Spun of Salt and Stone



 

The weighted spindle dropped from her hand, whirling, while her practiced fingers fed it golden strands of flax from the distaff. Tears prickled at her eyes. They tasted like salt, like blood, but blood had power, and tears had none.

Footsteps, as she caught the spindle in work-roughened fingers, winding fresh thread. Her head rose, searching the confines of her cell for the source of the sound. A dirt floor. Stone walls, weeping with moisture, tree roots jutting out. No windows. One door. Her brazier held few coals, lest she suffocate in this dank hole.

On the moor far overhead, atop a barrow of heaped earth, she knew that great stones danced, relics of the past. Most feared to come here. And yet, from the footsteps in the passage, someone had. Someone she hadn’t seen in the dance of the threads.

Then two small faces peered around the door that led to the surface. A boy and a girl, both under the age of ten, with flax-blond hair, bound back with gold fillets—oh, gods, to touch that hair again. Rich clothing, finest linen and wool. She stared at them, hoping that they would know her, recognize her with their father’s wild green eyes.

Are you a witch?” the girl asked forthrightly.

Do you think so, Sunngifu?” she asked, her throat closing as they pulled away. They don’t know. The eorl’s made them heirs of the sea, but they know nothing of who they are. Or who I am.

You must be,” the girl replied, shaken. “You know my name.”

Everyone knows the names of the eorl’s heirs,” she replied, turning away. “That doesn’t make me a witch.” Nor does the spark of power I learned from my children’s father, a scrap, a bauble.

They say your name is Aelfswyf. Elf’s wife. Then they spit.” That from the boy.

That’s the name the eorl gave me, Wilfrith. Just as you had another name once.” She sent the spindle dancing to her feet again. A name for the boy, so he’d never have to acknowledge the truth. A name for her, so he’d never again have to say the one that reminded him of betrayal and death.

The boy’s eyes widened. “What do you mean?”

Your name was Aodh.” The name whispered back from the weeping walls. “It wouldn’t have been your name forever.” Names among the Old Ones grow and change over time, twining around their deeds like vines on a tree.

Why do they call you Aelfswyf?” Sunngifu asked, creeping closer.

Because I married the man my father told me to wed.”

The boy stayed near the door. “Who’s your father?”

Eorl Hereward.”

They laughed. “Grandfather? That would make you, what, our aunt?”

She didn’t answer. “Why did you come?” Aelfswyf asked. Did something wake in your blood? Does my father ride to expand his lands in the face of famine? I haven’t seen it in the threads, not yet . . . .

They traded guilty glances. “We heard villagers talking about you,” Sunngifu admitted.

The boy lifted his chin. “They said you caused the many deaths. Why didn’t Grandfather have you executed?”

Aelfswyf snorted. “Aodh, if he executed his daughter, he’d be a kin-slayer, accursed by gods and men.”

My name is Wilfrith.” His eyes turned wary. “You don’t deny that you’ve killed men?”

She sighed. “I didn’t kill anyone. But that doesn’t make me innocent.” She wound thread around the distaff. “If you tried, I think you could see the story as I tell it.”

See the story?” Sunngifu asked, sitting on the damp floor at Aelfswyf’s feet. “How?”

Quite tangibly, if you’re your father’s children.” Heirs of stone.

Leofric was our father.” The boy crossed his arms over his sturdy chest. “Son of Hereward.”

He’d have been your brother, if you’re our aunt,” Sunngifu chirped. “Tell us! Tell us why Grandfather makes his daughter live underground, where the Old Ones used to live.”

Tears formed, tasting of salt. “Look,” Aelfswyf told them, and let her spindle fall. “See how the past was wrought. See how we came to this land twelve years ago, from over the sea.”

She felt memories rise, and tried to spin them into the flax. No good thread will this make; it will prick the skin like nettles. But they must see . . . .

And then she was living it again, clinging to the rail of the carrack as it cut through the green water, the sky lividly blue overhead. The groaning of the timbers, the singing tension in the ropes—singing like the thread between her fingers—the crack of the white sails. “Sister, not too close to the edge! There are dangerous fish in these waters!”

