I present for your enjoyment, Gentle Reader, a deleted scene from A Gathering of Ravens. In it, Grimnir is making his way across Somerset alone. In the previous chapter he lost his young captive and guide, Étaín, to the forces of Lord Hrothmund of Badon (modern Bath). Stubborn and ever the pragmatist, Grimnir leaves her to her fate and pushes on, intent on finding an enclave of Danes or Norse who might know the location of his prey, the slippery Bjarki Half-Dane. But, the Norns aren’t quite done with him, yet . . .
With the coming of night, Grimnir stirred from his bolt-hole. He stretched his cramped limbs, rolling his shoulders and cracking the tendons in his neck. He glared at the purple sky and cursed the pissing rain. He cursed the dripping canopy of trees that gave him no shelter, the moss-clad stones that offered him no comfort; he cursed this hilltop where once a fortress had stood, now nothing more than a ring of foundation stones. He cast his net wide and cursed every village, field, farmstead, and pasture between this godforsaken place and the siege lines at Nunna’s Ford. He cursed Wessex and the lands of the English and all things under heaven with vitriol to spare.
The skraelingr hawked and spat. “Three days!” he muttered, dragging his kit out from beneath the overhang of an eroded embankment where he’d passed the day. In three days, he’d barely made it a score of miles from the burned-out wreck of Nunna’s Ford. Grimnir ground his teeth. He dug around in his pack until he found a hunk of salt-dried mutton and a flask of ale – part of the spoils taken from the men he’d slain with that bastard Cynewulf. He had lain low on the first day, watching as the Saxon army dispersed. Their captain, Rust-beard, had taken his mate’s death hard; he sent out hunters and scouts in hopes of coming across the trail of the raiding party that had ambushed his men. That brought a fierce twist of glee to Grimnir’s lips. Once the last wagon had departed, loaded with the wounded and those taken captive, the skraelingr took to his heels. He did not bother searching among the dead for Étaín; whatever happened to that blasted little hymn-singer was her own fault. Grimnir picked a gobbet of gristle out of his teeth and flicked it away in disgust.
He traveled by night, and though this wretched lot slept on as he passed he could not move at speed. This was settled country, long under the Nailed God’s influence. Not like the wild heart of Sjaelland, with villages few and far between and steadings rarer still, where the Old Gods could yet be heard in the wind or felt in the water. No, this Wessex had more villages and hamlets and cross-bearing churches than a fish had scales; farms dotted the land, each one bordered by hedges and protected by flea-bitten curs that would bay like moon-crazed Hati when they caught his scent. Even to touch this Christ-harrowed earth made Grimnir’s bones ache.
So he moved slowly, across country, following the smell of the sea; he moved blind, with no knowledge of the land that lay before him. Even the landvættir were silent. Some were gone for good, driven into darkness by man’s faith in the Nailed God, the spaces where they once dwelt as empty and lifeless as a corpse. Others, he sensed, had withdrawn from their accustomed haunts of root and stone; he felt something stirring east of the ruined hill-fort – the low rumble of anger, the burn of betrayal, and the longing for vengeance. These things Grimnir knew well and he could taste them on the night air, like the galvanic tingle that ran before a storm. But whatever had drawn the remaining landvættir away, not even the appearance of a son of Bálegyr – the last of the hated orcnéas – could entice them to return.
Grimnir bolted the final bit of mutton, washed the salty flesh down with a last long draught of ale, and tossed the now-empty flask into the undergrowth. He scrubbed his mouth with the back of his hand. Shouldering his pack, he hitched at his seax and set off into the night, still muttering a litany of curses. Grimnir loped down the hill; at its base, he skidded off the crest of an overgrown dike – part of an old defensive earthwork, abandoned when the bloody-handed Romans brought their heel down on the necks of the Britons. The skraelingr landed lightly; bent low, he snuffled at the ground like a bloodhound. There was water nearby; he could smell it even over the pissing rain. East, a faint ruddy glow tinged the clouds – a town of some size. He would head north and west. Soon, he reckoned, he’d find the coast. From some whiteskin fisherman he could steal a boat and make his way north, to Man or the islands of the Scots.
Grimnir stopped suddenly. A sound reached him, faint even to his keen ears, and it made his hackles rise. Out of place beneath the hiss and spatter of rain and the creak of insects, he heard the staccato slap of wet cloth against a rock. The skraelingr’s eyes narrowed.
