Copyright © 2011 Patrick McCormack – www.patrickmccormack.


Yesterday I saw my tombstone. When I close my eyes I can still see it, floating in front of me like a bad dream. But this dream is real. The tombstone is a squared block. One side is carved with pictures and writing. Most of the letters are so weathered they’ve faded back into the stone, but the image of the man on a horse is clear enough. So too is my name. Behind the stone the trees glisten and weep with rain. Around me the men murmur about luck, or the lack of it, mutter about how fickle the gods can be with their favours. “Course, he’s not young any more, is he?” I hear someone whisper, and I move away, swallowing hard to stifle the rage. If you have to lie somewhere, this isn’t such a bad place to be, up on the ridge with the trees at your back and the river below you. On a fine day you’d look across the country at the woods and the fields, watch the birds soar in the sunlight and the cloud shadows chase across the land. What makes my belly turn to water is not that the stone bears my name and sign (though those things are bad enough), but that the stone is neglected and forgotten. Forgotten. Even now, nearly a full day later, the panic wells within me when I think about it. After everything I’ve done, everything I’ve been, the thought of being left to rot far from the halls of my people is unbearable. Everybody dies, but the brave man leaves a name that will last, runs the old saying. I’ve always believed my name will endure. What’s the point in living, if nobody remembers you after you’ve gone? * * * We were on our way home when we found the stone. We’d been scouting the country to the west, searching for a killing ground, a place where one day we’ll be able to bring the enemy to battle and hit them hard. The enemy know the area around the main road far too well for any kind of trap near there to succeed. The killing ground has to be somewhere else, but it must be a place we’re likely to be, if you see what I mean, otherwise we might as well send the

enemy a message saying we’ve set up an ambush at a particular spot and would they be kind enough to join us as soon as they can manage. By the afternoon I was in a bad mood. Even at the best of times I hate riding. I hate it all the more when I’m trying to carry on an argument with three or four so called advisors, who can’t get it through their thick skulls that the enemy aren’t stupid. “It won’t work,” I said for the umpteenth time. “I know what they say in the songs, that Godulf the Frisian had his men feign flight to lure the Franks to their doom, but it only works if you have a small and highly trained force. Otherwise, once the men start running, they don’t stop.” “But - ” “No!” I said. “It won’t work. Think about it! Our men are on foot. Theirs are mounted. Our people will be slaughtered. I’ve seen the havoc horsemen can wreak among fleeing foot before, and I don’t want to see it again!” The danger with losing your temper in the middle of an argument is that you end up sounding petulant. I caught my advisors trading glances and knew they’d decided to back off until the old man was feeling better - and of course that made me angrier than ever. “We need a river crossing,” I said after a while. “River crossings are good.” “A river crossing,” said Beorlaf, as if the idea had never occurred to him. “A river crossing!” One of the youngsters gave a bark of laughter, quickly stifled, at the exaggerated wonder in Beorlaf’s voice. Beorlaf was the only person in the troop brave enough to tease me. We were of an age and he’d known me for a long time. “They’ll never think of that!” he added. “They won’t if we do it cleverly,” I growled. “Cleverly!” he said, patting his horse’s neck and refusing to meet my eye. “With cunning! Yes, that would be the way to do it.” “We need to lure them. To woo them.” “To tempt them,” Beorlaf said. “Like a man tempting a strange dog with the promise of a hunk of meat, drawing the dog ever closer without losing hold of the bait, until at the last he can put a hand upon the scruff of its neck and make it his.” After a long pause I said: “Something like that.” Everyone laughed. “This track we’re on,” Beorlaf said. “It crosses the Medway over the brow of the next hill. If I remember rightly the ground is soft and marshy downstream. As I recall, it’s not too good upstream either.” “That’s what I remember too,” I said. “The river will slow and funnel their horsemen,” said Beorlaf, thinking aloud. “We can hide some of our strength in the hamlet on the northern bank until it’s too late for the enemy to untangle themselves.” “Perhaps you should be our leader in battle,” I said politely. “I learned from a master,” he said, and grinned at me. The Medway curved and curved again at this point, so that although we were travelling eastwards and slightly south we turned north to make the crossing. “Low tide,” said one of the youths, looking at the mud and gravel foreshore. “Firm footing though.” “Giantish work,” said another. He meant the stone slabs that disappeared under the surface of the water, forming a rough roadway.