She’d caught some of the glass-green water in her palm, disappointed that it turned clear in her hand. Nothing held up close is what it seems in the distance. There’s a lesson for you.

She looked up at Leofric, grinning at her from where he hung from the rigging. Alive, gods have mercy, I didn’t think that in showing these children the past, I’d see him alive again. No, please, no, I can’t bear it—

He dropped down, still holding a rope, and caught her exuberantly in his free arm. Sent them dancing and spinning, as if they were still children playing on a swing in the courtyard of the old keep. Dancing and whirling like a weighted spindle. She threw back her head, laughing. “What kinds of fish?”

No idea! But the sailors are full of tales!” Leofric shouted. “They say that they sing to lure men overboard. Beasts roam the deeps, each with a hundred arms.” He rolled his eyes. “Horses that run atop the waves as if the sea were glass.”

Really?” She dropped to the deck.

If those exist, I want one.” He grinned, landing beside her. “I’d lure enemies out into the water and watch them drown in their armor.”

Oh, what a horrible thing to say!” She swatted his shoulder. “Why come to such a haunted place?”

The scouts reported that the land’s fertile, even if the waters are witched.” He shrugged. “A good place to stay until the politics back home settles down, eh?”

Back home, the old king had died without an heir, and a half-dozen eorls had fought for the throne. And her father had chosen the wrong side.

Even before this passage, she’d already seen armies come home from war; wounded, scarred men. She’d seen the armies of the new king moving like a ribbon on the horizon. He’d given her father a choice: Execution or banishment.

Then, their first glimpse of their new home: Blinding white cliffs, capped with grass hundreds of feet above the slick glass of the sea’s surface, where white caps danced on the green waves. Nothing but green and white, with rainbows dancing between in the spray.

The vision faded as the humming between her fingers became a threnody.

That was our father?” Sunngifu asked softly.

My brother.”

But he looked not that much older than we are!” Wilfrith objected. “Old enough to carry arms, but no beard!”

He was sixteen the year of the Crossing,” Aelfswyf whispered.

Wilfrith leaned forward, his expression still stubborn. “His eyes were blue. Our nurse told us we had our father’s eyes! You are a witch, to show us lies in a skein of thread!”

She raised her eyes, and he flinched from her expression. “I am no liar.” Aelfswyf let silence ring each word. “My brother died unwed and without children.”

Confusion in their faces. Consternation. “But how?” Sunngifu cried, as all the certainties of their young lives crumbled around them. Aelfswyf’s heart crumpled within her like onionskin. “Grandfather wouldn’t lie to us!”

You’re only saying this to turn us against him!” Wilfrith stood to leave, but Aelfswyf hummed under her breath.

One of her skeins fell to the floor and unrolled, encircling them. A frail barricade between them and the exit. “You will hear me,” she stated. “When I am done, I won’t stop you from leaving.” Her throat ached. “Just hear me.”

Wilfrith eyed the golden thread warily. In truth, it held no power to bind. But they didn’t know that. “Circles,” he muttered angrily, dropping back to a crouch. “Like the stone dances that the Old Ones built. The ones we’re warned never to step into, lest we be lost.”

Like the stones atop this barrow,” Sunngifu whispered.

Aelfswyf sighed. “They held gates once,” she replied. “But the ways between are shut. Once, for me, they opened for tears, salt of the sea. Now? They’ll only open for blood. Salt and iron.”

Do you always talk this way?” Wilfrith demanded, scowling. “Mysteries and riddles and poetry?”

I’ve been beneath the stone for seven years. A little madness was, perhaps, inevitable.” Aelfswyf’s lips curled. “Here—witness the past. Be the judge of its truth.”

As the thread danced, she plummeted into the past like a weight dropping from a cord. But this time, the children stood beside her, watching, yet untouched by the events that unfolded.

Huddling inside the fort, made from the hulls of the ships. as the men chopped down trees to raise a palisade. Broke land for the fields, carving the soil with iron plows and the sweat of their brows. Communities spreading out gradually, further and further from the fortress.