On a whim, he changed direction and followed the sound. It led him east, down into a wooded hollow between two low ridges. He sprang down shelves of lichen-slick rock, split by ash and alder boles, until he reached the heart of the hollow. Here, amid thickets of hazel as densely woven as wattles, a creek bubbled along in its stony bed, swollen with runoff from the ridges above. The sound came clearer, now. A wet, rhythmic slap-slap-slap. Grimnir’s nostrils flared. He caught a fleeting scent, like ancient cloth mixed with day-old blood. “Well, well!” he said to himself. “Not all of them are gone, after all.” And like a shadow the skraelingr crept along, following the sound downstream.
After a few dozen yards the creek widened into a broad pool, its banks carpeted in thick, moist grass and a scrub of old bulrushes. Dry stalks rattled as water spooled through the shallows. Grimnir dropped to a crouch. The slap of cloth was louder, now, and he apprehended its source. A woman stood in the middle of the pool, near an outcropping of flat rocks. To his suspicious gaze she appeared as nothing more than a gray-haired crone, an outcast hag who had stayed too late at her washing. Grimnir knew better. She was one of the sjövættir, a spirit of the water, who lured men to their dooms with the promise of foreknowledge – she washed the death-clothes of those warriors destined to fall in battle. The Washer wore a ragged green dress with its hem rucked up around her waist to reveal pale and skeletal legs. As Grimnir watched she took up a soiled garment from the woven basket beside her, held it up, and examined it. It was a Saxon tunic of rough homespun, gashed and bloody. Grunting, the sjövættr hoisted the shirt and beat it against the rocks.
Time and again she reached into her basket, withdrawing some bloodied scrap – this one edged in gold thread like a jarl’s shirt, that one as ragged as a slave’s rag. She even drew forth a priestly cassock, thick and brown and bloody; it reminded Grimnir of the one Étaín had been wearing.
“You do not look for your own cerements, warrior,” the Washer said, her eerie voice that of a girl barely out of childhood. “Do you fear I might foretell your death? Do not hide, warrior. Come closer, look into my basket.”
Grimnir rose with a bark of harsh laughter. “Faugh! Why should I? I am no mortal maggot to bow and scrape to you! You do not wash the death garb of my people, hag!”
The Washer ceased her toil; straightening, she turned to look at him, her milky eyes narrowed to slits. “No, I have not sullied the waters with the black blood of your kind since before the coming of the Nailed One, orcnéas. Why have you come? The one you seek does not trouble this land.”
“Where is he?” Grimnir started forward. He prowled along the bank, shouldering through dried bulrushes – though mindful not to tread into the water, for that was the sjövættr’s domain. He grasped the hilt of his seax in a white-knuckled grip. “What land does he trouble, hag? Is he far?”
At first, the Washer did not answer. She squatted beside her basket and thrust her arms into the pile of death-clothes. Eyes closed, she rocked back and forth, her hands slithering over blood-slimed fabric. The sjövættr leaned closer and inhaled deeply of the stench rising off her basket. A wicked smile split her thin-lipped face as she opened her eyes, two opaque orbs framed by fey locks of ashen gray that fixed Grimnir in an unblinking stare. “Too far for you, son of Bálegyr,” she said. “You are the last, orcnéas, but it is not through wisdom that you have survived. You have doomed yourself and you are blind to it. Lay down and die, you fool, for you will never see your vengeance fulfilled.”
The skraelingr’s wrath blazed, his eyes burning like embers. “So-ho! Fool, is it? You know a lot for a filthy banshee! What doom am I blind to? Speak up, you wretched hag! Tell me what you know!” His seax rasped free of its sheath; heedless of the ancient boundaries he took a step forward, his foot slipping into the pool.
A spray of water erupted around him as something cold and sinuous looped about his ankle. In one smooth motion it ripped him off his feet. Grimnir cursed; he hit the stony shallows hard, air whuffing from his lungs. He likely would have been dragged to a watery doom had he not buried the blade of his seax deep into the loam and clay of the bank. It arrested his slide into the depths of the pool. Wheezing, the skraelingr glared at the cackling old hag and beheld a nightmare from the Elder Days. What he had taken for legs were vestigial flukes sprouting from a reptilian torso, where the loose green skin gave way to mottled purple-white scales. The Washer swayed like a serpent. Grimnir bared his teeth in a snarl of hate.
Then, quicker than the eye could follow, the tip of the Washer’s tail loosed Grimnir’s ankle and darted for his throat. If she could not drown him, she would throttle him. But as swift as she was, the skraelingr was swifter still, his reflexes honed by long centuries of war. He caught hold of her tail. It wiggled in his fist like an eel. And like an eel, it was blood-slick, covered in a fetid slime that stank of death. It started to slip away; with a curse, Grimnir looped it around his forearm and dug his talons in, locking its rubbery flesh in a merciless grip. The hag’s laughter faltered.
