Diminisher of Peace
© 2005 Christopher Howard
"Up, Aldred! Your brother's dead!"
Broga's cheery voice woke me. Tears welled in my eyes before I opened them. I rolled over and turned them red-rimmed on my cousin. Sneering Broga.
He knew of the battle. I'd dreamed of it in the night. I'd even seen Broga there, but it was just his spirit taunting me.
Broga went on, all amusement gone, his voice cold. "Father's kept his threat. Leave your brother where he lies, broken, his eyes blank, staring up at the sky. The heaven's candle will scorch them milky before evening, and that's if the ravens haven't plucked 'em."
I felt fresh tears but held them in. I was weak from the night's dreams, and finding them true drained the strength that remained.
Broga's cruel grin was back. He folded his muscled arms over his chest, and they bounced like saddlebags on a donkey's haunches as he laughed. He was three years older, almost twenty, more skilled with a knife and spear, old enough to not bother hiding that he hated having me in his father's house.
My father'd gone to his death, my uncle had told me. Others said the feud with Raegenhere had driven him across the water to Britain. I had no memory of him. He'd died or gone away when I was three, and I was now sixteen. My brother, Aldwulf, nearly eight years older, had always been a father to me. Now he lay dead on the field west of my Uncle Raegenhere's fort, unburied, dishonored, soul open to the sky, flesh on some scavenger's meal board.
"Poor pale Aldred," said Broga in a teasing tone. "Fatherless. Mother's a"
I hit him with a colder glare. Broga choked on what my mother was. My mother was a witch, it's said.
"Fool Aldwulf died a coward, on his knees," said Broga, catching his voice and chuckling.
My own knees ached from the dream in which I had walked in my brother's shadow. They'd cut Aldwulf's hamstrings, and he had been on all fours like an animal when Raegenhere's men had killed him.
I had the dreams. But how could Broga know of Aldwulf's death? I looked in his eyes, and it was clear. The story was on every man's lips in the hall. Every maid and cook and tanner now knew as well. Broga had the tale off one of them.
My eyes dropped to the twig-patterns I'd made in the night, in my sleep, in that cold thin world that separated this one from the dream world. I had some skill at balancing between the two and could remain there, breathless, sometimes till dawn. It was a gift from my mother, I'd always told myself. I'd never told anyone I could do it, not even my brother, certainly not Broga or my uncle.
I didn't want to look at the twigs, but I had no choice. They held a message, a wandering line of them, end to end, a path without branches, which I knew meant a man's wyrd, his fate. I saw an eye in the next pattern, and two sticks coming to a sharp, curved point, a bird's beak, a death bird, carrion eater, the end of life for the man whose wyrd I'd plotted: Aldwulf, my brother.
My eyes drifted along the floor, tear-blurred, to the last gathering of twigs, placed both purposefully and scattered, planned and lacking order. I sensed something in them, living and violent, soft but also biting.
It made no sense to me. I'd never seen this pattern before, but as I leaned in to study them, Broga leapt at me. He drove his foot into my ribs. The wind tore from my lungs. My face skidded over the floor. Twigs rattled on the worn gray boards, scattered, meaningless.
Broga kicked again, pressing down with most of his weight, and then let me go.
"You won't obey my father, will you, Aldred the Worrier? You'll bury Aldwulf, send his soul on. And then you'll be following your brother into death."
I got to my feet, my fists tight, my brows knotted up. I blinked madly, half of one eye still glued shut from sleep and tears.
Broga ignored me, turned and danced off, laughing. I don't know which I hated morethat he was right and knew what I'd do, or that by honoring my brother, I was handing Broga what he most wanted: my life's end.
I remained in the room I shared with Broga, cursing the dreams that let me see but not stop what I saw. Outside, the sun crossed the heavens. I didn't stir till it was near the edge of night, and then I knew it was time. I walked from the house to the hall where my uncle and all his men gathered.
The tale of my brother's treachery was in the air, flung between stalls in the stable, between grunts and mouthfuls in the eating hall, between my uncle and his battle-men, between servants on their knees, prodding and banking the wood on the hearth. That it continued when I entered the room made me feel thin, like the air, something unseen, of no importance to anyone, from the lords at the table to their thralls stoking the fires.
I felt no warmth from the flame-drenched mound of split trunks, boughs and slender forking twigs. I stared into the tide of gold light. Tongues of flame flared up. A hole opened in a smooth sheet of fire like a man's screaming mouth, gaping, stretching, falling loose, his soul escaping with a hiss. I looked away.
