Brisingamen

A taster from the novel I’m currently writing …

Brisingamen

The thirteen golden moons shone out in her memory. Where were they, what had her mad red-haired brother done with them? She lay back in the bed trying to remember. No, it wasn’t him, it was the three Jotun women, they had taken it back, taken it away. He’d brought everyone gifts, lovely dwarf-made jewels that glittered and sparkled with their own light but, as ever, he’d forgotten her. Who needed a brother like that? Well, she would teach him, show him, she would have something even more lovely than anything he had brought the others, she would have the thirteen golden moons. Each of the moons was a different shade of gold, red, orange yellow, even a greenish gold, and the patterns that ran through the gold suggested each moon, wolf moon, snow moon, hunter’s moon, and all. Yes, she would find it and bring it and wear it. She would show them all.

The cats drew her chariot out from the stronghold in the pre-dawn glow. Huge they were, striped black on the long red-brown fur, their fangs gleaming, satisfied growls told they were pleased to be out. They raced across the land.

She went everywhere, all across the nine lands but no-one knew anything, no-one would help her, none had seen the Jotun women in an age. Until, one day, she came across a boy herding his goats on the hillside. He was brave although so small, he stood with his big wolf-friend between her cats and the frightened goats. ‘No!’ he shouted, before the chariot had hardly stopped. ‘No! You shall not have them. My goats are not for you.’

She climbed down from the chariot, laughing at his pugnacity. ‘We do not want your goats,’ she told him. ‘They’re weak and stringy, no food for warriors there. But …’ and now she came up close to him, ‘maybe you have seen, maybe you know.’ She bent towards him so he could smell the lovely perfume of her skin. ‘Have you seen the Jotun women? Do you know where they went?’

The boy shivered slightly and his wolf-friend gave a low growl in the back of his throat. ‘I … I …. m-maybe the dwarves will know,’ he managed at last.

‘What dwarves,’ she snapped, taking hold of his chin and forcing him to look up into her eyes. ‘Tell me of these dwarves.’ And she thrust the boy backward so he sat down abruptly. The wolf growled again. It was odd, she thought, but somehow the wolf reminded her of her brother, perhaps it was the red fur.

The boy got his breath back and struggled to his feet. He didn’t like this woman, she was cruel. ‘The dwarves the other side of the mountain, yonder.’ He pointed away across the valley to a huge peak that stood up like a wolf’s tooth.

Now, suddenly, she was satisfied, she knew in her bones that was the place. One long finger stroked the boy’s cheek softly then she reached into her pouch and drew forth a gold coin, tossed it to him.

She leapt into the chariot and immediately the cats set off, flying across the valley, galloping along a stretch of gossamer cloud that made a road through the sky. The boy stood watching. Neither he nor the wold would touch the gold.

The other side of the mountain was very different. No longer softly green with deep oak forests cladding its side, now it was harsh, stark, bare rocks, empty streambeds long dried up, and a great, dark hole in its flank that seemed to suck up all the light. She left the cats to guard the chariot and went warily into the cave-mouth on foot.

Just as it seemed she would no longer be able to see the light from the cave mouth she heard the footsteps coming. A soft plap-plap-plap, like leather slapping on stone, not like men’s feet at all. Light flickered around a corner ahead of her, reddish with the black tinge of smoke, and she could smell it. She mustered her courage and stood up straight and still. The plapping sound grew louder, it sounded as if there were many and a many of them, and then there they were in front of her. Dwarves indeed, but not like the red-skinned dwarves of home nor their black-haired cousins, these were white, pallid, flabby with huge bulging pale eyes that reminded her of dead fish.

‘What is it, lady? What is it you want?’ The first of them stopped in front of her, too close for comfort but well close enough for her to smell him, and he was very obviously male. The end of his organ began to twitch, to stand up to look at her from its single eye. A glance showed her it was the same with all of them. She pressed the image of a steel rod down her back bone and stood straighter still. ‘I’m told that you know the whereabouts of the three Jotun women,’ she said imperiously.

A chuckle began in the leader’s throat, spread amongst his comrades. ‘The Jotun women, is it? And what would the likes of you be wanting with them?’ he replied.

‘Do not argue with me, wretched earthlings,’ she said loudly. ‘Tell me where they are.’ But her voice cracked slightly, giving the lie to her authority.

