In the third year of King Aelle's reign, on the first day of Solmonath, three brothers woke early to help their mother prepare the cakes that marked the end of winter. The three brothers known as Hrothgarsons and were well liked and thought of in the village of Caedering. Their mother Hildegard had told often them that they were descended from Thunor but Uthric, the middle brother, scoffed at this idea. How can I be descended from Thunor? I don't have red hair or carry a hammer. I don't like goats except for the excellent goat stew you make and I certainly would not hitch them to a cart. They all laughed but Dunstan, the younger brother, thought it might be unlucky to make fun of the gods.
They were good natured, likeable boys and the neighbours said they would make fine young men like their father. Their father, Hrothgar, had led a force north to deliver a message to Ealdorman Wiglaf of Mierce but never returned. Only two housecarls came back, Beorthric and Wilfrith. They had said that Hrothgar had stayed behind to fight a pursing enemy to allow the others to escape.
Caedering was an inconspicuous settlement on the borders of Aelle's land and ruled over by a Thane, Osberht. Osberht was mostly unremarkable and had no outstanding talents, but was good at most things. He brought peace and prosperity to the people who owed him allegiance. He was not too proud to help with the harvest or go looking for the farmer’s lost cow. His Carls grumbled about a lack of glory but the women were glad that they could bring up their children in peace.
And so, this was how matters stood.
The brothers made their living by hunting, bartering what they did not need for goods their mother needed. It was on one such trip that the younger brother Dunstan asked his brothers if they thought their mother was ill. We have not noticed said the others, but now you have mentioned it we will pay greater attention. Returning home after the days hunting they asked their mother if she was ill but she denied it and ruffled their hair and told them it was a pity their father could not see them now.
And so, the days passed and Hildegard seem to grow older and more tired before their eyes. Wulfhere, the eldest, again confronted Hildegard asking what was wrong. With a great sigh she told them that after Yule she had been having dreams of their father. He comes to me at night, He has wounds in his head and on his body and a large death wound in his chest. He speaks but l cannot hear. The brothers were perturbed but tried to console their mother. Uthric brewed a sleep potion by boiling herbs that he gathered. When that didn’t work they tried to keep guard on her at night but the dream always came. Why is it our father has not gone to Neorxanwang, the Fields of Contentment, they asked each other.
Eventually they agreed they would seek guidance from Osberht. The Thane was dismayed at their news and asked for Beorthric and Wilfrith to recount what they knew of Hrothgar's death. It was the first time the brothers had heard from the Carls and what they heard perturbed them. They had a sense of unease about the story and felt that both men might be holding back information. Wulfhere challenged the men but they added little to the story of Hrothgar's death or their part in it. Osberht took them aside afterwards and offered to pay the price of the fee for a laece to enquire of the spirits what the truth of the matter was.
My advice said 0sbehrt is to ask Aelfwith with when he comes to the Eostre festival. The brothers were content with Osberht's words and counsel but were concerned at their mother’s plight. Uthric bartered a wild pig head for a potion of Nightshade from Eadgyd who was expert in making potions. The potion brought relief to Hildegard but it turned her nails black. She thought it was a small price to pay.
At dusk before the Full moon, the village lit bonfires to celebrate the goddess’ return and in the morning Aelfwith came. There were lots of travelling merchants and peddlers who brought news from the South or further away in the East. Chief among the news was that Cerdic, Ealdorman was gathering an army to attack the British. Eadgyd told everyone she was disgusted by kings and nobles. They were forever declaring wars and disturbing the peace. However no-one paid attention to Eadgyd unless they needed a potion for toothache or help with the berthing of babies.
The brothers approach Aelfwith with their bargain. I see no benefit in this for you replied Aelfwith. The risk for you is that the spirits might keep your souls and your body would be vacant until it withered. But for me the risk is greater and I fear that not only would my soul remain sundered from my body but it would be tortured by the unfriendly spirits Aelfwith would not be convinced by the brothers speeches, not even when they offered him the silver arm ring. Osberht’s arm ring is poor recompense if I cannot spend it. The brothers were discouraged by Aelfwith’s words but he told them of another laece, Stithwulf who was presently in Portus Caester. The brothers resolved to ask Osberht for leave to travel and seek out Stithwulf. He gave them a second silver arm ring as he thought they might require extra money.
The journey to Portus Caester was uneventful and they followed the level road made by people long ago. They found Portus Caester a marvellous place seeing for the first-time houses that had upper floors and steps that went upwards without the need for ladders. Most exciting of all was the harbour with boats which came from faraway places.
