I heard my name, not called, not said, but thought. I looked up from reading the book on runecraft. There was a window in the day-room’s door and through it I could see one small part of a man—his hands and an arm. Clothed in white and holding, open, what looked like a medical file, I guessed him a doctor. I closed the book and listened more closely.
Arwen Elvin. Aged . . .? Hmm, 16. Admitted . . .? Two weeks ago. Why . . . why . . .? Ah, in state of stupor. Physical examination reveals no physical causes; believed induced . . . during hypnosis? Hmm.
He pushed his way through the door, the file still open in his hands. I could see no name tag. If it weren’t for that file he could have been anything, a cleaner, or a fellow patient having a prank. I thought him probably from a Near Eastern country: he looked a little like Omar Sharif. But then when he spoke his residual accent placed him as East European.
“Ah, Arwen! And ‘ow are we today?”
I didn’t know about him but I was fine. I quirked a smile.
“Good, good. And you must be wondering where you are? I have not been lax in my duties; I have been to see you trize since you arrived. But each time you are sleeping. May I welcome you to Green Haven.”
“Cheers,” I said, less than impressed.
“At Green Haven, it offers the patient an open-ended period of what uzt to be called ‘con-valescence’. High quality rest, away from stresses of twenty-first century societal living, yeh? Our staff, you have noticed already discreet and non-intrusive, are here to ensure patient has no undue cares and worries. Yeh?”
“Mmm,” I grunted. I wasn’t sure about this. I was waiting for the word ‘asylum’.
“Are you finding the food?”
Was I finding it what? Palatable? Sufficient? As a kid who was used to school meals, I gave a grunt in reply, which seemed to satisfy.
“Have you questions of me?” he asked.
“My clothes?” I hadn’t been admitted naked.
He glanced down at the file. He turned over the page. “Ah, clothes. Yeh. Patient’s father took.”
“Cheers,” I said. Now that I was remaining mostly conscious for most of the day, and understood more of what was happening inside my head, my darling Dad’s dictatorial behaviour was beginning to chafe me. Greatly. It was almost like he wanted to keep me here as a prisoner, no expense spared. Was this another crazy notion of his, to get me back on track before the new college term started?
“Then, if nothing other, I leave you to read. What is it? Not a tense thriller, I trust? Or a horror?”
I held up the book.
“Ah, you wish to divine your future. It will be healthful, Miss Arwen, I do assure.”
. . .
Asleep again, and back into dreams: dreams that are memories of Arvina’s short life:
The old seer Beraht, surprisingly sprightly for one so ancient, perches atop a short stool beside the hall-fire. Her voice though strong is hushed. “You ask me of foretellings?”
“Eadkin sent me,” Arvina tells her in equally hushed tones. “He says you’ll cast runes for me. Also, he says you know many a tale of our sheriff and his kin.”
The old seer chuckles. “Oh that, aye. It cleaves to the ear, the doings of powerful wealth-herders. You know it’s all fly-talk, that his first wife is dead? She upped and walked in the night. But he makes like she’s dead. Gets him a corpse, like she’s in her grave—and don’t ask me how he came by that. Then off he goes and marries this other. Now she’s all very big—like a cloak wouldn’t cover her pride. Yet before her coming he were loved by all—for a sheriff and lord. Now he’s ill-changed, led by the woman’s persuasion. But you want to know your foretellings? Have yourself an arm-dweller? That’s the usual desire drives women to here. But it cannot be done by this fire.” She ups to her feet.
Arvina’s not regretful of leaving the fire-hall, fancily decked though it is with wall-hangings as rich as those at Richemont. But with not a cloud in the sky, the sun blistering down, scarcely a slight breeze to cool them, this isn’t a day for clustering inside.
Beraht Kena, gnarled and bent, is a tiny thing, birdlike in all her ways, and as delicate-seeming as a nestling. She beckons Arvina to follow her out of the hall-garth and across a fruit-yard, into a second garth, this one guarding a hut so small it could be mistaken for a garth-house.
“Mine.” Beraht nods towards it. “I told that sheriff when he moved me to here, ‘Fine,’ I said, ‘but I want a nook to call my own, undisturbed.’ I work with the heal-worts, see. And some—the dwale-worts— they can fetch us a death if wrongly taken. So, I don’t want them beckoning the curious reach of a child. Here, this is my dispensary.” She chuckles at the French-found word.
There are five catches to the door in all, the highest almost beyond her own reach. With each one lifted and freed, she stands back a pace, opening the door outwards.
Arvina has already noticed eyes blue as nightshade, sharp as a knife in the old seer’s weather-hued face, and now they sparkle as not before. She motions her head that Arvina should enter.
Inside is dark save for a sun-patch through the open door. But the ancient seer-cum-healer needs more light than this; she lights a three-wicked lamp. As the light blooms, so too does the smell of colza oil; not even the sweetest savour of her herbs can mask it.
“You come with a bringing hand?” she asks. “Those baskets, mayhap?”
