In seventh-century Britain, small kingdoms are merging, frequently and violently. A new religion is coming ashore; the old gods are struggling, their priests worrying. Hild is the king’s youngest niece, and she has a glimmering mind and a natural, noble authority. She will become a fascinating woman and one of the pivotal figures of the Middle Ages: Saint Hilda of Whitby.
THE CHILD’S WORLD CHANGED late one afternoon, though she didn’t know it. She lay at the edge of the hazel coppice, one cheek pressed to the moss that smelt of worm cast and the last of the sun, listening: to the wind in the elms, rushing away from the day, to the jackdaws changing their calls from “Outward! Outward!” to “Home now! Home!,” to the rustle of the last frightened shrews scuttling under the layers of leaf fall before the owls began their hunt. From far away came the indignant honking of geese as the goosegirl herded them back inside the wattle fence, and the child knew, in the wordless way that three-year-olds reckon time, that soon Onnen would come and find her and Cian and hurry them back.
Onnen, some leftwise cousin of Ceredig king, always hurried, but the child, Hild, did not. She liked the rhythm of her days: time alone (Cian didn’t count) and time by the fire listening to the murmur of British and Anglisc and even Irish. She liked time at the edges of things—the edge of the crowd, the edge of the pool, the edge of the wood—where all must pass but none quite belonged.
The jackdaw cries faded. The geese quieted. The wind cooled. She sat up.
Cian, sitting cross-legged as a seven-year-old could and Hild as yet could not, looked up from the hazel switch he was stripping.
He swished his stick. “I shall hit a tree, as the Gododdin once swung at the wicked Bryneich.” But the elms’ sough and sigh was becoming a low roar in the rush of early evening, and she didn’t care about wicked war bands, defeated in the long ago by her Anglisc forefathers.
“I want Onnen.”
“She’ll be along. Or perhaps I shall be the hero Morei, firing the furze, dying with red light flaring on the enamel of my armour, the rim of my shield.”
“I want Hereswith!” If she couldn’t have Onnen, she would have her sister.
“I could make a sword for you, too. You shall be Branwen.”
“I don’t want a sword. I want Onnen. I want Hereswith.”
He sighed and stood. “We’ll go now. If you’re frightened.”
She frowned. She wasn’t frightened. She was three; she had her own shoes. Then she heard firm, tidy footsteps on the woodcutters’ path, and she laughed. “Onnen!”
But even as Cian’s mother came into view, Hild frowned again. Onnen was not hurrying. Indeed, Onnen took a moment to smooth her hair, and at that Hild and Cian stepped close together.
Onnen stopped before Hild.
“Your father is dead.”
Hild looked at Cian. He would know what this meant.
“The prince is dead?” he said.
Onnen looked from one to the other. “You’ll not be wanting to call him prince now.”
Far away a settling jackdaw cawed once.
“Da is prince! He is!”
“He was.” With a strong thumb, Onnen wiped a smear of dirt from Hild’s cheekbone.
“Little prickle, the lord Hereric was our prince, indeed. But he’ll not be back. And your troubles are just begun.”
Troubles. Hild knew of troubles from songs.
“We go to your lady mother—keep a quiet mouth and a bright mind, I know you’re able. And Cian, bide by me. The highfolk won’t need us in their business just now.”
Cian swished at an imaginary foe. “Highfolk,” he said, in the same tone he said Feed the pigs! when Onnen told him to, but he also rubbed the furrow under his nose with his knuckle, as he did when he was trying not to cry.
Hild put her arms around him. They didn’t quite meet, but she squeezed as hard as she could. Trouble meant they had to listen, not fight.
And then they were wrapped about by Onnen’s arms, Onnen’s cloak, Onnen’s smell, wool and woman and toasted malt, and Hild knew she’d been brewing beer, and the afternoon was almost ordinary again.
“Us,” Cian said, and hugged Hild hard. “We are us.”
“We are us,” Hild repeated, though she wasn’t sure what he meant.
Cian nodded. He kept a protective arm around Hild but looked at his mother. “Was it a wound?”
“It was not, but the rest we’ll chew on later, as we may. For now we get the bairn to her mam and stay away from the hall.”
