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Authors: Marissa Campbell

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BOOK: Avelynn: The Edge of Faith
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I followed a well-worn path that led up and away from Sigy’s cottage. I wasn’t ready to return and face Marared or Alrik quite yet.

A tall woodlot blocked the village on my right, and sweeping vistas of rolling hills rose in the distance to my left. A squat church stood sentry on a nearby hill. A tall, slender stone marked the end of the trail and the entrance to the churchyard. Etched with a thin cross bordered by a circle, the smooth, weathered surface bore Ogham symbols along one edge. The inscription commemorated the death of a young girl, the land for the new church dedicated in her name. She must have been a daughter to a king to have such a marker made for her. I followed the grooved lines with a forefinger, recalling my mother’s grave.

For a moment, I could almost pretend I was still in England. I closed my eyes. Birds called from the trees around me. Insects buzzed. The wind stirred the hair around my temples. I wanted to go back to a time before all the pain and suffering. Pretend my mother and father were still alive. That Edward would come running along the path, a frog in his hand or mud in his hair. I leaned against the stone and slid down. I was so tired.

“Goddess.” I scanned the scudding wall of gray clouds. Was she even here in this strange land? Could she find me?

The Christians believed in a heavenly plane, the Norse their Valhalla. Even the Saxon gods had their ethereal place in the sky. I had always envisioned the Goddess, like the god Woden at his great feast, in her golden castle in the sky. She was the mother of all the gods, ancient and primordial. Surely her castle was grander, her feasts more plentiful, her hall shimmering in gold and finery.

Muirgen had taught me that the Goddess walked amongst us but remained lost to our perceptions—the worlds divided by time and mystery. Like kings here in the land of men, the Goddess traveled from palace to palace. She roamed from sky to mountain, to mound, to sea. The entrance to one of her palace gates might be under a rock or behind a dense crop of hawthorn bushes. It could be at the crest of a mountain or just beneath the surface of a burbling brook. Here, in this foreign land, the menacing creatures of the Otherworld seemed somehow closer. In the depths beneath my feet lurked subterranean dwarves—fickle and quick to anger. Elves with their arrows of disease and misery poised ready to strike down man and beast alike. Worms and serpents slithered in the shadows, ready to spread plagues and devastation. Even dragons seemed possible here.

My breath deepened. The clouds shifted and coalesced. Wales slipped away. I stood in darkness. The air was hot. A humid weight descended. I reached out but no walls enclosed me. I tested the ground to find it smooth and stable, so I stepped forward. The room burst into light. Torches flickered like golden jewels. Shadows danced across the surface of the stone walls. Bones dangled from the rafters overhead. A calf’s skull hovered in the middle; its soulless, empty eyes bored into mine. I thought of Muirgen, hanging lifeless from the old oak. A hissing growl seeped from the walls, and I turned to find a hideous, three-headed creature looming over me. Gaping maws salivated. Claws as long as spear points poised curled and ready. I dodged the vicious, snapping teeth and withdrew my sword, slicing a clean arc through the air. The fierce edge severed one long, sinewy neck, but a new head grew in its stead and the creature renewed its attack.

With each strike, another head fell and another head emerged to take its place. With each manifestation, the faces became uglier and more disfigured. The creature’s deformity reminded me of Demas’s bodyguard, Gil—evil and vicious like his master. The heads morphed, contorting their grotesque faces into one mocking sneer. The ground shook as the beast stomped its feet. I stumbled but held my linden shield, struggling to block the monster’s attack. The creature reared up on its hind legs, a hideous black beast, and then roared as it plunged toward me, its gaping mouths swallowing me whole. Darkness pressed upon me at each side. Dirt filled my nose and choked my mouth. I tried to scream but when I opened my mouth I only coughed dust.

I came back to myself in an instant, snapping abruptly into the world around me. My heart strained and pounded as if struggling to escape my constricted chest. A tuneless whistle carried on the wind.

My body trembled, and I didn’t trust myself to stand. What did the vision mean? A bad omen to be sure, unless it was a remnant, a memory. Why else would Demas and Muirgen come unbidden to my mind? Was it only a dream? A nightmare? Had I fallen asleep?

I ducked my head for a moment to swipe the sweat from my brow, only to be startled when the dusty hem of a simple wool robe brushed my leather boots. My gaze darted upward and made eye contact with a priest. His eyebrows furrowed with concern as he spoke a jumble of words I didn’t understand.

