Authors: Harper Fox
Tags: #Fiction, #Gay, #Romance, #Historical, #General
To Jane, in commemoration of our civil partnership, 3rd September 2012.
Year 687 Christian Era, Britannia, northeast coast
The sea bells were ringing. Caius, walking by the side of a shaggy pony who needed no leading this close to home, listened in wonder. The dunes were scattered with them—fragile purple flower heads the children called hare’s bells, dancing in the wind. Twenty summers ago, a child himself, Caius had heard them often. Then time had passed, and like all childhood songs, their music had vanished into the sounds of the world.
He halted the pony on the crest of a dune. From here, the whole coastal plain was laid out before him, a long, wild stretch of salt flats and grassland that paralleled the glimmering sea until both melted into the distance. A vision of heaven, on a spring day like this one. Drawing a deep breath, Caius let himself forget the long winters, when the gale swept down untrammelled from the north, scouring every living thing to tatters in its frozen, sand-filled blast. He did love it here. Unlike his father’s stronghold in the hills, his new home stood unsheltered, a collection of low buildings on a small tidal island whose causeway twice a day was sunk beneath the restless sea.
And the tides come highest at the dark and full of the moon, because then both sun and moon line up to pull the water.
Caius smiled in pleasure at the memory of his latest heretical lesson in astronomy, taught him in the darkened church with an apple and a candle flame, Abbot Theodosius spinning the round apple Earth by its stalk—
—and Caius and the other monks watching open-mouthed. Cai loved Theo’s teachings. There was nowhere else to learn a thing other than farming and warfare in the whole of this bleak northern land, not until you reached the monasteries clustered round the River Tyne fifty miles to the south. Cai couldn’t regret the path he’d chosen. The eldest son of a chieftain, he’d walked away from a rich inheritance of land and men. But all old Broccus cared about was feasting, fornication and clobbering the daylights out of the warlords who occupied the hillforts next to his.
Here, the very soil was sacred. Cai was an uncertain convert to the new faith, but he could feel that much, sense the rightness of the ancient name the tidal island bore, a name like the yearning cry of a bird. It rose up in his heart—
. The island of the holy tide. Fara.
Movement in the distance caught his eye. The trackway here was lined with odd green mounds. Theo taught that these were the burial places of men and women who’d lived here long before Christians or old Roman warlords had ever been thought of, but sometimes Cai wondered if the local superstitions might be true, tales of fairy creatures you should never name aloud as such, addressing them respectfully as the good folk, the kindly ones. At twilight on the dunes, it was easier to believe in fairy tales than history. And even in the brightness of noon, when a green mound stirred and a shape detached itself from the top, leapt down and began to stump towards him…
“Danan,” he called, hoping he’d managed to conceal his nervous twitch. “Why must you lurk there?”
“Where better to waylay a bonny young monk on his way back from trading?”
Cai blinked, not quite trusting his vision, though the air was crystalline. The old woman had an uncanny knack for covering ground. Cai remembered her as ancient when he’d been a baby in the hillfort stronghold, and she hadn’t seemed to age since then. Still, she was stooped and fragile, and he couldn’t quite see how she’d closed the gap between them so fast.
“But I’m early,” he said, watching in amusement while she shamelessly began to open the pony’s baskets and leather sacks. “The weaver I was meant to meet at Traprain Law never came. How did you know I’d be here?”
“How do I know that the weather will change? How do I know where to find the snowbound lambs? What’s in this satchel here?”
“Don’t you know?”
She stopped in her efforts to undo the satchel’s thongs. She shot Cai a look of withering scorn and laughter. “You’re a devil, Caius, even if you do wear a dress and sing songs to your new god. Is it beads? And gold?”
Cai affected to brush flies from the pony’s ears. He was glad of the reminder concerning his cassock, which he’d folded up into a pack in favour of his travelling gear, tough deerskin trousers and a homespun shirt. That was all very well for the road, but now he was within sight of Fara, he’d better soon get changed.
“Perhaps it is,” he said mysteriously. Danan had a weakness for finery. She never wore the jewellery she accumulated from traders and goldsmiths, and rumours swirled that she kept them as a hoard for some dragon she’d tamed in the hills. “Perhaps I have old Roman blue glass and nicely wrought gold earrings hung with coral flowers.”
“Coral? Or just red enamel?”
Cai smiled. She’d taught him carefully to know the difference. “Coral,” he said. “Pink as strawberries.”
“And how will you trade those amongst your joyless brethren at Fara?”
“I didn’t buy them for the brethren. I bought them to trade with you—depending upon what you’ve got.”
She stamped her foot. “Vows of poverty,” she cried, shaking her badger-grey hair into a cloud around her head. “Humility, charity. You’re as sharp a dealer as your father, boy, for all your noble ideals. What is it you wish, then? What would you charge a poor old woman for your filthy gold—or tin, I shouldn’t wonder, judging by the last sorry bargain you made?”
“The usual. My medical supplies are running low.” Cai changed tack and gave her his most charming smile. He’d become Fara’s informal doctor in the two years since his conversion. He wasn’t quite sure how the role had crept up on him, except that the brethren had lacked a physician, and he’d brought with him a steady hand and a knowledge of herbs gained by tagging Danan around the fields. “Most of all I need the plants and powders only you know how to find and prepare, Lady Danan. The roots that give peace and help for pain.”
“Aye, aye. Very well. Turn your back, boy, or see what no monk should.”