The chuckle ran through the dwarves again, deeper this time. A hungry interest gleamed in their pale eyes which looked her up and down, undressing her. ‘Why yes, lady. We know the Jotun women. They are friends of ours.’ He paused, glanced at his companions. ‘But if you would like to find them then it will cost you. We always give information, or anything else, but always for fair trade.’

‘What …?’ she managed.

‘Why that you will come with us, spend seven nights with us, that you will give us the joy of your company.’

She was not fooled. She knew what they wanted, but the thirteen moons shone bright in her mind’s eye. She wanted them. ‘I will come,’ she said.

For seven nights she pleasured them, doing whatever they asked. All the time, she held the vision of the thirteen moons fixed inside her head so she hardly noticed what she was doing. On the seventh night, the leader told her where she could find the Jotun women. He led her back to the cave-mouth, holding her soft white hand all the way and, as they first began to see the gleam of light from the outside world he demanded one final kiss. She gave it, trying not think about the way his long, tube-like tongue searched her mouth.

The cats purred and licked her as if she was their kitten. She allowed them to wash the stink of the dwarves from her skin, then she climbed back into the chariot and pointed the way. They flew again, the cats galloping on shreds of cloud-road high in the sky until they came to the mountain. Strange it was, as she looked at it with her sith-sight she could see that it was upside-down, as if it had been tumbled over when the jostling land-plates knocked against each other back in the mists of pre-time. And then she saw them. So huge they were that it seemed the rocks that made the top of the mountain moved, but they were not rocks, they were the Jotun women. One after the other they stood up, watched the chariot fly towards them. There was a flat space where the cats landed the chariot and she stepped down.

With the dwarves, she had towered over them, now the Jotuns towered over her. They were like part of the mountain themselves. ‘I want the necklace,’ she shouted up to them before her courage melted away. ‘I want the thirteen moons.’

‘No, you don’t,’ the smallest of the three told her. It was like being spoken to by thunder.

‘But I do!’ she shouted back, amazed that they would deny her.

‘No, you don’t’ repeated the second one.

She stamped her foot, too angry now to be frightened of their hugeness. ‘I do,’ she cried, ‘I do! I do!’

‘No,’ said the largest and eldest of the women. ‘You don’t. Wait,’ she held up her hand, ‘and listen. The thirteen moons are not for such as you. They must hang in the sky, giving time and seasons for all life. They are not a bauble for you to wear.’

‘But I want them,’ she cried, tears of frustration falling down her cheeks. ‘And you are wearing them, so they don’t have to hang in the sky. That’s a lie!’

‘I wear them now, because you have come. This is a turning point, a threshold. If you succeed in your demand then the power of the moons will be changed. And you do not know them, if you did you would not want them, not any more than I do. You would leave them be. To take them from their purpose brings only sorrow and despair.’

For just a moment, that stopped her. But only a moment. ‘You can give them to me, can’t you?’ She began to sense a cunning in them, they were trying to trap her but she would not be stopped in her purpose. ‘You can. I know it. So give them to me. Now!’

The youngest and smallest tried one last time. ‘If you take them now then the thirteen will give you all the power you want but the price you pay will be despair,’ she said as softly as a gale blowing through pine trees. ‘Go hme now, we beg you. Take on your falcon form and fly home. The cats will follow you but you must fly away now. Go, child, go.’

‘No, I will not. Not without the thirteen moons. Give them to me. Now!’

At that, the golden necklace fell from the eldest giantess’ neck and into her hands. It lay there, tingling, sending fire through her skin, a feeling of aliveness such as she’d never known ran through her. She put it on and leapt back into the chariot.

They flew over mountains and lakes. At every pool, she topped to admire her reflection in the water. She even stopped at little duck-ponds so enamoured of herself was she. But every time, after a few moments of looking at her lovely self in the still water there would come a change. A wave would rise, steep and huge, flowing across the lake, threatening to engulph her, she would leap back into the chariot and back into the sky to escape.

Finally she arrived home. There she found all her family weeping and mourning. She had been gone a hundred years and they had all thought she was dead. Her husband was gone, gone searching for her not long after she had run away. Her daughter stood, grown up now and a woman herself, staring at her mother, staring at the thirteen moons around her neck. Then the girl turned away, went indoors, her weeping ceased and her face hard and ugly with disgust. For a moment she almost tried to follow her daughter but her feet would not move.

