Disclaimer: Not mine
The founders lived "millennium ago"
The Journey From Oidhche Shamhna
Rowena leaned forward, placing her hands in the mud at the edge of the pond, and looked into the girl's face that reflected back to her. Glancing furtively over her shoulder lest she be caught in this wanton act of disobedience to the gods, and seeing no one, she quickly lowered her head back down and examined the girl in the pond again.
She saw her mother's eyes on the face, and bringing up her hand, she used one muddy finger to touch her eyebrow and trace its fine, thin line. She dropped her hand back down into the mud and leaned closer to her watery mirror, turning her head to the side and looking out of the corner of her eye. She was sure she saw her father's chin, and perhaps her grandmother's nose. Her light red hair, braided and held in plaits that twisted around her head, had not been difficult to imagine, as she saw this same hair and fashion on every female of her clan.
Sighing and sitting back on her heels, she again looked around to make sure she was not seen, and, untying her belt, she lifted the heavy fabric of her robe over her head. She stepped into the pond, walking away from the shore, the silt from the bottom slippery under her feet, until the water was almost to her chin. Cupping water in her hands, she smoothed it over her face before bending her knees and sinking until she was underwater. Pushing off from the mucky bottom, she swam leisurely back to the shore, enjoying the bit of freedom this simple act gave.
She walked back out of the pond, tugged the coarse brown material over her head, retied her woven belt, tilted her chin up to the sun and thanked the god of the pond for the refreshment she had taken and promised to offer her thanks at least three times more before the sunset.
She knew she was late for her lessons and hurried up the path, her body wet and cool under her robes, knowing that Elbragh would be angry if she had kept him waiting too long. She hoped that his wife needed help with the peat this morning and kept him occupied. Quickly she whispered the blessing to the god of the pond three times more, knowing that if her sins kept coming she would not find the time later.
"Rowena." Elbragh stood at the top of the earthen mound with his hands on his hips.
Shite, she thought to her self as she lowered her head and continued walking up the slope, her eyes downcast.
"Twice this moon I have waited for you and both times you come to me with wet hair," he sternly chided her and shook his finger in her face.
"Teacher." She smiled. "The end of summer grows near. I shan't long be able to enjoy the pond."
"What of your studies?" he asked her angrily. "Your test is at the end of this moon and then the solstice is on us."
"I know all the sun prayers. I have recited all three hundred sixty six of them. I know how to use the Healing stones, how to cast my Fylgie in mirrors, and all of our family back to Odin. I have studied everything, what else is there to do, Teacher?"
"What of the runes?" He tried to be angry but was not quite able to make his voice sound hard as he looked at her. "Or are you destined to sweep the floors and tend a hearth?"
"No, Teacher," she said softly. "I know all the runes, and even the Roman markings, the old and the new and have memorized the symbols as well as the signs."
"Today we will go over the rituals again." He turned to walk up the earthen path towards the low-slung sod roof. Ducking under the lintel, he entered the long enclosure and sat at the wooden table that filled most of the central room. Rowena entered behind him, picking up a sprig of wintergreen from the bowl just inside the door, and tossed the fragrant bundle into the fire as she offered up a small prayer to the dwellings god.
"Teacher?" she asked. "The other clans, the ones to the south, they use their magic all the time, they do not hide, or restrict it to only the learned."
"Yes and the Slytherin clan will soon interbreed to the point of extinction, as they allow no other clan to marry into theirs," he spat. "And the Huffle clan subscribes to complete seid. Do you want to live like that? Do you want to live in a place that only women can use magic at the hearth? A place where magic is only used at home and the men run off to battle?"
"No, it just does not seem fair that we don't use it between Oidhche Shamhna and Solstice when the others do," she sighed.
"Is it too much to ask you to show penitence of two moons to honour the gods?" He opened a large scroll that lay on the table.
"It will make it harder this year to go all the way to the circle and back using no magic." She took her seat opposite him, frowning.
