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The Edge of Things

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There would be few shadows in the great hall come Yule, but for now, as the house folk decorated for the feasting, Hild could find a dim, quiet corner from which to sit and watch the preparations. She loved the scent of Yule, the tang of pine and fir mixing with woodsmoke, the hint of spices that traveled on clothes and hair and skin. Menfolk entered and left, arms filled with evergreens, their beards touched with frost, while women picked and sorted through each bundle, weaving a tapestry of winter around each sconce, along the head table, over the mantle of the great hearth. The movements of the house folk were like a dance, a gentle knit of bodies that worked around one another, avoiding the gesiths who drank and diced away the afternoon, dressing the hall with weathered hands and twice-wrapped bodies. Everyone was dressed in dull brown linen, dark leather, practical dress for such work, for the bitter weather outside. Hild pulled the edges of her cloak closer around her, rubbing the fine cloth between her fingers. She should have rich, warm clothes made for Gwladus, protect her further from the chill.

Here, at the edge of things, Hild could feel the power of simple ritual – the pinning of holly to the lintels, the binding of mistletoe with ribbon. Twelve years of watching brought ancient stories to mind, the whisper that Woden’s lady had given the gift of lips against lips, against cheek, against jaw beneath the white berries; that there was in the holly’s scarlet and green the promise of immortality. Hild closed her eyes and rose above the great hall’s throng, up, above the vill, the livestock pens, the stables, the half-built Christ-place, up, above York-town, above the streets, the walls, up to where she could see the woods, the river, the sleeping fields, the twists of dung-smoke from the wealh cots. Everywhere, a gathering in, a bowing of heads beneath the great darkness of the winter, a readiness to glance up and see a reaping sun.

Hild returned to herself, opened her eyes, rooted herself in the live scent of her place. Such was Yule, and now Fursey told her that the Christ’s birthday would nestle itself amid this rite. She scratched her ear and let her mind turn slowly. Fursey. She would know more about this Christ’s birth.

_____

She found him in the stables, hay bales at his back and knees, cloak wrapped around him as he murmured his prayers. Hild still stumbled over her Latin, but Fursey’s words were slow and deliberate – whatever he murmured, he murmured with great devotion.

Monstra te esse matrem,
sumat per te precem
qui pro nobis natus
tulit esse tuus.

Show yourself to be a Mother; through you may he receive prayer, Hild mouthed to herself. She listened more closely. Who, being born for us . . . The Christ, she realized – born, said the priests, to save all nithings. A prayer to his mother?

Virgo singularis,
inter omnes mitis,
nos culpis solutos
mites fac et castos.

Remarkable virgin, set us free from sin. Hild frowned. The priests said only God could forgive sin. She waited, still and thoughtful, while Fursey finished his prayer, offering his praise to god the father, the son, and the holy spirit. She barely stopped herself from shaking her head – one god, said the Christ-priests, yet here they named three. And yet the worship of Woden and Thunor was . . . she searched for the word. Idolatrous. Because there was one god. She sighed. Fursey tilted his head to look up at her. His forehead needed shaving again.

“What was that?” she asked.

“My prayer?”

“Yes.”

He stroked finger and thumb around his mouth. “A petition to the Holy Mother.”

Hild rounded the great post that held the beams in place and sat beside him on the bale. “Mother of Christ?”

“Aye.” He looked at her; she felt herself studied. “You knew Christ was born of a woman.”

“You worship a woman.”

“Ah, I venerate a singular woman,” said Fursey firmly. “And this is a conversation better had over mead.”

Hild shook her head. She wanted his attention, not his leftover notice once his mind was in his cups. “Why was she singular?”

Fursey blew out a breath; it curled like smoke in the chill air. “She was chosen by God, a virgin mother by whom he might walk upon the earth.”

Virgin mother. Why did a god need a mother at all? Did gods not exist before time? Could they not do whatever they wanted? Hild turned the idea over in her mind like a pebble, smoothing the rippled surface, feeling for the roughest parts. “Why a virgin?” she asked at last.

“Because here is no claim upon a virgin’s soul, no husband to whom she may owe allegiance before her God. To be a virgin is to be as a rare jewel, precious beyond measure.”

Hild held herself very still. I dreamed of a light, oh such a strange and beautiful light, and the light turned into a jewel, she heard in her mother’s voice. Did she share wyrd with this Mary? It hung before me, then it sank into my belly, which swelled, and a voice said, ‘Behold the light of the world!’ And the light shone from my belly . . . and the next day the midwife told me I was to have a child. She was the jewel of Edwin’s kingdom, light of the world, King’s seer. And Mary, a jewel who bore a child – was this story part of Hild’s wyrd also? She, a maid who had not yet bled?

“Lady?” asked Fursey.