I shook my head. “I do not speak Welsh,” I said in English.

He tried again, his English true and clear. “Are you all right?”

I smiled wanly, collecting myself. “I’ve had better days.”

He extended his hand, helping me to my feet. “My name is Eadfrith.”

“You’re Saxon.”

“Yes.” His smile crinkled the edges of his eyes, little creases fanning outward. “As are you.” He jutted his chin in the direction of the hill. “I was coming to sweep the nave. If you would like to join me, I understand good company can be a cure for what ails.” He resumed his purpose, passing the stone and my unladylike state, his sturdy build managing the incline with little effort.

I looked back the way I had come. That vision, or dream, or whatever it was had shaken me. Perhaps it would be best to get back to Alrik.

“I have sweet cakes and strong mead.” He called over his shoulder.

My stomach growled. I had hardly eaten since I’d broken my fast that morning, and it had been little more than dried bread and some wine. That fact alone was enough to make me consider following him. I didn’t normally have much in common with Christian priests, but the longing to share company with another Saxon overwhelmed me, so I ambled after him.

He was a solid man, his height and carriage belying that of a warrior, possibly even a nobleman. His copper hair, untouched by the typical tonsure, framed the healthy glow of a man who lived well despite the visage of his austere vocation.

By the time I caught up, my lungs wheezed for air.

He chuckled. “Not a trifle of a hike, is it.”

“No,” I managed.

He held the door open for me to enter and tucked the key to the lock in the satchel at his waist.

“What brings you to Wales?” he asked.

“I’ve only recently landed, but I mean to leave as soon as possible.”

“Heading back home, then?”

“No.”

He stopped to study me. “Care to talk about it? Unburden your soul?”

“I’m not sure you have enough mead.”

He laughed, his eyes twinkling. “Sounds like a long story.”

My silence spoke for me.

His lips tightened into a thin line. “You are far too young for such melancholy. Come.”

He entered a narrow door off to the side of the nave. Inside looked more like an afterthought than a room with purpose, but Eadfrith had managed to eke out space for himself amidst the clutter. A small cauldron hung over a raised hearth, and a bench sat beneath a large wooden cross. Crates, boxes, urns, and parchment were crammed against the walls. The room made me think of Father Plegmund back in Wedmore. I missed home.

With a seasoned flourish, Eadfrith set a cloth on the bench and retrieved two wooden mugs from atop a small cask. He ladled out the golden syrup until both mugs nearly spilled and then placed them on the thick-grained wood. He pulled a bundle from his satchel, his brown eyes alight.

“Put my best honey into these.” He placed one of the cakes on the cloth in front of me. “Please.” He motioned to the rushes underfoot, and I sat, crossing my legs. He joined me with an audible crack of his knees and a delighted groan. “It’s nice to be off my feet.”

He lifted one of the cakes, inhaling deeply before taking a large bite. Half the cake disappeared into his mouth. I watched as he chewed, his eyes closed in repletion.

I couldn’t stop the corners of my mouth from lifting.

The little lump in his throat bobbed as he finally swallowed. He flashed me an impish smile, all the more fetching for dimples. “Ambrosia.” He finished the halves in rapid succession.

I laughed, despite myself.

He pointed at the bench. “Please. Enjoy.”

He swilled the mug full of mead. Clearly, his appreciation also applied to drink.

I picked up the cake and, like Eadfrith, devoured it in short order. Caramelized honey, sticky and sweet, stuck to my teeth as the moist loaf dissolved on my tongue. “That was incredible.” I looked upon the monk with renewed respect.

“A man can have many talents. Beekeeping and baking are only a few of mine.” He refilled his mug, topping off mine in the process. “Now tell me, what has caused your downcast mood on such a fine day?”

Outside, clouds sailed by, the wind a constant whistle through the cracks in the stone walls. But the rain held off, so I took him at his word that this embodied a fine day for Wales.

How should I begin? “A series of difficult events has arisen, the outcome of which has landed me here, surrounded by strangers, and I’ve yet to determine whether they are friend or foe.” I thought of the dream, and a nagging sense of uncertainty made the hair on my arms bristle. Perhaps it was more than just memories.

He rubbed the week-old stubble on his chin. “Unfortunate.”