"Child, the test only comes with the full moon cycle, once every nineteen years." He rose to get a stick from the fire and light the candle on the table. "You are lucky to be of age or you would have to wait a full nineteen years before you had another chance. Now, explain the ritual of warrior induction."
Rowena began reciting in the singsong rhymes that made the long ceremonies possible to memorize without referring to the runes. She could easily fall into the rhythm of the words while her mind went elsewhere. Often she was able to take in whole conversations as her mouth spilled out the words she no longer thought of. When she had first learned the names of the ancestors of Odin she had held the tribe's staff, running her fingers over the ancient carved shaft. Each twist and figure held a meaning, and the meaning gave way to the names that tumbled over her lips. Elbragh had then taken the staff away. He had frowned and told her that soon such things would be gone. It would be her job to carry the knowledge on if this happened.
"Fine," Elbragh said, smiling when she had finished. "You should do well." Then he stood and put more wintergreen and cow wheat in the fire, signalling the end of lesson.
"Run along now, there will be no more lessons." Elbragh gave her a rare smile. "We leave in three days. The journey will take four, the test three, with the last day on Oidhche Shamhna."
Rowena jumped up and ran to the door, then, remembering her manners, turned back and bowed to her teacher with a wide smile. Seeing him nod to the door, she laughed and ducked under the low doorway and ran down the earthen path, her bare feet making soft slapping sounds as she went. She had just enough time to catch Erwin on his way home from the fields.
She saw him coming across the meadow, his long strides making him stand out from his younger brother. Erwin was the oldest of Morgan's boys. His grandmother came from the Claw clan, the same as her mother had, and she always felt at home and comfortable with him and his ways. She slowed to make it appear she just happened by, and Élan, seeing her, grinned and suddenly remembered he had forgoten his cap by the stream and went back to fetch it, leaving Erwin and Rowena alone.
"Rowena," Erwin said, falling in step beside her on the path. "You have no lessons today?"
"I am done," she said, looking at him with a wide smile. "I leave soon for my test, and then I will take students. When I am older, the Elder said I would be the Teacher of the Lesser Teachers. I am done, Erwin. I have finished, finally."
"Finally?" He laughed at her. "Finally, at your age? You are the youngest we have ever had. I heard it said at the market. They say at seventeen years, if you pass the test you will be the youngest ever. The youngest by far."
"I will get paid for each student I have," she said shyly, avoiding the compliment he had given her. "And as an elder I will get my own land, with a dwelling already built."
"I am aware of that, Rowena." He scowled down at her. "We will talk of this later. Now is not the time."
"When will it be time?" She stopped walking. "You said when we could …"
"Rowena." He took her arm and forced her to face him. "I will speak to your father before we discuss this." Then, cupping her face in his hands, he gently kissed her, and hearing her gasp, he pulled her into him, crushing his lips to hers. He pulled back enough to see her face, then sighed and stepped back.
"I am sorry, Rowena," he said, running the pad of his thumb over her lips. "I should not have done that. I have to talk to Morgan and your father first."
She nodded, and taking his arm, they started back down the road toward the hamlet in which they lived.
"When will your father be back from the war?" Erwin reached for her hand. "I am tired of waiting. I thought perhaps we could ask the Old Ones on Oidhche Shamhna, and join on the Solstice."
"I will be at the testing, and celebrate Oidhche Shamhna there." She wrinkled her brow as she looked at him, as he had known this of the past year.
Erwin stopped on the path and, grinning, pulled Rowena into a stand of Elderberry bushes. He pulled her close and attacked her mouth as she melted into him. Then, bringing up her hands to his chest, she pushed him away.
"Elderberries?" she asked, looking around nervously. "Why would you need the protection of the Elderberry? Why would you bring me here?"
"From evil witches, my dear, they only protect from evil witches," he whispered as he bent down to nip her neck, and let his hands roam over her body. "You taste too sweet to be evil."
"Erwin, we can't to this." She looked up at him, pleading, if to stop or continue he was not sure.
