THE GATHERING STORM
Jack's fingers ached and blisters had formed on the palms of his hands. Once he could have done this work without harm. Once his skin had been covered with comfortable calluses, protecting him from the slippery handle of the sickle, but no longer. For three years he'd been freed of farmwork. He'd spent his time memorizing poetry and plucking away at a harp -- not that he'd ever equaled the Bard. Or ever would.
Sweat ran down his forehead. Jack wiped his face and only succeeded in getting dirt into his eyes. "Curse this job!" he cried, hurling the sickle to the earth.
"At least you have two hands," said Thorgil, sweating and laboring nearby. She had to hold the bracken ferns in the crook of her arm and slice through them with her knife. Her right hand was frozen, useless, yet she didn't give up. It both impressed and annoyed Jack.
"Why can't someone else do this?" he complained, sitting down in the springy bracken.
"Even Thor does inglorious chores when he's on a quest," said Thorgil, stolidly dumping an armload of bracken into a growing pile. She turned to gather more.
"This is no quest! This is thrall work."
"You'd know," retorted the shield maiden.
Jack's face turned even hotter as he remembered how he'd been a slave in the Northland. But he swallowed the obvious response that Thorgil herself had been a thrall as a child. She was prey to dark moods that rippled out to blight everyone around her. That was the word for her, Jack thought grimly. She was a blight, a kind of disease that turned everything yellow.
Nothing had worked out since she'd arrived in the village. It took the utmost threats from the Bard to keep her from revealing that she was a Northman, one of the murdering pirates who'd descended on the Holy Isle. Even as it was, the villagers were suspicious of her. She refused to wear women's clothes. She took offense readily. She was crude. She was sullen. In short, she was a perfect example of a Northman.
And yet, Jack had to remind himself, she had their virtues too -- if you could call anything about Northmen virtuous. Thorgil was brave, loyal, and utterly trustworthy. If only she were more flexible!
"If you'd shift your backside, I could harvest that bracken. Or were you planning on using it as a bed?" Thorgil said.
"Oh, shut up!" Jack snatched up his sickle and winced as a blister broke on his hand.
They worked silently for a long time. The sun sent shafts of heat into the airless woodland. The sky -- what they could see of it -- was a cloudless blue. It pressed down on them like an inverted lake -- hot, humid, and completely still. Jack found it hard to believe that a storm was on its way, but that's what the Bard had said. No one questioned the Bard. He listened to birds and observed the motions of the sea from his lonely perch near the old Roman house where he lived.
A rumbling sound made both Jack and Thorgil look up. The blacksmith's two slaves had arrived with an oxcart. A moment later the large, silent men crashed through the underbrush to gather up the bracken. They tramped to and fro, never speaking, never making eye contact. They had been sold by their father in Bebba's Town because they were of limited intelligence, and Jack wondered what kind of thoughts they had. They never seemed to communicate with each other or anyone else.
Even animals thought. As the Bard had instructed Jack, animals had much lore to impart to those who paid attention to them. What kind of lore did Gog and Magog, as the slaves were called, have to impart? Nothing good, Jack decided, looking at their brooding, averted faces.
When the oxcart had been loaded, Jack and Thorgil set off for home. Most of the time they lived at the Bard's house, but now, during the crisis of the impending storm, they had returned to the farm Jack's parents owned. It had grown a great deal in the last three years.
Beside the fields, farmhouse, barn, and winter storage shed was a new dairy Jack's father had built. This contained three sturdy black cows tended by Pega, whom Jack had freed from slavery. She also cared for the chickens, new lambs, and a donkey. But she was not allowed to touch the horses. The horses were Thorgil's domain and jealously guarded, particularly from the tanner's daughters.
At the edge of the property, where the land was too stony for crops, was a hovel constructed of peat. This was where the tanner's widow and her two daughters crowded together with hardly more room than three peas in a pod. They had arrived to help Jack's mother the year before and had never gone home.
"I wish this storm would arrive," cried Thorgil, throwing a stone at a crow. The crow eluded it. "The air's so heavy! It's like breathing under mud."
Jack looked up at the cloudless, blue sky. Except for the ominous stillness, it could have been any early summer day. "The Bard spoke to a swallow from the south. It told him that the currents in the air were disordered and all the migrating birds were confused. Why don't you ever talk to birds, Thorgil?" The shield maiden had gained this ability when she'd accidentally tasted dragon blood.