And then the attacks began. “Riders in the night!” terrified farmers cried as she listened from the edge of her father’s throne room. “Riders on strange beasts—half-serpent, half-bird, great black stags, or even wolves! They burned the fields—”

“—killed my husband in front of me, put his head on a spear before the house—”

“—told me I was permitted to live, to tell you that these aren’t your lands. That the sea is our home, and we should return to it—”

Her brother, flushed with rage: “Father, we can’t let this stand! These others haven’t come to us as civilized people and bargained. They’ve attacked our poorest and weakest, carried off their children. Our people look to us for protection!”

No, this will not stand,” Hereward declared.

Then the liquid flow of chainmail over limbs as men mounted up. The jingle of harness, the smell of horseflesh and the resinous tang of fresh-cut spears. Then the eorl rode forth to search for the dark riders.

The people of the keep cheered, and Aelfswyf waved to her father and brother from one of the towers as long as she could see them.

Out loud, she murmured, “I didn’t witness the battle. I only saw the result.”

Two days later, only fifty men returned, leading horses with dead riders slung over their backs. Cheers became mourning, and she and the other women cleansed wounds with wine as the men screamed in agony. Changed bandages. Pressed cool cloths to fevered foreheads. Endured the reek of putrefying flesh—the dark riders daubed poison on their blades. “I learned to weep where no one would see,” she whispered. “I held so many dying hands in those days.”

Her brother’s eyes held shadows as he told her what had happened. “They came out of the earth. Up from the water, from out of the air.” Anger and the desire for vengeance roiled from Leofric in waves. “They’re not human. No two of them alike. I fought one that looked like a tree. I seized a torch and set the creature alight. I saw ones covered in scales, with the lidless, dead eyes of trout. I saw men and women covered in feathers. The rock-like ones? Pulled some of our men down into the earth with them. Buried them alive—I could still hear them screaming . . . till the earth stilled.” He shuddered. “We thought we’d be facing men.” Leofric exhaled raggedly. “But we still killed a score of them. Next time, we’ll know better.”

Next time?” she’d repeated, horrified.

An impatient glare. “Of course next time. This is our land, our home. We’ve worked it, made it bear fruit They’re nothing more than demons. We’ll drive them from this land.”

And they did, didn’t they?” Wilfrith now, startling her out of the vision, touching her elbow. “They drove the Old Ones away!”

Yes. And no.”

The men reinforced the walls with stone. Buried iron caltrops in the frozen fields. Adjusted their tactics. And three or four skirmishes later, returned with a prisoner.

She’d been told to stay away from the prison tower. But the tales fascinated her. Not human. Creatures of air and stone and fire. What’s the harm in a look? She stole away from her nursing duties and found one of the barred windows of the tower. Peered into the dimness cautiously.

Light. Light surrounded the creature like an aura, faint and gold. He’d been chained to the wall naked, to her maidenly surprise. Flesh as starkly white as the chalk cliffs. Below the waist, the legs of some great cat—a pard, perhaps—terminating in wide-padded paws. The thick fur looked as chalk-pale, but for the black stripes on his long tail. The fur thinned over his belly, leaving his chest bare. On his arms? Feathers, which ran along his back, too. Long hair, mixed with white plumes, hung over his face, matted with mud and blood. When he raised his head to stare at her, his eyes held the only color in his body.

Green. Green as the sea, as glistening as glass, but with the slitted pupils of a cat.

He pulled his lips back, baring his fangs, and she yelped and pulled away—

right into her brother. “You shouldn’t be here, looking at that thing. That one alone killed seven of my men,” Leofric told her, his hands on her shoulders. “We’ll hang him, once we’re done putting him to the question. See if a noose will kill them.”

They’re horrible,” she whispered, fascination mingled with her loathing.

He squeezed her shoulders. “You don’t need to be afraid. If hanging doesn’t work, we’ll burn him.”

You’re going to question him?” That seemed important.

Yes. Father’s taking charge of it. Break a few fingers to start. If that doesn’t work, perhaps flaying.” Leofric kissed the top of her head. “You’ll sleep better if you don’t know the details.”

I sleep like the dead every night after tending the wounded.”

Don’t say such things.” Impatient tone. “You’re alive. Every one of us that you keep alive is a victory. Come away. Leave this filth to Father.”