"I will speak to Hengest tomorrow," he promised, looking down her body. "You don't have to be here to ask the gods. Go to your test, and when you get back we will make preparations for the binding."
"We will bind on the Solstice?" She was already nodding her head at him happily.
"Fine." He ran his hand though his hair in the frustration of wanting to hold her again. "We best get out of here before I change my mind and have you in a patch of weeds."
Laughing at the look on his face, Rowena grabbed his hand and pulled him back onto the path. They walked the rest of the way not so much as touching their hands, and bowed to one another formally upon parting. She turned to the low-slung dwelling of Hengest in the middle of the hamlet, as Erwin turned to Morgan's, which stood on the far edge.
Rowena could not help but smile all the while she fixed the evening meal. Soon she would have her own home, and the fire she tended would be for Erwin. She would teach during the days, and then he would walk in and see her, and smile his gentle smile, and kiss her mouth and… Rowena blushed and glanced over her shoulder. The thoughts she was having deserved a prayer of forgiveness. Closing her eyes, she quickly recited three, then happily went back to her daydreams, knowing she was safe and could continue thinking of him.
Hengest was to return the day before, and as the female of the home, the task of welcoming him had fallen to Rowena. Once again, she prepared his homecoming feast as he had not eaten it yesterday. She could not well remember her mother, who had died of fever when she was small, but still she set the table for three out of respect for her soul that still lived in her home. She had just set nuts out on the stones in front of the fire to roast when she heard his heavy boots outside.
"Father," she said, bowing as he came in, seeing him bending his head low to duck under the support beam of the door. Behind him another came, wearing a grand cloak and silver clasps.
"This is Vortigern." Her father spoke quickly to her. "He will be your guest for tonight."
"Yes, Hengest," she said, turning back to the fire. It was rude to look at a stranger, and ruder still of her father not to have told her of a guest. She pulled the joint out of the fire, placed it on a wooden board and carried it to the table, returning to the hearth to retrieve the mushrooms and parsnips as well as the roasted nuts. The men talked quietly, too quietly for Rowena to find comfort in her father's return.
She did not need to cast her Fylgie in a mirror to know that something was about to happen that would change her, or the world around her. Her father had not removed his boots, tracking mud across the floor in defiance of the god of their dwelling. Nor had he grabbed a spring of feverfew and offered it to the Odin for his safe return. Worse still, he had indicated the stranger was to sit in his wife's chair, leaving no place for her soul. Something had changed and Rowena grew cold with the knowledge.
"Girl," Hengest called her. "Bring a glass for my friend."
Rowena nodded and stood up to take one of the treasured elf-designed crystal goblets from the table by the outer wall. She carried it across to the two men. Holding it up, her father filled it with wine, and then commanded her to drink.
Rowena looked up at him, confused, and looked over at his guest, who wore a smirk on his face.
"Drink with your husband, girl," Hengest said, throwing his head back with a laugh.
"That's right, little one." Vortigern looked her over, not caring that she seemed to lose all colour. "Although my first wife may not have much need of you, I promise I will use you well."
"Father," she gasped, turning to Hengest, "Erwin is to speak for me."
"He is a fool, a poor fool," Hengest said sharply. "I have but one child who will do as she is told."
"What of my test, the teaching?" Rowena desperately thought of what to do, feeling the chasm under her grow larger.
"This is your husband." Hengest reached out, grabbed her elbow, and pushed her into Vorigern's lap. "Serve him, pour him fresh wine, and then take him to bed."
She struggled to get up as Vortigern held her tight and as still as he could. As she continued to struggle, he pushed her on the floor, knocking the goblet on the hard earthen floor, and watched as the crystal shattered into pieces of glass as small as flecks of sand.
"The gods, the blessings, you can't do this." She crawled to her father and laid her forehead on his boot. "Father, I have been obedient, I have done everything you have asked."
"Your gods are gone, girl," he spat at her and sneered. "A new god is coming who will send your truths away. I have already taken possession of your bride's price and signed the papers."