"They never tell me anything," she said.
"Maybe if you didn't throw rocks at them..."
"Birds are stupid," Thorgil said with finality.
Jack shrugged. It was like her to ignore the gifts she had and to demand what she could never achieve, a glorious career as a warrior. Her paralyzed hand had put an end to that. She also wanted to be a poet. Jack had to admit that she wasn't bad. Her voice was harsh and she had a fondness for bloody death scenes, but her stories held your attention.
During long winter evenings the villagers gathered at the chief's hearth for song and hot cider. The Bard played his harp, and when he wearied, Jack and Thorgil recited sagas. Brother Aiden, the little monk from the Holy Isle, joined in with tales of the god Jesus, of how He fed a thousand people with five fishes and performed many other diverting miracles. But the real draw at these gatherings was Pega. Her voice was so compelling that the very storm blasts hushed to listen to her.
"By Thor, those Tanner brats are meddling with my horses!" Thorgil broke into a run, and Jack hurried after to break up the inevitable fight. The tanner's daughters were fascinated by the horses, a gift from King Brutus the year before. Actually, it was unclear whose horses they were, since they'd been handed to the entire group of pilgrims returning from Bebba's Town. Jack thought they ought to be the Bard's, but Thorgil insisted that they were hers by right, since she was the only true warrior among them.
"Get off, you mangy curs! You'll ruin their training!" Thorgil whistled and the horses wheeled, throwing their small riders into the dirt. The animals came to a halt before the shield maiden, prancing nervously like the spirited creatures they were. Jack ran to pick up the howling girls. "Tell them to shut up or I'll really give them something to blubber about," snarled Thorgil, stroking the manes of the horses.
Jack checked the girls and found they had no real injuries. They were eight and ten, stunted from years of bad food and the noxious air of the old tannery where they had lived until their father died. "They're only children," Jack reproved, wiping the girls' dirty, tear-streaked faces with the tail of his tunic. "You probably did the same thing at that age."
"I was a shield maiden. I was the daughter of -- "
"Careful!" Jack said sharply. The girls stopped crying and eyed Thorgil curiously.
"Who was your da, then?" the older one demanded.
"Probably a troll," the younger said, giggling. Thorgil reached down, but they sped off before she could wallop them with a rock.
"Filthy bog rats," Thorgil said.
"All it will take is one slip," Jack warned. "One hint that you are not a Saxon to someone who has reason to hate you, and the whole village will turn against you. And it will turn against my parents and me for sheltering you."
"That debt is the only thing that keeps me from flinging my true heritage into their faces." Thorgil embraced the neck of one of the horses, and it blew a long, horsey kiss at her. Jack was impressed, as always, by how much the animals loved her. Too bad she couldn't inspire the same sentiment in people.
"Let's go to the house," Jack said. "I'm starving, and we have to cut bracken all afternoon."
"Curse the bracken," swore Thorgil. "Curse the pointless, boring existence in this village. For one rotten turnip I'd throw myself off a cliff into the sea!"
"No, you wouldn't," said Jack, leading the way.
THE WILD HUNT
Thorgil's bad mood followed them back to the house. She accepted Mother's food with a scowl and set about stuffing herself. "In this village it's customary to say thank you for food," Mother said. Jack sighed inwardly. It was a battle that never ended, trying to instill basic courtesy into the shield maiden.
"Why?" demanded Thorgil.
"It shows gratitude."
"I am grateful. I'm eating this swill, aren't I? Besides, it makes as much sense for you to compliment me for cutting bracken. If everyone started thanking everyone else for the smallest chores, we'd never get anything done."
"That's not the point," Mother said patiently. "People want to hear kind words. It's like saying 'Good morning' or 'How are you?' "
"What if it's a rotten morning or I don't give a flying flip how someone feels?"
"Oh, have it your way!" exclaimed Mother. "Sometimes I wish a Northman ship would swoop down and take you away!" She hurried outside and Jack raised his eyebrows. It was unlike Mother to lose her temper so completely. But then, Thorgil was capable of making even gentle Brother Aiden blot his manuscript when she was on a rampage.
Jack heard Mother and Pega discussing how to protect the livestock from the coming storm. Cows and horses would have to crowd together in the barn. The more aggressive sheep would have to fend for themselves outside.