She’d felt the creature’s eyes on her back as they walked away. And for the next two days, she’d thought she’d heard his screams from the tower, intermingling with the screams of the wounded and the dying in the keep, and had thought to herself, I should be happy that one of them is in equal misery. Anything he tells my father, will save lives.

On the third day, mist rose around the walls of the keep. And out of that mist, riders appeared. Hundreds of them. Walls of stone and wood and iron suddenly felt like parchment. From her window, she watched the gate creak open, though none of her father’s men turned the winches.

And then five of the riders on their outlandish beasts entered. Four clustered around the central figure, a female in fish-scale armor that glimmered faintly green, with long black hair covering the rest of her form like a cloak.

Sea-lord, the words curled up even to her window, carried there like smoke, inescapable though silent. You hold one of my own captive. I come to treat for his life.

Consternation. The enemy had never bargained before. Never treated.

She’d been summoned to the great hall to watch as her brother brought the bloodied prisoner out, wrapped in iron chains, and forced him, at sword-point, to kneel at Hereward’s feet. Full half the captive’s feathers had been plucked, leaving oozing sores. She could see that the iron had rubbed his wrists and ankles raw, and that the wounds were putrefying, like the wounds of the men she’d nursed.

A single thought filled her mind: Good.

Then the other creatures had entered, and her father’s guards stiffened. One of the males had no legs, but a curtain of a hundred tentacles undulating along the floor. Another had eight eyes, black and cold. A third had a scorpion’s tail, its stinger bobbing over his head as he walked.

Oh, gods,” Wilfrith muttered. “They really are monsters!”

They’re beautiful,” Sunngifu corrected.

The female at the center held inhuman beauty, but her eyes seemed as cold as stone. This war has claimed hundreds of your lives, she hissed, though her lips never moved, her words coiling inside Aelfswyf like fog. A few score of mine. But now, you hold my son’s life in your hands, you with your reek of salt and iron. What price will you have for him?

The eorl sat forward. His brown hair had faded to iron, but his eyes remained keen. “Then I have you at an advantage.”

Look outside your walls. Tell me what advantage you hold. If you harm my son further, I will have the lives of everyone inside your walls as well as those without.

Her father didn’t blink. “All the lands between here and the river, and from the shore to the mountains. Ceded to me and mine, in perpetuity.”

Too much for one life. These are our lands.

Then you will have a dead son to go with as many of your ilk as we can kill before we’re overrun.”

The creature in his shackles spoke now, in a voice like waves on stone, “Mother, kill them all. My life doesn’t matter. Let their blood cleanse the land.”

Tension sang in the air like the humming thread between her fingers. You seek many sacrifices to pave your way into the afterlife. A pitiful thing for a son who failed to will himself out of existence, rather than be captured. But I see another path, the female murmured. You have a daughter, sea-lord?

Hereward stiffened. “I do,” he admitted.

Let her wed my son. I will cede control of the land you have demanded to their children. And you may hold it in trust until they are of age.

Leofric stiffened. “No!” her brother snarled. “They’re murderers who reek of the foulness of their deeds—”

And you do not?

Hereward held up a hand. “You’d rob my son of his patrimony?”

I am indifferent to you and your son, but your lineage will continue through your daughter. As will mine. Chill words. I will not leave this place until the bargain is sealed. She’d looked at her chained son. You will remain among these creatures and beget children on your new wife. Our ambassador. This is your punishment for failure.

And he lowered his head at those words as he had not in the face of two days of torture.

Wilfrith’s voice from behind her, waveringly. “He killed seven men single-handedly, and she considers him a failure? That’s . . . not fair.”

She’s not known for her mercy,” Aelfswyf whispered.

In the past, she’d stood bereft, not permitted to speak, as others bargained her life away. Her brother raged until her father ordered him to silence, and then stood there, fuming, as a priest was found.

The women of the keep did their best. Managed to find dried verbena blossoms to tuck in her hair. Patted her shoulders. Wept over her. “You’re so brave,” they whispered. “You’re saving all of our lives.”

How grateful they were, not to be forced into it themselves.

Before the court, his mother healed his wounds, the oozing sores vanishing before their eyes. A demonstration of the Old One’s incredible power.

