Of the North: first chapter

Of the North

Chapter I

 

  The black sky overhead tingled with stars and reflected the red light of a thousand fires. Æschild leaned back, resting her weight on her arms out behind her, and sighed. On the last night of Pennsic War, what better place to be than at the edge of a bardic circle?

  A bard stepped forward to sing, bowing to the audience gathered around. Æschild did not immediately recognize his garb as being from one of the common cultures or times; it looked vaguely Oriental, but some common European elements remained. Æschild decided he was a either a remarkably well-researched persona of one who had gone to the Crusades and returned with some Eastern influence in manners and dress, or what one of her friends called “Ren Faire rag-tag”, who entered Pennsic in large numbers every year to the vexation of the more serious SCAdians. Something about his bearded face, half-hidden in shadow as he turned away from the fire, was strange and mysterious, in keeping with the mood of the night.

  He raised his arms and blew a few notes on a reedy pipe, then began to sing in a low voice that throbbed around the circle as if it were rising out of the ground, and at the same time was as distant as the stars.

  The circle was spellbound until he finished, and when he bowed to his hearers, clapping broke out in waves.

  “So beautiful,” sighed the teenage Viking sitting on a log nearby. “Heather Dale’s the best.”

  “Mistress Marian certainly has a gift for song,” a thirteenth-century woman behind AEschild corrected subtly. She was a Laurel, to judge by the wreath around her veil, and judging by her general size and shape, probably for cooking. AEschild liked her at once.

  “Times like that make the Dream almost come alive, for a little while,” said a Tudor three people farther along the circle. “Makes you want to be there when the people writing period music performed it — the people who actually wrote it still alive.”

  “Try time-travel,” AEschild offered, smiling at him. “A lot of people recommend it.”

  “Do you have particular interests in period music? Styles or instruments?” the Laurel asked. “I know someone who’s done quite a lot of research into recreating period music performance, sacred and secular.”

  “No,” sighed the Tudor, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees. “Just looking for a part of the experience, I guess. I wish time-travel were an option.”

  “How do you know it’s not?” AEschild said.

  “People think it’s scary enough they usually don’t try,” someone else said.

  “If you had a chance, would you go back to your own time?” the bard asked.

  “Like a shot!” AEschild grinned at the mere thought of it. “I don’t know what I’d do, but it’d be awesome to go.”

  “Well, I know some things I’d change if I could go back,” offered the Laurel, “like some extinct animals. I’d at least want to taste them if I could.”

  The Tudor smiled, but shook his head. “I don’t think it works to try to change things that already happened — too messy, even if you could manage it.”

  “But can you change history anyway?” asked a new voice, a probably-Russian man on his other side. “Suppose time-travel is possible — in another form than what the Society has, I mean. Is it possible for just one guy all alone to do anything? I mean, you take the billions of people alive in any given generation, or year, and multiply that by the thousands of centuries we’d be working with, and what can one of us do?”

  “Martin Luther,” a voice immediately offered. AEschild tossed her head a little and added, “Earl Harold.”

  “Elizabeth the First,” said a woman.

  “Eleanor of Aquitaine.”

  “Joan of Arc.”

  “Okay, okay,” the man said. He shifted and leaned forward the better to see them.

  “So theoretically every one of us can change the world too,” said the Tudor before he could speak again. “We’re all human, right? So do we all have a duty to try to change — not history, maybe, because we can’t go back just yet, but where we’re living now? Even looking at the statistical unlikelihood, if that’s a word, of our individual selves being able to?”

  “It seems to me,” said the Laurel, “that if we can, we’ve got to. So if someday time-travel were possible, we should select someone to go back and right the wrongs, if we could do it without making worse things happen as a result.”

  “You’d want to select someone with solid principles,” someone else said, and several people agreed.

  “But what’s a wrong?” someone else asked. “And according to whom? How do you judge these things?”