"Even Olaf One-Brow wished people a good morning," remarked Jack, naming Thorgil's dead foster father.
"Only if it was a good morning. He never lied." Thorgil shadowed her eyes with her hand.
"Are you crying?"
"Of course not. It's the filthy smoke in this filthy hovel." The shield maiden continued to shadow her eyes.
"Do you want some of my bread?"
"Why would I want your weevil-infested leavings?" Thorgil said, though from the way she was eating, it was clear she was ravenous.
There was no point trying to be sympathetic, Jack thought. She only looked upon it as weakness. Her moods built up like summer storms, forking lightning in all directions, but if you were patient -- and closed your ears to her insults -- the clouds would eventually blow away. He wasn't sure which he preferred, Thorgil's glooms or her periodic episodes of joy. Sometimes she was seized by a kind of wild rapture in which colors, smells, and sounds overwhelmed her with ecstasy. Then she would grab him by the arm and force him to pay attention to whatever it was.
The Bard said this happened because Thorgil had been raised as a berserker, dedicated to death. Now she was controlled by the life force because of the rune of protection she wore. It was only natural that the two instincts were at war.
Pega came to the door with a hen caged in a basket, and Jack's heart lifted. Pega never made you feel rotten. She was endlessly thoughtful, always looking for ways to make people happy. She helped Mother with the cooking, weeded the Bard's herb garden, and stood over Brother Aiden, making sure he ate regularly. She had been born a slave and was touchingly grateful for any welcome anywhere. Jack thought she looked almost pretty, in spite of a disfiguring birthmark across half her face. It was her spirit shining through, the Bard said, just as Thorgil's simmering malice spoiled what could have been real beauty.
"We'll have to keep the chickens here," Pega announced, placing the basket against a wall. "You should see the sky to the south! It's weird and dark, but I can't make out any clouds."
"Do you need help?" Jack asked hopefully.
"I need you to take food to the workers in the fields," Mother said, bumping the door open as she carried in another hen. "From the look of that sky, there won't be time to cut more bracken. You can double-check the hives on the way back."
She didn't smile, and Jack felt unfairly included in Thorgil's disgrace. It wasn't his fault he couldn't keep the shield maiden in line. Even Olaf One-Brow used to hang her over a cliff, by way of getting her attention, when she acted up. Unfortunately, Olaf had been just as likely to reward her for nasty behavior. Northmen admired such things.
Jack and Thorgil loaded the donkey with baskets of bread and cider. Most of the villagers were harvesting hay as quickly as possible. A few, like Mother and the chief's wife, were supplying food to keep them going. The sky outside had indeed changed remarkably in just a few minutes. To the north it was blue, but it deepened to slate when you turned toward the south. And yet, as Pega had said, you couldn't make out any clouds.
"What's that odd smell?" said Thorgil.
"I'm not sure," said Jack. "It's a little like clothes drying in sunlight."
"It's...nice. Makes me feel like running or singing. Maybe this storm will be fun after all." Some of the gloom lifted from Thorgil's face. Jack thought it was typical for her to be cheered by something that worried everyone else.
"I've never seen a sky like that," he said.
"I have," said the shield maiden, "when I was very small. My mother carried me to a cellar where they stored vegetables. She was trying to protect me, and I remember her lying on top of me. I heard dogs howling, or perhaps it was the wind -- "
"We'd better get our chores done," Jack said to change the subject. Thorgil's mother had been a slave, sacrificed on the funeral pyre of her real father. All of Thorgil's memories from that part of her life were evil. When she could be persuaded to speak of them at all, they drove her even deeper into despair.
They hurried from farm to farm, delivering food to people in the fields and barns. The storage barns had floors of slate, over which was spread a layer of bracken. Bracken not only protected the hay on top from rising damp, but also cut into the mouths of rats and discouraged them from invading. Livestock depended on this fodder for winter. If it was spoiled by rain, it would rot and the animals would starve. The newly cut hay gave a rich, green smell to the air.
In each field Jack saw people bending, slashing, and bundling. When possible, the workers used the blacksmith's cart for transport. But speed was important, and for the most part, they had to carry the hay themselves. Those with no barns protected their haystacks with inverted cones of thatch, somewhat like giant hats, and hoped for the best.