Cai turned briskly. Danan kept her wares stitched into little pouches secreted inside her voluminous, brightly dyed skirts. Once he hadn’t looked away fast enough, and the sticklike limbs in rabbit-skin undergarments had haunted him for days. He cleared his throat. “How is Broccus? Have you seen him lately?”
“Oh, the old fool’s well enough. He’s got his latest girl with child, if you’ll believe it—another little step-sib for you, to add to the clan of them already swarming round his regal mud huts. All right—you may look.”
She’d done him proud. Eagerly he eyed the array of vials and pouches she was setting out on the sunny turf. He took the heaviest packs off the weary pony’s back and left it to graze, settling beside the old woman on a stone. As always when they met to trade, she handed him the preparations one by one, carefully explaining their use, dosage, effects both good and ill. Extract of willow bark, to cool fevers and inflammation. The powerful juice of foxgloves, an aid to struggling hearts. A dozen harmless tonics, and finally a carefully stoppered bottle in the cloudy, thick glass the art of whose making Cai’s people had almost lost along with the occupying Romans, and were only slowly recovering now, for church windows and the most precious of domestic wares. Cai had seen the oily liquid inside the vial before. Essence of poppy, so sweet a remedy for sleeplessness in small amounts. And in large… “Danan, I’m not sure I can buy this from you.”
“That depends upon the beauty of my earrings.”
“No. I mean I’m not sure that I ought.”
“Why not? You’ve taken it before.”
“Yes. I used it up in sleeping draughts and tonics for the nerves. Then when Brother Gregory sickened with the tumour, I wished I’d had more, because…”
“Because you’d have released him?”
“Yes. I was afraid I would. And surely life and death are in God’s hands.”
“Is that what they teach you? How did Gregory die?”
Screaming and blaspheming, after a life of perfect sanctity.
Cai looked away. He hadn’t asked to become physician to the Fara brethren, but he took his duties seriously and hated to fail. “I will take the poppy.”
“In that case, I will take my jewels.”
He unpacked the satchel and watched while Danan transformed from wisdom-filled herbalist to cackling crone. She snatched up the rose-pendant earrings and dangled them from her shrivelled lobes, wrapped the beads around her head in a lopsided crown and danced on the spot, piping out a wordless, tuneless chant. Cai let her get on with it, gathering up his purchases.
He frowned and shook his head. The hare’s bells were ringing once more, their silver whisper-music increasing as if in response to the old woman’s song. “Lady Danan, can you hear that?”
She didn’t interrupt her dance. Her eyes were closed, her expression blissful. “Of course I can.” Then she froze. She swung on him. “Can
“Yes. I think so. Something.”
“Ah, that’s not for mortal ears.”
Her own looked far from divine in those earrings. Cai grinned. He slung his packs across the pony’s back, checking to see the heavy grain bags hadn’t rubbed the beast sore. “What is it, then?”
“It means something. Something.” She scampered up the side of the green mound closest to the track and stood there swaying, scenting the air. Cai waited. She was prone to sudden bursts of prophecy, mostly too vague to be useful, sometimes clear and starkly accurate. “Ah.” She clapped her hands. “Yes. Yes. The
Cai shivered. He had no idea what they called themselves, the raiders from beyond the northern sea, whose dragon-head boats had haunted the shores of his childhood for as long as he could remember. Cai’s people and the brethren used the word picked up from traders to the south, some of whom ventured west to do business with the less ferocious Saxons overseas—
, the pirates. The final R was awkward to local tongues and often got dropped. The meaning was forgotten, too, subsumed in the terror the name could evoke. Not just pirates—a race, a force, an implacable visitation from hell. The Vikings… “They always come,” he said uneasily. “Not yet, though. It’s too soon in the year. The storms are still bad.” He took the pony’s rein. “Anyway, they always sail past us at Fara. We’re too poor to bother with.”
“Things have changed. You have something they want. They will come.”
Fire, burned-out villages, women stumbling round the charred remains in search of vanished children… Cai shook off the memories. He’d ridden with his father through the coastal settlements on mornings after raids, smelling smoke and blood, Broccus grimly assessing the damage and giving such aid as he could. “Not yet,” he repeated flatly. “No.”
“Can you hear the music anymore?”
Cai listened. All he could hear was the anxious thud of his own heart and the stir of the wind in the dune grass. “No. Wait, though… Yes.”
“That’s your own church bell, foolish boy. Seems you’ll miss your lunch.”
Cai smiled in relief at the rough, ordinary sound. Theo had done his best to introduce Hours, the elegant rhythms of monastic life—matins, lauds, prime and the rest, dividing the day into twelve equal parts—for the spiritual and temporal regulation of his community, but it hadn’t worked on Fara. Cai’s brethren were subsistence farmers, out in far-flung fields all day, tending such livestock and crops as they owned. Now the bell rang twice a day—once at noon and once at dusk, announcing food was ready for those close enough to come and eat. “That’s probably what I was hearing.”
Danan looked down at him. Her expression was gentler than usual. There was a trace of pity there, a sorrow whose source Cai couldn’t read. “Yes,” she said. “Probably that was all.”
“I have to go.”
“Yes. Be well, Cai. Just…listen for the music of the sea bells when you can. Listen for it.”
He shrugged. “I will. Goodbye, Danan.”
He was almost at the foot of the dune, the pony trudging patiently at his side, when she called to him again. “Caius.”
He turned, shielding his eyes from the sun. She was weirdly outlined by it, her shape seeming to coruscate and shift. She could have been a girl standing there, or a proud young woman. “Caius, your father grieves for you.”
“No, he doesn’t,” Cai shouted back cheerfully. “He threw me out when I converted. Disinherited me too.”