“I wonder what it’s like at high tide,” Beorlaf said. “Still passable, they tell me,” I answered. The hamlet lay on the far side of the ford. Two rows of hovels lined the track, petering out in bramble-covered mounds where the road began to climb up from the river. The villagers were like all villagers: wary until they saw we meant no harm. Then children with eyes too big for their faces came out of the huts to stare at the horses, and hold out their hands for alms, muttering softly in their own tongue. After a while when they saw it was safe - the adults came out as well, gaping at our spears and shields, wondering who we were and what new trouble we would bring down upon them. These were people who spent their days in fear and rage and uncertainty, watching the woods and the skyline, their lives at the whim of every passing war troop. There were no young men or women among them. They were all grey-haired and wrinkled, bent with age and hard work, though most were probably younger than I am. Ceredic, our interpreter, tried to speak to them, but they shied away or goggled at him with the blank stupidity of the slave. “Smallfolk!” he exclaimed, and gave up. “They’re frightened,” I said. “People like us mean death and famine to them.” When our survey was finished we rode away into the east. They watched us go, standing silently amid their hovels, and I pitied them. Pitied them because they were right to fear us. If all goes well we shall indeed bring fire and slaughter upon them, and not for anything they have done or not done, but simply because they live where they live. Behind the hamlet the road forked. We took the branch that led straight up the hill, between broken walls and slipping banks of earth. The hedgerows had run wild: the saplings which should have been cut and laid into a fence had been allowed to sprout into trees. Beyond were the thistle strewn fields, empty even of cattle or sheep, and the sight made me vow (as I have vowed before) that when the fighting is over I will rebuild this land. The rain started as we reached the crest of the hill. I had my heavy cloak, but several of the younger men had only brought light garments with them. At first I kept going, ignoring their discomfort - it was their own fault, and the young must learn to plan ahead. Then the rain grew heavier, blotting out the landscape. Suddenly the wind seemed cold, and I began to wonder about the wisdom of continuing. The track was badly rutted even on the summit, and I knew it was worse on the far side where it dropped into the next valley. To our left a fir-wood clung to the shape of the hill. The wood was not welcoming - dark, dripping, the trunks twisted by the wind - but it was the only cover. We turned aside, the men waking from their misery, and made a kind of camp among the trees. While the younger men saw to the horses and set a guard around the edge of the wood, Beorlaf and I thrust our way deep among the gnarled trees. We found an old pit that looked as if it might have been dug to quarry stone, and Beorlaf managed to light a fire in its shelter. There we waited for the storm to end. “If the Lord had meant us to ride he would have made horses a different shape,” said Beorlaf, stretching to ease his muscles. “Better than walking,” I answered, though I too was aching. We spoke of the war, of the way our enemies fought with long lances and sudden rushes, of our plans to surprise them at the ford. Slowly I withdrew from the talk. I was tired, and the flames drew my eye. In the fire I saw the face of the woman who