* * *
Caer Loid, at the heart of Elmet, wasn’t much of a hall. Hild knew this because when they’d first arrived in the rain months ago, her mother had sniffed her sniff-that-was-a-sigh. Breguswith had done that often in their exile among the kingdoms of the wealh, always as a prelude to driving Onnen and her other women to organise the temporary stop into a reflection of home while she set out her cases of whorls and spindles and tucked her distaff in her belt. At these times, Hild and Hereswith must creep like mice, and the score of sworn warrior gesiths who remained would get more magnificent baldrics for their swords, gold thread in the tablet weave at cuff and hem, even embroidered work along the sleeves. They must look proud and bright and well provided for, that all would know who they were, where they came from, and to where they might still ascend in service of the lady Breguswith and Hereric, her lord, should-be king of Deira.
Hild recalled no sights or sounds of Deira, the standard against which all was compared, the long-left home. She had vague memories of sun on plums, others of a high place of lowing cattle and bitter wind, of ships and wagons and the crook of her father’s arm as he rode, but she knew none of them were home, could be home. Æthelfrith Iding, Anglisc king of Bernicia, had driven them out before she and her sister were born. She recognised people who might be from that long-lost home when they galloped in on foundering horses or slipped through the enclosure fence during the dark of the moon. She knew them by their thick woven cloaks, their hanging hair and beards, and their Anglisc voices: words drumming like apples spilt over wooden boards, round, rich, stirring. Like her father’s words, and her mother’s, and her sister’s. Utterly unlike Onnen’s otter-swift British or the dark liquid gleam of Irish. Hild spoke each to each. Apples to apples, otter to otter, gleam to gleam, though only when her mother wasn’t there. Never stoop to wealh speech, her mother said, not even British, not even with Onnen. Never trust wealh, especially those shaved priestly spies.
* * *
From the byre came the rolling whicker-whinny of horses getting to know each other. At least two new voices. Hild clutched harder at Onnen’s hand and Onnen shook her slightly: Quiet mouth, bright mind!
The riders, two men, were with Ceredig king and the lady Breguswith in the hall. The room was smoky and hot, like all British dwellings—the peat in the great central pit was burning high, though it was not yet cold outside—but still the smell of travel, of horse, was clearly on the men, and their bright, checked cloaks were much muddied at hem and seat. Breguswith, distaff tucked under her left arm, rolling her fine-yarn spindle down her thigh with her right, stared absently at the fire, though Hild knew even as her mother’s fingers were busy, busy, busy teasing out the yarn, testing its tension, her attention was focused on Ceredig king, who laughed and leaned from his stool and let firelight wink on the thick torc around his neck.
Onnen pushed Hild forward. The visitors, both slight, with magnificent moustaches and the air of brothers, turned.
“Ah,” said the taller one in British. Strange British, from the west. “You have your father’s hair.”
Yffing chestnut, her mother called it. And her outside one big prickliness like a chestnut, too, said Onnen. Or a hedgepig, said her mother, and they would laugh. No one was laughing now but Ceredig, and it was his laugh-because-I-am-king laugh, the one for important visitors, to show ease in his own hall. Everything a king does is a lie, Onnen said.
And then the stranger looked beyond Hild. “And who’s this?”
Hild twisted to look. Cian had followed her into the firelight, ready to snatch her back, as he’d done in spring, when the ram had charged as she got too near.
“He is nobody,” said her mother, in Anglisc. “My woman’s boy.” And as she turned—with that long, careless grace that made men look, made the strangers look—Onnen put her arm around Cian and tugged him gently back into the shadow. But this visitor was quicker than most.
“Wait,” he said. “You.” He crooked his finger, and Onnen and Cian stepped back into the light. “Your name?”
“And this is your son?”
“He is, lord.”
“And yourself, Onnen, you were born here?”
“Indeed, lord. Six and twenty years since.” She stood a little prouder. “I am cousin to Ceredig king.”
“You’re all cousins in this benighted wood,” said the second stranger, but he was already turning away and beckoning for the first to do likewise. And Hild understood that although her mother and Onnen had told nothing but the truth, the visitors had been fed an essential lie.