Months ago Jack had tried to hitch Thorgil's ponies to a cart, but they fought the harness and were completely ungovernable. This was another fault held against him unfairly. Jack knew nothing about handling horses. It was Thorgil who had their trust, but she refused to train them for farmwork. They were warriors, she insisted, not thralls.
Thorgil. Jack saw how the villagers cautiously accepted food from her and turned away to make the sign of the cross.
They left the donkey in the last barn and walked on to check the hives. "We'd better hurry," said Jack, looking at the darkening southern sky. Were there clouds? Something certainly teemed in the distance, and yet the air was still and dead. Leaves on the trees hung straight down.
Even the bees knew something was wrong. They had stopped zipping to and fro in search of nectar, and warrior bees at the entrances danced around as though searching for a hidden enemy. The nests were protected by inverted baskets, somewhat like the hats over the exposed haystacks. The bees would have been far safer indoors, but moving hives confused them dreadfully. They would have to survive where they were.
Father had built a stone barrier around them early in the year, to keep sheep from grazing too close, and now Jack was glad of this extra protection. "They're acting as though it's night," he said, wondering. "They've almost all gone inside. Listen to that hum!"
"You know, I can almost understand it," said Thorgil, pressing her ear to one of the inverted baskets. "It's like a birdcall. Isn't that strange?"
"Bees are creatures of the air. What are they saying?"
"They're frightened. They feel death is near -- ow!" Thorgil slapped her ear and jumped away.
"Move back. When one stings, the others join in," advised Jack.
But the bees stayed clustered in the hives. Jack and Thorgil crouched down some distance away to observe them. Whatever enemy the insects detected was too dangerous for them to confront.
"Look!" Jack yelled in sheer disbelief. The southern sky was filled with towering clouds. The dark haze had resolved into shreds of mist flying toward them at such speed that Jack instinctively threw himself to the ground, pulling Thorgil with him. A second later the storm hit.
From absolute stillness the air suddenly whipped into a hurricane that sent them skidding along the ground. One of the beehives lost its cone and fell over against the stone enclosure. The wind howled so loudly, Jack couldn't make himself heard. He wriggled across the dirt, with Thorgil at his side, making his way to a sheep byre he knew existed at the far end of the field.
He couldn't see it until a flash of lightning turned everything white and a clap of thunder shook the ground. "By Thor!" formed Thorgil's lips, brilliant in the light. They crawled furiously, freezing each time one of the bolts fell from the clouds. As yet there was no rain. They reached the byre and squeezed in with a trio of ewes who'd had the same idea. The wind tore across the top of the protecting ring of stone, but at the bottom, in a fug of sweaty wool, Jack almost felt safe.
"By Thor!" shouted Thorgil again, pointing.
Jack looked up to see a dangling cone of cloud unlike anything he had ever encountered. It roared like a thousand enraged bees, and his skin crawled as though ants were swarming over it. The mouth of the cone gaped open, and he saw ropes of lightning twisting around inside, with tree branches and what might have been part of a house. Then it was gone.
The ewes screamed and huddled closer together. Jack burrowed in with them, but Thorgil suddenly tried to climb out of the byre. The wind knocked her back. She pulled herself up again and raised her arms to the sky. Her voice was no louder than a cricket's chirp against the howling storm, but Jack could just make out the words:"Take me with you!"
"Get down!" he shouted, tackling her legs.
"No! No!" she protested. He dragged her down. She fought back, punching him in the stomach. He collapsed, trying to get his breath back, and she struggled up again. "Take me with you!" she screamed. Then the rain started, buckets of rain sluicing down and filling up the byre so that the ewes had to fight for air. They pummeled Jack with their hooves and one actually stood on top of him. The wind knocked her over the side and he heard her terrified bleating as she was swept away.
How long the rain poured down, Jack wasn't sure. It seemed to be for hours. The temperature dropped rapidly, and for a brief period hailstones bounced over his head, big hailstones that hurt and made the sheep bellow. When that ended, the rain began again. During all this time lightning came in bursts and thunder rolled around the horizon.
But eventually the heavens calmed. The flashes became infrequent and the thunder grumbled away to the north. The southern sky turned a pale and beautiful blue.
Jack stood up cautiously and saw a scene of utter destruction around him. Every bush had been beaten flat. Branches from the distant forest were strewn across the ground, and not far away the ewe that had stood on Jack lay dead.
