The Peaceweavers is a novel of historical fantasy. It is based on the Beowulf poem, which is itself a fantastical story interwoven with legendary/historical events in three Scandinavian ruling houses in the migration period. I’ve given the story its historical setting in Scandinavia. Book One of The Peaceweavers takes place in Denmark, on the island of Zealand, or Selund as it was called then. This first part of the novel tells Thryth’s story. Thryth is the girl who becomes the mother of Grendel. Another chapter of this as yet unpublished novel will appear in Red Rock Review in the Fall 2013 issue. If you enjoy this selection, please let me know in the comment box.
I was the daughter of Heorogar, king of the Danes after old Halfdane, his father, died. My mother was a noblewoman of the Heathobards, a maiden captured during a raid and made Heorogar’s concubine. In my early years, I lived as a child of the house of Halfdane, sleeping on a pallet in a chamber of the longhouse with the other children of concubines and thralls known to be bastards of royal blood, for neither of Halfdane’s three sons—Heorogar, Hrothgar, and Halga—had any acknowledged heirs.
Hrothgar–how his name makes me rage and boil with evil thoughts.
My mother was a volva, a seeress; she had been a priestess of the goddess among her own tribe, and Hrothgar sacrificed her when my father was off raiding and Hrothgar ruled in his stead.
When he took my mother, Hrothgar was building in the fort and clearing forest for pasture and grain fields. To appease the thunderer when the mighty oaks were cut in the forest, Hrothgar gave horses to Thor. He dedicated my mother’s death to Odin and Týr, gods of the sky and the battlefield and the assembly. But she knew she had been chosen because she was a seeress and a priestess of the goddess.
She had warned me of Hrothgar, the king’s brother, as we scrubbed the king’s clothing in the stream which flowed outside the fort. “He has ambitions,” she said in her slow, halting way. She did not speak often, and words came somewhat strangely to her tongue, with difficulty, except in seeing, and then they came clearly, too clearly. “And he fears the gift which might reveal him. Be wary of him, Thryth. I will not always be here to protect you.” She had pulled me to her, and dipping a finger into the mud on the bank, she had drawn runes upon my forehead, whispering their names, then bade me wash them into the stream with clear water. “My refusal stings his pride, but it is for this he seeks my life,” she whispered, as I bent to do her bidding. But she would say no more, and told me sternly to ask no questions.
She did not resist when the warriors bound her for the sacrifice. She did not speak then, only warned me with her eyes to stay back.
They did not gag her as they placed her beneath the tree for the sacrifice, and her voice rose clear and strong above the priests’ chants. “One comes!” she cried. “One comes who will bring great evil down upon this place, and there will be blood and burning!” She was speaking her seeing, and it was death and fire in Hleidr she saw. I had to watch the priests hang her from the sacred oak by the cord around her neck, cutting off her voice, and plunge a spear into her breast. Blood flowed fitfully down the white shift they had put upon her.
Did Hrothgar but know it, in the moment of her soul’s flight from her body, my mother’s foreknowledge, her skill in seeing, passed to me. The very thing Hrothgar feared above all others—I was later to learn—flew from my mother’s hugr to mine. The gift made me wild, but I was bound with the others in the holy grove and could do nothing but weep.
When they burned her body before the tree, the stench of singed hair and the sick-sweet smell of roasting flesh mixed with the smoke of firewood. I saw the flames she had spoken of with her last breath. The blood and burning I saw, but when and how and who, I could not then see. When I close my eyes, I can still see her body, twisting on the rope with the spear in her breast, burning in the flames . . . .
My mother had taught me caution, and I said nothing about my seeing. In truth, my seeing was cloudy, as if something of my mother’s sight had passed through smoke, had been obscured by blood, but I remembered always the words she had spoken in her torment.
After my mother’s death, I entered a kind of shadow state. I no longer played with the other bastards of the house of Halfdane, and I was put to work by the house thralls and concubines who enjoyed the favor of the king and his brothers. Thus, I was in the courtyard under the direction of one of the house thralls, sorting goose feathers into two bags—one for the down which would stuff winter blankets and cloaks, one for flight feathers to fletch arrows—when I heard the horses returning to the hall, heard the king’s voice calling for drink as he dismounted.
When my keeper scurried off to help in the kitchen, I crept into the hall and hid in a dark corner, searching out the man who had fathered me. He sat upon the high seat, Hrothgar his brother at his side. Both were tall men, golden-haired, blue-eyed, Heorogar some years older than Hrothgar, but still trim and vital. I heard Heorogar call for my mother as he was served beer in his wooden drinking cup. When she did not appear, Hrothgar began to explain. I crept closer, under a bench, the better to hear what Hrothgar said as he spoke softly to keep the conversation from the other men who had returned with Heorogar and who now rested upon the benches.
“Thafia is not here, brother.”
“Not here?” Heorogar drank deep, then frowned. “Where is she? Has she run off in my absence, then? I always thought she might, the sneaking bitch.” He sighed. “Now I’ll have to go after her. When did she leave?”