Then she leapt back into the chariot and headed for the upside-down mountain. ‘Take it back,’ she pleaded with the Jotun women. ‘Take it back. I don’t want it. The price is too high.’

‘We told you so,’ the youngest said, her voice now like a spring breeze through the oak buds. ‘We did,’ the second joined her. ‘We did, indeed,’ the eldest affirmed. ‘We cannot take it back,’ she went on. ‘You chose your way. You chose for all your kind. Now you must bear it. There is nothing we can do.’

Wearily, she got back into the chariot, headed for home again, not stopping anywhere this time.

The oldest one, the seer of the family, still stood in the courtyard. He watched her land. She went to him. ‘How can I get them back?’ she asked him. ‘How can I undo what I have done? How can I find my husband and my daughter again?’

‘You cannot,’ he told her. ‘From your actions, your husband is now everywhere. Everywhere in all the worlds. He is everywhere you, and we, have not looked, in every place we have left. He is gone from the world of our knowing. Those who seek him shall never find him.”

A single tear tracked down his cheek and flowed onto the necklace. It lodged there, like a diamond.

 

 

 

 

 

Bridey’s Flower: a blog for Imbolc

In my end is my beginning … Eliot again, now at Imbolc as at Samhain. And now again, the story ends and the story begins, turning and cycling round the seasons.

Hiding in the bushes beside the clearing where the well stands, I watched. Fingers blue with cold, teeth beginning to chatter, the snow cold and dank, sending its freezing tendrils up through my boots. But I wasn’t going anywhere, not yet. They would come, along with the dusk, and I was going to watch them.

The sun slid down the sky, sometimes hiding his face in the clouds. The cold became bitter then, even the robin’s song would stop for a moment at a time. The blackbirds would hush in the bushes, watching the dying of the light. It must be four o’clock, the dusk was beginning and the sun clipping the horizon, soon to go down into the womb of darkness. I shivered.

‘Have ‘y come to see the snake then, boy?’ The voice cackled, croaked like an old crow. Somehow, despite being near frozen to the spot with both cold and fear, I turned. Back she was, hooded and with beak of a nose on her very like to a crow. The dark cloak covered most all of her bar her face. She cackled again. I watched the black and yellow teeth behind the blue lips and gums. ‘Yere, then,’ and she put out her claws to catch my arm, pull me along with her into the glade.

There was nought I could do, old she might be but she was strong. And, anyway, it was where I wanted to go despite my entrails’ protests, they roiled in my gut like a seething whirlpool. ‘Come ‘y yere, boy. I needs the cup. Will’ee get un for me?’

She let go of me. I was free, I could run. Except I could not. I tried putting a foot away from the well but nothing happened, the foot wouldn’t move. I tried the other way and the foot would go, towards the well. Leaning over the rank, dank breath came up from the depths almost choking me with its bitterness and cold. The rope on the bucket was already skimmed with ice, and the iron handle of the winch burned as I gripped it but I hung on, began winding. The winch creaked and groaned like an old man, or a donkey, as I lowered the bucket down into the dark. On and on it went, the grating sounds of pain, and then there was the sudden splash, the bucket had arrived at the water.

‘Hold un still!’ the old crone said sharply. ‘Wait!’ I clutched the burning iron handle, pulling it to a halt, feeling my hands must be frozen into it, stuck to it, never to come off again. And then I heard it, a soft whooshing noise followed by a brief whinny. The kelpie had come, up out of the depths. Then there was a clunk as something metal was dropped into the bucket. ‘Now! Quick!’ she commanded, ‘afore he climbs aboard! Ye dinna want a see him, laddie, indeedy not!’

I wound the winch the other way, winding the rope back onto the winch. It was heavier work now, fighting gravity, but also it was more than the bucket that I was pulling up, it felt like much more, much more than just a cup.

He came with a roar and a growl, shifting all the while, one moment a pretty black pony, the next a huge writhing serpent breathing fire, and leapt from the bucket straight at me.