was waiting for me in the old city: dark-haired and dark-eyed, with a scarred nose and a gap between her front teeth and freckles running down her shoulders to her long breasts. I slipped into a doze, smiling because I guessed the men would think I was pondering deep strategy when really I was dreaming of the Roman woman and warming her cool flesh with the heat of my hands. Around me I was aware of soft voices and the patter of rain among the pine needles, of footsteps coming and going as the guards took it in turns to dry themselves by the fire. “Theoden.” A hand shook my shoulder. I knew it was a Jute by the title he used: to them I am Horwendil’s heir before all else. “What?” I said. A youngster stood before me. Still half dazed with sleep and visions of the Roman woman, I fumbled without success for his name. He took a step back, quivering with urgency, shifting from foot to foot like the child he had been a short while before, fear lending his face a maturity it did not own. “Are the enemy upon us?” I asked when he did not speak. He glanced to Beorlaf for help. “They have found something,” Beorlaf said. “Something you should see.” Even he, the steadiest of men, seemed unsure. Rising, I said: “What have they found? Tell me.” Beorlaf busied himself with dousing the fire. “A grave. Or at least, a memorial stone.” I laughed. “So? This land is full of old barrows. Half a dozen lie within spitting distance.” “Those are earth barrows,” he said. “This is stone. Cut and dressed. Probably from this very pit.” “Theoden,” said the youth, “there is writing on it.” “And can you read it?” I made my voice cheerful though the dread was running down my spine. This was something truly bad. I could tell not just by the look on the youngster’s face, but also by the way Beorlaf was dodging my eyes. “Not I, Theoden,” said the youth. “The stone spoke to Ceredic. We found it by the far edge of the wood where the wall has fallen, standing alone and proud as befits the marker of - ” He hesitated, swallowed, began afresh: “Ceredic cleaned the lichen from it, showed us the flowers carved along its edge and the picture of the man on the horse. Then he scraped the dirt from the grooves of the letters. We meant no harm, Theoden. We were passing the time till the rain stopped.” And it had, more or less. The sun was shining and the birds were singing again. The air was damp and fresh, scented with pine and a hint of smoke from the fire. “Show me,” I said. The youth took me through the trees. The ground was lumpy and uneven, scattered with soggy hollows where rotting windfalls lay buried under brown needles and moss. We were forced to skirt around them, but like all Jutes the youngster had an unerring sense of direction. He led me to the far side of the wood, out into the pale clear light. The men gathered there turned as we left the cover of the trees. “Well?” I said, breathing a little heavily from the effort of scrambling down the bank that marked the limit of the copse. They parted, wordlessly.

A stone, standing on a hillside. An old stone, older than the wood behind it. Somebody had worked hard on it, had squared it off and carved flowers and vine leaves and what might have been a tree along one edge. In the middle was the faint outline of a man with a spear and a sword belted at his waist, seated on a prancing pony. Below him was a hump that could have been a crouching man or a big cat of some kind. Above him was an arch, with beasts poised to leap at the observer, their faces so chipped one could no longer tell what kind of creatures they were meant to be. “A tombstone,” I said, very calm. “You’ve seen them before. Though why this one is here, in this wasteland, I can’t say. Perhaps some Roman went hunting nearby and had his prey turn on him.” “Look!” said Ceredic. He pointed to the base of the stone. I have never trusted Ceredic. He was the Council’s man before he was mine - if indeed he is mine - and he smiles too much. The lower panel of the stone, under the figure and its crouching companion, was filled with script. Much of it was so worn it was unreadable, though I could make out a few letters. “H S E,” I read. “Hic Situs Est. Here he lies. Were the masons too lazy to write it out in full?” I looked around me to share the joke. None of them would meet my gaze. After a pause too lengthy for comfort someone muttered: “Hard work, cutting stone.” “Perhaps,” said Ceredic. “But see, higher up, the name of the person whose grave this is.” The sorrow was heavy in his voice, heavy and to my ears utterly false. Yet the others seemed to be taking him in good faith, and I had no choice but to bend forward and look where he was pointing. The upper part of the inscription was badly weathered. Ceredic had cleared away the worst of the mould staining the stone. I could see traces of the red paint that had been used to illuminate the writing, clinging like flecks of rust to the depths of the channels that formed the letters. I twisted my head to catch the light, and my name leapt forth from the stone. Once I had seen it I could not unsee it. A wave of dizziness swept through me. My vision narrowed to a tunnel with my name and the image of the man on the horse at the end of it. I think I swayed, for a gasp went up from the men. “He was a soldier,” I said. “A warrior like us. He served in a cohort of their army.” Even to myself my voice sounded weak and unconvincing. “Hors,” said Ceredic. “It says Hors.” Some of the men nodded. The rest - those to whom this business of stones that told who lay beneath them was just one more form of witchcraft - clutched their amulets and stared at me as if they expected me to drop dead at any moment. “An omen,” someone murmured. Ceredic lifted his hands to deny all responsibility. Lately he has been spending a lot of time with the newcomers, the ones who chafe under my rule, and the thought crossed my mind that perhaps this was not the chance find it seemed. I dismissed the idea almost at once. Ceredic had not chosen our route, and he had not summoned the rain to make us seek shelter. This was a sign from the Lord, from Ingwy himself, and I said so with all the confidence I could muster.