Patterns in the fire haunted me, etched into my sight to play across the dark corners of the hall. My eyes roamed over the table, over men's sturdy backs, their heads hunched forward, their jaws bulging with sopped bread and lamb. Others threw their heads back, laughing in throaty wet barks.
My eyes stopped on two others, hard cold blue rings, the color of a winter's sky. My uncle's eyes bored into me, trying to pull the thoughts from my mind, learn my intentions, but I flung up my defenses, dropping into a thin dream to escape, where I could watch Raegenhere through the other world's sheer walls without him being able to read anything from me.
I don't know why I bothered. My next move should have been obvious.
I wheeled away from Raegenhere, went to the hall entrance and stopped, not turning around. The sound died behind me, and I felt all their eyes on my back. Then their voices returned.
I heard them talking of me, not using my name. I didn't hear "Aldred," but the use of the names they always attached to it. I was Aldred the Worrier, the Reader, the Wicked, the Black. My hair had grown long and untamed, and it was the color of night. I was Aldred the Wild, the Wanderer, the War-Weary, never the Wise.
I stepped into the dim yard in front of the hall and stood listening for any rising to follow me. Certainly they knew what I'd do? Wisps of conversation drifted by my ears, talk of the Franks, and weather, a joke that brought out uncanny resemblances between wives and wild boars.
Did they think me so incapable that I wouldn't try to give my brother, my own blood, the proper honor? Did they think me so weak that I wouldn't risk Raegenhere's punishment to remove my brother from the dining hall of scavenging wolves?
I bolted forward, my legs jumping on their own. I didn't catch a runner's rhythm till I was beyond the gates of Raegenhere's fort.
One of the guards called after me. I heard three of them, chuckling, and a few of their words: "to see for himself" and "The weakling couldn't lift a grown man and dig his grave."
I didn't stay with the road, but cut across the fields and headed into the setting sun. The blood roared in my ears, and all my thought was bent on reading the intent I'd seen in my uncle's cold blue eyes.
I'd read defiance, as if he dared me to do what I was about to, and there was hatred there. I was his hated brother's youngest son. He'd be blessed to be rid of me. If I broke his law and sought my own death, it made it so much easier for him. For helping Aldwulf into the next life, my own would be taken from me.
My heart hammered wilder when my eyes stopped on the coiling, swooping ravens, over the trees, high in the air, marking my brother's corpse like a flag, tattered and black.
Their faint screeching complaints reached my ears.
My skin went cold. I hadn't brought a weapon, not even a knife, and I hadn't thoughtfor my brother's bodyI'd have to battle any more than the scorn of Raegenhere's men.
The ravens were in the air. They hadn't landed to pick at newly dead flesh, which meant that something larger and fiercer must have claimed my brother first, driving them off. Wolves or one of Raegenhere's weaponmen looting the body. Wolves either way, eh?
I took in a breath and let it out slowly.
I was here for death: my brother's and my own. I sprinted through the thick wood, little shuddering sobs escaping my tight-pressed lips. My skin burned with a fever, and the tears dried in a salty crust on my cheeks.
It mattered little if the wolves were yellow-eyed killers with blood-matted fur, or the upright, metal-reddening kind that did my uncle's bidding.
I broke from the trees at a run, the grass under my thin soles still warm from the sun, my tunic sweat-pasted to my back and arms. I stalled in the middle of the field. My eyes darted to rents in the earth where men's boots had dug in, braced in battle. I walked where the grass was pounded dead, muddied with blood and piss.
I turned in a circle on the edge of the ruined soil, and then looked across the darkening sky to the ravens for guidance. My eyes stopped on four darting smears of black and then followed them to my brother.
I started to run but only got a few paces when I saw Aldwulf, on his face, one leg twisted under the other, and the elbow of his sword arm bent and jutting up from the grass.
I sucked in a breath. They'd cut off his braid, a thick rope that had reached between his shoulder blades, black as my own. His armor, his weapons, his shoes had been taken.
I dropped next to Aldwulf and rolled him over. I remembered what Broga had said about him being left for the ravens with his eyes open to the wide sky. Who'd rolled him over?
Aldwulf's face was almost peaceful. It was pale and blood-smeared, but his eyes were closed. Death had wiped away the pain he'd suffered. The grass and hard earth hadn't yet left creases in his skin. Someone had recently rolled my brother on his face to keep the birds from getting his eyes.
The hair on my neck bristled. What had kept away the carrion birds?
"A friend of yours?"
I shot to my feet. The blood drained from my head. I staggered sideways and landed hard in the ground.
