Title: Runic Fortunes
Author's note: This is my first foray into the world of King Arthur. Any historical inaccuracies or otherwise are to be put down to writers license.
Disclaimer: I do not own any of the characters associated with King Arthur though I do own Aelfheah, Hilla, Alric, Dathan, Kaleb, Bruinen, and Ymma.
Summary: Ymma's a Saxon who was sold as a child to a stranger travelling through her land. Brought to England she lives a nomadic lifestyle until she helps a young woman trapped in a Roman's dungeon and her whole life changes.
Saxon Law States: 'A father may sell his child if that child is under seven years old and if he needs to do so.'
Every story has a beginning. Mine begins with one word:
My father was a good man, but he was also a poor one, and the two don't go together very well.
In a fight between Poverty and Goodness, Poverty would chop Goodness up into little pieces, cook it on a fire and eat the last scraps - anything to keep the starving ache away from the cold belly of Hunger.
We didn't have much to begin with; a small hut, a few pigs, some chickens and geese – enough to keep us alive and in relative health – and I lived in comfort for a peasant's daughter at least. My father worked as a fisherman, long hours for little pay, while I helped my mother cook, clean and mend clothing that had already been mended countless times, but would continue to be mended until we could afford to buy more cloth from the rich merchants in town.
Alric, my older brother by six years, was soon old enough to follow in my father's footsteps and before long was helping him bring in the nets, adding to the meagre income my father earned. I stayed at home, learning how to be a useful child. This meant learning the Three Rules:
1. Please your husband.
2. Please your family.
3. Please the gods.
What this actually meant was be obediant and submissive to everyone, always do what anyone tells you and don't complain.
Life continued in this way until I was seven summers old and famine swept the land, adding an unnecessary burden to our lives. The goddess Frige was not kind that year and I often heard my father bitterly cursing her.
Our livestock were taken by gruff, burly men, so that other, richer people could be fed. Alric fell seriously ill and my mother spent all of her time and my father's money on expensive medicines, which failed to cure the wasting disease my brother had contracted.
My father's face grew more hollows, added more lines to a face already far too old for a man relatively young in years. My belly was empty but my heart was full and I loved my family dearly, but felt utterly useless, unable to do anything helpful.
It was that winter, when the famine was at its worst, that I suppose a miracle happened. At the time I thought it a curse, but looking back I can see it only as some intervention by the gods.
One night a man, a stranger, came to our door, begging shelter from the storm about to unleash itself upon us, and I whispered to my brother that Thunor was obviously practicing with his mighty hammer, preparing for Ragnarok. He smiled and shook his head and told me that when Ragnarok came the storm would be much bigger than this. However, Alric had exhausted himself with just these few words and my mother glared at me, as she pushed him gently down onto the pallet. He fell into a restless slumber almost immediately.
My father welcomed the stranger into our hut and sat him close to the fire, where he shrugged off his cloak and pack and laid them neatly next to the smoking wood. The rain coming in through the smoke hole was making the wood damp, but closing it up was unthinkable, the smoke would have no where to go and we would all be as smoked as the fish hanging, suspended from the ceiling.
Though Saxons are naturally distrustful of strangers we had no such fear, for what belongings had we that could be stolen but the clothes from our backs? That and my precious sun pendant, a talisman I had had ever since I could remember. I had been given it upon my birth for I was born in spring, the months Eostre watched over. Alric had one in the shape of a horse's head for he was born on Tiw's day. They were only made of copper but they were special items, and they were never taken off, for they offered protection and warded against evil.
While my father engaged the man in conversation, eager to learn of news of how the rest of the country fared, I cautiously inched my way closer to the man's belongings. I had just managed to undo the clasp when a hand came down and covered mine, grasping my fingers tightly and prying them away from the pack. I yelped, embarrassed at being caught and hung my head, awaiting my punishment. However I didn't feel the sharp slap of a hand, but instead the sound of laughter greeted my ears. I looked up and found myself looking into a pair of deep blue eyes, set in a face lined with mirth. His dark hair had sprinkles of grey at the temples and he smiled down at me.
"And what, child, do you think you were doing trying to open my sack?" His voice was warm and rough, spiked through with amusement.
"I wanted to see what was in it." I spoke with a child's honesty but at my mother's gasp I knew I was too bold. I bowed my head again but he lifted my chin with two calloused fingers and gazed into my eyes.