“We plan a battle in the river valley. What better omen, than a stone with my name carved upon it standing here? This is a victory stone. If you look closely you can see the enemy bending the knee.” “It’s your grave,” somebody called from the back of the group. The others shushed him, but he only voiced what was in all their heads. I laughed, though my face felt cold and stiff. “How can it be, when I stand here before you? This is old work, older than our grandfathers - or even their grandfathers.” I patted the top of the stone and raised my voice. “And for all its age it’s a paltry thing, not fit for one with the blood of giants in his veins. I tell you, my friends, when I die you’ll light a pyre for me upon a headland, and after the flames have consumed this house of bone and flesh, you’ll raise a mound above the ashes to notch the sky, a mark for seafarers which will endure till the ending of days.” Ceredic turned his head to hide his sneer. The rest of them listened in silence, their faces doubtful. Not even the mention of my lineage stirred them. “We should finish cleaning the stone,” I said. “Let us honour the one who lies here.” For a long moment nobody moved. I thought I had lost them, that they would mount and ride away leaving me here alone on the wet hillside. Then Beorlaf and some of the older men stepped forward and went to work, scraping the crumbling stone with their knife blades. I turned away, leapt up the bank into the wood, my feet slipping on the loose earth. My hands gripped and held the branch of a tree, pulled me upright, and I tightened my grasp till my knuckles were white and my muscles were screaming. When I let go the bark left its pattern on my palms. On an iron chain around my neck I wear a medallion, given to me when I was young by the girl I thought I loved more than life. She gave it to me on the day she left her father’s hall, on the day she went south to marry the Lord of the Frisians. Standing in the wood with the tombstone behind me I pulled out the medallion and looked again, though I knew very well what it showed: a man on a prancing horse, readying his spear to stab down at the great cat under the horse’s hooves. “Wear it for me,” she said that day. “See, it’s a horse!” “Who’s the rider?” I asked. “That’s you as well. The warrior. Keep my family safe, Horsa.” “Always,” I said. “Always.” In that as in so much else I failed. But the medallion I have kept all through these long years. My name and my sign. Within hours of our return the word would be all round the city: that we’d found Hors’s grave, marked with his sign, marked with the image he wears around his neck. Then the drift will begin: at first a trickle, a few men slipping away under the cover of darkness, gradually thickening to a flood as my followers seek another leader. Every evening we’ll look around the hall and see more empty spaces on the benches, until at the last only the handful who’ve been with me since the start will remain. But the truth is that Hors – little Horsa - died long ago. The real Hors, I mean, my father’s son; not the poor fool under the tombstone, whoever he may have been. Hors died when the woman he loved went away to marry Finn Folcwalda, more than twenty years ago. Over half a lifetime.

I pushed the medallion back under my tunic. The wind-shaped trees wept and dripped around me. I sniffed the air and smelled more rain on the way. The light had turned a greenish yellow; already it was hard to see what lay more than a few yards ahead. Slowly I straightened to my full height and put my hand on the hilt of the sword hanging above my hip. “Hildeleoma,” I said aloud. “Warflame. Blade of joy and blade of sorrow.” I lifted the baldric over my head and held at arm’s length the sword in her scabbard of leather and wood. “Love and loss and hatred, honour and dishonour,” I said softly, remembering not only her making but also the first time she came to my hand in anger. To my enemies I am the devil himself, the root of all evil, the breaker of cities and glutter of ravens, a man whose name is a byword for treachery. To my followers I am the founding father and protector of a new nation, the greatest warrior of the age, the hero of the Frisian field and a man whose name is a byword for loyalty beyond death. Beyond death. Sooner or later it will occur to someone that a man whose grave lies on a ridge above a river should not still be walking this Middle-earth. Sooner or later they will come for me. I shall be waiting.