"Vortimer, your new stepson, will train you in your new ways," Vortigern said evenly, then stood up to stand over her. He looked down at her, then grabbed the jug of wine, tipped it up and drank.
"Hengest, leave us now." Vortigern leered at Rowena, his eyes growing dark. "I have business to complete, and it proves to be a long night."
By morning's light Vortigern finally fell asleep, leaving Rowena huddled on the floor near a reclining bench. She waited until she heard his even breathing, then grabbed her robe, and slipped it over her head to cover her nakedness. She silently crawled to the entrance and fled into the grey light. Her feet pounded on the ground as she ran out of the hamlet with no idea where to go, and no one to turn to. She ran until she was at the pond, and letting go of her tears, she waded into the water to scrub off his scent, and the blood from her thighs.
On the shore, she fell to her knees and then supplicated herself to the gods, begging them to take her and let her leave this place. She laid face down, stretching out her arms and keeping her palms up to the sky to allow her soul the freedom to fly on the winds. The gods would not talk to her, and turned their backs. She was now a married woman and must return to her husband. Her tears mixed with the mud and tasted salty to her tongue.
She lay in the mud, not caring about her robes, now muddied and soiled, and cried into her hands. Her world had ended, her dreams destroyed, her life with Erwin gone. Even if she managed to get away, she would have nothing. She heard a rustle of leaves and in a panic turned only to see her love walking towards her through the brush.
"I thought you would be here." Erwin squatted down next to her. "What is going on? Hengest came looking for you this morning."
She pulled away and turned her head, not able to meet his eyes. Her long unbraided hair formed a curtain around her face and, falling below her waist, made her look almost feral as she inched further away on her knees.
"Rowena?" he said impatiently. "Why would he think you would come to me in the middle of the night? What have you told him of us?"
"Erwin, leave," she whispered, trying not to cry, "If he finds you here, I don't know what he will do."
"Hengest will not…."
"No, not my father." She silenced him with her hiss. "My husband."
Erwin reached out, grabbed her chin roughly, and pulled her face to his. He saw her swollen lips and tear-streaked face, he saw the marks on her neck left by a hash lover and closed his own eyes to block out the sight. Standing up, he took a step back from her. His mouth opened but he could not form the right words to say.
"Erwin?" She scrambled up to face him. "I had no choice, he forced me. I didn't want … he forced me."
"I know." He turned from her and ran his hand through his hair. "I know, Rowena."
"What should I do?" She began to separate her hair into sections to braid, only to give up as her hands continued to shake too badly.
Erwin paced along the shore of the pond, once stopping to look at her and then pacing again. He fought to control his temper, to still his hands and to keep his mouth closed. Within only a few minutes, his life had crashed down to his feet. He did not know how to pick it up. He looked again at her and saw what had been done to her, imagined her pain, and fought the urge to seek out her husband with a sword.
"How much do you want this?" He walked over to her, frowning. "I mean us, how much do you want to be with me? Because witch, I will give up everything for you. However, if we run there is no looking back, no stopping what we have started, and we give this up forever."
"We will first go south," he said decisively. "You will have your test. We will ask the gods for their grace, we will ask them to forgive what we must do and to come with us to whereever it is we end up."
He smiled at her and grabbed her hands, pulling her to him. "And if they bless us, we go where no one knows us. We start over. You teach, I will take care of the fields and herds, and we will be part of the new world that is coming. You will be mine, bear my children and keep my hearth."
"You would do this for me?" She glanced quickly over her shoulder, still afraid of her husband, who was looking for her.
"No, I do this for me." He tipped up her chin, and kissed her softly. "Did he hurt you?"
"Erwin, please. I can not…" She fisted his robes, and buried her face on his chest. "He did things, things …things that hurt, things I didn't want him to do, and things … things he had no right to do."
"Shush," he whispered. "That is behind you, it is done. You will never feel that kind of pain again. I will never hurt you. Rowena, trust me on this, I will never take you in pain. I will never take you against your will or in a way you do not want.