"Curiosity is not a bad quality. It often takes us to places we never dreamed of. But," and here he tapped my nose, "it can often mean that we get into a lot of trouble. Usually with authority." He paused and whispered into my ear. "I should know."
I giggled and twirled a piece of my dark grubby hair around one of my fingers.
The man smiled and turned back to my father.
"She'll do fine. I agree to your price."
I was so angry with them.
I spent all of my tears that day, as we left the only home I'd known to venture into a strange world I didn't know or understand. They needed the money and I prayed that Alric would survive, but the cost?
To sell their only daughter to a man they barely knew?
Goodness didn't lose that day, it was utterly massacred.
Dathan, (the man I had been sold to) was very kind, and treated me as the daughter he'd never had. He taught me practically everything I know- how to hunt game, how to avoid detection, how to survive with just your wits and a hunting dog. His nomadic lifestyle meant that he'd been all across Europe, and his tales were so exciting that he managed to quell my tears and make me adopt him as a surrogate father all in one go.
We never stayed in one place for too long, and it wasn't until I was 12 years old that we left Europe and went to live on a small island called Britannia. It was wet and damp there, but no more so than my Saxon homeland and we settled in relatively well. We stayed away from the Romans who had taken over the place and kept to the woods. Dathan told me that was where the Woads lived, painted people who rebelled against Roman rule. I never saw any, but occasionally I would spot a flash of blue from the corner of my eye. We had an understanding of a sort: we respected them and their privacy and they left us in peace.
It was in Britannia that Dathan died.
He was an old man by then, but I'd childishly expected him to live forever. Two and twenty summers was far to young to have the man you looked up to as a father snatched away from you. I cried bitterly that night, the first time I had done so since being taken away from my home. I buried Dathan in his favourite part of the woods, next to his old hunting dog Gera, along with all of his treasured possessions - his pair of hunting knives, a tin broach of his mothers and a bag of assorted coins, pins and beads that was tied in a pouch around his neck. I prayed to Woden to help him into the afterlife and I cast Cén to bless and ward the site.
I couldn't stay in that place any longer, so I picked up where I had left off and headed north towards The Wall.
That was my first mistake.
My second was not to take a rune reading before I left. So off I went blithely walking straight into the middle of Danger.
I wandered upland for a while grieving so deeply I didn't notice I had actually ventured past The Wall until it was too dark for me to see.
I ended up walking into a large oak tree.
Cursing the gods, I made camp for the night but was damned to find my hunting dogs were nowhere to be found. Now I knew the gods were laughing at me and I stormed off, so angry I very nearly failed to hear the sound of drumming coming from afar off. It was faint at the moment and I had to strain to hear, but there was no mistaking what I could hear:
Saxon war drums.
I estimated it would taken them a week to arrive, plenty of time for me to head south and catch a ferry back to the continent, where it was bound to be safer. My anger had abated slightly and I whistled softly for my dogs, Kaleb and Bruinen. There was a quiet, answering bark that I recognised as Bruinen. Heading in the direction I'd heard him in I wished that it wasn't so damn dark.
There was a sudden shifting underneath my feet and before I knew what was happening the ground fell away from beneath me.
I left out a short yelp of surprise but the fall wasn't that far and the only hurt I sustained was a bruised backside, dirty hands and dented pride for the second time that day. Sighing I wiped my hands on my dress and it was only then that the stench hit me. It was so powerful my eyes watered and I coughed violently, feeling the strong urge to vomit. It was the smell of putrefying flesh, and I scrambled backwards in horror, praying that I hadn't disturbed a grave. Kaleb and Bruinen came at that moment, padding down into the small hole I was sitting in and greeted me with wagging tails and a dead hare. I patted their heads distractedly, but I was concentrating on what that awful smell was. I got up and felt my way blindly forwards until my outstretched hands came into contact with a rough stone wall, damp with mildew and mould.
I took out my piece of flint and scraped it across the wall hoping it wasn't too damp to create a spark. I felt around on the ground for wood and my fingers finally closed over a branch. Holding it next to the wall I ran the flint down the wall again and again until finally a spark jumped on to the branch and it started to smoulder. Grateful at my success I waited patiently until eventually I had a torch with which to see. I held it up and now I could see I was by some sort of building. I crouched down to where the smell was strongest. Set into the side of the wall was a small iron grille that had previously been covered by the soil I had unknowingly shifted.