An old man in a thick wool hood stood two paces on the other side of Aldwulf. He didn't move.
I shook my head, but he couldn't have seen it.
Had he been there when I'd run up? My eyes had been on Aldwulf, and I hadn't felt this man's presence. Now that I saw him, I couldn't look elsewhere. I stared harder, till I could make out the individual strands of gray beard sticking out over his chest. I focused on the weave of his mantle, a thick draped and hooded thing that fell to his feet and would've kept a man warm in winter. He wouldn't show me his face.
I struggled to my feet and opened my mouth, but a shuddering breath was all I could manage to get across my tongue. I pulled in a deep breath, coughed, and tried again.
"O-old father? Have you come to protect my brother from the ravens and carrion feeders?" I cursed. My voice broke halfway through and went high.
The old man stepped toward Aldwulf, not lifting his hood, showing no sign of hearing me. That's when I noticed a braced pile of pyrewood behind him.
I scowled for a space, wondering what he was up to.
The old one went to his knees and bent his hood low. He put his lips to my brother's dry cracked ones, and blew a breath into his lungs. Then the old man put his lips to my brother's ear, and whispered. Was he what my old tutor told me the Greeks called a nekuomantis, a prophet of death?
"No!" I cried, stepping toward him, my fists tight and shaking.
What had he done to Aldwulf? Was he going to use my brother's psuche for some ritual, embed it in some animal? Restore youth?
I waved at him feebly, but the words burst from me in defiance. "Take me, old man. Help me offer my brother a proper death, and ... and I will give you my life in his place."
The old man straightened up, lifted his head till I could see his pale lips and more of his bristly gray beard, but nothing more. I couldn't see his eyes, but I could tell he stared at me, thinking it over.
"You would do that?"
His voice sounded young but, like the sea's new currents that welled from timeless depths, it was also rich and ancient at the same time.
I nodded, my tongue pressed against my teeth in fear. "Aye."
Another man's deep clear voice called over the field. "Father?"
I spun around and nearly lost my footing again. A giant was coming toward me with an armload of wood for the pyre. He was a head taller than Tall Sebbi, with arms hard and muscled, big around as tree trunks, and legs twice again as thick. Long hair, dull brown, the color of dead autumn leaves, hung loose around his neck and shoulders.
The old man waited while the giant arranged the wood against the pyre.
"The boy wants an honorable death for his brother."
The giant grinned big white teeth at me.
"Brother?" His eyes swung from me to the old man. "I prefer it. I've a spare sword. A fight before the fire," he said enthusiastically. "Did you wake him?"
The old man turned to look down at Aldwulf.
"I did," he said, and though I couldn't see it, I could feel a slight smile pulling at his lips.
The giant had two long blades stuck through short leather sheaths at his belt. He tugged one free, and with two hands, as if he was laying flowers at a grave, placed it gently on the earth next to Aldwulf.
My dead brother moved, and all the strength drained from my body. I fell backward to the ground. He dragged his hands under his chest, and pushed himself upright. His head swiveled, his lifeless eyes roaming over his shoulder and down his muscular arm. His fingers flexed slowly, as if he was waking from some dark sickness. He bent a little, slid his hand over the sword's hilt, circled it, and lifted it off the ground.
I clutched at the earth with my fingers and watched my brother rise to his full height. He stretched and bent at the waist, as if getting ready for battle, and jabbed with the sword, pulling it back and giving it a hard swing. He traded hands and swung it again.
"Aldwulf." The name blew like a death wind from his still, pale lips.
The giant man nodded respectfully to him, lowering his sword, like a challenger drawn out for single combat. He turned to me. "Tell me, boy, why Aldwulf was left unburied."
I crawled backward like a crab, scooting along the grass. My muscles twitched at every green blade stabbing into my bare arms. I found myself nodding vigorously, my jaw hanging loose and teeth clattering.
"My ... my brother ... and his companions." I forgot to breathe and caught myself. I sucked in a lungful of air, and then another. "Eafa's boat. It's about Eafa's boat. He'd sold it to Aldwulf. Then...." I looked around, fearing to say the words aloud. "Then Eafa died." I'd always been afraid to speak them even in my thoughts. "My uncle, Raegenhere, he killed Eafa, and ... and then did not honor the boat's trade. My brother and his companions battled my uncle here in the morning, and lost. Raegenhere forbade anyone from burying or burning my brother."
The giant glanced at the ancient hooded man, and then back at me. He tipped his head down a little. "I'll see him depart properly."
Aldwulf, dead, his skin cloud-pale, his legs braced apart, looked up at the giant, tightened his grip till his fingers shivered, and nodded.