Thorgil, too, was outstretched in the mud. He hadn't even been aware she'd left the byre! "Oh, Thorgil!" Jack cried, struggling out of the enclosure and rushing to her side. He lifted her onto his knees. "Oh, my dear! My love!"
Her eyes were wide open, staring. But they weren't glazed in death. Jack was so relieved, he hugged her and then worried about whether she had broken a rib. "He wouldn't take me," she said in a faint voice.
"Who wouldn't take you?" Jack said, thinking she was delirious.
"He saw my useless hand and knew I was no longer a warrior. He wanted me, but Odin wouldn't allow it. Oh, Freya, I wish I were dead!" Thorgil began to cry, which worried Jack even more than if she'd started cursing.
"Are you hurt inside?" he asked anxiously.
"Nothing that death wouldn't fix," she said with a touch of her old spirit. "Even then, I'll never see him again."
"Who? What are you talking about?" The sun was breaking out to the south and the clouds overhead had turned white, with patches of blue between.
"Olaf One-Brow," the shield maiden said, sighing deeply. "He was in the clouds, but he had to leave me behind."
THE HAZEL WOOD
"How could she have seen Olaf?" said Jack. "She said Odin was leading a Wild Hunt, but I only saw clouds and that...thing, hanging out of the sky."
"That 'thing' sounds like a waterspout," said the Bard, casting a handful of dry pine needles over the hearth fire. A pleasant odor filled the air. Thorgil lay deeply asleep on a bed of dried heather. Thanks to the Bard's sleeping draught, she no longer thrashed about or tried to tear out her hair. It had been the longest hour of Jack's life, dragging her to the Bard's house while preventing her from doing herself damage.
Her hair had grown out in the past year, and it was surprisingly clean. No longer did it hang in an untidy fringe from being hacked with a fish scaling knife. It was a pale golden color, like sunlight on snow. In spite of the bruises -- and Thorgil seldom lacked those -- her face had a delicacy Jack hadn't noticed before. She'd changed in the last year, he realized, becoming taller and more beautiful.
Jack turned away, his cheeks burning with embarrassment. What difference did that make? She was the same foul-tempered Thorgil no matter how she looked.
"I've never known a waterspout to be so destructive," remarked the old man, rummaging in a chest. "It plowed a road through the forest and probably carried off Gog and Magog."
"It did what?" said Jack. After running home to check up on his parents, he'd spent yesterday afternoon helping the Bard prepare elixirs. It was now morning, and Jack hadn't been near the village since the storm.
"The blacksmith's son told me that Gog and Magog have disappeared."
"Perhaps they ran away," Jack suggested. The thought of the men being pulled into the sky was horrible.
"I fear not. The blacksmith said they liked to sit outside during storms. It was the only time he ever saw them smile, and since it was their sole pleasure, he left them to it. A mistake, it would seem."
Jack had seen Gog and Magog squatting in the mud during a thunderstorm. They'd sat together, swaying back and forth, with their faces turned up to the sky. Their teeth had gleamed in the lightning. They'd seemed possessed with a wild joy that Jack neither understood nor cared to see, and he'd hurried away as quickly as possible. He shivered. "Where are they now, sir?"
"That depends on who conducted the Wild Hunt." The Bard laid out a collection of pots, sniffed each one, and made a selection. He lifted down a large mortar and pestle from a shelf. "Oh, yes, the Hunt is real," he said, grinding the herbs. "Who leads it depends on who sees it. Brother Aiden was its quarry as a child, until Father Severus rescued him. Aiden was convinced he saw the Forest Lord and his hounds. Severus thought he saw Satan leading the damned."
"And Thorgil saw Olaf One-Brow," said Jack.
"If she's correct, Gog and Magog might have been taken to Valhalla. Wouldn't that make her cranky!" The Bard's blue eyes twinkled. "Ah well, Thorgil wouldn't be Thorgil if she wasn't cranky."
"If you say so." Personally, Jack wouldn't have minded if the shield maiden were pleasanter -- more like Pega, for example. It was extremely wearing to mediate between her and the enemies she always managed to make. And yet, when he'd seen her lying next to the sheep byre, dead for all he could tell, like that poor ewe --
"She'll be fine," said the Bard, with that uncanny ability to know what was passing through Jack's mind. "Now I want you to mix the contents of this mortar with a lump of butter the size of a hen's egg. Knead a handful of flour with enough water to make a stiff paste, blend everything, and roll out pills the size of peas. Dry them before the fire."