Then before the priest, they joined hands. Hers cringing from his claws.

The vision faded. “My first crime,” she told the children as they blinked in the low light of the barrow. “I married the man my father bade me marry.”

Did you love him?” Sunngifu asked, forlorn.

Aelfswyf laughed. “I thought he was a demon, a damned thing. He thought I was an animal, a pest, a blight. And his punishment.” She shook her head. “No. There was no love at first.”

And that first night, and many nights after? He wanted nothing of my bed and I nothing of his flesh, but his mother wouldn’t leave until the marriage had been consummated. And she knew, too. She rode off the moment his seed spilled.

A humiliation that she’d never share, never speak. “He glamored himself to look more mortal, to ward off the hatred from those around him. But sometimes, I’d see the light shining from him, and I hated him for his beauty. I hated him for having slain my people. I hated him because my brother hated him. And I hated him because he hated me. A fine stew of hate we cooked, and we ate it together.”

But . . . did you ever come to love him?” Sunngifu asked timidly.

In time. Our first child, our son, I bore out of that hate. And he was given part of his father’s name.”

Wilfrith stirred. “What was his name?” he asked uncertainly.

Amihan Aodh.”

Wilfrith paled. “That’s the name you said was mine. You’re lying.” He curled in on himself, a defiant lump of wretchedness.

Words wouldn’t help. She set the skein to dancing once more.

Amihan, lifting their son out of the wooden cradle in the gilded light of the fire, a puzzled expression on his face. “There’s nothing wrong with him,” she muttered from the bed, where she lay recovering from her labor.

I look for some part of myself in him. But I see no part of me, for all that I bound myself to you with magic to ensure that some part of me would live in the child.” Bitterness in his voice.

And then the child opened his eyes, and an arrested expression crossed Amihan’s face. “He has my eyes?”

Outside the flow of memory, Aelfswyf murmured, “From that moment, nothing but gentleness towards you. A thawing, towards me. And because we loved you, we came to accept each other.”

Flickers. Amihan remained cold to every other human. Dismissive. Contemptuous. But with her, in their rooms . . . the first laughter she’d heard from him, as their son toddled across the floor. He took them to the stone dances, and in the green grass under the stones, taught her his language and more. Magic. “A time will come when you need to defend yourself. And your people foolishly don’t allow women to carry swords. Carry this in your mind, instead.”

I can’t—”

You can. I can feel the spark in you. Let it flow.”

Sitting curled in his arms, making one of his loose feathers dance on a breeze that she controlled. Him laughing at her delight at what was to him, a spell used to amuse children. “Do you know,” he whispered in her ear, “when my mother ordered me to wed you, I thought, ‘It can’t last forever. Thirty years, and I’ll be done with my punishment, my mother will be satisfied, and I’ll return under the stone.’”

She let the feather fall, feeling a stab under her heart. “You live so long, then?”

A thousand years and more are ours. But I was a fool. For now I would keep you with me for all of the years that are mine to count.”

She put her head on his shoulder. “Your years aren’t mine.”

If I can find a way, I will share them with you. You are not as your people are. Your heart has opened. We grow together, you and I. Like two trees, branches entwined.”

Or a thread of flax and wool, spun together?”

Yes. Perhaps we can be stronger together, than apart.”

The thread fell from her fingers. “What happened?” Sunngifu whispered.

When my son was two, just after my daughter had been born,” Aelfswyf replied emptily, “more of our folk came, fleeing the wars that the new king had waged. With more mouths to feed, my father needed more land, so he crossed the river to take what he needed.”

She closed her eyes. “Amihan left to ride alongside his people. He couldn’t take me with him, or the children. We were too mortal to travel in a levinbolt. And I?” A sigh. “I wouldn’t forswear him or his love. My father called me a fool. Leofric called me ensorcelled.” She swallowed. “They asked me to use what I knew of magic. To enchant their weapons to strike true, to make their armor stronger. I refused. If I used what my husband had taught me, they might kill him.”

A small hand touched her own. Human warmth. Comfort.

