From The Doomsong Sword

The Sword


As they moved out of the forest into the open countryside, a breeze ruffled Davor’s fine white hair. The Traveller looked at him intently for a moment then paused, raised the wide brim of his hat and surveyed the meadows around him with his good eye. There was a sound Davor couldn’t identify. And then he could. It was the distant strain of lively music.

“Dancing already,” Master Odo said. “Good, they’ll be too busy to notice us.”

For a few moments Master Odo continued to stare into the distance then he tucked his staff under his left arm, pushed back his blue cloak and pulled the fine sword from its scabbard, turning it slowly to examine runes running down its blade.

Davor swallowed hard. It was a beautiful weapon. The pommel was a golden rising sun; the cross-guard a perfect silver half-moon; the grip held the pink and reds of burnished copper. The blade itself was bright steel, double-edged with a central ridge marked with magic runes. The end of the blade had been hammered into a vicious splinter of certain death.

“As clear and bright as the flames in which was forged.” Master Odo said with something of a smile. “Touch the runes, Davor. Let them speak to you.”

As Davor traced a grubby forefinger over the magic words, Master Odo muttered something and nodded with satisfaction.

“Can I hold it?” Davor asked.

“Not yet! No! No, no. Not yet. You must wait. We must wait – see what we shall see.” Master Odo took back the sword and concealed it beneath his cloak again.

Davor watched, his palms itching. How he wanted that sword.

Master Odo caught his eye and nodded as if understanding Davor’s feelings, but all he said was, “Ready?” and tapped the hilt of the sword at his waist.

Davor wasn’t sure if the word ‘ready’ was spoken to the sword or to him so he made no reply.

Before long they found the wedding. All the warriors and their wives, sons and daughters, all the infants and ancients of the host clan, and a dozen finely dressed men from a foreign isle had come together to celebrate the tying of a knot and the sealing of a pact.

Everyone was gathered under the wide boughs of a huge tree called the Barnstock Oak. At eight separate points, bright ribbons had been tied to the branches and nailed into the ground, turning the tree into a summer feasting hall. Benches and trestle tables were arranged in a circle beneath the long lower boughs for the feasting. A wide space around the bole of the tree was being used for the dancing.

As they came closer, Master Odo placed a hand on Davor’s shoulder and said in a low voice, “Follow directly behind me. Once we get to the tables, seat yourself at the end of an outside bench quickly and stay there until I signal to you. Under no circumstance must you speak or draw attention to yourself in any way. Study faces but say nothing. Take no part in this until I signal.”

“What must I do when you signal?”

“Go to the tree in the middle. But wait. Don’t move until I say, understand?”

Davor nodded, confused but too nervous to ask more.

The old man’s soft leather boots and Davor’s narrow feet in his home-stitched felt shoes made no sound or imprint on the short grass, and apart from the sticky burrs that clung to the Traveller’s blue cloak nothing suggested they had walked for leagues and traversed a dense forest.

By the time they reached the ribbons marking the summer hall, the long tables lay bare. Every morsel of food had been eaten and the games and gossiping had begun. Cider and honey-mead sloshed in horn beakers and a few silver-made tankards as young bloods made bets and their fathers told battle tales.

Strong hands were locked in table-top combat; small boys thumped smaller boys; small girls teased each other and pulled pigtails. A loose circle of young people were performing an intricate jig of twists and turns, claps and jumps to the tune of a lone fiddler. Master Odo and Davor passed beside them but nobody noticed their entrance.

Davor stayed behind the Traveller’s cloak as bid then sat down at the first bench they came to, pushing the annoying coat under his seat. As Master Odo moved away from him, he watched the blue cape turn to soft shades of green and brown, blending in with the leaves of the tree and the scuffed grass beneath their feet. Master Odo paused in his characteristic way, taking in the scene with his one good eye, then stepped back until he was just one more old man watching the fun.

Davor turned his attention to what was happening under the tree. He’d been told to study faces. From where he was sitting he had a direct view of two high-backed chairs. In one sat a man of middle years wearing a black velvet doublet with a gold circlet on his short ginger hair. Beside him sat a pretty girl wearing a garland of summer flowers in her hair and a disagreeable expression. Davor was trying to decide whether she looked sad, angry or was simply bored when a battle¬scarred chieftain with bushy whiskers rose to his feet and called everyone to attention. The fiddler stopped playing; the dancers stood still.

The red-faced chieftain took a deep breath and started to cough, and everyone burst out laughing. The chieftain joined in their laughter, but then became more serious and the summer hall fell silent.

“Prince,” he said, addressing the man in black velvet, “bridegroom, I speak to you today not as the chief of this brave clan but as the father of your bride.” He stopped and looked at the unsmiling girl on the high-backed chair. “So I shall speak not of battles and courage – this is no day to speak of war – except to say, Prince, that my daughter takes to your land the pride and courage of her home and clan. That we always win our battles is a truth you know. I shall not speak of steel harvests or riches gathered from foreign coasts – you know of my warriors and our wealth, for they are what bring you to us. But, let me speak clearly here, let it be the beauty and goodness of my daughter that you take from us, and let it be her beauty and goodness that bring you happiness. For I say with a proud heart, we have nothing here of more value than your bride.”