“Yes, she was a devious woman,” Hrothgar agreed smoothly. “But you need not trouble yourself to find her. She is dead.”
“Dead?” Heorogar sounded put out. “What happened? She was in good health when I left. Come, brother, tell me all without these fits and starts.”
“All of it at once, then,” Hrothgar said. “As you yourself noticed, she was not content here, even after these many years among us. I discovered that she had been talking to the other thralls, prophesying against you, against our house. Her tales of destruction in Hleidr at some unknown time to come began to spread throughout the town. I deemed this dangerous and decided to take prudent action. We were planning sacrifices in the forest, to bless the cutting of the trees and the building, so she was taken to the gods in the sacred grove.”
Heorogar was silent for a moment. “Strange,” he said, “that she would speak so freely of her seeing. I never knew her to do so willingly—only upon some threat to her daughter would she prophesy for me.”
I knew that Hrothgar lied, but my mother’s words as she died protected him. If Heorogar inquired, all who were there in the sacred grove could tell him that she had indeed prophesied destruction.
“I suppose it is just as well,” Heorogar continued, “but I could wish it had not happened. I had plans for her.”
“Women there are in plenty, brother,” Hrothgar said, gesturing widely around the hall, where several women served the warriors.
“Yes, concubines are common, but one with Thafia’s gifts is rare. I had thought, when we learned of her skills, that she would serve us as she served the Heathobards. Because she prophesied our coming, and the killing of Froda, her father, we barely escaped capture ourselves. We were successful only because Froda himself gave her little heed. Had he listened to her, we might lie in our mounds even now, and he be sitting here in Hleidr where I sit today. I had hoped to turn her seeing to our advantage, but she was never willing.”
“She has served us in death as she would not serve alive,” Hrothgar said.
“Yes,” Heorogar assented. “And perhaps her daughter will inherit her mother’s gift as she grows older. I have heard these things may be passed down through the mother’s blood to their girl babes, becoming manifest as womanhood approaches. Thryth could be useful, in time.”
To this, Hrothgar made no reply. But I sensed his hope that such a thing would not come to pass. I was but a child, but I wished that I could stand upright then and tell him that he had not killed my mother’s gift when he strangled her, that the gift lived in me. But I remembered my mother’s warning by the stream that day, and I kept silent.
* * *
Heorogar decided it was time to make a true marriage, so he wed a woman of his own people and within two years he had fathered a son, Heoroward, who was to have been his heir.
Hrothgar had also taken a wife from a clan who lived in the south of Selund and was doing his best to get a son of her. I was by this time a young maiden among the Danes called Scyldings, the descendants of Scyld, and men began to look at me with desire as I served food in the hall, but no man touched me because my father was a king, and because I was not yet a woman. I understood my usefulness to Heorogar: Even if I did not inherit my mother’s gift, I could be bartered for a bride price some day when the king desired to bind a thegn to him with strong kin-ties. I did not object to such use; this was the life of women, and I looked forward as a wife to a better fate than my mother had endured, as long as no one knew of my secret, my gift. But Hrothgar, my uncle, had other plans.
I began to sense what was in Hrothgar’s mind as I served in the hall. Heorogar was often reckless, intent on raiding and plunder, and Hrothgar hoped for his brother’s death in one of his ventures. His younger brother, Halga, was always bent on a hero’s tasks, and Hrothgar did not expect his seed, if ever it bore fruit from a noblewoman’s womb, to be a challenge.
As I grew, and served, and as Hrothgar watched me, I kept quiet, as quiet as my mother before me. Foreknowledge might come to me upon the touch of another’s hand, or sound of a voice, but I had no clear seeing, nothing except the flash of blood and burning that had come to me with my mother’s death. So I waited, and felt Hrothgar’s eyes upon me, and when his wife died birthing her only living child, a girl-babe, I was afraid. My father ignored me, but Hrothgar’s eyes followed me as I worked in the hall, and even then, young as I was, I understood his thoughts.
I was almost to the age of marriage, and men in the hall spoke of my promise. I was not like the golden-haired, blue-eyed maidens of the Scyldings. My hair and eyes were dark, like my mother’s. And Hrothgar wanted me for himself, as I knew he had wanted my mother.
So I kept my head down as I worked at my tasks in the hall, bringing the king’s warriors the flat loaves of barley bread and boiled meats warm from the outside kitchen, carrying round the pitchers of beer, and sweeping up the bones the dogs had gnawed and feeding them to the fire. I slept with the other house thralls, warm around the fire in the kitchen beside the hall, for Heorogar’s boy child and Hrothgar’s infant daughter occupied the children’s chamber in the king’s longhouse now.
But in the mornings and afternoons, I drove the geese to and from the hills outside the fort. There, as the geese fed on fresh green grass, I could cast off my mask of quietness, there I could run free beneath the blue sky, with the wind from the sea in my hair. There the white skin of my arms and face and throat grew dark, and I thought that Hrothgar would look at me no longer.