  “We all agree, I think, the Holocaust was a bad thing we should fix if we can,” said the Rus. “But there are other things we might not agree on, such as —”

  “Well,” AEschild said, “to take an example near to my heart, the Norman Conquest. I mean,” and she looked around, “not many of us here are likely to say William of Normandy was a thorough good guy. But there are some. So who decides what needs fixing and what’s the best way to fix it? We’re going to need some — some moral standard.”

  “Like what?” someone challenged.

  “Like revealed truth, maybe? I don’t know, start with reason, that seems to work most of the time.”

  “Don’t ask how are we going to know how reason works,” groaned the Tudor. “Don’t ask how we know anything, just go with it.”

  “This whole conversation has been a how-do-you-know,” someone said. “How do we know whether we can or can’t change the world, or history? How do we know time travel is or isn’t possible?”

  “But what would you suggest, say, about William?” the Tudor asked AEschild. “If you could travel back in time and had the power to change things. Would you take a gun and kill him when he landed in England?”

  “I hate to think of killing people,” AEschild said. “I’d be a lot happier if someone else could do that for me. But at the same time — so many people died at Hastings that it was called the Field of Blood. If killing him, by whatever means, could let the English have their own land, and his Norman soldiers even go home alive, it would be so worth it. I’d do it.”

  “It’s a very small evil, just one in exchange for so many lives — that how you see it?” the bard spoke up from the other side of the fire. She’d forgotten he was there.

  “Not very chivalrous,” someone murmured. “William doesn’t even know what a gun is.”

  “We play chivalrously within the Society,” the bard said, “but do we think it’s worth living by in our lives outside?”

  “Chivalry is beautiful,” AEschild said. “I’m not saying it would absolutely be right to shoot William dead when he landed. I don’t even know if we can change history, since obviously what has happened is God’s will. It’s just that—”

  “So you’re saying if you got the chance to change history you wouldn’t, because that would be acting against God’s will? That’s the opposite of what you just said,” the Russian interrupted.

 “Well, I don’t know yet whether I can,” AEschild said. “In terms of history, things already past, I probably won’t need to solve that. No, but if I could — I think it would be a very small sacrifice to stop William and bring peace to England. And that would be a very good thing.”

   “People bring up the Black Death all the time,” a woman said. “How great it would be if we could stop it from ever happening. But the people it affect — okay, yes, it shaped society too — they’re all dead. All that suffering is over. If you look at if from our perspective, with centuries in between, it’s just a little blip in the millions of centuries of the world. Would it really be worth spending all the time and resources, and danger, to send people back from our time to fix something that really doesn’t bother us anymore?”

 A chorus of protestations broke out before she was done speaking.

  “No, but I think,” said a calmer and more collected voice, which rose over the others without yelling, “in order to have a proper perspective on this kind of thing, at the very least we’d have to come at it from several hundred years afterward. Or better yet, be some kind of immortal, so we could be out of time.”

  “But that’s the thing,” said the bard. “Humans are tiny compared to time. We can trick ourselves into thinking we’re as good as outside of time, because we’re living in the present and we don’t know anything that’s still to come. But really, what’s one century, if you live a really long time, compared to the ages?”

   “Because we live in the Fourth Age?” AEschild said, an unaccountable lump rising in her throat. “Because the Elves, and men who lived long, have all passed?”

  “But we’re finding ways to live longer,” said another listener. “We’re learning how to control aging; maybe someday we’ll do the same with time.”

  “But — well, but ‘Time is not to be conquered by machines’, you know.”

  “Huh?”

  AEschild looked around the circle, but no face showed recognition, and the bard was bending toward her inquiringly. “It’s a quote,” she said. “Tolkien. One of the less famous stories.”

  No one said anything. The bard nodded and bowed to her before turning away, probably to wander off to the next fire. After a short silence someone rose and gave another song.

  The next morning AEschild took down her tent and packed her things, wearing her shabbiest garb. Her cyrtel was shorter than her smock by about two inches, and the smock’s hem was rather uneven, so that she keep stepping on it when she moved to the side. But even the little mishaps that came with garb were welcome when they reminded her that today was her last day to live in even a small part of the Dream.