“I must go,” Hild replied, straightening her shoulders. “I am wanted in the queen’s quarters.” She stood, straightening her skirts. “I will tell the stable boy to bring you mead if your prayers are better heard by your god among the horse dung.”

Fursey smiled, looking amused. “I shall spare a small ounce of worship for my mug,” he said, and folded his fingers, bowed his head.

______

Two days passed. In the Christ-building, James and his choir-priests practiced their music over and over, pushing praise into the air with mighty breath, painting arcs of sound above and beyond the limits of the rude shelter in which they sang. Hild stood at the edge of things, felt the power of the music resonate through her body, working from the top of her head down to the tips of her fingers. Holy, holy, holy. Glory to God in the highest. She wondered if Woden enjoyed this music above the scop’s songs. Did gesith voices count as much as those of a priest?

James lingered as the priests were dismissed. He nodded toward her. “King’s niece.”

She nodded back as she wound her way toward him. “Your music was beautiful.”

James smiled, crinkles showing beside his eyes. “Thank you.”

Hild studied the half-raised walls, tried to imagine the shape of the building once it was complete. “You don’t sing of the Christ’s mother.”

James raised an eyebrow.

“I understand she can forgive sins.”

James opened his mouth a little, closed it again, and rubbed his tonsure. “She is the means by which we might be forgiven,” he settled on at last.

“And she is not worthy of song?”

“Do you sing in your halls of your goddesses?”

Hild considered it. The walls of the great hall were more likely to ring with praise to Woden and Thunor than Frig or Freya. “But you pray to your Mary.”

“You do not petition your goddesses?”

“Mary is a goddess?”

James laughed a little. “Caught by my own words,” he said ruefully. “No, child. She is not god. Not divine. She was a vessel, mother of Christ. She is mother to us all.”

Hild let that idea sink in. “Mother to all.” She shook her head. “My mother is Breguswith. . .”

“A holy mother,” James offered, correcting the course of her thoughts. “Think of this. When you are away from your mother, who acts in her stead?”

“Onnen,” Hild answered.

“And if Onnen is not near?”

Hild thought carefully. “The queen, perhaps.”

“So you have many mothers,” James said. “Mothers in spirit, if not in body. Our Lady Mary is but another mother, constantly with us. She is our comfort and our guide.”

“And still you do not sing of her.”

James laughed again. “Perhaps I might set a prayer to music. The Ave Maria.”

“I would like that.”

James smiled. “I’m not sure what our Holy Father in Rome would say to a young maid directing the commission of our sacred verse.”

Hild smiled in return. “Your god does not only linger in the Christ-house. Neither are our gods contained within our halls. You will find power in the fields and hedgerows. Sing there.”

James bowed his head. “My lady is wise.”

She had the sense not to accept his compliment as full truth.

_____

Hild woke the morning of Mōdraniht filled with a restlessness she could not assuage. She fidgeted beneath Gwladus’ hands as her slave dressed her hair, tugged at her sleeves, pinned her second-best brooches to her breast. Hild accepted her rings, twisted her Carnelians about her wrist, sighed as Gwladus dug out the heavy knit of her cowl, the gloves she wore to ride.

“You’ll walk this mood out of you before you go to the Queen’s chambers,” said Gwladus. “There’s no needlework in you right now. Go, walk the pasture.” She stooped and reached into Hild’s trunk. “Take this,” she said, setting Hild’s ancient psalter into her hands. “Perhaps the foreign words can give your mind something to settle upon.”

Hild nodded. “I’m sorry.”

“As if that matters. Go, now.” Gwladus waved her hand. “I have a bed chamber to fix, give me space to breathe.”

Hild did as Gwladus said, wended her way through the stables and out to the pasture that stretched to the coppice. The cold air stung her cheeks, but it felt good to be outside, to feel the pull and stretch of her muscles as she strode across the frosted grass. The regular rhythm of her steps stood in counterpoint to the dizzying swoop of her thoughts – of her mother on this Mother’s Night, of Onnen, of Æthelburh, of Mary, the mother of Christ, of jewels and prophecy, the gift of sight and everyday work of motherhood. God in swaddling, soiling his linens, his mother wiping his backside and setting him to toddle again in the dust. What mother was this? What god?

It was some time before her steps slowed, before her mind calmed, but there came a moment when she paused, breathed in deeply, turned her face to the sun and felt the tension of the morning bleed from her shoulders. “Alleluia,” she said, smiling, borrowing a word from the Christ-priests. Fursey would laugh.

Hild flipped open the psalter, walked slower now, puzzling out the words scribed in a hand far older than that of the priests who now flooded into the country from Rome. There was a majesty she could almost touch in words she read, a cadence to each line that felt like poetry. She found a broken tree at the edge of the coppice and sat there, following each line with a gloved finger, parsing the Latin into Anglisc, working the words until they sounded as fine as she felt they should.