A last, wretched admission. “Leofric died in battle. Killed at my husband’s hand.”  Vengeance for the torture inflicted on him. “He didn’t bother with swords this time. He called lightning from the sky. My father brought Leofric’s body home, charred. Made me wash and prepare him for burial.”

She opened her eyes, but prepared no new skein. She couldn’t let them see her brother’s dead body, unrecognizably charred, his armor melted to his skin. “My father judged me. Said that my refusal to provide magical defenses made me a traitor. Named me a kin-slayer, complicit in the death of my brother. Gave me my new name—elfwife—and sent me away from my children, my people, my home.”

She could’ve saved her brother’s life with the power of the Old Ones. But she hadn’t.

Ah, Leofric, as we rode ropes over ship’s deck, would that we’d never come down. If I live all the years that the Old Ones have to count, I don’t think I’ll ever forgive myself for your death. And yet . . . what else could I do? Because if you had killed my husband, the father of my children, what would have happened? They’d have come in storm and in flame, overwhelmed the keep, and taken my children from me. I’d be dead now, with most of our people. Though in the grave, there’s no guilt left to assail us.

She’d spun the story for them. And the fiber she’d twisted was bitterness. She knew they could feel the truth of it wearing into them like the thread had worn callouses into her fingers. “I’ve told you my tale. It’s up to you now, if you choose to believe it.”

To her relief, belief shone in their eyes. “We—Grandfather said—” Wilfrith choked. “We didn’t know.”

You’ve always known,” Aelfswyf replied wearily. “In your hearts. You’ve known that there is wildness in you that your grandfather has never rooted out.”

They both looked up, startled. “Oh, I’ve kept watch over you,” she murmured. “Pent here as I am, I’ve learned to hone my magic. It’s still just scraps. But enough for me to watch you in the skeins between my fingers.” She sighed. “You’re of two noble—even royal—lines. Heirs of sea and stone.”

Why stay?” Wilfrith burst out. “Why stay here, where the villagers curse your name?”

My father ordered my confinement here. ‘If she loves the Old Ones so much, let her be kept in one of their ruins.’”  A smile’s shadow.

If our father loved you, why has he never come for you?” Sunngifu demanded.

He did,” Aelfswyf replied softly. “He came in the first year, when I wept in the stone circle above this barrow. My tears unlocked the gate. And he came through, having heard my voice calling his name, bound to my need and my love. I met him with an iron knife in my hand. Iron, to twist his magic awry.” She closed her eyes.

But . . . why?”

 “He asked me that, too. I said that he’d killed my brother.”

Do you mean to take vengeance for that?

I betrayed him. I take vengeance on myself. I betray him every day that I still love you. And I cannot stop loving you. Cut the heart from me, and let me no longer feel the guilt of his death. She remembered the warmth of the iron in her hand. Offering it to him.

I would never harm you. Leave vengeance behind. Come with me. I will take you to my mother’s court, and we will endure there a thousand years, I swear.

And you asked if the guilt and the pain would pass in his mother’s court,” Sunngifu said dreamily.

Her eyes opened. “You’re learning to see the face of time without the thread,” Aelfswyf murmured, shaken. “The blood runs true.”

Wilfrith stared at the floor. “And he told you all pain fades into memory.”

And you told him that you couldn’t leave us,” Sunngifu whispered, her eyes filling.

She closed her eyes on the memory of dropping the knife to the grass as he caressed her face. My father still has the children. Can’t you enter the keep and take them from him?

Myself, alone? Your father has built more iron into his fortress than I can abide. My mother refuses to send more of her troops. She’s ordered that we withdraw under the earth. So that the land will wither, your crops will fail, and your people will leave. She’s tired of iron weapons reaping lives that should have endured for millennia. Some of her court call it cowardice, but she says she’s willing to see which of us will endure longer—our people without honor, or yours without food. He’d kissed her, sweet fire as always. Come with me.

The agony of a heart divided. If I go with you, I abandon them to death. To starvation with my people, unless my father admits defeat and takes them across the sea. Where they will die of old age while I persist.

And if you don’t come with me, you condemn me to watching all of you die. Powerless to save you. He locked his hands in her hair. I’ll be watching you. But with this gate having opened for you—for the power in your heart—my mother will order the gates locked more securely. Anguish in his strange, alien eyes. They won’t open for tears after this, my love. It will take something stronger. Salt and iron.