One afternoon before sunset, as I drove the screaming geese from the stream, dancing, leaping among them like a wild thing, he appeared over the ridge, riding one of his fine gray horses. He pulled up to look at me, my tunic discarded, my coarse linen underdress hiked to my knees and soaked from my splashing. I stopped laughing; I stopped dancing; I stood as still as the stones around a quiet grave mound, when the warrior inside has gone to guest with the gods of battle.
He walked his horse to the edge of the stream and dismounted, wading through geese as if they were water, his eyes only on me. I dropped my eyes as he neared, because I had seen what lay in his. There was desire there, and death.
“Your father left you in my ward,” he said, and he placed a hand on my chin, lifting my head to face him, before sliding that hand down my throat, over my shoulder to my breast. At that touch, a wildness surged up in me, and I struck his hand away, heedless of his anger. Then I saw what was in his mind. The image formed clear and strong before me: my father’s body sprawled under an old rock wall, an eagle screaming above him, a raven at the wound on his breast, wolves howling in the distance. His moss-green tunic was hacked and bloody; his mail shirt and sword, his neck-ring and arm-ring were gone. There was no kinsman near to bring his body home, no friend to bury him under the gray wall.
The seeing shifted, and I saw then what Hrothgar planned for me, to take me down upon the grass, to slake his desire on my body, to force me to his will.
“My father is dead, as is my mother by your hand,” I spat at him, “but you cannot avert the evil she saw, and you will only draw it nearer if you do what is in your mind to me.”
He started back from me. “Volva!“ he said in low voice.
I saw his fear. With Heorogar’s careless consent, Hrothgar had suppressed the worship of the goddess my mother called Njortha, the goddess of the grain and of peace. When Njortha made her progress through the land, no one was to bear arms or go to war. The goddess worship made men weak, Hrothgar said. But I knew there was another reason he loathed the goddess—he feared the power of her priestesses.
Carelessly in my anger, I told him then what had come to me at my mother’s death, the sight that came to me again at that very moment.
“Blood and burning here in Hleidr, and a great empty hall before that,” I taunted. “My death does not lie in your hands, though you will urge it, and that time is far off. Neither will you force me to exile now. My mother gave me the protection of the goddess, which not even you can break.”
His pride righted itself then, and his long, strong face contorted in anger. “I have forbidden the art of the volva in my lands. Do not threaten me with your woman’s seeings, and do not serve the warriors in my hall tonight, or any night hereafter. Let the geese be your companions, let their cackling be to you as the laughter and jesting and the telling of tales in my hall.” He mounted his horse and rode furiously over the hill, his yellow hair, just beginning to dim with gray at the temples, flying out behind him. He sat his horse well; he was a fine warrior, Hrothgar, but to look at him made me cold. I wrapped my woolen tunic around my arms and watched him out of sight.
That night, I slept in the byre with the geese on a fine bed of feathers and straw. I did not know what lies Hrothgar told the warriors, his brother’s loyal thegns, about my father’s fall. I knew that somehow, Hrothgar had caused his brother’s death. I did not much care, for Heorogar had never been a father to me, except that now Hrothgar held full sway in Hleidr. But I did not miss the hall, or the warriors’ glances, or Hrothgar’s brooding desire. I sang the seithlaeti, the songs of power I had heard my mother sing softly as she washed linen in the stream, and I fell asleep warm.
In my dreams that night, the unbidden sight came to me: Heoroward, my father’s son, on the king seat of the Danes at Hleidr. He was a man grown, victorious over his enemies, taking his rightful place at last. Yet I knew that he had been through much adversity, had lived in obscurity for many years before this triumphal moment.
I awoke chilled in my spirit, although my flesh was warm. I knew, with the certainty of the gift, that Heoroward, my brother, was not safe in Hleidr.
The next day I warned my father’s wife, as she sat alone in the weaving place, mourning my father and rocking her son, that she should flee away with the child to her brothers, who would foster the boy. I told her that Hrothgar’s ambitions were for himself and his heirs alone. He would not welcome Heoroward’s claim to the lordship of the Danes over that of his own sons, when he should have them.
Asa had heard the stories of my mother’s power, and because she too knew Hrothgar, she heeded my words. While Hrothgar was away that day hunting in the forest, she gathered a few men loyal to the memory of Heorogar, and they rode for her home.
Hrothgar did not follow her, for many of his men might have balked at an open move against Heorogar’s heir. In the hall, Hrothgar said that he would have treated his brother’s wife and child with all honor, but I knew that he meant otherwise. Hrothgar knew there might come a day when the son of his elder brother could challenge Hrothgar himself for lordship over the Danes. Hrothgar desired that position for himself above all other things.
I wondered if perhaps the burning I had seen in Hleidr would, someday, be young Heoroward’s vengeance, but of this I was not sure, and I was content to wait for understanding.