"Hello?" I called out quietly. Not really expecting a reply I almost trod on Kaleb's tail when I heard an answering groan.
There was the sound of shuffling and in the dark I noticed a pair of eyes gleaming back at me. I let out a small scream.
"H-hel-help me," croaked a voice.
I held the torch closer and gasped in horror at what I saw. A woman, a Woad I amended, (seeing her blue tattoos), was held inside a cage and from the looks of it she wouldn't last much longer. She was weak, dehydrated, and her fingers were bent unnaturally. Just as I was about to reply, there was the sound of voices, and the heavy tramp of soldier's feet. Bruinen was growling a warning and I backed away from the grille.
"I'll be back," I promised and then hurried back to the safety of the woods, hounds at my feet, wondering how all of a sudden my life had become so complicated.
That night I dreamed of drums in the dark and a woman's voice screaming.
By daylight I could see that I was in a forest close to the house of an obviously wealthy roman. Unfortunately it also seemed as though he had gone mad, for what kind of sane human kept people locked in a dungeon underground?
That night I returned to where I had first found the woman, carrying food and water. The grille was too small for me to pass the water pouch through so instead the woman used her last reserves of strength to move closer to the grille. I poured the water through the grille into her cupped hands a little at a time and she managed to have enough to sate her thirst. Her voice was still rough but not as cracked as it had been and on the third day she managed to tell me her name.
"Guinevere," I whispered back, careful never to raise my voice to alert an Roman guards. "That's a lovely name." She managed a smile as I poked cooked hare through the grill holes.
"I'm Ymma," I said gently. I pointed to my two hounds. "Bruinen and Kaleb."
She looked at me strangely. "You are a foreigner?"
I nodded, unsure as to how much I should tell her.
"And yet you would do this for me?"
I raised an eyebrow in disbelief. "Contrary to popular belief not all foreigners are completely heartless. We aren't all crazy either."
Guinevere smiled and chewed a piece of hare thoughtfully. "Then where do you come from?"
I wasn't prepared to answer that question. I had already given away enough by revealing my name, telling her I was a Saxon was perhaps not the wisest decision, especially when my people were now invading her country. Instead, I changed the subject.
"They have not noticed you can now see the sky?"
She shook her head and I winced as she ran her broken fingers over the many injuries on her body.
"They take me out of the cell to torture me. They don't go far enough into the cell to notice."
That put an end to all conversation.
It was on the fifth day of my arrival that the drums became too loud to ignore. But now I couldn't just run, I had a responsibility to a woman who was lying in a moulding dungeon. Sitting down in a small grove I decided to take a reading. I cleared my mind, spoke the charm rhyme and asked my question.
'How can I save Guinevere?'
I threw the runes up into the air and then closing my eyes I picked three runes one at a time, having no time for a full reading. I drew Tír first. This meant a successful venture, an existence of truth and loyalty. I frowned. Would I have success saving Guinevere or did this indicate another journey of some sort?
My second lot was Beorc. One of my favourite runes, Beorc meant new growth, a time when motherly tenderness is called for. Now this one made sense. I smiled in relief; Guinevere would be saved but would need a lot of care and tenderness.
Smiling I drew my last rune. Lagu. My smile dropped slightly. This rune indicated rapid change for good or bad. I cursed to myself and gathered up my lots. I still had no idea how to save Guinevere and the runes were not predicting wonderful things. I made my way back to camp slowly in contemplation on how to rescue the Woad, when Kaleb's barking made me run quicker. I put my runes down next to the fire and hurried to the edge of the forest where the dogs were sitting.
I scratched their ears. "What is it boys?"
I crouched low in the tall grass, and spotted what Kaleb had been barking at. Men on horseback had arrived at the home of the Roman and I frowned. What good could come of more soldiers?
I squinted hard. From this distance it was hard to tell but they looked suspiciously liked Sarmation knights, the brave men Dathan had told me about in many of his tales. I watched curiously as one of the knights, a tall, practically bald man brought down the outside of the wall with a large battleaxe. They entered cautiously, and I smiled grimly, remembering the first time I had smelt that terrible stench.
It was ten minutes before they came out again, the leader, Arthur, I remembered, carrying Guinevere in his arms. I gave a whoop of joy and hugged my dogs, ecstatic to have her out of that prison. However, I must have been too loud as one of the knights on his horse glanced over towards the woods. I ducked down again and his eyes slid over my hiding place. I sighed in relief. That had been too close.