I ground my teeth, trying to pull my thoughts in order. They flew around inside my soul like chips of wood in floodwaters. On its own, my tongue made ticking noises in my mouth.
I stared at my brother's legs. The ragged ends of knife-cut flesh dangled and swung around the backs of Aldwulf's knees. The severed tendons had pulled deep inside, yet he stood on the earth firmly, not as he'd done in life, but enough for a final battle.
The giant man stepped forward, nodded at my brother, and brought his blade around like a gale's sheering wind. It'd just started to give off a whistle in the air when it struck Aldwulf's sword coming back at it. The blades hit like hammer on anvil. The sound, like the weapons that made it, stabbed my ears with points of iron.
Aldwulf lunged forward. The giant's blade took his on the edge and forced it to the earth. The giant's jaw and bared teeth shoved forward with the strain of his backstroke. His blade over my brother's, he angled in and lifted it with all his strength. The point caught Aldwulf under the arm, ripping through muscle and bone. The edge right up next to the hilt came halfway to severing my brother's head.
Aldwulf's fingers slipped on his sword but didn't let it go. His eyes went to mine. He dropped to one knee, and let out the last of the unearthly breath in his lungs. He staggered back to his feet, over-balanced and went down on his back.
Aldwulf died with a sword in his fist, fighting.
The giant cleaned his blade with care, although there wasn't much blood on it. Aldwulf's body fluids had drained into the earth before midday.
I watched, unable to move, while the giant lifted my brother in both arms, and placed him gently on the bed of firewood he'd gathered. He unstrung a black pouch from his belt, fingered it open, and tilted it over a cluster of twigs at the head of the pyre.
A ball of smoldering orange rolled into the center of the random pattern of twigs. My mouth sagged open. I'd seen this, in my dream of the battle and afterward. I'd placed the twigs purposefully and scattered, planned and lacking order. I'd seen this fire, rising over my brother's body like a storm of gold light.
The fire's light pulsed along the old man's hood, and I could feel him eyeing me. I sensed some uneasiness in him, like he could look into my soul and see what I could do with the dreams and twigs.
I looked away, into the rising flames, bright streaks of yellow that sucked the light out of the rest of the world, so that it was just me, Aldwulf, the giant and the hooded old man on the edge of an endless blackness.
The heat from the pyre swept over me. My eyes blurred, not with tears but with the thin dream walls closing around me. I saw one of the slaughter-women, beautiful and cold like ice in the spring, braids with hints of gold. She held Aldwulf's hand and led him away.
I woke to a raven's screech. My body was stiff with sleep, but I jumped to my feet, staring around. The moon was high, its face glowing down on me. It would light my way back to the fort.
The old man and the giant were gone and all that remained of Aldwulf was an ember's glow in the mound of gray ash.
I crossed the muddy field, and like a blind man, felt my way through the forest. The moonlight burned my eyes when I stepped from the wood. I kept them at a squint as I turned toward the fort.
I met six of Raegenhere's battle-hardened men on the road home. The fort was no longer home. Death was my home, and I quickened my pace toward it.
They gripped me by the shoulders, leading me back, making me walk, but as we drew near the gate, one of them kicked my legs out from under me. My chin hit the road. Blood oozed from my lips. They dragged me the rest of the way, through the huddle of houses to Raegenhere's hall, complaining as if they'd dragged me the whole way.
I looked up wearily. My eyes met my uncle's cold blues, and then swung to my cousin, Broga, seated next to Raegenhere, a twisted sneer playing on his lips.
"Death!" My uncle roared, jumping to his feet. "Why wake me and bring this here?"
I felt fingers tighten around my arms. One of the men said uncertainly, "What's to be done?"
"I don't" Raegenhere started.
"Drown him," Broga interrupted.
All eyes swung to the son of the fort's lord. Raegenhere's knotted brows loosened on his face. He'd been about to yell at the stupid youth for interrupting, but he'd spoken well, had his father's quick thinking.
Raegenhere swung his hands impatiently to the hall's doors.
"Go! Do as Broga commands."
They dragged me back the way we'd come, through the gate and toward the waters. I heard the river delta in the distance, the rush of water where it met the sea. They dropped me in the dirt halfway there.
One argued about the chill of the water and not wanting to get his leggings wet.
"Drowning's messy." Others agreed. So they decided to waste a barrelful of drinking water on me instead.
One of them pulled my arms around my back and bound them together. Two of them lifted me into the air and swung me headfirst into the icy water.
