun cast longer shadows. Walking behind his uncle, Gerulf tried for the hundredth time to imagine the sea village and the sea, and he felt confusion and a twinge of fear. The Sea Cousins were, by all accounts, tough people who were at home on vast and roaring waters, were warriors against huge, wicked monsters, and harvesters of what lived invisible beneath the waves of the sea. How would he fare? Was Caewulf right? Would he be too weak and small to work on a ship on the sea? He knew nothing of the sea, nothing about strangers or ships. He tried to imagine an endless expanse of cold, stormy water that swallowed ships and men, and the vision made him tremble and stumbled on the road.

            “Cousin!” Caewulf said behind him, “If you can’t keep your feet on a road, how will you keep your feet on a ship on the sea!”

            “Shut up!” Gerulf shot back, his face hot, and walked on.

 

CHAPTER 2 – Strangers on the Road

            They walked an hour through thick woodland and saw no one.

            "How much longer, uncle?" Caewulf asked.

            "Two wegstun," Dagaric said. Before either boy could grouse, they heard off to the right the creaking of cart wheels hidden from view by a wall of scrub oak and hornbeam. Over the sound an old man's voice talked loudly, and while the three understood his words, the words were strangely spoken. Uncle and nephews took quick cover in a thicket between two massive oaks. Dagaric gripped his thick spear and his nephews their shorter spears, and watched.

            The cart appeared. It was a work wagon—a small thing--and two men sat on its bench: an old, wiry bearded man talking and broadly gesturing, and a slender and silent youth, no older than Gerulf and Caewulf, managing the reins on a plodding ox.

            “We should seize the cart,” Caewulf whispered.

            "We should greet possible friends," Dagaric said. “Stay here.” He stepped out of hiding onto the path. When the two men saw him, he lowered his spear and raised a hand. “A friend,” he said.

            The young man yanked the oxen to a grudging halt and vaulted off the bench to the bed of the cart, where he grabbed a formidable bow and a quiver of arrows.

            The old man's hands scrambled clumsily under his tunic and drew an old sceax.  He stood and pointed it at Dagaric with furious determination.  "Thief!" he cried.

            “No!” Dagaric said. “A friend.”

            “What proof?” the old man said.

            The youth was reading Dagaric carefully. He had not drawn the bow. “Father,” he said, “what have we to steal? The cart is empty.”

            “The cart!” the father said.

            Dagaric dropped his head in a respectful bow. “I want only to ask if you can give me and my nephews a ride north—if you are headed north.”

            Now the young man, in a quick gesture, drew the bow, aiming the arrow at Dagaric’s chest. “Let's see these cousins,” he said.

            Dagaric bowed again, turned to the brush, and signaled his nephews to join him. They climbed out of the thicket and stood with him, wide-eyed at the drawn, their short spears tipped low, unthreatening.

            The young driver grinned. “You are come for the herring,” he said.

            “Yes,” the boys said, relieved.

            “We are, too," the young man said. "You are welcome to join us.” He eased the bowstring and plucked the arrow from it. He met his father's scowl with a slight smile. The old man settled back on the cart bench, sceax in hand. He whispered something only the young man could hear.

            "Climb in," the youth said, and Gerulf, Caewulf and Dagaric tossed their spears and satchels onto the small cart's bed and clambered onto it themselves. Aside from their belongings and some rotted straw, the cart held a long, slender switch, two worn leather sacks, a thick roll of heavy woven flax cloth, and a long, curved shape wrapped in finely woven white cloth and tied with a red-dyed string.

            “You’ll keep away from those things,” the old man said.

            No fear,” Dagaric said. “We are like you, travelers not thieves.” The three sat tightly together, side-by-side, their legs dangling off the back, heels dragging across the ground.

            The ox did not move at the boy’s slap of the reins, and he reached back into the cart, took up the switch, and whipped it hard across the beast’s hindquarters. The cart lurched forward.

            A long while passed in silence, everyone allowing the unease to fade. Finally, the old man spoke.

            “Your language,” he said without turning to them. "It is strange."

            “So is yours,” Caewulf blurted, twisting to face toward the front of the cart. Dagaric swatted the back of his head. 

            The old man looked over his shoulder. “You have a rude whelp there,” he said. “Don’t you teach your young to respect elders?”

            “We do,” Dagaric said, “but this is his first day without his mother and he’s lost—“

Caewulf shot him a look. “I apologize for him”

            “Better he apologize himself,” the old man said sourly, and waited, but Caewulf said nothing. The cart creaked along. “You are marsh folk,” he said.

            “The tribe Marsh Wolf. I am Dagaric. These are my nephews, Gerulf and Caewulf.” 

            “I am Runghrig,” the old man said and touched the young driver’s shoulder. “This is my son, Lonfrewd. He also is harvesting the fish this year.”

            “We are well met,” Dagaric said. “Wotan must favor our journey for us to meet so fortunately--"

            "Fortunate for you," the old man said. "We have the cart."

            Now Dagaric laughed. "True," he said. "Our feet are indebted."

            "Your foot debt is noted," Runghrig said. "Your weapon," he added, "is as stout as any I have seen in a battle line."

