Of the North: first chapter

Of the North

Chapter I

When Time Had No Meaning

 

  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 like a song rising out of the ground, and at the same time was as distant as the stars.

I’ll tell you a tale of when time had no meaning,

When legend and history walked hand in hand,

When the swords of the mighty had bested the dragon,

But the elven still walked in the land. . . .

  He kept the circle spellbound until he finished, but when he bowed to his hearers clapping broke out in waves to thank him.

  “That’s such a beautiful song,” said one of Æschild’s neighbours, a lanky teenage Viking. “Heather Dale’s the best.”

  “Mistress Marian certainly has a gift for song,” answered a woman behind Æschild, whose laurel wreath around her veil signified the high order she had earned for research. Æschild smiled at the subtle way she corrected the youngster’s use of the writer’s mundane name. “She can make the Dream come alive.”

  “I sometimes wish, even here at War, that these moments came more often,” said a Tudor who was sitting on a log with his elbows on his knees. “With so many people walking around talking about mundane things, it breaks the illusion. For some reason at bardic circles it comes easier.”

  “An honest attempt is all we expect from newcomers,” the Laurel said. “They mostly get better in time. Of course, Pennsic being one of those events where you don’t always get even that.”

  “I suppose it’s like the difference between the ‘legend and history’ in the song,” Æschild said thoughtfully. “They were too much mixed up with each other to create a single world, for lack of a better word.”

  “Single time?” the Viking offered. “I like the range of authenticity allowed. It gives more freedom.”

  “Oh, granted. There are anachronisms, of course. Just –– sometimes it makes it hard to forget the mundane world.”

  “If you want it to be perfect, you’ll have to find a way to time-travel,” the bard, who had been listening with interest, told Æschild.

  “I wish,” Æschild sighed. “Unfortunately that doesn’t happen –– though music such as your own does help one believe, for a little while.”

  “Doesn’t it? So you don’t believe it’s possible outside the ‘magic moments’?”

  “Unfortunately not.”

  “How do you know?” he pressed.

  “There’s a complete lack of proof.”

  “In this question, there’s not much proof for either side. If someone gave you the chance to travel back to ––” his eyes flickered over her late Anglo-Saxon garb, not from a culture or time common in the SCA, “to your time, would you accept?”

  “You mean if someone said they could arrange it, would I believe it? No.”

  “Even if I said so?”

  “Especially not if a stranger tried to tell me so.”

  He bowed, saying nothing more, and stepped back to his place in the throng. Another bard took his place, and the evening ended with a fiery song from Calontir.

  As the circle broke up, Æschild passed the strange bard at the edge of the circle. He drew back to make way for her, but she did not nod in return. Something about him, something she could not account for, had annoyed her.

  The next morning she took down her tent and packed her things, wearing her shabbiest garb. Her headrail kept falling over her shoulder and getting in her way when she bent over, but she threw it back tolerantly. 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 had been a good one, 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 –– that spinning class was wonderful! –– 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. 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.”

  “It’s always that way,” the other laughed. “Northshielder, I presume?”

  “Quite right,” Æschild said.

  “An Tir myself, originally from Northshield. You’re lucky to have been on the winning side.”

  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 Jane, a friend of hers from church who shared a house with her, as they were both newly out of college and unable to pay for houses of their own. Jane was not a SCAdian, but tolerated Æschild’s odd ways, and Æschild on her part did not make comments about Jane’s obvious modernity in everything from nail polish to technology. Even the old flip phone she was holding now was foreign to her.

  “God æ –– 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.”

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

  “Oh, yes.”

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

  “Please no.”

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

  “Thanks.”

  On the ride home Æschild was quiet. The late nights of the past two weeks, the difference in time zone, and the unaccustomed amount of exercise were beginning to make their influence known. Jane chattered away about the state of the house and garden and cat while she was gone, and Æschild looked out the window at the paved roads and city lights and cars rushing past with resignation. The transition into the modern world from the continuous immersion of Pennsic would be much harder than that which came after a day or even weekend event.

  “There’s a big pile of mail on your table you’ll find, most of it bills,” Jane was saying. “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.”

  Jane groaned sympathetically as she navigated the ramp off the freeway and onto the road that led to the suburban neighbourhood Æschild lived in. Æschild began to nod, unable to help herself, just as they entered the driveway.

  “Here we are,” Jane said cheerfully, grabbing a bag or two and hopping out. “Welcome home.”

  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 the heavier items of clothing were in the washing machine, she looked through the pile of mail on the kitchen table. As Jane said, most of it was bills, but one envelope 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 address. She slit the top and pulled out a square of cream-coloured heavy paper. On it, in the same ink and handwriting as the address, was a short note.

  To the lady Æschild of Northshield, greetings.

  I fear that I offended you by my talk during the bardic circle the last night of Pennsic War. I meant no offense, but I see how my words could have annoyed you, and if they did I am sorry. If you accept my apology, pray accept as token of my penitence this enclosed ring.

* * * * *

  It bore no name or signature, but Æschild knew who had sent it. She 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 outside, 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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