Davor was beginning to wonder if all adults spoke in riddles. His father hadn’t, but then his father barely spoke at all. There was a message in what the chief had been saying though, that was evident, although it would take a while to work it out. The prince and his men, however, had got the message. The bridegroom turned his head to whisper to one of the men in particular, who nodded his head in agreement.

The prince’s attendant stepped round from behind the bridegroom’s chair and raised his hands as if to give a blessing. “Chief and good people,” he declaimed in a powerful voice, “I speak in the name of our Prince of Yotasland, the fairest of islands across the sea. Across the field of fishes, the green bed of swimming beasts and the liquid nest of white-feathered sailing birds; the wide river flood that is our curtain, our moat and watery wall. Our prince, good people, takes your precious gift, his gentle bride, to live on our great green circle of Yotasland . . .”

More riddles, thought Davor and reached across the table for something to eat. The old man sitting next to him passed him the remains of a pie hidden beneath the table. “Here you are boy, get tucked in,” he said like a conspirator, “this could go on all night.”

And so it seemed, for when Davor started to listen again the same attendant was still naming things in clever ways without saying their names, and getting nowhere. Now and again the prince’s men applauded a bit of rhyming, but the chieftain’s folk were still and silent, finding the clever-worded kenning as long-winded as Davor.

Eventually, seeing he was not getting the response he felt he deserved, the bridegroom’s attendant brought his speech to an end.

Along the bench, Davor heard low murmuring; the chieftain’s folk were not pleased with the speech – those that had been able to follow it. Nevertheless, as tradition demanded, the clan chieftain stepped forward and called for a toast to the bride and groom.

Then the fiddler set feet a-tapping, and everyone except the old and the very young scrambled to join the bride’s father for the Wedding Reel.

Davor cringed down on the bench, terrified he’d be pulled into the dance. He glanced behind him for the man in the grey-green-brown cape but couldn’t see him.

The young folk made the first lines, then the warriors and their wives, then the older folk and soon a double column surrounded the vast tree and the wedding couple and they were ready to begin. There was a pause, a gathering of skirts, an exchange of meaningful looks as lads looked at lasses and husbands winked at long-time wives. A blind man struck a table like a drum. The fiddler snapped his fingers thrice and they were off. Round and round, to the left and back, to the right and back, the columns separated and returned, skipping and twirling, laughing and shouting, cheeks as red as bobbing apples.

Davor joined in the clapping, he couldn’t help himself; he had never seen such fun. Soon, his hands were red and smarting; he leaned across the table to help himself to a drink for his mouth was dry from laughing. An old man sitting across from him moved a jug within his reach then turned to address another greybeard sitting beside him.

“That’s them,” said the first ancient, his voice barely audible above the din.

“Those white-haired boys?” replied the other, peering at the dancers.

“That’s them, with the white hair – seven of them, see? All of them sons of Sigi the Volsung. What a fighter he was.”

“A fighter yes, we stood back to back more than once. Battle-courage he had and battle-courage he gave us, but he was a tricky one mind. Did you ever see him climb a tree?”

“I did! Up like a pole-cat then down he’d jump, and they never knew what hit ’em. Hah! Those were the days. Good times, but you’re right, he was a tricky devil. I shouldn’t have wanted to be on the wrong side of him.”

“He had a temper like I don’t know what. S’pose that’s what saved him – until You-know-who took him.”

The two men exchanged glances and went quiet for a moment as they each studied the Volsung boys, looking for reminders of their warrior comrade.

Eventually one of the old men muttered, “Fine tall braves. There were eight of them you know. What happened to the eldest, did you ever hear?”

“There were tales. Set off with traders for Iberia, and the Volcano Isles or the Southern Isles, and never seen again. Long time ago now.”

“Nigh on twenty winters. My daughter counts them; lights a candle to his name every Yule. I told her then, this one won’t ever settle, choose another, he’s not for you.”

“All the girls loved him.”

“And he loved all the girls.” The old man raised an eyebrow knowingly.

The men exchanged glances again then the older of the two said, “A credit to Sigi though. All of them fine young men, although the youngest needs to be watched.”

“He’s got the family temper, seen it for m’self.”

Davor tried to see who the old men were talking about and looked about him until he identified seven young men of varying heights and ages in the men’s line now side-stepping to the right. All of them had white-blond hair – exactly like his own. The greybeard sitting across the table from him also noticed the resemblance. He indicated Davor with a nod of his head and spoke to his old friend, “Be he one of them? Are there eight again now?”

The two men squinted at Davor, who froze. He’d been told not to draw attention to himself.

“Are you a Volsung, boy?” asked one.

“Must be the runt of the litter,” said the other, winking at Davor. “Runt or no, lad, I’m proud to make the acquaintance of a Volsung and that’s the truth.” He raised a mug in salute and drank the contents in one gulp.

Davor shook his head, not daring to speak, and gazed around to see if Master Odo had noticed. But he still couldn’t find him. And then he did. He was standing almost right behind him, watching the dancers. As Davor turned for another cautious look, Master Odo put his right arm under his cape and slowly pulled the sword from its scabbard.