Resin smoke drove out, bursting. It thickened quickly and began to pillar up from the pine pyre.
An immensity of wing struck at it. And then another, ferocious, the patterned wingbacks, red and yellow, brightening up under a scutter of sunlight that fell out of a sudden wind in the trees.
The column was plaiting, brownness and purple, densening by moments, flexing, flattening and springing on wind turns. Sparked under, the gathered herb bed caught and reached up with billowing pungency at the beak and pebble-eyed head that fought and arched against the smoke.
Then there came cries, child cries, rage with fear and the knowledge of thongs. The wings opened again, man-length, the bright work on them there and gone in the toils of smoke; and the golden nape, twisting with the cries, flung back towards a thin blue memory that hung in remoteness above the rise of the herb-fattening heat.
Gradually, the great bird began to be taken by the fire.
The man stood forth from the trees and smiled.
‘Good,’ he said. ‘It is good.’
He raised the horn to his mouth and aimed out over the trees to the valley below.
The raucous voice spoke, succession growing with succession into power amid the countering of the hills. Call ran upon call, the notes peaking out and bottoming while steadily the small fists of cloud made on across the sun.
He smiled still as he played, eyes shut, blood-filled with light. There was measured strength in him: a strength of joy. He would play and play on till he no longer felt the draught of wings on his back.
‘Still now! Be still!’
Knee-bent and strapped, Theuda felt the hand touch at his cheek. Another was pressing down with oakenness on his neck. Mud pushed against his forehead. It was full of all the chill of the forest deeps and his fear trembled with it.
About his head, there was leaf-mould and mosses and the knot scatterings of root and trunk, all with blackness and winter rot, so darkly that the lightness rose and kept rising in him, then fell away into the swathings of heaviness.
He told himself that he must not lose hold; yet, foxwise, he chose to let be for a time, staying stun-still as if mastered though all the while poised and secretly eye-bright.
The forest air was webbed with the flarings of the horn, bright sounds from high out of a distance that bound in with water coilings and the work of wind in the topmost branches. Theuda let himself be covered by them, lay gaining his strength and then suddenly, carried by anger, flung himself upwards against the hand.
For a moment he was free. But his bonds caught at him. He heard a soft oath and then, as he struggled, a blow, heavy as iron, put him down again.
Later they said: ‘Here, chew this. For your own good.’ And then strong succulence, acrid and rib-veined, filled his mouth. He chewed idly at it, leaf and stem, dimly curious. Still dazed and pinned prone, he reached back at far-off, hidden things while above him they stood and talked in flat, covered voices.
Without measurement, horn and speech and water began to fold into one.
It felt to him as though his face were smiling. Bright winds flithered on it and the fall of sunlight and leaf shadows confused sense with hope so that he no longer cared overmuch. He may even have laughed a bit when they drew him up and fitted the antlered mask and the bodyskin to him.
The horn was slowing, spilling over on to itself among the valleys.
Theuda stood. The antlers made his head sway. From the darkness, he saw the two men, tall and daubed red and yellow about the polish of their heads. They held themselves apart, faces lowered from him.
The horn stopped. And of a sudden the air was heavy with ease.
‘Go, holy one! Go!’
And with that the undergrowth took them.
He stood there, mouthing nothings into the darkness. Leaf juice seeped still in his throat. He stamped his feet and gave a laughing snort. His hands were tethered to the bodyskin so he beat at the air with his elbows. There were eddies and sluicings in his eyes. He would go, go somewhere and rest up....
‘E – oh – e! E – oh – e!’
The shouts sprang up off the cliffs and fell away into the forest. But before they were crushed out altogether, other shouts and whistlings took up the cry.
Theuda twisted away and began to run. He loped along, following paths and damp black trails, any way that took him from the line of calls.
But it was quiet now. Wind and waterstream ran about him and the sun slid round his shoulders and back across the eyeholes of his head. All about, the approach of his passing drove up bursts of wings with piping and smacked clatterings so that he moved in a wheeling cloud of chaos and light.
Now he was running as if his legs had never known otherwise.
Once when the antlers caught in an overhang of branchwork, he stood there, snared, panting his fury into the sudden peace of the clearing. He had neither hands nor eyes and began to twist and thrash, blowing and kicking up earth. Finally freed, he paused and turned head high to sniff the air.