I pushed the sense of unease from my mind and tipped my cup in his direction. “How did you arrive in Wales?”

He settled back, leaning against the wall. “Sixth son to a Northumbrian earl, I had little recourse but to find my path paved to the church. I could have stayed in England, but my soul was restless. I met a bishop of the Church of St. David and followed him to Wales.” He shrugged. “I’ve been the only priest in Milford Haven for the last few years.”

“What happened to your predecessor?”

“Father Llewelyn left—a rather nasty altercation with the house of Hyffaid. Fortunately, I am on much better terms with the gentry. Despite my devotion to this thriving community, my service is coming to an end. In fact, I am set to leave my bees and the care of the parish church to a young cleric in a few days’ time. A group of brethren from the Mother Church of St. David are embarking on a pilgrimage to Rome. The journey starts on a circuitous route, as we collect travelers from across southern Wales. We will then set sail from St. Dogmael’s bound for Francia. From there it is a simple matter of crossing the treacherous passes of the Alps and marching onward to the Holy City.”

“Sounds positively uneventful.”

He laughed. “Well, if it helps to portray a dashing image of me, I hope to encounter a band of Saracens. Perhaps I will battle a Bulgar or two. But what of you? Where will your journey take you?”

How I wished to unburden my soul and reveal my secrets, but I couldn’t let anyone know who I was or where I headed. If Osric or Demas were to find out, I would never again feel safe when I closed my eyes. “I am also bound overseas.”

“Do you wish to elaborate?”

“No.”

His eyebrows furrowed. “Indeed.”

We sat in silence for some time. First Marared and her family; now Eadfrith. The more I interacted with people, the more opportunity I gave Demas to find me. If he was still alive. Based on Bertram’s assessment of his ailing health, it was possible, even probable, that Demas would die of his injuries—if he hadn’t succumbed already. Yet no matter how much I tried to convince myself of the possibility, anxiety reared its menacing talons. The points pressed into the flesh of my neck. I rubbed at the spot and set my cup on the bench and rose. “It was wonderful to meet you, Eadfrith. I wish you a safe and thrilling voyage.”

He trotted to the door beside me. “Perhaps I can join you for a stroll.”

“What of the nave?” I looked around at the worn and moldy rushes underfoot.

He waved his hand. “I can lay fresh rushes anytime. We don’t often get travelers from England. It’s a joy to speak my native tongue, and the opportunity to do so in the company of such a lovely lady is hard to dismiss.” He swept my hand to his lips and bowed in a courtly flourish.

I blushed. Judging by the little lines fanning from the corners of his eyes, he may have been ten years my senior, but the dimples, strong jaw, and cheekbones held up his youth admirably. “How can I refuse an offer such as that?”

He locked the door behind us, and we strolled into town.

We rounded a bend in the trail and Sigy’s cottage came into view. The chickens pecked and flounced in the toft. Milford Haven faced southeast to the sea. To the north, the village looked inland to fields ready for the spring planting of wheat, flax, barley, and corn. To the east, far off in the distance, forests, dense and dark, snaked away from the coast. The undulating green rose to the uplands, where summer pastures lay for cattle, sheep, and goats. Despite Eadfrith’s warm and friendly company, under Wales’s stunning visage, the country remained alien and hostile.

“What news of my home?” he asked.

“Northumbria?”

“Last I heard there had been great battles waged with the Vikings.”

“They have taken over York and placed an English puppet on the throne. He is Saxon by birth, but the Vikings control his every move.”

Eadfrith nodded. “I’d heard as much. I had hoped someone would have challenged them by now.”

“There is no one left to intervene. East Anglia has fallen. Mercia is struggling to protect its own—London has been won, and swarms with Vikings. The only country showing any kind of resistance is Wessex, but battles wage endlessly. Their king was wounded in battle.” I had no idea if Aethelred still lived. I hoped he’d recovered, but I’d seen too many sword wounds to know his odds. In the battle of Basing, wearing my father’s helmet and carrying his shield, I had led Somerset into battle. I fought valiantly and held my ground all morning. We were making good progress and had gained solid advances before the breach, but once the shield wall buckled farther down the line, it turned into a massacre. Saxons fled and Vikings chased them down. Axes and swords ran through defenseless backs.

BOOK: Avelynn: The Edge of Faith
7.71Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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