Part I

Chapter One
“Long ago a boat drifted to shore in the lands where the Danes live. The boat was filled with sheaves of corn, and nestling among the sheaves was a baby boy. The Danes called him Scyld Shefing, and when he became a man they took him for their king...” Mama told him that story when he was small. Mama was the daughter of the Dane-king Fridlaf, and her hair was as gold as the corn of her forefather Scyld. Her face was tired, but when she told this story she always smiled, even in the scary bits. The most scary bit was when young Scyld and his men went into the Forest. The way through the trees grew darker and darker until the Danes could not see where they were going. They had to stop and camp for the night. “I hope it will be better in the morning,” said Scyld. In the middle of the night, when everybody was asleep apart from the watchmen and even they were nodding - the evil Eruls attacked. The Eruls had painted their shields and their bodies black so they could creep through the darkness without being seen. When the Eruls reached the edge of the camp they sprang forward, shrieking like ghosts. Some of Scyld’s men were so frightened they ran away into the Forest. But Scyld himself seized a burning brand from the campfire and waved it over his head so all his men could see where he was. “To me, to me!” he shouted. His men rallied around him. They used their shields to make a wall with the king at its heart, and after a hard fight they drove the evil Eruls away. “But the others,” Mama said, opening her eyes wide. “The cowards who ran away into the Forest. They were never seen again. The Forest just swallowed them up!” * * * The hall was old, so old Dadda kept saying it needed knocking down and rebuilding. That made Mama laugh. “When the king can spare you,” she said. “When we are old and grey, and Hors is a man.” The roof was thatch, deep brown with age. It reached high into the sky, close to the clouds. The walls were grey wood, speckled with yellow lichen where the slaves could not reach to clean it off. Mama and Dadda and Hors lived there, with the slaves and some of Dadda’s men. Dadda was the king’s cousin, and the chief of all his warriors. Outside the hall was the yard. The ground was cobbled with stones worn smooth by the river. The stones were hard under Hors’s feet. On one side of the yard was the kitchen, where sometimes a treat might be had (bread and honey), and on the other the barns and sheds of the farm. Beyond that were the fields and the trees. The trees were green and brown, with space between them, not like the trees of the dark forest in the tale of Scyld Shefing.

These trees were the right size to climb, with plenty of branches. In spring they had lots of blossom. The blossom made Hors sneeze. The fields were dull. The soil was dry and sandy in summer, wet and muddy in winter. If you walked across the fields somebody would shout at you, or put you to work pulling up some of the little plants between the rows of corn, which was fun to start with but boring after a while because the field was so big it never ended. “Your mother’s father is the king of the Danes. Your mother’s mother was the Jute king’s daughter.” When he was tiny Mama used to say Dadda was away fighting the Jutes, and would be home soon. The Jutes lived to the North, and were not always friends. “Your father’s grandfather was the king of the Angles. Do you see, little Horsa? On three counts you’re of royal kindred.” * * * Dadda wore his mailshirt of iron rings. When he moved the rings chimed, softly. He leant on his spear of ash and looked at the hall, then turned to Hors and said: “Keep my house safe against my return. And your mother. Keep her safe too.” The hounds whined and nudged against him. They knew their master was going away and leaving them behind. Dadda rubbed their heads and looked as if he’d like to do the same to Hors, but Hors was too old for that now. Five times Hors had seen the wild geese come flying up out of the south in the spring - except he hadn’t really. That was just what people said. He had seen the geese this year and last year, and maybe even the year before that (though he had no real memory of it) - which made three times in all. Anyway, in the very first year he would have been too tiny to see anything, his eyes all blurry like the eyes of Eafu’s baby were now. Eafu’s baby was bald, like a little old man, and its skin was pink and crinkly. Sometimes it got a red rash on its forehead. It cried a lot. Eafu was Dadda’s little sister. Her man was dead. Eafu cried a lot too. Hors had heard the serving women say that Eafu hadn’t liked her man much when he was alive, but Hors didn’t see how that could be true, because why would she cry if she didn’t miss him? Dadda and his men went away to fight the Frisians in the South. The hall was empty after they left, with only the old men hobbling around. They were bad tempered, much more bad tempered than Dadda’s men. Dadda’s warriors liked playing with Hors. They liked throwing him up in the air and pretending they weren’t going to catch him as he came down. The old men sniffed and said he was too heavy and they didn’t have time anyway, with all the work they had to do. Mama’s golden hair had threads of grey in it now. When the sun caught them they were silver. Her face was still tired, and worried too. Sometimes she was cross with Eafu and snapped at her. The baby cried all day and most of the night. The sun was hot and the fields were dry. The slaves and the women hauled water up from the river. Some of the slaves were Frisians, taken on earlier raids, and Hors was warned not to speak to them. The old men were scared of the Frisian slaves Hors could tell by the way they shouted their orders while clutching their spears and knives. He thought it was stupid to have slaves if you were frightened of them. “When I grow up I shan’t have slaves,” he said to Mama . “Then who will till your fields and keep your cattle?” she asked with a smile. “Who will muck out your stables? Who will do all the hard and dirty jobs no free man wants to do?”