Shouts and calls rose again out of the forest.
Then the eddies came once more. About him, trees scattered, the ground’s fall swelled and carried back and the grating of rooks was upon him yet away over the bounds.
His eyes rolled from darkness and back. Then once more he was gone.
Fear still filled him with its utterness, pricked him on to run; but in with this was an abundance of laughter that stripped consequence from all, from everything. Thorns would snatch at him, boughs massively bar against arm or leg: yet for him there seemed nothing in this, as if the pain of it were not even his.
He came breaking from the thickets, running topwise down a bank of sprung grass to where a stream lay fierce among the rocks. By its edge he steadied himself and peered sunwards up into the disarrayment of the towering woods. The stream’s drive and the thick purling of the waterfall behind him formed a seamless closure of sound.
The sun was falling.
He shook his head and blinked.
Did he have to run on? The warm lightness within him was whispering that they had gone now, the shouters....
In loathing, he turned and spat the sodden green pad into the stream. Then, crouching, he sucked water through the mask and swilled out his mouth.
Though he was quite still now and had all his balance yet it was as if there were nothing fixed in the form of things about him. He saw all of it with precision but could not find a pattern, beech and earth and dark water. The antlered head rocked upon the sky: the animal heat of anger was once again flushing up against the binding of the bodyskin.
Then dimly, beyond his fury, he sensed a tautening within himself. And even as he did so, a prick of sunlight on metal struck at his eye from the higher wood. He just saw it and spun, taking to the air, stamping up off a rock in a half-formed bound of fear.
A cord of fire caught him across the shoulders and went clattering away among the rocks. He twisted at it with a grunt and his flight was turned so that he came splayfoot down on slitheriness. He went off it backwards and sprawled hard on the polished surge of water as it ran into the channel above the fall. A mere moment later, as he breached up to pluck air from the day, he was sucked over the lip of the force, a bundle of limb and antler as ungainly as the flood-drawn branch of a tree.
Even in the noise of the drop, there sparked brightly in his mind: No! not just for this...! But with that he was gone and the great-mouthed pillar force had driven him to the depths.
And with all the strong agility of fear and belief, he kicked. Bubbles were netting about his face, golden in the peat darkness. Somewhere above waited the light.
And again: No!
And with it, he kicked again though less strongly now for somehow water had plunged icily into the flaming fist of his chest. The daylight remembered and the half of a life passed became part of the thundering cavern about him.
No! he urged once more and then the waters broke and, spewing, he bit furiously into the warmth.
In the hunger of that moment, Theuda glimpsed the gorge below. Shadows hung there among sharp-coloured mosses and all the moulder of waterlogged trees. Then he sank again: but was striving sideways across the current, thrusting himself off the bed with violence. When next he rose, dismay seized him for he saw himself close to the gorge mouth. There cream waters boiled; and lower beyond, ominously, a great mizzle of spray hung fine, brightened in the sinking sun.
‘No!’ he cried, this time aloud; and, screwing round, drove his head at the rocks. He lashed with leg and bucked his head, searching. Then, just as he felt himself being drawn into the gathering speed, his antlerwork lodged itself between two boulders. He held, not daring to try more. Then, braced on his neck, he managed to ease up his legs and slowly pull round to hang gasping in the backwater.
Later, when he had landed himself and gone to cover, he found a sharp rock to cut away the thongs. He rid himself of the mask and the pale skin and pushed them down into a quaggy patch under the cliffs.
He stood up and peered round through the trees. A bird, loud with piping, fled hugging the bloom on the pool. Theuda smiled and breathed in slowly, eyes closed and head back, drawing round his shoulders to feel how the arrow had hurt him.
He climbed a bit and tucked himself into a notch of the cliff where cushion grass grew thick in the sun. The air was still and surrounded by the sound of the falls.
Just till dusk..., he thought and lay back.
There was still the folding and floating in him: so that when he stared far out into the depths of the blue, the call of a bird with the water noises was all of a oneness with him and yet clearly detached. But now there was no great matter in this and of a sudden Theuda found himself laughing and then laughing more so that his long face creased and his eyes opened up. And it kept growing within him, the laughing, so that soon it reverberated out of all his being as if it would carry him with it into the beyond.