"Which pot should I store them in?" asked Jack, who had done this before.
"The green one for headaches. Dear, dear, the garden is almost picked clean. I'm going to need plants from the forest."
Soon they were walking down the path, leaving Thorgil to sleep. The Bard had put on his better robe, belted up to protect it from mud. His white beard fanned out over his chest, and his feet were encased in tan leather boots that laced up the front. Old as he was, he barely needed to lean upon his black ash wood staff, though he needed Jack to carry elixirs and the harp.
Jack could feel the life force stirring in the air around the staff, and it filled him with longing. Once he too had owned such a magical thing. He'd owned the rune of protection as well, if you could say such a thing belonged to anyone. The rune passed from person to person, following its own destiny, which was beyond the understanding of whoever sought to possess it. Once gone, it could never return. Jack sighed inwardly, remembering its living gold engraved with the image of Yggdrassil. It had preserved the Bard for many long years before coming to Jack, and then -- in a moment of weakness, he thought darkly -- he'd given it to Thorgil.
The fields were strangely bare, like plucked chickens, and more than one house had its roof missing. Water oozed out of hillsides. Streams cut new channels into soil, and here and there sunlight flashed from ponds.
Jack looked back at the Bard's house, perched dangerously on a cliff over the sea. It had weathered the storm beautifully. Whether this was due to luck or the old man's magic, Jack didn't know, but it clung to the rocks like a limpet.
They made their way through the village, dispensing medicine where needed, and good advice. At the blacksmith's house the Bard played music to raise the family's spirits.
"Gog and Magog were like my own lads -- well, if they'd been brighter and more presentable," the blacksmith amended, looking fondly at his handsome daughters and sons. "I was that used to them. They slept in a heap with the cows, and if a wolf came near, they put up such a mooing, not one calf was ever lost. I'll miss them, by God I will, the poor, witless creatures."
You had a power of work out of them for the crusts of bread they were fed, thought Jack uncharitably.
The Bard played his harp. The blacksmith's wife tapped her foot to the rhythm, and Colin, the blacksmith's youngest son, performed an impromptu jig.
And yet if Gog and Magog hadn't come here, Jack mused, who knows what fate might have been theirs? They might have ended up as slaves in a lead mine. At least they had some joy, mooing with the cows and worshipping lightning. What is happiness, after all? He thought of Thorgil, whose hope had been to fall in battle; and of his father, Giles Crookleg, who relished disappointment; and of Father Severus, who enjoyed cold baths and fasting. The elves pursued an endless round of pleasure -- much good it did them, doomed as they were to fade at the end of days.
Happiness is a puzzle and no mistake, Jack decided.
The Bard roused him and they set off again. Shreds of mist rose from a hundred rivulets left behind by the storm, and a scarecrow was bent double in a ruined field. "He didn't protect anything," Jack commented as they squelched past in the soft earth.
"Odin's crows take more than a heap of straw to be impressed," said the Bard.
Jack and the Bard trudged on, observing the devastated barley and oat fields. Half of the sheep were missing, according to the villagers, although most of them would probably turn up. The chickens and cattle had been protected indoors, and Thorgil's ponies had also survived. The Tanner girls had pulled them into their hovel when they saw black clouds approaching.
It was an amazing feat, considering that there was scarcely enough room for the Tanners inside. The girls had forced the horses to lie down and then lain on top of them with their mother between. It made a stifling crush of horse and human flesh, but all had lived.
"That means we've earned the right to ride them," Ymma, the older Tanner girl, declared when Jack and the Bard stopped by to check on their welfare.
"You'll have to discuss that with Thorgil," the old man said.
"Pooh! She thinks she owns everything. Who's her father, I ask you?" the girl said rudely. "Where's her family?"
"Everyone says she acts like a Northman," added her younger sister, Ythla.
The Bard turned on them so suddenly, the girls shrank away and their mother grabbed their arms. "What do you mean, talking back to the Bard?" Mrs. Tanner cried. "Go down on your knees at once and beg his pardon. Honestly, sir, I don't know what's become of them since their father died." She pushed the girls down and they apologized loudly.
