Wassail, traveler, and welcome to The Gable Grey -- a place of retreat, of renewal, and of resistance: a tree-shaded refuge in Dark Times. Now pass the threshold, and rest from journeys! For a cold wind is blowing; and here, if you wish, you may hear tidings of the world without...

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Dog Days Special: The Woodreeve's Tale

(The following is excerpted from Chapter I of my current long fiction project, The Woodreeve's Tale, a novel set in my "Green World" mythos.)

I.  Magloron Island


Mar was master of the island. A hardy shepherd-folk had once dwelt there, but now only he and Wulf, his apprentice, called it home. The cold, the wind, and the loneliness might have sent all but the most solitary souls to a more welcoming clime. Not so Mar. Ten years he had passed there, laying eyes on few, save Wulf, and errant traders from far sun-kissed countries in the short summers. He was at peace.

His kinsmen came for him in their swan-prowed ship, some days after the autumnal equinox of Mar’s fortieth year. He watched their approach from a high cliff overlooking the island’s tossing bay. A blue-grey goshawk gripped his gauntleted arm, her feathers fluffed in the chill air. No hood covered the raptor’s wild yellow eyes; she peered round, snakelike, at her master, and at the grey dome above. She was big, even for a female gos, suited to pursuing both the grouse of the isle’s forest, and the coneys of the bleak, open moor. Leather jesses hung loose from her legs, though no leash bound her to the austringer’s glove; a small silver bell hung by a leather bewit from each leg.

The ship looked small and frail in the roiling waters far below. Mar had long wondered if they would eventually come for him; he could shut himself off from the world, he knew, but could not for ever shut the world out.

“Who are they?” Wulf asked, frowning up at his master. His long black locks trailed in the wind. He, too, wore a gauntlet, though it was somewhat shorter on his forearm than his master’s, and he did not carry a hawk of his own. 

The boat crunched onto the little shore at the foot of the cliff. Mar watched while the men disembarked and climbed the narrow steps cut into the black rock; then he and Wulf withdrew to a rough stone seat atop a crumbling cairn and waited. The goshawk glared up at her master, scolding him with an occasional deep ka-ka.

“They be warriors of Kuronia,” Mar said, “and my countrymen of old. We need not fear; but later, when thou art introduced, remember our custom with the Southerners: do not speak to them, unless thou art spoken to first. And we must needs ’ware much of this lot in especial: for age dulls not their edge, as for most, but lays it bare and jagged instead.” He laughed a little to himself. “And be not daunted by their eyes. Some have a bit of the look of the wolf about them, as I remember. Here.” He held the hawk out towards the boy. “Take Sly whilst I treat with these men. She is not used to such a throng as this.”

Wulf frowned harder, and cast a final look over the cliff’s edge. “Neither am I, Master.” He turned his face from the Sea, and took the goshawk onto his own glove.

The woodreeve watched the boy descend the tall slope, until his head disappeared behind tall brown heather. Alone he waited, his gaze still upon the windswept moorland.  He wondered -- as he often had during his self-imposed exile – that a man of the forests such as himself could come to love such a desolate, seemingly barren land; now the pang in his heart at the thought of leaving it (so he read the errand in their sail) reminded him, again, that he had indeed come to love that place.

“Wassail, greybeards,” Mar said, when the seven old thanes at last stood shivering before him. They were clad in woolen tunics of grey or brown (much like his own) and wore openly their war-tackle. Saxes – short stabbing swords – girt three. Two held long-handled handaxes; one, an evil-looking spiked mattock; another, two enormous, leaf-bladed spears. Their beards – silver-grey or white, one red, all dirty -- hung down to their belts. Some still showed traces of yellow-blonde in their long locks. Some wore worried frowns. All looked wearily upon the lord of the island.

“Wassail, Woodreeve, and well met,” said one. “I am hight Glyf, and knew your sire and grandsire. We have braved the whale-road two days, bearing a message:  the land of your fathers calls to you in need.”

“My fathers lay dead many years now,” Mar said, “but I wot somewhat of thee, Glyf Glymmerstrom. A wonder it is that thine own bones art not mouldering in a cold barrow in Kuronia, nigh those of my own kith and kin. Yet thou art not gone to earth, and art come to conduct me thither instead. What if I refuse? Slygastryon has not yet outflown the North Wind today.”

Glyf bowed low. “Art within your right to naysay us, lord,” he said, beard wagging.  “But you should know that the swart men from the east-dales art come raiding into Kuronia, and burned the very village of Starkhold not ten days agone. Some have told of dark things coming down the north-dales, from the icefields beyond the Mountains; and this not least: the Woodreeves’ enemy of old hast again been seen, nigh the western eaves of the Forest of Sentars.”

The wind whistled among the rocks while they stood silently on that high place.

“It is no matter,” Mar muttered at length. “I am tired. There is now only Sly, and the hunt. The grouse and hare give us good sport, nigh the Sinking Moor yonder.” He pointed north-east, towards a creeping wall of mist. “I am no longer a Woodreeve of Kuronia,” he added. “I will not go back.”

Glyf grinned. “Indeed.” He stroked his beard. “The Queen said you would refuse even so, at first.” Then he laughed, and stepping forward he clapped Mar on the shoulder. “In sooth, I hoped you would! For then we might have a bit of meat and drink in our bellies, and your roof over our heads while we parley, at least.”


Wassail. -- C.

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Whiles carried o'er the iron road,
We hurry by some fair abode;
The garden bright amidst the hay,
The yellow wain upon the way,
The dining men, the wind that sweeps
Light locks from off the sun-sweet heaps --
The gable grey, the hoary roof,
Here now -- and now so far aloof.
How sorely then we long to stay
And midst its sweetness wear the day,
And 'neath its changing shadows sit,
And feel ourselves a part of it.
Such rest, such stay, I strove to win
With these same leaves that lie herein.

-- William Morris, from
"The Roots of the Mountains"