The Cross and The Curse - Sneak Peek

“We do not need your new god. He is weak. Was he not killed by men?” The raven-haired beauty turned to her audience with a savage smile. But the eyes of the men and women who glared back were dim and dark, like deep meres from which no warmth came.

“What god can be slain by mortals?” the woman sneered.

“I do not seek to battle with you,” the thin, hawk-faced man before her said. “I am simply bringing the word of the one true God to you and your people. Edwin King has granted me the right.” The man’s words were difficult to understand. His strange accent garbled the sounds, but the meaning was clear enough.

Some weeks before, a pedlar had ventured up the valley for the first time since the snows thawed and had told tales of fabulous things afoot in the land. King Edwin’s bride had brought a holy man with her from her homeland of Cantware. But this priest was from even further away, if such things could be believed. It was said he was from the land of the giants who had built the Great Wall, but that was ridiculous. Everyone knew they were all dead now.

And this man was no giant. Yet he did carry himself as one sure that others would follow.

“One true god?” she spat. “Only one god? You are mad. What of the sky, and the water? Battle, and the crops of the earth? Each has its own god, we know this.” Again she looked to the villagers, but stony silence met her gaze.

“There is only one God,” the slender priest said, speaking as a father explaining something to a small child. “He sacrificed, Jesu Christ, his only son, so that no man should know death, but have everlasting life.”

The woman recoiled as if he had struck her.

“Mother?” A boy stepped close to the woman, reaching out hesitantly to touch her arm. He was a swarthy youth, at that awkward age close to adulthood, yet not quite a man. Tall and strong, but without the bulk that came with age.

He knew that his mother would never willingly allow this stranger to speak of his god to the villagers.

She would kill the priest first.

The boy looked at the warriors who had come with the priest. They stood nervously holding their horses’ reins. They were grim-faced. Killers. Light glinted from sword hilts, and burnished byrnies of iron. His mother’s magic was strong, and she might kill the priest, but her own death would follow close behind.

“Mother,” he repeated.

“Silence, Hengist,” she hissed, pushing him away.

She turned her face to the sky and let out a piercing shriek.

Startled, the horses shied and snorted. The warriors tugged on the bridles.

“Leave this place!” she screamed, her beautiful face contorted into a mask of fury. “Begone and do not return! Take your weak god and his son and go back to the land you came from.” A strong wind blew down the valley suddenly, whipping her black hair about her face. Her dress pressed to the contours of her body.

She began to tremble and shake. Hengist had seen her do this countless times. She always did so when the gods spoke through her. He shivered. The gods were preparing to speak and he was frightened of what they might say.

A broad-shouldered man with greying hair and a stern jaw stepped forward, shaking off the hands of his wife, who tried to hold him back.

“Wait, Nelda,” he said. “I would hear what this man has to say about his god. A god that does not demand sacrifice and promises life rather than death. This is a god I would hear tales of.”

For several heartbeats Nelda glowered at the man.

“Do not think to tell me what to do, Agiefan,” she said, her words full of contempt.

 Then, with a cry even louder than the first, she spun to face the dark priest once more.

“No! You bring lies to poison our minds. Lies!” She reached into the leather pouch that hung from her belt and drew forth several small items. Without hesitation she flung them at the stranger. He flinched as the small objects, white against the dark wool of his robe, hit him and fell to the ground. They were human finger bones.

The priest touched his head, then his chest, then each shoulder, in a magical symbol of some kind.

Nelda screamed in words of a tongue none there could comprehend. The wind tugged the words from her mouth and shredded them. A great flock of rooks flew overhead, black against the darkening sky. Stinging grit from the path spattered into Hengist’s eyes. The air itself crackled with the promise of violence. Mothers pulled their children away, shielding their eyes. Nelda wielded the power of the gods in her voice and all there stepped back from where she stood.

All except the priest.

He was unmoving, with eyes closed. His lips moved, but he spoke too quietly for the onlookers to hear.

His lack of response seemed to enrage Nelda even further and her voice began to crack, her throat tearing with the force of her arcane words.

One of the warriors stepped forward, drawing his sword. The priest, sensing the movement, held out his hand for the man to halt.

Nelda’s cries and exhortations to the gods continued for some time, until at last, the words dried in her throat and she stood before the stranger, panting and wild-eyed, foam flecking her lips.