Jack wasn't surprised. One look at the old man's face and you understood why he was known as Dragon Tongue and why even Northman kings were afraid of him. But the girls had only said what everyone else was probably whispering.
They found Mother sitting by the beehives. Only two colonies had survived. The rest were dying of cold and wet, the bees creeping over the ground or struggling weakly in the mud. Mother had built a fire nearby -- not too close, for smoke could harm them as well -- and had laid out chunks of bread covered with honey. The insects clustered eagerly around the food.
"They're the last of a royal line," she said sadly, "brought here by the Romans. The women of my family have guarded them since time out of mind. No Saxon bee matches them for strength and industry, but they will be lucky to live through this winter."
The Bard played his harp and Mother sang, using the small magic that calmed nervous animals. Her voice was not unlike a drowsy bee-hum itself. She told them of sunny days to come, of new flowers and warm breezes.
"How's your supply of candles?" the Bard asked when he had handed the harp back to Jack.
"I know what's in your mind," she replied. "The crops are ruined, and if we are to survive this winter, we must barter for grain. Whatever I have is yours."
"I can always count on you, Alditha," said the old man warmly, clasping her hands.
From there the Bard and Jack made their way to the hazel wood that lay in the shadow of the oak forest. This woodland, though littered with debris, had been spared. A tangle of branches and gnarled roots was crossed by odd little paths carpeted with bluebells. You might meet anything in the hazel wood -- long-eared hares, badgers, a wolf folding itself into the twilight, or even a bear. It was a secret, knowing place, and you didn't enter it carelessly after dark. The leaves now shone with an eerie brightness, and the air was fresh and delightful.
"It's as though the storm never happened," Jack said with wonder.
"Hazel woods are protected," said the Bard. "At the School of Bards -- where I was an outstanding student, by the way -- a newcomer was left in a hazel wood overnight. In the morning the teachers asked him what he'd seen. You have no idea how some of those lads twisted themselves into knots, trying to say what they thought the old bards wanted. If the boys lied, they were sent away and never allowed to return."
"Just for that," murmured Jack, thinking of the times he had lied to avoid a thrashing from Father.
"Serving the life force is a serious business," the old man said.
"What did you see, sir?" Jack said daringly, for the Bard rarely answered questions about himself.
The old man pushed aside a downed branch with the tip of his staff. "Right now I see ceps." A cluster of fat mushrooms with white stems and brown caps crowded around the foot of a tree. "We're in luck, lad. They'll make an outstanding supper."
Jack crouched down to gather the ceps, and their rich, earthy odor made his mouth water.
"Hazel woods are brimming with the life force," the Bard continued, moving more branches out of the way. "They lie close to the boundaries between the nine worlds, and many a secret pathway lies hidden under their leaves. A true bard knows how to find them."
Jack felt a tremor of fear, which he quickly tried to suppress. His experience with other worlds had mostly been bad. On the other hand, there were moments -- such as when he and Thorgil had found the Valley of Yggdrassil -- so wreathed in glory that tears came to his eyes when he remembered them. And then an awful thought struck him: Suppose the Bard were testing him right now? Perhaps it was time to discover whether he was a true bard or whether he should be sent back to weeding turnips and chasing blackfaced sheep.
Jack looked around, willing the leaves to dissolve and show him a secret path. But nothing appeared. It was an ordinary woodland full of moss and lichens. The trees nearest the fields had been coppiced, cut close to the roots to allow for the growth of straight branches that might be used for fences. A red squirrel scolded him from a high perch, and he saw it flick its tail with rage.
"What do you see?" the Bard asked in a soft voice.
Jack's throat constricted. Sunlight hovered over the sheltering leaves. A thrush opened its beak and sang. A spiderweb shivered delicately in a puff of air. "I see...oh, curse it! I don't see anything. No, that's not right. I can see a squirrel, a beetle, a thrush, a spiderweb, but nothing important. I'll never be a true bard!"
"And what could be more important than a squirrel, a beetle, a thrush, and a spiderweb?" insisted the old man.
"Why..." Jack looked up.
"Exactly. Ever since I took you on as my apprentice, I've been training you to see things as they are. Until you do that, you haven't a hope of looking farther. One night very soon, I want you to sleep here."
Jack swallowed nervously. The woodland appeared tranquil and safe by daylight, but he knew things could change after dark.
