Arvina is trudging a hot, dusty road. According to her, entirely the wrong one to take. Yet in its turn it’s the easiest to walk and the shortest route home. Fine, except now she can hear yet another cart trundling along. She could wash their memory of her. Yet, easier to skip off the road and lie low till its gone. But . . . wait. The carter has a passenger and that passenger’s a Bellinn. Who . . .? All she can see, yet, are the bluey-green swirls and she dares not to probe lest it’s him. This once, she must rely on her eyes.
She contracts her light—she hasn’t the trick of full hiding it though Hegrea did try to teach her—and squeezes slam-tight behind an elder bush, squatting as if to piss so any one catching a glimpse won’t look any further. Meanwhile, she peers through the branches.
“Hey!” she jumps out from her hiding place. “What are you doing here?”
Come to rescue you, my child, says her mother.
“Looking for you,” says Eadkin. “Brun gloats that he’s seen you down at Fornesetta—though what he’s doing there . . .?”
“Your questions can wait,” her mother says. “Quick, get your foolish arse up here. Eadkin, turn her about.” ‘Her’ is the cart: it’s pulled by a bone-and-tail ox.
The back, says her mother as she starts to scramble up. Be under that hemp-cloth, quick, before any sees you.
. . .
She can see through the loose weave of the hempen cloth, but she can’t see through the strakes of Eadkin’s cart. All she knows is they are still on the London to Norwich road, and heading north. To get over to Aldebur they need pass through Norwich where, last she heard, the sheriff sits broodings. Will they get there before day-set? She fears they will not. Despite the Kings Highway is kept full-best, still the ox is a slow plodder.
Where did you spend this past night? she asks her mother, for they couldn’t have travelled so far in one day.
With the Oddssons—Geirri is the steward at Oddessey; your father appointed him. He is loyal to us.
She asks no more, her mother’s voice tinged with anger, spiked full with resentment that she can’t or won’t hide from Arvina—Arvina is causing her entirely too much trouble. She dares not ask if her mother has found the rune-rod, the much-coveted and stolen gand-stangir. She doesn’t suppose she has, her being too timid to approach even Ulfkin. Neither dare she ask to come out from the cover though, with the sun blazing down, it’s hot as an oven in there. More-on, in this heat she’s dragging her breath, parcelled beneath this hemp-cloth, part beneath this awkward mountain of Olfsten’s mallow-stem baskets. Those baskets ne’er have weight; they don’t hold her down when a wheel hits a stone, or a pit or a branch, and the cart rolls. She’s bounced and jolted about, full uncomfortable.
She hears her mother say to Eadkin, “I am sorry about this. If the sheriff wreaks his vengeance on you and yours . . . truly, Eadkin, I shall shrivel inside. I pray, I so pray . . .”
“Aye,” he says–and Arvina knows he’s trying to stay jolly. “So you have said twelve-hundred times. And I regret that my kin must see you out but you know we’re locked in his arms.”
What’s this being said? Is Eadkin saying that Olfsten and Lifa are no longer offering them shelter? Ay-yi-yi, but where shall they go? She wants to ask; she’d not thought of that. Aye-yi, there’s her, stupidity without end, off down a dim path with ne’er a thought of the off-leading.
But, nah, wait, that’s not true. It was Guillan’s doing, she knows that now. He coerced—persuaded—compelled her. He sang a spell like he’d set the flies on her. Aye, and he forced her, full in his power. No way did she ever go willingly with him. The man is—what’s Olfsten’s word for it?—he’s gaga. Why didn’t she see it sooner? Why, why, why? And now she has brought this upon them. And it’s not so much that she and her mother now are homeless with not a stick for shelter. It’s what she might have fetched for Olfsten and Lifa and Eadkin, and for old Beraht Kena over at Felebruge. Not so bad if it happens to others but these are her kin, and they’ve yet to see the end of it. She sweats beneath that hempen cloth, but now it’s not only the heat. It’s for what she has caused. Oh that she could will it all right.
Such is her anguish she scarcely notices the splash through the river at Kringelford. Yet she does notice the lurch of the cart as Eadkin guides it to a different road. They’re heading now westward. That scrapes one of her worries. They won’t be passing through the sheriff’s city. My land, my county, my people. My law.
. . .
The sun travels along with them into the west. And on and on the ox-cart trundles. They must now be far away from Bigod’s reach. Yet still she dares not raise her head. She waits for her mother to tell her it’s safe. But her mother says nothing, not even silently into Arvina’s head. Even Eadkin is quiet, not finding things along the way to chuckle and pass the day. She thinks of his dragon-skin boots. Is he wearing them today?