He frowned and thought about it for a while. “Why can’t the people do it all?” “The people?” For a moment she was puzzled. “Oh, you mean the farmers and their families. The smallfolk. Well, they could. But if they spent all their time working on our fields, they’d have no time to work their own. Then where would our food rents come from? How would the smallfolk be able to pay us, and through us the king, what they owe for their land?” * * * The king’s name was Offa. He was a hero, like Scyld, but he was alive in the here and now, while Scyld had been gone for so long even Mama didn’t know when he’d lived. When Offa was young everybody thought he was no good. He drank lots of ale and played knucklebones all the time. (Hors thought this sounded fun.) Although as the king’s son Offa was supposed to help guide the kingdom, he never said a word when the old king called a meeting of the Wise, but sat there daydreaming or picking his nose while the Wise talked. (Which they did a lot, Dadda said.) Offa’s father died and Offa became King of the Angles. The old men and women shook their heads and said things would go hard with the Angle-kin now. A king must be brave and lusty, with the gift of making others follow him. He must be the strong arm that defends his people. If a king seems feeble, weak in war, then his enemies will quickly gather against him. “Like carrion birds,” said Dadda. “Have you ever seen the crows sitting in a tree, watching and waiting? Like them.” (Ever after, even as an adult when he knew perfectly well that the Myrgings looked and dressed like other people, Hors saw them in his head as dark men, with black cloaks and crow feathers in their hair.) The Myrgings were a Saxon tribe from south of the River Eider. When they heard Offa’s father was dead, they marched into the lands of the Angles, killing and burning. Offa met them in battle and drove them back, but could not claim the victory. Many of his thanes were killed or wounded, and the rest had little stomach for the fight. “They had no faith in the king,” said Dadda, who’d been there with his own father, the king’s uncle. “Offa was unknown and untried, and his first foray into battle had not ended in glory.” Men turned to Dadda’s father, asked him to lead them in Offa’s place. But he stood firm by his duty, loyal to his nephew, his brother’s son. Then Offa challenged the champion of the Myrgings to single combat, sword against sword, on an island in the middle of the Eider. The Myrgings laughed and made mock of him, saying he wouldn’t last long against their man, would be wiser to go home to his wet-nurse. Many of the Angles doubted him as well, because the Myrging champion was famed for his skill with a blade while Offa was not. They tried to persuade him not to fight. But Offa took up his father’s sword and went to the island in the river. The sword was called Sharp, because that was its virtue, not to lose its edge even in the thick of battle. When the fight began the Myrging champion struck hard at Offa, but the young king turned the blows with his shield. “Every time the Myrging thought he had the king, the king danced away,” explained Dadda, who had watched the fight from the riverbank. “The Myrging was a big man, you see, solid and heavily muscled. Offa was light on his feet, much faster even if he wasn’t as strong.”