Quiet mouth, bright mind.
“Edwin Snakebeard will come to avenge Hereric Yffing’s death,” the stranger was saying to Ceredig.
“Of course he’ll come. He’ll come from the south with Rædwald’s war band to claim Deira and lay his rival kinsman’s death at my door. The excuse he’s looked for. Or made.”
Onnen tried to herd Hild away, but Hild rooted herself to the floor, the way puppies turned limp and heavy when she tried to pick them up.
Ceredig was still talking “… this hall is burnt about my head, will there be a place for me with the king of Gwynedd?”
The stranger shrugged: maybe yes, maybe no.
“So. I’ll fight, then. As I must. And make for Cadfan of Gwynedd an excuse, in his turn, to swarm north with fire and sword against the Anglisc. But tell you, Marro, to Cadfan king, aye and young Cadwallon, that one day he’ll have to face this serpent, this king-killer, in the open. Tell him that.”
Marro said, “I will tell him.”
Gwynedd, Hild thought. Marro. Cadwallon.
Her mother was looking at her. “Hild, go with Onnen now, to your sister. Comfort Hereswith for me.” And Hild’s mind closed seamlessly over the names as though they’d never been.
* * *
Hereswith was eight. She had their mother’s hair, the colour of linden honey, and their mother’s round, pretty face—usually. Tonight, when Onnen pulled aside the embroidered curtain, Hereswith fell on her, weeping, babbling in a mix of Anglisc and British: What would happen now? Where would they go? Had it hurt when their father died? Would they starve? Where was their mother?
Seeing Hereswith weep started a tickle deep in Hild’s chest, and then her nose ran, and then she howled as Onnen unfastened her cyrtel and tucked her next to Hereswith on the horsehair and sweet-gale mattress, promised them warm milk, and stroked her chestnut hair. Her dead, dead da’s hair.
Hild shut it out, imagined she could hear nothing but the wind in the elms, blowing where it would, a soft roar under the moon.
She woke to Hereswith’s slow, steady breaths beside her and her mother’s murmur above. She kept her eyes tightly closed.
“… can’t flee to Frankia, not with the storm season almost on us.”
“The Hwicce might take us in,” Onnen said. “They took Osric. And he’s ætheling.”
“Only a cousin. And soon enough he’ll be riding to Deira to show Edwin Usurper his belly and kiss his ring.”
“Like the whole isle.”
“Like the whole isle.” A faint click as Breguswith slipped her fine-work whorl off her spindle and laid it on the ivory-inlaid casket that held her treasures. “Ah, Onnen, Onnen. He was to be king. Not poisoned like a dog.” And Hild knew they were talking now of her father.
“We are alone in this world,” Onnen said.
Faint rattle as her mother unfastened her girdle and hung it carefully on the hook driven into the wall post for that purpose. Hild imagined the hanging things one by one: the knife in its woven sheath, the seeing crystal, the needle case, the fire steel and tinderbox, the purse with chalk and thread and spare hairpin …
She woke again when her mother said in her voice of iron, “We will go to Edwin. He has won.”
Hild felt a light touch on her hair but willed herself still and copied Hereswith’s breath: in and out, in and out. Her mother smelt of smoke and heather beer.
“As king his nieces will be valuable to him.”
“She’s so young—”
“She’s Yffing. Needs must. She’ll be ready. They both will. In their different ways.” And then the touch of the hand on her hair was gone and Hild heard the faint tck of her mother unpinning her hair, followed by the two women moving about the room, and the hff of the rush light blown out.
Hereswith inched closer to Hild, whispered fiercely in her ear, “That stupid dream—the light of the world! Ha! That was when she still thought you might come out a boy!”
* * *
The next day Hild could eat nothing, waiting for this usurping uncle, this Edwin, to come. But no one came; it was a day like any other but for two things. First, when the time came to wash and then rinse all three children’s hair, Onnen added oak gall to the rinse water for Cian’s turn.
“You rinse mine with vinegar,” Hild said, peering at the tub of black water, talking as much to distract herself from her misery as anything else. She hated the washing and rinsing of hair. No matter how she tried, there was always water down her neck. And no matter how warm the water was at the beginning, by the time it wormed between her shoulder blades, it was cold.