Again, the cart lurches; Eadkin is guiding it to a different track; Arvina slips completely beneath the baskets. But, if her senses are right then they’re now heading northward. She takes it they’re skirting the dangers of Norwich. But where are they, exactly? Not that she knows this land, so the names wouldn’t help her.
Then . . . what’s this: the sun is gone? Is it late-day already? Or is the day dimming into a storm? In a fey-witted moment she feels akin to the sun, as if she, too, is hiding behind heavy black clouds. But at least with the sun’s lack it turns cooler beneath the sack. She can breathe now more easily—if only they weren’t now going downhill! Her entire body slides the length of the cart, her head fetching up tight against the board beneath the raised seat, the rest of her following. She can’t control it. Her body is hard-pushing her head, her neck is bending. She expects any moment to hear it crack.
The road evens out. Relief! But that relief doesn’t last. Now every bump and hollow, that cart seems to find it. This isn’t a road in good repair. Yet that tells her something: this isn’t a through-road, not part of the King’s Highway. Most likely it’s an ill-kept track leading directly to some lord’s manor, and that not even the main route in.
Then realisation. Her mother is taking her to Oddessey, one of Le Roussel’s old manors! Isn’t that where she’d said she spent the past night?
The cart again splashes through water. And again lurches. Just through the ford and Eadkin pulls the cart to a stop. Arvina heaves a breath-full sigh. Whether she’s right or no of where they’re taking her, it seems now, at last, they are here.
Her mother throws back the cloth. “Out! And tidy yourself.”
How is she to do that? Yet she straightens her gown thinking by brushing it’ll ease out the creases. And she un-plaits and re-plaits her hair. She’s not sure what else she can do, except to stare at the way they’ve come. And what’s before her.
The ‘track’, she now sees—deep-cut with carters’ furrows holding mustard puddles—is a hollow-way through arching trees in so many greens, so lush. Not that that’s something she’s unused to. But after all day suffocating beneath that cloth, its coolness is a joy to behold. Then as she turns . . . all opens out before her into a green valley, a tiny river meandering through it. And here, beside where they stand, that river—the Linn, she hears her mother tell her—has cut a chalk scarp, a fathom or so deep. That river—the Linn—here forces the high bank of the hollow-way to break. And there, sat full beside it, is a gate enclosed by two small halls and a connecting room straddling. Its many posts and beams snag her attention. Deeply carved running ribbons, elongated intertwined beings, unidentifiable beasts, all sport with abandon upon even the smallest strip of wood. Any would think her still in the North.
A woman, the fattest Arvina has ever seen, appears between the small halls, faded blonde hair scraped back from her sun-reddened face. “Ah, it’s you, my lady. Is this she? But best you bring the cart in before it’s seen.”
And who’ll be troubling this family so late in the day to happen to see them? The sun is already painting the sky.
“Will you take the barn again this night?” the woman asks Eadkin as he leads ox and cart past her. “And, my lady, please don’t stand there. Please to come in.” Her frantic eyes scan the track both ways.
Arvina’s mother leads her, a disobedient child, through the gate between the halls and turns sharply left. A door stands open and waiting. “In,” her mother shoos her into a cluttered kitchen-cum-everything. And, “In,” she shoos her again, pushing her through the next door and into the hall.
It is as every Dane-man’s hall, with around its walls the saga-band. Though the light here is dim, she wants to see it. The embroidered frieze seems to tell the story of the Arnling family, back from the time of yore. Though who is this family, the Arnlings? That’s not the name her mother has given them: these are the Oddssons.
Arvina is not alone in the hall. A Bellinn casts light from behind her and it isn’t her mother. A man. He stands himself beside her. Is he to tell her of the story of this frieze and the Arnlings? He appears of an age with my brother Edmund. But a Bellinn . . . he could be any age. But no matter his years, she can’t deny he’s a delight for the eyes. He has a sweet savour about him.
“My lady, Arvina,” he says and bows his head.
And at once she sees by that Bellinn light, he is several nocks closer to source than her. As high, even, as Hegrea. Yet he bows to her? Who is he?
“Hrafn Hauksson,” he says. “Hrafn Hauksson Oddsson—and your passage into Tree Brunna.”
Beside her now, her mother is smiling so wide it’s almost a grin.
Next episode, Passage to Tree Brunna