“Who is the fool, now?” he hissed. “Faugh! Tell me what you know, I said!”
The Washer made no reply. Her brow furrowed as her tail strove to free itself from his grasp. It lashed and writhed and pulled at the resolute skraelingr, rasping against his ring-mail and raising welts on his flesh; it constricted about his forearm like an iron cable, threatening to crush bone and sinew. Grimnir ignored the titanic pressure and got his legs under him. And, wrenching his seax loose from the bank in a welter of damp clay, he let her tail’s thrashings lever him to his feet. Heels set against the stony bottom, Grimnir shouldered the sjövættr’s tail and strained toward dry land. She moved an inch. Two. The distance mounted with each hard-fought step as Grimnir inexorably dragged the creature ashore, stabbing the blade of his seax into the earth to find purchase.
The Washer flailed; her hands splashed and churned as she struggled to claw her way back to the deeps. And suddenly, there came a sound like the ripping of fabric as he hauled her from her from the pool. She screamed, then – a sound fit to freeze a mortal’s heart – but Grimnir only grinned as he threw her to the ground. The earth was anathema to the sjövættr; even here, in this silent hollow, the power of the Nailed God burned her flesh like acid. She writhed until Grimnir caught her by her stringy hair and laid the edge of his seax against her throat.
“This is cold-wrought iron,” he said, “and it will show you the meaning of doom, you filthy hag! Tell me, where is that wretched maggot, Bjarki?”
“It . . . it matters not,” the Washer gasped. Her tail lashed and flicked, breaking bulrush stalks as it searched for water. “I spoke true: you will never see your vengeance fulfilled . . . not . . . not without the foundling you abandoned!”
Grimnir blinked. “The foundling? That blasted hymn-singer? What about her?”
“She is the key,” the Washer replied. “A mortal cannot walk the branches of Yggðrasil and emerge unscathed. The Norns have seen her, orcnéas, and those wyrd sisters would have her. They strive against the power that rises in the East, from the ancient lands of Shem, and even the Gods are but pawns. If the Norns break her, they score a great victory.”
Grimnir gave her head a vicious shake, like a wolf worrying its prey. “And so? Faugh!” Spittle flew from his lips. “What does she have to do with my vengeance? What game is this you play?”
“No games. Loose me, and I will tell you.” Her voice was a plaintive hiss. The scales of her lower body smoked where they had touched the earth. “Loose me!”
“Tell me now, or I’ll carve out your liver and feed it to the crows!”
The Washer made a mewling noise. “The Three Sisters . . . they . . . they have tangled the strands of your fate with those of hers. And only through this foundling of yours will you find Bjarki Half-Dane and see your oath fulfilled!”
The skraelingr howled in rage. “Lying hag! Where is she?”
“No, I swear to you! Seek her in the east, in the ancient stone city of Aquae Sulis, known to these mortals as Badon. Seek her under the thumb of its lord, orcnéas! Please, loose me . . .”
Grimnir’s eyes narrowed. Reluctantly, he untangled his fist from her hair and kicked her toward the water. She slithered into the pool; steam rose as she submersed her body up to her shoulders. “If this is some fool’s errand you send me on, hag . . .”
The Washer glided through the pool to her overturned basket. She gathered up the blood-soaked rags, her opaque eyes gleaming with malign fire. “No fool’s errand, but perhaps an errand for a fool! Do not tarry, orcnéas. Go quickly. Your foundling stands hard up against death. If you do not find her by the first gleam of dawn, she will be forever beyond your reach – and if she dies, with her dies your long-sought vengeance!”
Hissing in the tongue of the sjövættir, the Washer snatched up her basket and vanished into the depths of the pool.
“East.” Grimnir snarled. “East to some wretched hole called Badon. All for that cursed little fool!” He reckoned he had seen this Badon from the hilltop, that gleam of ruddy light against the low clouds. In that direction, too, the landvættir were gathering. To what end? Would they seek to bar his way, to resurrect some long-forgotten feud with the sons of Bálegyr? Grimnir stropped the blade of his seax against his kilt and sheathed it. His arm ached; the welts on his limbs burned. Even so, his black blood sang out for a fight. The skraelingr hawked a ball of phlegm and spat it into the water. “Tell them I am coming, hag!”
With a pitiless laugh, Grimnir headed east – his pace the long, loping stride of a hunting wolf.
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