            "Crafted by my father, a fine weaponer," Dagaric said. "Guerthner was his name.”

            "Our uncle fought the Cervannig at the Black Shore," Gerulf said proudly, "and the Sessones at Steep Rock, and stood against the Romans when they forded the ice on the Great River."

            A silence fell between the two elders, and Gerulf had the feeling he had said something he should not have.

            "The Black Shore, I know," Runghrig said. "I was there. A fearsome day. A costly victory, many companions lost—two of my brothers. I have heard the tales of Black Rock. But I never knew the Romans crossed the Rain River on any winter ice."

            "He calls us liars," Caewulf hissed.

            Dagaric frowned at the boy. "He said no such thing, Caewulf. No one is lying, and no one is called a liar." He pulled up his legs and turned full around in the cart to face Runghrig’s back. “You are right, friend. The Romans have not crossed the Great River in either of our lifetimes."

            Gerulf and Caewulf gaped at him.

            Dagaric caught the look. "You misunderstood the stories, nephews," he said. "You said it yourselves. We stood against the Romans. That does not mean we fought them. Have you ever heard a tale about a battle that day?"

            Gerulf reddened. “No, uncle.” 

            Another long silence, then Runghrig turned to Gerulf and Caewulf. "Young ones," he said, "the Romans feared attacking across the ice because they did not dare it against such spearman as your uncle." To Dagaric he said, “Spearman, we have a long road ahead.” He smiled his first smile, a slight one. “Let's tell each other our tales."

            And they did.

            Runghrig began. "We are of the Aurochs Tribe of the Low Plain. Tiwaz himself conceived the First Twins, our Mother and Father. He conceived them upon the White Aurochs, which after mating turned into a Grey Oak that stands on the hill in our village. The First Twins were the fruits of that tree. Their sons and daughters were far-feared warriors and fertile women more beautiful than rain. They fought the ancient wars against the gold-skinned invaders from the south and the east, and they made their enemies' women their wives and sons their slaves. Through the roots of the Grey Oak, those captives melted into our people and became one with us, and for a long time we were at peace.

            Then, in my boyhood, the Romans appeared in the south and stirred the winds and set the wild-haired ones upon us all. Velnias damn their hateful spirits. That was the Black Shore. That was the fated day of my life—and maybe yours. We might have fought within sight of each other, eh?  Then we continued the fight, fought them back to their villages and slaughtered them. May Velnias claim them and their ancestors. 

            "Now we have enjoyed peace for many years and have prospered. We have nurtured our fields and pastures and raised great herds of cattle. We keep our customs and devotion to our ancestors and the gods and do not want to conquer anyone. But we fight fiercely when faced with raiders who think the River an easy road to profit.

            “Now," the old man said proudly, "my youngest son will meet the sea cousins and harvest the fish and return to a fine young bride and a life as a man of the tribe."

            He spit three times on the trail in oath to the truth of his story, saying "May it remain in these times of change."

            Dagaric took his turn. “Well, spoken, Runghrig. My nephews and I travel with exalted companions.” Gerulf and Caewulf had heard Dagaric’s stories over and over since childhood, around night fires in the summer and smoky hearths in the winter, and never tired of them. They knew the tales were an easy match for the old man's. 

            "The Marsh Wolf tribe," Dagaric began, "rose from the coupling of the Unnamed Gods, land and river, brother and sister, flowing one into another. They birthed fierce warriors who drove the dark elves and earth giants from the marsh and built the Raised Wood, which today keeps our people and cattle and crops above the river floods and salt floods from the sea. On that table our ancestors founded our village and by sacred custom and the courage of our warriors we have prospered and grown as did your lands by the Rain River. We continue to conquer the rising waters, adding land to our village with hard labor and mud and sand and rock. And the Unnamed Gods have rewarded us with rich harvests of grain and flax and safe pastures even in recent floods. From the Five Families in the time of great storms we have grown to Nine Families and in the deep woodlands, where we are protected by the marsh and blessed by gods and ancestors, we have long been at peace."

            Here Dagaric spit on the road in oath to the truth.

            “We are all of sacred stock,” Runghrig said, accepting the worth of his fellow travelers. Another long silence, then he said, with a different voice, “I worry of living so long in peace,”

            “Having lived war,” Dagaric said, “I treasure peace. Yet I understand. I also fear that, when war comes—and it will—we will not have warriors.” 

            “You train your young?” Runghrig said.

            “These boys?” Dagaric said. “As we can. Hunting lessons. Bow and spear against deer and bear and boar when they’re of age."

            "Bear and boar are tough adversaries."

            "Compared to a line of Romans or a band of mounted Celts?  The boar is furious and wild but unthinking. A thinking enemy—” Dagaric wiped his sweaty face with his big hands.

The gods help us,” Runghrig said. “Peace has softened us and we are as ripe for plucking by what is coming as our orchards.”

            “What is coming, brother?”

            “The Romans.”

            "The Romans!" Gerulf and Caewulf cried, excited. Stories of facing Roman legions had fueled their boyhoods. Dagaric silenced them with a raised hand. “Why would the Romans march this far from their fort-line?” he asked.