‘No!’ she said. Quiet almost but such power. The twisting black shape stopped, hung in the air between the well and me. Its eyes moved, red and with long lashes of black flame, looked at her. She moved past me, came close to it and began to stroke its ears and face. ‘He’s mine,’ she told it, ‘doing my work, fetching my cup. You leave him be.’ Slowly the kelpie transformed, becoming again the pretty black pony. Except his eyes were red. ‘Get my cup,’ she commanded me, and I could move again. Dipping my hand into the bucket, I touched the cold hard thing and drew it out. Dark, black silver so it seemed.

The daylight was all gone now, exchanged for the dimming light of the waning moon, risen high now over the treetops and shining down into the glade. How long had we been there? It seemed only a moment ago that it was dusk, before the old woman came, and now the moon was high and already setting her path down into the west. I shook my head, what did it matter? Time was, time is. I am where I am, and when. And I was holding the cup in my hands.

The moon was lighting a trackway through the trees on the other side of the well and, it seemed, there was flickering movement on the track. I peered at it, a soft chuckle sounded behind me. ‘y can see ‘er then? Can’ee boy?’ I could indeed.

As the old one behind me was dark like a crow so the one coming down the track was bright like a star. Despite she walked the moon-track it was like she made her own light. Somehow I was afeared, I crept backwards towards the well, still holding the cup.

‘Good even, sister’ said the bright one as she came out into the glade. ‘Good even, indeed,’ croaked the old one. They stood there, the dark one in the east, heading west; the bright one in the west and heading east. The kelpie slithered away from the crone and round the edge of the glade to stand opposite me so he now held the north. Step by careful step the two women came towards each other, both of them smiling. The old one stood straighter now and the hood slipped back to show her pale silver hair. The young one looked older, a woman now and not a girl, her black hair shining like a crow’s wing in the moonlight. Together and together so they came, until their fingers touched.

And somehow, I knew what to do. I turned and dipped the cup into the bucket, filled it with water. As I leaned over the well it smelled sweet, like spring flowers, all the rankness gone. Slowly, my hearting beating as if I’d just run a mile, I stepped towards them, holding out the cup. They took it, both together, and gave each other to drink from it, then they turned and held it out to the kelpie. He snorted, then hoof by careful hoof, he stepped towards them. The women dipped their fingers in the water and stroked his ears, down his neck and shoulders, down his back, and then they let him drink.

It was like smoke, white smoke. It began to curl from his nostrils, then his ears, it steamed up from his shoulders and his hooves, all down his back until his tail was a shimmering fall of smoke. And he shrank, down and down into nothingness.

The women went down on their knees beside where he had been. ‘The snake is here,’ said the bright one, ‘just poking his head out of his hole.’

I came to watch. There was nothing there … but then, yes, there was. The tiniest glimmer of white was pushing its way up out of the black soil, I bent with the women to watch. It was a snowdrop, its white budding head resembling as snake’s head, a tiny snakeling birthing itself out of the ground. Its green body followed until it stood proud and upright, the head opened up, sending the three white sepals outwards and uncovering the three green and white petals, which opened in their turn to show the six golden, pollen-covered stamens.

Suddenly I saw it, the black serpent becomes the white snake who puts his head out of his hole at the turning of the seasons when the Winter crone gives way to the Spring maiden.

I had come to see them, to see the snake put its head out its hole as the signal that spring was come, but I hadn’t expected the kelpie, nor the transformation, nor what the snake would be. I realised the two women had stood up, were looking down at me, kindly-like and smiling. Clumsily, I got to my feet. They gave me the cup, ’Take it back’ they said, ‘put it back. We won’t need it again for a year.’ It was different now, the silver shining and the darkness too. I took it back to the well, dropped it into the bucket and let the bucket down again into the water. When I drew it up this time it was light, easy, only some water in it. I was thirsty, so I drank. I turned in time to see the women kiss and, as they did so, the moonlight shifted and became a dazzling, sparkling whirlwind that encompassed them both and took them out of my sight.

The moon was sinking fast now, little light coming between the branches. I scurried back down the path to the village like a rabbit with the fox after it, but nothing was chasing me but my own fears. A candle stood still in the window, and no-one had yet barred the door. I slipped inside, the warmth hitting me, pulled off coat and boots and went to sit in the ashes of the fire.

It was done … the end had happened and the beginning had come, as ever it does, turn on turn of the wheel. The crone had given the cup of winter to the maiden of spring; the dark kelpie had transformed into the white snake and had put his head out of its hole to tell us all that spring was here. Bridey’s flower had come, yet again.

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