"Now." He stepped back from her. "We will tell your teacher that we will be there for the test, and maybe he will stand for us on Oidhche Shamhna."
"I can't go back." She shook her head, pulling away from him and backing way. "If I go back, if they see me…he will see me… he will…"
"You can't hide here. If Elbragh is asked he will tell them this is where you come." Erwin ran his hand through his hair. "Come, we will hide you in the elderberries, no one will look for a witch there."
"I cannot stay there long. They sicken me." She worried her lip and looked over her shoulder again, afraid of discovery.
"Rowena, we will be gone before noon meal. You need to hide only a couple of hours while I speak to Morgan."
"No, Erwin." She rushed back to him. "You can't do this. I can't ask you to give up everything that is rightfully yours."
"I will be giving up nothing and gaining all."
"You are the eldest. The herds, the dwelling, it should be all yours." She shook her head and laid her hand on his arm. "Erwin, we have to think this through. Your father will be shamed, your brother left in limbo with nothing and you mother…she will grieve as if you are dead."
"I will renounce my place, and then he can inherit. Morgan is not as you think." He grinned at her. "He stole my mother away from the Moors. He claimed her at Oidhche Shamhna against the wishes of his own father."
"This is different, Erwin. I have been claimed already. I will come to you already a wife who has lain with her husband. Not as his bride came to him."
"You will wait until I talk to Morgan." He looked at her darkly. "If we start this, we finish it. Make sure this is what you want. Once we leave here we will not be coming back."
"I will not let him touch me again." She lifted her chin as tears came down her cheeks. "I will not let him do this to me again, but I do not want you to ruin your life."
"Then run to the elderberries and wait, because without you my life is ruined. I could not live here and see you with him every day. I will not. Stay hidden until I bid them goodbye. Rowena, hide and wait for me."
She turned and ran beside the path, keeping to the shadows and brush until she came to the stand of elderberries they had kissed in just yesterday morning. She squatted down under a bush and, pulling the lower branches around her, she sat on her heels to wait.
Erwin walked to the house of his father, suddenly aware that this would be the last time he walked this path. He stopped and offered up a prayer of leave-taking, breaking his ties with the clan before talking to his father. This would be difficult enough without owing a debt he could pay now and cut off any hope of staying.
He approached the dwelling as Élan ducked down and came out of the low door. They stood and looked at each other until Élan walked over and stopped in front of him.
"You have been with her," Élan said flatly. "The whole village knows you have gone to her."
"I have been talking to her." Erwin frowned. "We have not been together."
"Father knows." Elan jerked his head towards the long thatched dwelling.
"Is he angry?" Erwin looked toward the door, knowing that they could be seen from inside.
"Mother is trying to calm him," Elan said quietly. "If she is found, it will not go well. Vortigern has claimed her and threatens to burn the dwelling that is hiding her."
"He took her against her will. That is not our way," he said flatly, as he started toward the door. "He hurt her, Élan. Even if she was not to be mine, this is wrong. He hurt her badly, he took her as if she were a whore. If he were of the clan he would be publicly flogged and she, mourned."
"Erwin." His brother caught up to him, embraced him, then stepped back and locked his eyes on Erwin's. "Go with the gods."
Erwin ducked into his father's dwelling and picked up a handful of herbs. He walked toward the fire to throw in his offering to the family's gods only to stop when his mother laid her hand on his arm.
"No, it is not fitting." She opened his hand and took the herbs from him. "If you are leaving they will no longer help you, nor should you ask them."
"Mother, I don't want to hurt you."
"When a son is born the mother knows he will someday leave." She smiled at him. "I have two sons. I always thought it would be the youngest that left. Now I find it is not."
"I see you have come to seek our approval." Morgan stood in the eating area, watching his wife and son.
"No, Morgan." Erwin stood firmly in front of him. "I have come to tell you my intent, and to give Elan my inheritance. I would like your blessing, but have no need of your approval or your permission."
"So," Morgan said, looking to his wife. "You would do this to your family?"