  By that afternoon the Pennsic grounds were a barren waste, looking hardly anything like the crowded camp and battlefield of the fortnight previous. Half the people running around looking after last-minute arrangements were in modern clothes, and the few who were not yet willing to make the change were wearing their oldest, ugliest, most torn and stained garb to work in. The air no longer rang with cheers and war cries, but with farewells, and every moment the grounds were a little emptier, and a few more people were driving off in packed vehicles to airports or highways. Æschild at last changed into a mundane shirt and skirt –– she rebelled at the thought of changing straight into pants –– and drove off to the airport, saying farewell at last to the war of annual enemies and eternal friends.

  On the long flight home she knitted in the aisle seat and smiled as she reviewed her memories. Her first Pennsic was well worth the expense. Though her budget would be slim indeed for the next six months, she was returning home bearing gifts for friends who were unable to go, purchases for herself, new skills, and scores of memories; and a surprisingly small amount of sunburn, considering she had forgotten to pack the sunscreen. And her own Northshield was on the winning side this year. She smiled, beginning to hum Northshield Rise without noticing.

  Someone nearby joined in, and she turned. The stout woman across the aisle was beating time with one hennaed hand on her knee, and smiling at Æschild.

  “Have a good time at War?” she asked when they finished the verse together.

  “Yes, did you?”

  “As always. An Tir myself, originally Northshielder. You’re lucky to have been on the winning side. I’ve been going for twenty years, since I was a kid, and it’s a better time every year.”

  “This was my first,” Æschild confessed, adding, “It was my first year out of college with enough extra money to spare.”

  “Did you go to a lot of classes?”

  “Not as many as I was interested in, but that would have been impossible.”  Æschild noticed a few of the other passengers turning bemused glances their way, and smiled to herself. “I didn’t watch as much of the battles as I should have, what with classes and all. I made sure I saw the bridge battle, though.”

  “That was probably the best of all of them. Ealdormere put in a good showing.”

  “So did the East, even though we beat them.”

  “I was in most of the battles, but in the bridge battle a guy from the West gave me a good blow to the back of my neck, accidentally, and I was out for the rest of the day. It bruised pretty well.” She turned her head so Æschild could see the oval swelling. “That’s probably going to be my most lasting highlight.”

  “Mine’s probably going to be seeing one of my friends get her AoA.”

  “That’s always the most exciting award, the first one.”

  “I wouldn’t know yet,” Æschild said. “She was pretty overwhelmed when her name was called in Court, though.”

  “Approaching Minneapolis-St Paul. Estimated time of arrival seven forty-five,” announced a disembodied voice over the speakers. “It’s seven thirty-nine.”

  Passengers began to put away their laptops and tablets and phones. Æschild stuffed her tablet weaving into its bag and put her coat on so she wouldn’t forget to grab it upon landing.

  The plane began its steep descent, cutting through the clouds and whistling down upon the tarmac. As it drew to a stop Æschild felt the excitement of landing again as she gathered her bundles and stood up with the rest.

  “See you next War?” her acquaintance said as she stepped out into the aisle.

  “I hope so,” Æschild smiled, reaching for her largest suitcase on the rack above her head. It was a little too high for her, and, by a habit learned over the past fortnight and now rising without her thinking, she looked around for a gentleman to help her. The stream of weary travelers oozed past without looking at her or noticing her unless she was in the way of an extra-wide carryon. With a grunt of exasperation, she stretched to reach for the elusive suitcase.

  “May I get that for you, m’lady?” asked a voice behind her, and she turned and bobbed her head in as much of a curtsey as the cramped space allowed.

  “Thank you, milord,” she said, stepping aside. The gentleman who offered, who was some inches taller than she, took out her suitcase and set it on the floor beside her. The line of passengers shuffled forward once more, and she joined it.