They found Stithwulf in a tavern drinking ale and told him of the bargain they wanted to make. Stithwulf made the brothers nervous. He had a habit of not replying directly to questions but often waited. He eventually agreed that he would take the brothers hunting tonight and they would see what became of it. Confident that if this was a trial, they could easily pass it, being accomplished hunters. When Stithwulf told them they would be hunting dangerous plants at midnight, they were perplexed but did not question what they were asked to do.
Hunting plants is dangerous said Stith wolf and you must sneak up on the plant, overcome its willpower and then gently remove it from the ground, taking care not to damage the root. The brothers did find that hunting plants is much more dangerous than wild boars and Wulfhere suffered greatly before he had got the required Monkshood and Wormwood.
They were tired following the hunt but got no rest as Stithwulf needed their help to build a spirit tent.
Dunstan was most helpful as he had been formerly an advisor to Osberht in building withies to keep the sheep paddocked for sheering, Uthric gave up as no matter what he built fell down. Stithwulf at Uthric to build a fire pit instead. A task he accomplished with some style.
The brothers were then set tasks to prepare their plants for the coming travel to the land of spirits.
The spirit tent was hot and stuffy and they found breathing difficult. Stithwulf gave them each a horn of drink made from the harvested plants. To their horror they began to see spirits gather in the corners of the tent. Spider spirits came first, then bird spirits and finally larger animals. Stithwulf warned them not to move and to not pay attention to the spirits who would not harm them if they were ignored. The spirits had come to watch the laece.
Then the visions started ..
You are standing in a forest at night. The wind rises suddenly and in a short time it roars through the trees tearing off leaves and branches. You hear howls of dogs or wolves getting closer. The sound of horse’s hooves beat the ground. Horsemen and hounds sweep past you and you are dragged after them in their wake.
You travel fast over hills and down into valleys, through forests in what you think is a northerly direction and slowly you are left behind as the riders increase their speed and disappear...
In a valley there are two armies fighting. The Shield Walls clash, men shout, heave and die, screaming and shouting. You see the ghosts of the dead looking bemused and you are carried through the air by a violent storm. Thunder crashes close, deafening you and lightning blinds your eyes with its brilliance…
..to be set down in a dark forest. A huge wolf with red eyes comes into the glade where you stand and asks you what you want. Before you can answer you are flying through the air again..
You look down at your arms and they have turned into wings. When you look around you are in the middle of a flock of geese. Suddenly an arrow hits your chest and you fall, tumbling over and over, hitting the ground with a loud sickening smack..
You land by a forest pool and a woman asks you if she can take the arrow from your chest. Before you can answer she pulls the shaft and you feel a searing pain. From the wound maggots and insects flow out and start eating your legs and arms reducing them to bones You collapse and sink into the earth, falling and tumbling a great distance that seems like hours..
..landing on a shore covered in bones. It is dark and the waves crash onto the shore of bones. In the distance you hear a noise as if something monstrous is moving. it seems to be getting closer and the sound of screaming gets louder. A vast shape moves towards you with gleaming eyes and sharp long teeth. Unable to move as the creature lunges at you, swallowing you. It is dark and the stench is unbearable.. it is death…
and you move forward, feeling a rocky ground. Water trickles from somewhere and there is a faint light ahead. Slowly you make your way in the darkness towards the light. As you turn a bend the light floods in blinding you momentarily…
..focus returns and you see a red hat in front of you. You put it on and feel that it is wet. When you look at your hands they run red with blood.
Two men walk towards you and laugh. They seem familiar but you cannot recall their names or focus on their faces when you try. They seem to be telling you something but you don't hear words. They spit at you and make a sign against evil.
You pick up a piece of wood and there are runes carved on it. You look at the runes and as you stare the runes enlarge and glow. You can only see the runes and you fall or are absorbed by them.
You awake in a forest, there is a pool. A woman looks at you and you feel movement. A snake comes out of your mouth and talks to the woman. She nods and gives the snake some bread dipped in honey. The snake crawls back into your mouth and you feel it move against your skull…
You are moving again, flying through the air. flying south past forests and a settlement on a hill, past a forest, past your village and into your hut…
You open your eyes. Your body is weak and sore. It’s difficult to move.
You have bruises and cuts over your body.. a healed arrow wound in your chest
Panting and exhausted they looked to Stithwulf to understand what they had seen but he just shook his head and said he had no power to interpret what had happened. What you have seen may be from the past, the present or the future. If it is the future you will know what it means when it happens.
He took the largest of Osberht's silver arm rings as payment.