My eyes shot wide. The cold burned them. I heard nothing but my heart, thumping in my chest in a cold silent world.
I didn't resist till the last of my breath squeezed from my lips and bubbled around my face. I jumped and bit and kicked, but Raegenhere's men were stronger, and held me under the water. They mashed my face against the floor of the barrel, my hair twining around their wrists.
A roaring in my ears blended with the beating of my heart. The sound faded and then everything was silent and still. I watched the pale shadows of men around me. I'd slipped into the edge of the dream world.
Raegenhere's men pulled me from the water barrel. I was dead, drowned, but trapped in the space between worlds, able to see into the one they habited. I saw them surround me, dragging me to the river bank. They tossed me in the dirt, but I felt nothing.
No sound reached my ears. A death silence blanketed the outside world, the dream world, and what lay in between.
Raegenhere's men turned as if startled. I saw their jaws clench, brows bulging angrily at their temples, and one of them motioned toward an old hooded figure who'd surprised them. I couldn't hear their words, their questions, but I heard the old one's response.
He pointed a knuckly finger at me.
"I believe that's mine."
I woke with the roaring surf in my ears.
"I love the sea," I mumbled. "Eternal ... and always new. I feel the tide in my blood, rising and falling, dying and renewing."
I floated through my memories of last summer and the sailing of Eafa's boat. Aldwulf and some of his companions took me along for three days over the sea, to test her on the waves, feel her prow cutting them and the bold wind in her sail.
I'd spent most of the time at the prow, watching the line of sea and sky, the wheeling gulls, tasting the salty rain of the sea.
My brother had laughed and said I'd the waves and tides in my blood. He'd wanted me to learn something of languages, the world and story telling. He'd known before we went to sea that I'd the tides in my blood. Aldwulf had said they're the same, telling of stories and the motion of the sea. In both, there was strength and calm, blackness, light, hatred and beauty, rage and the silence of death. Both were endless. Tideless meant you had no stories, or tales, or happenings.
A tear rolled down my cheek, and I brushed it away. I let out a deep breath, blinked, and focused on the outside world.
The old hooded man stood with his back to me, watching the sea. Gulls circled overhead, crying thinly.
I felt older, like I'd slept for a year. I'd died, and now I was awake, breathing. I couldn't get my thoughts to hold onto that. My head ached as if someone had used it as an anvil. I coughed to clear the muddy taste from my mouth and throat.
"What is your name, old father?"
"I have many," he said quietly, turning around. "The Worrier, the Reader, the Wicked, the Wanderer, and some not as pleasant, Visitor of the Hanged, Gallows Lord, Diminisher of Peace." He shrugged. "Some now call me the Wise, but I had to give up this for it."
He pulled his hood away and showed me his face. His gray beard was streaked white, but he was not as old as I'd expected. He glared at me with one cold stormy eye, a wrinkled brown knot of skin where the other had been.
Both of mine went wide enough to hurt.
"Wodan!" The god's name shot from my teeth in a high whisper.
"Aye. There's that one, too."
I scrambled backward, putting a little more space between us. He nodded but didn't move closer. He bent down with dignity and ended up sitting on the ground, facing me. His cloak fell about him in thick folds.
"Now, tell me, young man, about these dreams. Arrangements of twigs? Seeing what the future holds. Tell me everything you know of things to come."
My mouth fell open. I swallowed, breathed deep, and nodded. "I saw my brother fall, betrayed, as it happened, but I sometimes see ... tomorrow. I saw a raven, and then the pyre for Aldwulf."
Wodan nodded. "And what of months, the seasons ahead?"
My throat tightened. "I have seen them. Small and bright like the glimpse of a green field through a knot of trees. Quick like birds. The far off sound of a rocky brook, and the water runs into tomorrow. And there is no end to the wood. I have wandered tomorrow's dark forest, listening for the chatter of the creek that passes through it, thirsty for it. I have not yet found it."
His eye pressed into mine, pushing me. "What have you found?"
"II wake in the morning wearing my boots ... and they're soaking wet, creek water spilled across the floor, my footprints start in the room's center."
He leaned toward me, pleased. "I am most interested in hearing of the world's end, the gods' doom, that sort of thing, but any account will do. Dream, Aldred. Begin with the familiar. What can you tell me of tomorrow, the days that follow?"
I nodded back. My fingers played nervously with the seagrass, working them into some pattern by habit. I couldn't get words past my tongue, but I felt the cold wall of the other world slipping by me.
He nodded encouragingly. "Slowly and clearly. We have time. Not an endless amount of it, but time."