  Once off the plane, she took out her phone to call Katie, the friend from church with whom she shared a house, as both were newly out of college and unable to afford houses of their own. Katie was not a SCAdian, but tolerated Æschild’s odd ways (and company); and Æschild on her part did not make comments about Katie’s obvious modernity in everything from nail polish to technology. Not that Æschild was usually opposed to technology, but sometimes after a weekend event it was tiresome to see Katie always texting someone.

  At the moment, the old flip phone she pulled out of the outside pocket of her carryon was foreign enough.

  “God ae — I mean, hi,” she said into the unfamiliar device. “I’m here, just got to pick up my bag from Baggage Claim. I’ll meet you by the front doors.”

  Katie laughed. “Hi yourself. I can tell you’ve had a good time. Tired?”

  “Oh, yes.”

  “Then you won’t be wanting to go out anywhere to eat?”

  “Please no.”

  “Okay, that’s just fine, I’ll take you straight home.”

  “Thanks.”

  “Be there in five. Bye!”

 On the ride home, Æschild was quiet. The late nights of the past two weeks, the difference in time zones, and the unaccustomed amount of exercise added to the natural weariness that comes with a long plane flight. For the first stage of the two-and-a-half-hour trip, Katie chattered about the state of the house and garden and cat, as the freeway and skyline gave way to solitary highways. Cars rushed past under the city lights and she looked out the window at them with resignation. The transition back into the modern world from the continuous immersion of Pennsic would be much harder than that which came after a day or even a weekend event.

  “There’s a bit pile of mail on the table you’ll find, mostly bills,” Katie said. “I’ve brought it in every day. You got quite a bit today. There’s loads of squash and zucchini. The garden’s been producing like mad all week. It’s been cool and dry here. What was it like where you were?”

  “Hot and dry the first week, a couple of thunderstorms the second. The last two days were starting to be nice if it weren’t for the mud.”

  Katie groaned sympathetically.

  By the time they were out into the rural land between the city and the town Æschild lived in, she was dozing, leaning against the window.

  “Here we are,” Katie said, waking her, as she turned into their driveway at last. She parked the car, turned it off, and shoved Æschild’s shoulder. “Come on, you can go to bed properly in a minute.” She grabbed the carryon and hopped out. Æschild followed more slowly.

  “Welcome home,” Katie announced as she unlocked the door.

  At the sound of the word Æschild saw again the friendly face of the gatekeeper who had let her on site two weeks ago, and the way she had greeted Æschild with the same familiar “Welcome Home” Æschild had heard her say to the half-dozen people in front of her, yet still with obvious sincerity.

  “Home again,” she said in a voice that wanted to be a groan.

  The next day, after a long sleep that was too short, Æschild began the arduous process of putting things away and settling back in. The tent, purchased for this war and the most period-looking she could find in her price range, had to be put away properly so she could use it again, next year, or whenever she went to another camping event. Her garb, muddy and stained, in some places frayed, needed washing and mending. Æschild smiled, unpacking the gritty folded smocks and cyrtels, at the thought of hanging it up on her clothesline to dry. The neighbours would have questions, indeed!

  While those items of clothing which could be machine-washed were in the machine, she looked through the pile of mail on the kitchen table. As Katie said, most of it was bills, but one was definitely not. It was a small, cream-coloured envelope with no return address, addressed in large handwriting and black ink to “Lady Æschild”.

  She turned it over, but the back bore no return address. She slit the top and turned the envelope upside down, and a small silver ring of twisted wire tumbled out onto the table.

  “Pretty,” she said just as the washing machine finished and rang for her. She caught the ring up and hurried into her bedroom to put it in her jewelry box, unwilling to have anything else lying around waiting for her to take care of it.

  As she pinned her two headrails, the three smocks, and the one shabby gown without trim on her clothesline, she felt something missing. What was it? She was barefoot and wearing a long skirt –– that was normal. Was it that her shirt was short-sleeved? Yes, and she hadn’t her headrail blocking her peripheral vision. She stopped humming to laugh at herself.

 

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