Soon the Myrging champion began to puff and pant. It was a hot day, and the sweat streamed down his forehead and ran into his eyes. His movements slowed. At last Offa struck, once and once only. The great blade Sharp cleaved through flesh and bone, and the Myrging champion fell. “And since that time,” said Dadda, “the boundary of the kingdom has stayed where Offa set it, and nobody has dared gainsay him.” * * * Eafu’s baby wept and wailed through the heat of summer. The hall was a sad place, with all the young men gone south to fight the Frisians. One of the old men was elf-shot. He lingered a few days, unable to move or speak. When at last he died the body was burnt on a carefully made pyre. The smoke blew black and greasy across the fields, smelling of roast pork. Afterwards the old man’s daughters sifted through the ashes and chose some of the best bones, mainly from the skull and upper body. These they placed in cloth bags, together with the blackened belt buckle and a favourite brooch. Because Dadda was away, and Hors was his only son, the dead man’s daughters asked Hors to put the bags into a special pot. The pot fascinated Hors, because it had been made to hold someone’s ashes, and for no other purpose. It was handmade, built up out the clay by the dead man’s oldest living daughter, using the skills passed to her by her mother. In colour the pot was a greenish-blue, and thicker in the middle than at either end. Around the shoulders were two rows of knobs like shield bosses. Between the knobs was a pattern of arches, drawn while the clay was still wet. No other pot in the whole world, in all Middleearth, had exactly the same pattern of arches, and that was why the pot was special. Hors felt the shape of the bones through the cloth. They were brittle from the fire, so he handled them gently. He did not want to break them or do anything wrong, otherwise the people might not ask him to stand in for his father again. The bags slipped easily into the pot, one by one, even the bag with the bones he had thought too long to fit. “Say the words,” whispered another of the old men. Hors straightened and looked around. He was the youngest person there, but they were all watching him. “Lord Ingwy, take these bones back into your earth,” he said as loudly as he could, remembering not to speak too quickly. “Well done,” the man whispered. Earlier the mourners had dug a pit, and lined the sides with flat stones. Now they lowered the pot into the pit, and shovelled the earth over the top to form a low mound like the others dotted around the cemetery. When that was done they took a wooden post with the bark still on it and drove it into the ground to mark the site. Then they walked around the mound, singing a dirge to show their grief. Afterwards the mourners went back to the hall to eat, drink and tell stories in memory of the dead man. But the man himself was gone, and never came among them again. * * * Sometimes word came from Dadda, far away in the south and west. At first Hors

thought the king and his men spent all their time fighting the enemy, all day, every day, but Mama laughed and said no, it wasn’t like that. The Frisians had to be fought because they lived by the sea and stopped all the ships that passed them and stole whatever was on board the ships that was worth having. “Why can’t the ships go round another way?” asked Hors. “The sea is hungry and dangerous. Along the coast where the Frisians live is a chain of islands. The ships go between the islands and the shore because then they are sheltered from the worst of the storms.” “Where do the ships come from?” “From the south, from the lands of the Franks. And even further than that, from the Empire of the Romans. From Gaul, from the lands where they make wine.” Mama’s face was sorrowful. “From places I’ve never seen, and never will see.” “So what does Dadda do all day if he isn’t fighting?” Mama laughed again. “He trains the men so they’ll work together when the time comes. He makes plans with the king. He sends out men on raids to test the readiness of the Frisians.” She shrugged. “At night they feast in the king’s hall, but that too is a part of it. The men must bond, then they’ll fight well together, and follow their leaders into battle.” “Don’t men always?” he asked solemnly. “No,” she said. “They don’t. Few people are brave all the time. A great many are not brave at all, but act as if they were so others will not think them cowards.” She shook her head at Hors. “If you do not fight as stoutly as the next man in the shield wall, you put his life at risk.” “Am I brave?” “Well,” she said, “your father Wihtgils is brave, and my brother, your uncle Hoc, he’s brave. And both your grandfathers, they were bold men. So I expect you are too.” “But sometimes,” he said, looking around the room, at the door, at the woven hangings on the wooden walls, at anywhere except her eyes. “Sometimes I get scared.” “Oh, Horsa,” she said, “that’s not what we’re talking about at all! Of course you get scared! So does your Dadda. So does my brother Hoc. And so, I dare say, though I was never brave enough to ask him, did my father.” She leant forward and kissed him hard on the top of the head. “Everybody gets scared, Hors. But don’t let it show. Don’t let it stop you doing what needs to be done.” For a time Mama turned her attention to the task of sewing a new hook and eye onto the sleeve of a favourite tunic. The tunic was pale blue and shimmered as it moved, like water falling from the sky. The hook and the eye were bronze, and shone like fire as they caught the light. “What is it you’re scared of?” she asked after a while. “Twilight,” he said. Mama lifted an eyebrow. “In summer you should be asleep long before twilight.” “Not now. At other times of year.” “Why then? What scares you about twilight?” Hors hesitated. It was hard to put into words. The colours lost their sharpness, bled into each other. Things became difficult to see. Objects friendly by day turned strange at dusk. The wind would often get up and moan through the trees or round the corners of the yard. Loose doors would squeal like voices in pain. People said the elves were strongest at twilight, the time that belonged to neither day nor night. And