Olfsten had laden Arvina with them, winking and saying they’d ‘oil the way’. Is there not one of her Dane-kin who knows not her errand this day? Yet her mother has said nothing of it and, into everyone’s head, of course she must know it. No doubt she’s happy that Beraht will deal out ill-words about Guillan’s kin, enough to make Arvina slam the door against him. And maybe Beraht will yet say, though so far she has merely confirmed what Guillan has said.
Arvina knows nothing of runes, except for those Nihel carved on the rod. And despite his saying the rod would protect her, those runes say only that he carved them. So, she watches alert as the ancient healer digs her fingers into a dusty old sack. She’s surprised, though, that all the seer pulls out are thin shavings of wood.
“Thirty-three,” Beraht says. “Four-and-twenty for the three aetts—the most ancient secrets revealed to our god. And nine for the Nine Worlds.”
Arvina hopes Beraht might name those Nine Worlds for she’s heard the Northmen say of the Nine and has yet to know their natures and names. More-on, might they be the same as the Bellinn’s nine worlds as revealed by their own Queen Kared? But Beraht seems not to know, even though Arvina tries fishing for them.
“Your hand,” Beraht says and, so trusting, Arvina holds it out to her. “The left, your heart-hand.”
Arvina has seen the old seer’s knife, has seen her place it beside a small pot. She sees the sign the seer-healer makes over them both. Then she oughtn’t be surprised. Yet it’s with horror she watches that knife slice nigh through her leech-finger. Then comes the sting. “Ouch!”
“Hush!” Beraht hisses as with a firm grip she holds Arvina’s dripping finger over the pot.
How much blood does she need? That pot’s not big but her blood’s swiftly filling it.
Pot full, the blood abruptly stops. Bellinn, Arvina’s flesh heals even as watching.
Seer and healer, Beraht looks at her, wrinkled lips pursing, nightshade eyes all-but hidden in her hard squint. “So, you’re one of those, too?” Arvina senses her awe and surprise.
But, ‘too’, she’d said: Arvina wants to ask who else the seer knows of her kind, and yet to ask without admitting. Instead, she searches the ancient healer’s head. And finds Guillan’s mother, a mind-image held of her, sitting in this—no, not the same place but similar. Petite and pale and garbed in silk colours, brightly dreggled. ‘Valkyrie’, the word held in Beraht’s head, but it has no meaning for Arvina. She seeks some other name, and finds only ‘Bigod’s bride’.
“No fear,” Beraht says. “You are safely hidden in me.”
She releases Arvina’s hand and briefly clamps both of her own to her chest before she continued the preparations. The blood she uses to paint the rune-signs, one to each chip. Then, pot removed, she spreads a white linen cloth.
“Now,” she says, “you hold quiet.”
It’s as well that Arvina is fast in fascination elseways the seer would likely complain of her jiffling. And now what is she doing? Praying, it seems. Aye, calling upon her gods. Arvina wants to know their names but dare not delve any further lest she disturbs the seer; then she’d have to start this over again.
Without change, sign or word, the seer Beraht throws the full thirty-three chips straight up in the air. Arvina pulls back sharply. Most land on the cloth. The old woman discards those up-facing.
“Now you pick up three,” she tells Arvina. “But don’t listen to head; let your blood guide you.”
Arvina can see, while she’s teasing out those three, Beraht’s lips silently moving; calling upon her gods again?
“Give me.” Beraht holds out her hands. She lays the three chips on the cloth so both may see them. She has already scraped the others aside. “Eh, the Horse, is you. Aye, I’d say it is, two beings blended as one. You’d say that is you, too? If I’d not known of your . . . Nah, this is you. The gods are good. The gods answer us.”
She turns the chip over. Arvina and Beraht, both look at the next.
“Cen, the Torch.”
A shiver squeezes Arvina’s flesh, raising tight bumps.
“This has meaning for you?” The seer looks at her.
“Someone, recently, has called me that.”
The seer Beraht laughs. “With your hair? This is the first time? But Cen, and Torch are not about hair. The old way, when the body dies, was to burn it, to release what’s within. And being released, that within-ness then recombines with the physical, and thence builds a new body.”
Arvina knits-up her face; she does not understand. “How does that apply to my future?”
“I cast, only cast. For prophesy you need a wise man’s guesses.”
She turns that chip over. Now there’s but one. She says this is the ‘outcome’. Aye, but the outcome to what?
“Ethel. The Sacred Ring, harboured in ancestral property.”
Surely that would be Failan’s hall?—or Haganword? But . . . “What is it, this ring?”
The old seer chortles, disparagingly. “It is not one you’d wear on a finger or arm. Rather, it is a sacred place, set aside for the gods. Now—”
But they’re disturbed by a call. “Arvina! I know you’re around here somewhere. Arvina!”
“Best you go to him, child,” Beraht says. “For I believe that young man desires you.”
Aye, Arvina knows who it is; she can feel his ethereal fingers flensing her mind.
Next episode, Guillan