            The old man climbed over the back of the cart bench and, against the rocking motion of the wagon, worked his way unsteadily into the back of the cart and dropped down opposite Dagaric.

            “They’re not marching themselves.  They march on the feet of allies, brother. Dangerous ones. Remember the Chamatii?  Old Krantus?  You’re younger than me, but I remember. I remember how furious my father and uncles were when they learned Krantus had banded with the Chaucii.  They came on fleets of river boats like a swarm of insects. I was ten and it was my first battle, and we beat them back and chased them for four days upriver to their own villages.  We killed what wounded stragglers we came along and burned their village and took their cattle and women and children. We waited three days for boats from our coastal cousins to come to carry our prisoners and take their commission of slaves, and all the time we feasted on what was left of the village’s stock and stores, and my father and uncles had their women.”

            Runghrig smiled and stared up at the sky.  “My father had Krantus’s head on his doorpost until the day he died and asked me to burn it with his corpse.  I did.”

            “The Chamatii are now Roman allies?”

            “Oh, yes. The Romans know how badly they wanted revenge against us, even after so long.  Bribed them with glass and gold and trinkets for their women. They’ve given them weapons and had Roman officers train them.  They promised them they can keep all the lands they conquer from the south foothills to the coast of the sea and sell for their own profit all of our cattle and women and children. You are in their path, Dagaric.”

            Dagaric’s expression did not change. “And how do you know this.”

            Runghrig glanced at his son steering the ox.  He pointed. “That boy,” he said, “he’ll tell you. He was visiting his mother’s cousins in a village south of here. He was able to see much.”

            All eyes turned to Lonfrewd, who pretended not to hear.

            “Tell them, boy,” Runghrig said to him.

            The boy turned in his seat and nodded.  “It is true, he said. Our cousins were preparing for war.  There were Roman soldiers in their village and traders with cartloads of gifts and goods.  Our cousins were smiling to their faces but are preparing behind their backs.”

            "So the impotent legions turn their enemies into puppets,” Runghrig said, “and when those puppets have served them they will slaughter them, too. You and I have seen it before. But many young warriors, they have no memory, no experience with the Romans. They see glory and gold and their war bands are swelling and don't think past it. So they raid and take glory in it while all they are doing is making their foreign masters wealthy and themselves enemies of their own people."

            Both elders fell silent.

"Our tribes are strong," Dagaric said. "They will not follow the Romans blindly."

“They will not follow them,” Runghrig said, “but can they resist them?” A long pause, then Rungrig added, "They found a leader to unite them in this Roman worship, a hot-blooded whelp called Frigrith. He has a golden tongue. We hear he killed his father and two elder brothers to gain power and has amassed a fortune for his warriors from raids and Roman bribes. He wears Roman war gear and uses Roman commanders in his army."

Dagaric quieted.

"The Romans!" Caewulf whispered excitedly.

Dagaric shook his head sadly. “It was sure to come.”

The conversation had long bored Caewulf and he scrambled onto the bench beside the old man’s son.

"Your people raise cattle," Lonfrewd said.

"Cattle and goats," Gerulf said

"And pigs," Caewulf added from the back of the cart. 

"We raise pigs and goats," Lonfrewd said. "We once raised cattle, but the marsh pastures are flooded with sea water most of the time now, and it’s ruined the grazing and we can’t grow grain. Goats and pigs can forage in the woods.”

"Our village is raised above the floods," Gerulf said. "So we grow some grain and leeks and garlic and onions and other things."

            "Do you harvest marsh blade?" Lonfrewd said. "Our women do. It grows wild in the salt marsh and makes a stronger thread than flax."

"Enough!" Runghrig barked. "You three prattle like old weaving women. Who cares what grows and where? Be men! If you were men you would be thinking, as we are, of the danger of these times.”

 

            The boys and their elders fell silent, and in the silence heard the changes in bird songs and the scurrying shapes on the edges of the road, and in the wind. The world was wetter. The cart followed the road into dry woodlands that weaved lazily among huge rocks until its northward path seemed blocked by a towering wall of grey stone. Gerulf and Caewulf had never seen such a rocky ridge. Their entire world always had been as flat as the plateau of their village and the water around it. The only rocks they knew jutted a few arms' lengths above the surface of the great river. Yet ythis was a wall of fractured, jagged rock ten men high, with trees topping it and vines and bushes filling its crevices.

"Is it a fort?" Gerulf asked. He thought of the great stone walls he’d heard abut around the Roman forts far away.

"No," his uncle said. "It is just a part of the world."

"It was raised by the gods," Runghrig countered as he worked his way back to his place on the bench, pushing Caewulf aside so he could sit beside his son. "These are the old walls of Twareg's fortress against the forest dwarves."

Gerulf looked from Runghrig to Dagaric.

"No one knows, boy," Dagaric said. "To me it is a hill of bare rock. But we are not from here."

 Suddenly, the cart’s wheels sang a new song, of sandy soil, and the five travelers smelled without doubt the salt of the sea.