the elves, as everybody knew, were no lovers of mortals. The old man who had died, who had been burnt and put into the ground in a pot, they said he had been elf-shot and that was what killed him. “Elves,” he said aloud. “Elves,” she repeated. Her eyes widened. “Yes, elves are scary. Have you ever seen one?” He shook his head. “Neither have I. Nor have many people, whatever they might claim when sitting safely round the fire on a winter night.” She lifted a finger to forestall him. “Oh, I don’t doubt that elves are real, any more than I doubt that there are monsters in the sea and giants in the mountains. But they are not so common as all that. And sometimes old men die because their bodies fail them. If an old hound falls down and can’t get up again, you don’t think it’s been elf-shot, do you?” “No,” he said doubtfully. “Well then,” she said. “Stop worrying. Unless you offend them, the elves won’t hurt you. They have better things to do than chase after small boys.” * * * Dadda came home in the late summer to help with the harvest. Some of the young men came back with him. Everybody, young and old, worked in the fields until the job was done, keeping a wary eye on the weather, which they all agreed had to break soon. But the Lord Ingwy smiled upon them and it stayed dry. The harvest was in three parts. The first, and dullest, was the weeds. Despite careful hoeing of the spaces between the rows of corn, the fields were full of weeds. Some were bad weeds, worthless plants that tried to strangle the corn or steal the water from the ground. Others, like the different vetches and the fat hen, were good weeds, fit for eating, part of the Lord Ingwy’s bounty. Because the children were smaller and could fit between the rows of corn without doing too much damage, they did most of the work in the first harvest. The fields didn’t seem as large as they had to Hors when he was tiny, but they were still more than long enough when he crouched at the beginning of a row and looked down to the end. In the last twelve months he had forgotten what hard toil this was, how his hands always began to hurt by the bottom of the first row and were agony by halfway along the second. And his back! His back burned with fire every time he tried to straighten up, so that he hobbled like an old man, bent double. “You can go in the river when you’ve finished,” said Dadda, and around him he heard the same promise made to the other children. Soon everything blurred into one, and there was nothing in the world except the hot sun beating down and the endless tunnel of green plants between the gold, and he could not stop because his father held these lands and one day they would be his and he had to outwork the others, even if they were older and stronger. The second crop was the ears of the wheat. The ears came off easily in the hand so you didn’t need to use a sickle. This was supposed to be a day of rest for Hors and the other youngsters, though they spent most of it scurrying around with baskets taking the full ones to the granaries and bringing back the empties. The third crop was the straw. Barley straw made good winter fodder for the animals, while wheat straw was good for thatching and animal bedding, and for other things like baskets and mats.

The best mowers took their hooks and formed a line, then stepped forward as one. The sickles hissed in the bright sunlight as they began the cut. Behind them the women used wooden rakes to drag the straw together in lines, and after the rakes came the children with forks, turning the straw inwards to make it easy for the remaining men to gather and bind into sheaves, which they arranged in carefully built stacks. All day the work went on, and far into the summer evening. Then suddenly, just as Hors was dozing off in a corner of the field, the cry went up for the last cut. Dadda strode forward, laughing, borrowed a hook from one of the men, and struck to the sound of cheers. The reapers took the last handful of straw and plaited the ends together, binding them with brightly coloured cord to make the shape of a human figure. Then the reapers marched around the fields, holding the effigy high and brandishing their sickles, chanting: We-ha-neck! We-ha-neck! Well a-ploughed! Well a-sowed! We’ve a-reaped! We’ve a-mowed! Well a-cut! Well a-bound! Well a-set upon the ground! We-ha-neck! We-ha-neck! The harvest was home and they were safe for another year.

Related Interests