And then—so cleanly that it cut into his awareness as a blade might into a heart—the tumult of his happiness stilled from its bounding vastness into a simple breath of peace and he slept.
He moved under moonlight, his body crazed all over by branches of pitch.
Away from the stream, the spring forest opened; and here, among the massive, waxen columns, he walked with a sureness of ease, his soles picking safety on moss and sharp grass. His way was always upwards for he sought the freedom of seclusion for the night. He felt the animals close by as he passed and occasionally the stillness would move in alarm: otherwise he climbed alone.
The shouts had continued to ring up in the air till shortly after sunfall. Then the horn had sounded again—close or far, somewhere in the interlocking of the hills—one solemn soaring that descended quickly into the shadows of the valleys’ dusk. Theuda had stopped, heart-held, till long after the call had been swallowed up by the air. From then on into the early darkness, nothing. He climbed now only for his own content.
He fell asleep high on the hill, clutching his tunic of hide about him for the spring was still young and the nights of the north hung long on the edge of winter. Waist-deep in a bank of old leaves he lay, there at the foot of a ridge that topped the angle of the clearing. Owls and foxes were on the move and, far away to the west, wolves were out; but he heard little of this in his exhaustion and was long asleep when the moon fell on to the forest spears and true darkness took the leaf bed.
At the sound, Theuda went bounding up in a cloud of leaves even before he fully awoke. Only from the safety of the trees did he turn and look.
The man was frowning at him. Short and built of strength and balance, his eyes saw like a hawk’s. His hair flamed and across his back lay a bow and its arrows. There was nothing of fear in him: only puzzlement.
‘I woke you,’ he said. Theuda waited. ‘You have a name?’
The sun began to rise.
‘I am Theuda, son of Algar, himself a son of Hoel, men of no small standing. We claim kinship with....’
‘These are men’s names,’ broke in the other. ‘What of the woman who bore you?’
Theuda looked at him.
‘My mother was called Aldith.’ he paused. ‘And you?’
‘My mother was Moolde. I am Deor.’
Theuda shook his head. The sleep had gone now; and with the growth of light, a new feeling came into him. He began to speak:
All-seeing, the falcon of hope.
Mountain and field alike
With her fire, she will cross.
Menfolk must follow:
It is her or a death.
Storms are her plumage:
The rat of fear
Lies low in the grass.
His mouth emptied itself and closed. He gazed with a momentary arrogance into the sky and then scratched his buttock.
‘You are a wordspeaker,’ said Deor.
‘No,’ answered Theuda. ‘That was not me speaking.’
Large birds of dun colouring flew weightily across the clearing. In the valley below, honeyed daylight was spreading.
Deor asked Theuda had slept the night long on the leaf bed.
‘All of a chill night,’ replied Theuda.
Deor straightened up. They met by the leaves.
‘Truly? Then it is a mishap you have brought on yourself. Last night was a spirit night.’ He gestured up towards a great spike of a stone which stood on the ridge. ‘To sleep near the stone on such a night may well make a man die. If not, then for certain he will either fall mad or become a wordspeaker.’
Theuda stared at himself.
‘Have you come far for this?’ Deor’s voice was low.
‘Far? Yes, I have travelled long ways.’ He glanced at Deor and saw the man’s eyes holding him fixed. He could scarcely look at it.
‘Things must be,’ said Deor. ‘There is no joy in hating them for it.’
‘Indeed,’ replied Theuda.
They walked together down to the clearing’s foot where the sunlight was starting to pool.
‘Your back...’ said Deor of a sudden.
Theuda made as if he had not heard and walked on, seeking to step out of a memory.
But Deor had stopped.
‘You—it was you yesterday!’
‘I don’t remember,’ said Theuda swiftly.
Deor was down on his knee, head bent.
‘When the Willowmonth Sorel is not taken then grief comes for sure. But the Sorel himself will know joy for he is then free and untouchable. Go,’ he said, ‘you are hallowed. It is for you to live.’
Theuda was angry.
‘Go?’ he burst out and drew Deor up by the shoulder. ‘I am come here and shall stay. This I say to you.’
Deor looked at him and slowly a smile ran into his eyes.
‘Then, Lord Sorel,’ he said with a laugh, ‘so am I your companion in blood. For it was I who touched you yesterday.’