Arthur had placed Guinevere on the ground, calling for water, and I smiled, content to know that my friend was now getting all the care she warranted. I turned to head back to the woods and leave this place when a loud commotion drew my attention. The master of the house had come running to Arthur and his knights and I narrowed my eyes in disgust.
"Stop! Stop what you are doing!" He was so loud I could easily hear him from my position in the forest. Arthur swiftly rose to his feet.
"What is this madness?"
The roman looked taken aback at Arthur's harsh tone. "They are all pagans here!" He explained.
Bruinen growled. I agreed. What was wrong with being a pagan? One of the knights looked disdainfully down at the stocky man and I had to strain to hear what he said.
"So are we."
"They refuse to do the tasks God set out for them!"
The roman man was really annoying me. Perhaps if I was swift I could set the dogs on him and then make a quick escape. I was pulled from my musings and back into the conversation by angry shouting.
"You mean they refuse to be your serfs!" Arthur shouted.
"You are roman, you understand. And you are a Christian. You!" The man turned on his wife. "You kept them alive!"
And then he slapped her across the face.
One of the knights, whom I identified by his curly dark hair and handsome features as Lancelot, started to move forward angrily, but Arthur beat him too it. He punched the man in the face, and he fell down, Arthur's blade to his neck. Two of the guards rushed forward, but stopped seeing Arthur was very capable of decapitating their master, should they choose to take another step. Glaring up at Arthur, he narrowed his eyes.
"When we get to the wall, you will be punished for this heresy," he said angrily.
"Maybe I should just kill you now and seal my fate," murmured Arthur. At that moment though Arthur became distracted as some priests came over, and one of them started babbling, taking his attention away from the man on the ground. He removed his sword from the man's throat, and I sighed, the show was over.
Moving back into the woods I collected up my belongings. Stamping out the fire I packed my sack, adding my skinning daggers and flint stone to it, along with my rune lots, carefully wrapped up. I picked up my wooden staff and headed back to where I had left the dogs. The priests were nowhere to be seen, though the broken wall was now suspiciously walled back up. I could just see Guinevere in a wagon, lying unconscious on some skins, along with a small child.
There was another survivor? I was amazed that the boy had lasted down there. I shivered at the thought of being stuck in that dank hell.
I made to move off but it was then that the drumming began again. Damn. They were now very close, a day or two behind and I had wasted my head start. The knights looked worried too and this did not make for good news. If they were worried we didn't stand much chance.
If they were worried we didn't stand much chance. The man who had almost noticed me was talking to Arthur. I racked my head for a name and found one, Tristan. That was it, the great scout Dathan spoke of. He was pointing east towards a path that ran close to the woods. I sighed.
From the arm gestures it seemed as though they had no choice but to go east to escape my invading people. I had no choice but to wait till they went past me. I would be relatively unnoticed at the back, but if I went ahead no doubt Tristan would spot me and I really didn't want to be noticed. I smirked .So this was what my runes had been speaking of.
A journey? Yes, I was just about to undertake one.
Tender care? Well Guinevere had that now.
A rapid change for good or bad? I'd count ever-nearing Saxon hoards as a rapid change for the worse.
I took my pack off and lay back down in the grass, following Bruinen and Kaleb's example, and watched as the wagons and people passed by. From the sheer number of people I knew I was in for a long wait.
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Woden. Saxon god of death, battle, wisdom, discoverer of the runes.
Tiw. Saxon god of the Sky. The horse is his symbol.
Eostre. Saxon goddess of the dawn. She is a spring goddess.
Hretha. Saxon goddess of war.
Frige. Saxon goddess came to represent the earth as an Earth Mother
Runes used in this chapter:
Lagu can indicate rapid change good or bad. In spell work Lagu can be used to promote growth and healing, but one must be careful to control these processes. A safer rune to use for such things is Beorc.
Beorc may mean new growth, a time when motherly tenderness is called for. In spell work, it can be used to ensure the safety of a child or adult, to promote new growth or healing.
Tír means a successful venture, an existence of troth and loyalty. Guidance may be in the offering. In spell work, it can be used to gain success or to force someone to obey a legal agreement.
Cén can mean a need to be creative; to generate the energy needed to ensure one's health. It can also indicate passions and desires. In spell work it can be used as a rune of warding.