"Yes. She is my family, I will not let her be sent back to that monster."
"You will no longer be allowed here. You know this." His father frowned at him. "You will not see your Mother or Élan again."
"I understand, Father. It saddens me, but it will not stop me."
"You will be an outcast, you and your witch." He spoke to his son, showing no emotion.
"Yes, I am aware of that and it saddens me as well."
"Son," his mother cried out. "Do you love her that much?"
"Yes," he said, taking her hands in his. "She is my sun. She will be my life and my hope. He took her without her consent, Mother, he beat her as he did. Her father sold her as if she were a slave taken in war by the Ostmen. Mother, please understand, I don't care about what has happened to her, I only care what can be with her."
"You could take this before the elders to sort out." Morgan tried to reason. "If it is true, and she fought him…"
"No, Morgan" He turned to his father. "Vortigern is powerful. He has many to fight for him. We will leave rather than see your home burnt and you and Mother reduced to ruin."
"Where will you go?" Morgan walked over to his son and grasped him by the shoulders.
"I don't know, Father," he said honestly. "I will take her for her test, and then we will find our way."
His mother ran to her bed, pulled out the chest she kept under it and pulled out the headpiece she wore at her own claiming. Holding the treasure in her hands, she looked up to Morgan, who nodded his consent to her.
"This is older than I know," she said as she placed it lovingly in her son's hands. "It is said to carry the wisdom of Odin in it but I think it only carries a mother's hope of love for her son. It is all I have to offer. It should go from mother to daughter, but I will have no daughter to tend the fire with me. So take it, and put it on her head, lay the cloth over her hair in my stead, and ask the gods to take pity."
"No, Mother," he said, looking down at the shimmering jewel-encrusted headband. "I cannot take this. It should go to Elan, as his inheritance from you. It should be worn by the bride he brings to your hearth."
"Your wife will wear this when you are able to wed," Morgan said roughly. "It is your mother's wish and her tradition that honours the eldest daughter brought to her hearth."
Erwin felt his throat constrict and a pressure in this chest that threatened to explode and suck his breath away. His eyes became blurry, and as he was about to turn he felt his father's arms around him. He held onto his father as the child he used to be, knowing he might never see him again.
"You will make our people proud." His father slapped him on the back, quickly turned, and left the dwelling, needing to hide his own tears.
His mother went to the hearth and removed a small ember. Wrapping it in a piece of fabric, she passed her hand over the small bundle and magically protected the fabric and all that touched it from harm.
She placed it in his pocket with the diadem and gave the pocket a pat. "Now you will have my warmth with you always."
"Rowena will be honoured." He kissed her cheeks and walked to the door, leaving without looking back.
Rowena saw him as he entered the elderberry stand and stood to greet him. She could tell by the look of him that he had left his family and was now committed to their journey. She nodded and took his hand as they began their journey together. Once she set her foot on the path to the test, she could only take mead or water. The further the clan from the circle, the harder it became for the contestants to make the trip. The fasting made it difficult for smaller, more distant clans, to have qualified teachers.
Rowena had practiced fasting, Elbragh had insisted on it. She knew she was able to go almost seven days. However, the exertion of the journey would only add to her hunger. She said her fasting payer now, as she took Erwin's hand and set out on the path.
They walked for days to the south, meeting others heading for the circle on the way. As the time passed, the two joined with the others until the group of students numbered nearly twenty. Rowena had fallen in step with a young witch from a neighbouring clan and had let Erwin walk ahead with the men. The constantly-talking witch was the closest in age that she had met so far, and her sweet, outgoing demeanour had made the past few days easier to handle. Whenever Rowena felt a pang of sadness, the witch would joke and make her smile at the tales of her village and antics of her many brothers.
She heard Erwin call her name and looked up to see him waving her forward, smiling widely and pointing to a valley that was below him, and not yet visible to her. Grabbing her walking partner's hand, she pulled her along as they ran up the slope.
"Hurry, Helga." She waved her new friend forward. "We have made it. We are there."