Blood.

Blood and heart’s need. Come with me. Let us salvage something from the ruins of our existence . . . .

She opened her eyes. “I chose to stay. Here. In this place. As close as I could be to both my husband and my children. In the hopes that someday, I would be able to bring them together.” She gestured at the weeping walls. “There is power here. A gate that can open among the stones at the surface.”

We . . . could open it?” Wilfrith asked, wonderingly.

Aelfswyf’s heart felt like lead. “The Old Ones locked themselves away beneath the stone,” she murmured. “Where tears, the taste of the sea, have no power. But I can still reach them. Do you want to meet your father, children? Though doing so may make you as much traitors to your grandfather as I am?”

They looked to one another, and licked their lips. And nodded tentatively.

Aelfswyf beckoned them closer, and, catching up the shears from the basket at her feet, touched their flaxen hair. She took a single strand from each shining head. Worked it into the fire-gilded flax between her fingers, singing softly, before wrapping the thread made from her children’s hair around her wrist. This will keep my soul in my body for three days. Bound to them, linked to their essences.

She couldn’t tell them that, of course. But she did instruct them as gently as she could, “Go to the top of the barrow, and stand in the center of the stones,” A tear rolled down her cheek as they moved closer, apprehensive. Perhaps sensing that something was wrong. “When you pass through the gate,” she said tightly, “tell your father that I sent you. Tell your grandmother that I’ve paid her toll of blood. Your father should . . . return for me.” She swallowed.

Perhaps my beloved will have enough power to save my life. The Old Ones can heal, as his mother healed him. I’ve never seen this future among the flax-strands before. Never saw the children come to me. Perhaps, in them, there’s a chance to save the lives of my people. To restore peace, in spite of everything. What’s a little blood, one life, compared to that? If I die here, in truth, I die well. And my beloved will have an end to mourning for me before I’ve even died, and will bury me among the stones, in view of the green sea. I’ll have paid for my brother’s life. And if I do not die? Perhaps . . . just perhaps . . . I’ll learn the taste of joy as something not stolen between moments.

The children hesitated at the entrance to the barrow. “M-mother.” Sunngifu stumbled over the word, and the sound of it stabbed her heart.

Her head came up. “Yes?”

What was your name? Before . . . everything?”

A faint, tremulous smile quivered on her lips. “Eadgyth,” she whispered. “That was the name your father said as he took my hand in marriage. I haven’t heard it spoken in seven years.” She swallowed. “Go. Quickly.” Before I become a coward, and cravenly keep you here with me until my father comes and tears you from my arms again.

As their footsteps receded up the tunnel, she waited. Prayed a little, to gods in whom she wasn’t sure she still believed. And then took her long, cruel shears out of her sewing basket, and with a breath to steel herself, plunged them into her own throat. Not your blood, little ones. Mine. Worth more than all my useless tears.

Oh, it hurt, it hurt, but surely, the lightning had been more agonizing for her brother. And the suppurating wounds had surely been worse for her father’s men, over the days that they had taken to die.

She dropped to her knees. Controlled her own cry of agony, lest the children hear her and come running. Listened to the water trickling down the walls of the weeping cave, felt the hot blood pouring down her chest and belly, and felt her life pouring out with it. Then she reached up with one shaking, blood-stained hand, and began to spin her own essence into a cord. Like the rope on the ship, that we dangled from, when we were young and free. Like the skein of my children’s hair, looped around my wrist, tying me into my body, anchoring me to them.

And then she flung her corded essence up through the stones to the opening gate. Fed the strand through it, as through the eye of a needle, and cast the line through, like a fisherman plying green and glistening waters. Come to me, she called. Oh, beloved, come to me, and let us live like two threads spun together, like two trees entwined, with our children at our sides.

She heard the hum, and realized that she’d become the thread. Gossamer-fine, she drifted between the sea and the stars, between the green of the sea and the white of the stone. Feeling something tug at her along the length of her soul, spread against the sky as she was.

And she floated there, free of guilt and filled with peace, waiting to be reborn.






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