Benedictus Dominus, adiutor meus, qui docet manus meas ad proelium et digitos meos ad bellum.

Blessed God, Hild murmured. my helper, who . . . guides my hands in battle, my fingers . . . to war.

A war god, she mused. A god whose people won battles. She read on – of fortresses and shields, of enemies scattered, of full barns and sound walls, of sons growing in truth, and daughters decorating palaces (like jewels, she thought). Lindum sprang to mind, and she pushed the memory ruthlessly away, preferring to think of gesiths with the tufa snapping brightly in the wind, armbands winking in the sun, full of boasts and good food, riding brightly to defend their King. Better, that, than the stink of blood and the momentary resistance of flesh against spearhead. She shook herself. Sons growing in truth, and daughters like jewels.

Mary was a daughter of the poet’s people, a jewel, picked by a war god to render him human. She would have known the stories of battle and hardship, of shield walls and calamity, of victory beneath hoof and boot. She was not so different, Hild thought, to the women of Edwin’s hall, to her sister, the peaceweaver, to . . .

Wait.

She paused as her thought became fully formed.

Mary was peaceweaver.

Hild blinked and stared out over the fields, watched a peregrine rise and fall as he stalked his prey. Mother Mary, born of the poet’s people, picked as peaceweaver for the Christ-god, tending to the warp and weft of alliance through the flesh and bone of her body. Peaceweaver.

She closed the psalter and flexed her chilled fingers. Fursey. She had an urgent need to speak to him.

______

The vill was busy when she returned, Gwladus snatching her cloak from her shoulders and psalter from her hand, hurrying her to the women’s hall to explain her absence from needlework. The queen looked amused; she perhaps could imagine the call of an empty field and brittle coppice, or perhaps she understood the burden of a seer. Or maybe yet she simply understood the business of being twelve, brushing against the embroidered hem of womanhood, not yet in full bloom, shirking duty for something like play. “No matter,” said the queen, and gestured for Hild to take her usual place. The room settled back into the hum of women’s work and women’s talk, and Hild struggled to make her cold fingers do her bidding.

From there she was swept away by her mother to pound herbs and mix them into salves, to prepare the bitter drafts that would shorten a hangover, to boil willow bark into a drink that might help a calm a pain in the head or the workings of a vengeful stomach. Whether the night was named for mothers or not, it was a Yule evening, and there would be sorry gesiths and house folk alike by next morning. It did not do to be unprepared.

While Hild was not a mother, she was royal, and she was female, and Gwladus fussed over her dress and hair as though she were the queen herself. Her overdress was blue, embroidered with gold and scarlet thread, and she wore carnelians in her ears as well as at her wrist. Gwladus draped her with necklaces, with wristbands and brooches and combs, until she winked and glittered in every sputter of candlelight. “You’ll do,” said Gwladus, tucking a strand of hair back into her own braid. “Move slowly. And don’t mix the spiced wine with the mead. Remember to eat bread.” She checked each thing off on her fingers. “Mōdraniht waits.”

The great hall blazed with light, the torches sending an amber glow toward the rafters, beeswax tapers illuminating each table, the tallow candles of everyday relegated to the kitchens. There was white mead and spiced wine, spit-turned pig and blackbird pie, parsnips in cream and roasted turnips. Fine white bread passed hand to hand, hunks dipped in honey, spread with new butter. The scop sang of mothers past and present, paid homage to the queen, to the queen’s women, to the children who carried their ancestors’ names and all who were yet to come.

Hild ignored Paulinus, the queen’s Roman Crow, beckoned to Fursey as the evening of feasting began to wane. She held onto her thoughts with a fierce determination. She had not gone easy on the mead, but felt sure that Fursey would have more than matched her, cup for cup. He stumbled on the way to the high table, and she hid a smile.

Fursey bowed toward the King, then to Hild. “Lady?” he asked.

“Mary.”

Fursey closed his eyes for a moment and blew out a long breath. “Yes?”

“She is peaceweaver.”

Fursey opened his eyes and watched her as though evaluating her worth. “An intercessor between kingdoms.”

“Heaven and earth.”

He nodded slowly. “You have a keen mind,” he said.

Hild deflected the compliment. “She was the daughter of poets, jewel of a god’s dream.” Her head was swimming, but she knew the essence of what she must communicate. “I don’t yet know what power your Christ might have,” she said simply. “But I respect his mother.”

Fursey smiled, and Hild wondered if it was his veneration of the Mother Mary alone that made him look so well-pleased. “Welcome to the edge of things,” he said, bowing again before he backed away. Hild watched as he made his way back to his table, calling for the white mead he liked best.

She saw best at the edge of things, thought Hild as the house maid filled her cup. She raised it, looking up toward the high sconces on the far wall. “On this Mother’s Night, to the maid who bore a child,” she whispered, and she would swear for the rest of her life that sidsa shimmered at her fingertips.