“And mine,” Hereswith said. “For the smell and the shine, you said. Why can’t we have oak gall, too?”
“Because it would make your pretty honey hair dark.”
“Daddy called me honey. But not Hild. She doesn’t have honey hair.”
“What makes your hair and Hild’s hair shine, and what makes Cian’s shine is different. His hair is different.”
But it wasn’t, Hild thought, it wasn’t. Her hair and Cian’s were even the same colour. Or had been, before the oak gall.
And then, while they were shivering like wet rats, Inis, the king’s man, came by. “You’re wanted,” he said to Onnen. “You and the boy both.”
Onnen took all three of them, because wet unhappy children had a tendency to quarrel when unminded.
The middle fire in hall was burning bright, and Ceredig king wore his ceremonial wolfskin cloak and most splendid torc, though there was no one else there but two housefolk standing by the wall.
Onnen and the three children paused just inside the doorway.
“Come,” the king said, and Onnen gathered Cian under one arm and Hereswith under the other, and approached. Hild walked alongside Cian, her hand in his belt, as she’d been taught. She was nervous because Onnen was nervous, but also curious.
“So, cousin, you’ve done a fine job by these young ones these years. But a boy needs a father.”
“I don’t know his father. I was prettier then, and not minded to keep track. As you yourself know. Cousin.”
He smiled and turned away momentarily to bend and lift something from beneath his bench. Hild couldn’t see what it was but Cian obviously could: the damp tunic stretched between his shoulder blades quivered as his heart began to hammer.
The king held out a small oak sword with a finely carved painted hilt and a little wicker shield. “Well, come here, boy.”
Onnen let go of him, as did Hild, who thought he might topple where he stood, but after a moment he managed to walk to the king.
“You’re a year yet from weapons training, but who knows where we’ll all be a year from today. A boy needs a sword, and you’ve no father to give it. Hold out your left arm.” The king slid the new shield straps—Hild could smell the stink of tanning still on the leather—up the boy’s arm. “Grip the— Ah, you’ve the right of it already, I see.” Cian’s whole arm tightened as he squeezed the bar behind the boss of the little shield. “And now the other.” The king put the sword hilt in his right hand. He smiled and said, looking at Onnen, “Don’t stab your—those girls’ eyes out, or your mother will have my hide.” Then he turned away, and Hild realised to her astonishment that it was because Onnen was weeping.
“Come,” Onnen said eventually, in a voice Hild hardly knew. “Come. Quick, quick. The king has spent enough time over three wet-headed children.” And she gathered them to her and they left.
They walked in silence past the grain house, and suddenly Cian stopped, and shouted, and banged his shield with his sword. “I have a sword!”
“You have a shield,” Onnen said. “Wherever you go.”
A sword given to his hand by a king: a shield and a path.
* * *
Autumn blew, leaves fell, flames flickered, and in hall song turned to war. Hereswith refused to speak anything but Anglisc, and Breguswith—when she wasn’t teaching Hild that while one jay was bad luck two meant not double but opposite—was at the side of Burgræd, her chief gesith, talking persuasively, talking, talking. Most of their other gesiths already slept and drank with Ceredig’s men.
“Your lord is dead and your oath with him,” Breguswith said to Burgræd one dark afternoon as Hild half drowsed at Onnen’s hip, lulled by the repetitive twist-twirl of spinning. “He left only the girls, no æthelings whose honour you can fight for. And perhaps swearing your sword and honour to Ceredig now seems to you worthy. He is a king. But even as this peat burns Edwin retakes Deira. Before the frost he’ll be secure and he’ll turn to Elmet. He will crush it. Ceredig can no more stand against him than a leaf can defy winter.” She leaned back, the very picture of ease and Anglisc wealth with her smooth honey hair, fine-draped dress, and gold winking at throat and wrist. “No doubt there will be much glorious death.” She looked over at his stripling son playing knucklebones with Ceredig’s men. “Though not Ceredig’s.”