"You asked me what I saw when I was tested at the School of Bards," the old man said. "The first time I encountered the same sort of creatures as you -- a hedgehog, a bat, a doe with her fawn. But the second time -- " He fell silent.
What happened the second night? Jack thought wildly. The Bard walked on briskly, and the boy knew he wouldn't answer any more questions.
They followed one of the paths through the hazel wood. Bluebells brushed against their ankles, and the sound of water rushing through an unseen brook came to them.
"Look there," commanded the Bard. Jack's breath caught in his throat. Where once there had been a dense mass of ancient oaks, a road had been torn out, as though someone had taken a giant sword and slashed right and left through the heart of the forest.
"Typical of Olaf and his thick-skulled bunch to leave a mess," remarked the Bard, looking out over the destruction.
"Was Thorgil right?" Jack asked. "Did Odin really lead a Wild Hunt here?"
"Something laid waste to these oaks."
The new road was littered with branches, and water pooled in the center where the ground had been plowed deeper. "If it was a Hunt," Jack said carefully, "what was it hunting?"
"Not Gog and Magog, poor lads. They were merely unlucky to be in its path," said the Bard. "The Wild Hunt drives misfortune before it. Plague, famine, and war follow behind. I believe we're in for an interesting time."
The sky was bright blue, as though nothing had ever disturbed it, and the air was warm with summer. Jack saw Brother Aiden picking his way through the branches like a small brown sparrow hopping from perch to perch. The monk held aloft a wooden cross and was chanting in Latin. Jack couldn't understand him, but it was clear that the words were filled with Christian magic.
"Aiden, my friend," called the Bard, "you'll be up to your ears in mud if you don't watch out."
The little monk looked up and almost slid off a branch. "I must sanctify this place," he said, bracing his feet. "Evil has been done here."
"Aye, and evil has been done to the farms as well. We must trade for grain before winter comes." The Bard strode onto the road -- for an old man his step was amazingly sure -- and helped Brother Aiden to firmer ground.
"I can mix ink. People always want to buy that," offered the monk. Brother Aiden was renowned for his magnificent colors, which were used to illuminate holy manuscripts.
"Excellent! I'll get Pega to help you. Jack and Thorgil can gather herbs for my elixirs. John the Fletcher has a stock of deerskins, and I'm sure I can pry a few coins out of the chief's wealth-hoard. My stars! That new road is so straight, you could almost believe it was made by Romans."
Jack looked through the opening to a distant meadow and the hills beyond. A lone bird fluttered from one side to the other of this opening. Its cries reached him from the shadows of a yew. "It sounds...so sad," he murmured.
The Bard cast a sharp look at him. "Indeed. It is mourning the loss of its young. Have you been taking lessons in Bird from Thorgil?"
Jack grimaced ruefully. "No, sir. The last thing Thorgil wants is to admit she understands it."
"Insufferable child. She's made a career of pigheadedness. Stay and help Aiden, lad. I'll expect you for dinner." The old man collected the harp and the basket of mushrooms and strode away, leaving Jack uncertain of what he was supposed to do next.
"I'd like it very much if you would sing for me," Brother Aiden said shyly. "My heart is heavy over the loss of those poor men." The little monk's eyes were filled with tears, and Jack knew he was remembering his own escape from the Forest Lord or Satan or whoever led the pack of hunters.
And so Jack sang of the earth when it was gentle and not wild, of the harp in the trees when wind played among the leaves. He sang of fair meadows where deer brought their young, knowing them to be safe, and of the cry of larks tumbling in High Heaven.
Gradually, Brother Aiden's face cleared and he looked hopeful again. "Thank you," he said. "Your voice is wonderfully healing, almost as fine as Pega's." He began once again to bless the raw wound in the forest.
Jack gazed down the passage, thinking, This is the path Odin took with his warriors, if Thorgil saw truly. They passed her by, ignoring one who wanted to join them and taking Gog and Magog, who didn't. Why does everyone always compare me with Pega?
Feeling slightly nettled, he bade good-bye to Brother Aiden and went home to see whether he could help with repairs.
Excerpted from THE ISLANDS OF THE BLESSED © Copyright 2012 by Nancy Farmer. Reprinted with permission by Atheneum/Richard Jackson Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing. All rights reserved.