Burgræd, a stocky man with grey streaks on either side of his mouth and one cheekbone higher than the other, ran a callused finger around the rim of his cup and said nothing.
“You will die for him, for you’ll keep your oath. You’re Anglisc. But would he die for you? How much is a wealh oath worth?”
She took his cup and poured him ale, and as she took up her own she glanced about the hall. Hild shut her eyes tightly. Even at three, she understood the danger of overhearing a hint that a king in his own hall was an oath-breaker: Never say the dangerous thing aloud.
They sipped. A servingman laid more peat on the fire; it hissed. When he had gone, her mother said, more softly than before, “Know this. We will leave this wood before Edwin king falls on Ceredig. We’ll go to him in Deira. In time my daughters will rise high in Edwin’s favour. You could rise with us. And you wouldn’t be sworn to a gesith’s oath. You could take it back anytime.”
After Burgræd left, her mother bent down and whispered, “Quiet mouth, bright mind, little prickle.”
For a while it seemed nothing would change. Cian wouldn’t walk anywhere without his wooden sword and wicker shield, and he became tedious, issuing challenges to vicious branches or charging without notice at a shelf of mushrooms growing from a sickly birch. It made Hild’s time at the edges of things less than easy. How could she be still and listen and watch when Cian’s yell made the rooks croak and fly away or the deer bound into the undergrowth? How could she study an old dog fox who sat in the thin morning sunlight to comb his chest hair with his tongue, if he ducked into his run when Cian rolled and tumbled with invisible enemies in the leaves?
She helped Onnen collect eggs and was proud to break not a one, and tried to help gather hazelnuts with everyone else, though she had to be carried when the walking grew too much. She sat with Hereswith as her mother explained the sunwise and widdershins twist of spinning yarn and how by mixing the two you could make spin-patterned cloth. In the shadowy hall she listened to the cool clicking tiles of wealh bishops’ Latin and to old Ywain, when he was well, play the harp. She liked the sound of the old man’s voice as he warmed it to himself, then of the men setting aside their weapons, the thunk of heavy hilts laid down on the boards, and the bronze-and-gold sound of the strings. Hereswith said at home all Anglisc men took turns with the lyre, but Hild knew that was silly. How could warriors with their burst voices sing like Ywain? Besides, their real home had been overrun by Æthelfrith Iding’s war band before Hereswith had been born, and now the Idings were being driven out in turn by Edwin.
And then Hild would remember her father was dead and now she never would have a home, and she would hum along with Ywain’s heroic song and try to make her breastbone buzz the way she was sure Ywain’s did when he sang “Calan hyddrev, tymp dydd yn edwi / Cynhwrv yn ebyr, llyr yn llenwii: The beginning of October, the falling off of the day / Tumult in the river mouth, filling up the shore.” Tumult in the river mouth, she sang to herself, tumult in the river mouth.
* * *
And at the next new moon as the wind whipped there was tumult in the dark: tumult as someone bundled Hild in a cloak and carried her, tumult as Cian and Hereswith, Onnen and Breguswith, the gesiths—so few!—and their slaves boarded a boat. Tumult during the days as they beat north in the driving rain, the sea roaring like the elms in autumn. Tumult then at the river mouth, and at the dock far up the wide, wide river.
Torches hissed and fluttered and Hild was more or less asleep when she was carried down the gangplank, but she still saw the rich trappings of the horses there, and the gleam of jewelled hilts and brooches clasped at cloak necks. And she woke fully when an apple voice, so firm and round as to be almost scented, said, “Lady Breguswith, Edwin king welcomes you home.”
NICOLA GRIFFITH is the author of Hild. She is a native of Yorkshire, England, where she earned her beer money teaching women’s self-defense, fronting a band, and arm-wrestling in bars. In 1993 she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Her novels are Ammonite, Slow River, The Blue Place, Stay, and Always. Her writing has appeared in Nature, New Scientist, and the Los Angeles Review of Books, among other places. Her awards include the Tiptree, Nebula, and World Fantasy awards, the Premio Italia, and the Lambda Literary Award (six times), most recently for her memoir, And Now We Are Going to Have a Party. Griffith lives with her partner, the writer Kelley Eskridge, in Seattle.