He opened his eyes then, this man who spoke of a new kind of god, and held out his right hand towards the witch. In his left hand he clutched a silver amulet that dangled from a thong about his neck. Hengist saw that it was similar in shape to the hammer of Thunor; a cross, like the sign the priest had made over his chest.

Nelda’s shoulders heaved from her exertions. For a moment there was silence, only broken by the rush of the wind that now howled in the valley.

Then, in a clear voice, the priest said, “In the name of our Lord Jesu Christ, I, Paulinus, command you to leave this place, that these people may know the true word of God.”

Nobody moved. The ferocity of the wind lessened. A calm settled on the valley. Nelda’s mouth began to twitch into a smile. It seemed this stranger’s god would not speak.

And then, with a sound as loud as mountains collapsing, the shadowed vale was lit with the white brilliance of lightning. The bolt crashed so nearby that people screamed out, in fear for their lives. It was as if the sky itself had fallen. Women threw themselves to the ground, protecting their children with their bodies. Several of the warriors’ horses broke free and galloped down the valley track, eyes white-rimmed with terror.

The thunder-crash was deafening. The air was rent with a ripping sound, followed instantly by a hammer-crash blow of god-like intensity. The echoes rolled down the valley. Was this a display of Thunor’s anger? Had he heard Nelda’s screams of defiance at this new god?

The clouds churned black and terrible above them. Nelda’s smile broadened. The gods were furious.

But Nelda’s expression changed to a look of anguish as she saw where the lightning had struck.

To one side of the valley stood the sacred ash tree. This was the symbol of Woden, All-Father. The tree where the rites to the gods were performed. Where sacrifices were made.

The tree had been split asunder. Part of the massive canopy came crashing to the earth in a jumble of broken branches and wind-whipped leaves. The remaining section of the tree’s bole was aflame. Great sheets of fire leapt into the sky, fanned by the wind.

No more lightning came and no rain fell, but the wind continued to scream down the valley, and the sacred ash burnt.

People began to recover from the sudden shock of the lightning. They cowered in tight groups, as if by proximity they could protect themselves from the wrath of the gods.

Agiefan spoke then, his voice loud and hard.

“This new god has shown himself. Look, the sacred tree is shattered. The old gods’ power has waned. And what have they brought us but death and pain?”

Nelda’s face was pale as frost. None there had ever seen her thus.

Afraid.

Gods had been pitched against each other, and Nelda’s had lost.

“No!” she said. “You do not understand the signs of the gods. I have been there to guide you all for years, I have helped you bring your babes into the world, I have —"

Her words were cut short when a gaunt woman, sallow skin stretched over sharp cheekbones, stepped in close to Nelda and punched the witch solidly in the mouth. Nelda staggered, but did not fall. She spun to face the woman, raising her hands, ready to fight her, but the villagers crowded in. Nelda held herself in check.

“Do not speak of bringing babes into the world, Nelda,” spat the woman. Her eyes were dark and sunken, as one who has witnessed horrors that can never be scoured from memory. The woman seemed set to strike again, strong in her rage. But then her shoulders sagged, and she said in a thin voice, “Never speak of helping us, witch.”

The villagers knew of the woman’s pain; the darkness that had consumed her since the coldest days of winter. They shared some of that pain. And they knew that they were partly to blame for it. They remembered the blackest night of Geola, when they had turned to the cunning woman. Nelda had promised them an end to famine, and they had listened, accepting in their desperation the sacrifice she had demanded.

They had accepted her price. Yet the cost of it weighed heavily on them all.

And now the witch’s gods had deserted her.

As a fire will burst suddenly into life when a tiny flame is blown upon in just the right way, so the anger, resentment and shame of the villagers sprung into life.

Another woman stepped forward and slapped Nelda hard, splitting her lip. A man shoved the witch. She tripped and fell to the earth. The villagers swarmed around her, kicking and spitting in their sudden-found ire.

Hengist let out a roar that stilled the crowd. He surged forward, pushing men and women aside. He was strong and his fury lent him power. More than one man fell from the onslaught of the boy’s rage.

“Get back from my mother,” he screamed, standing over Nelda’s huddled form.

Agiefan took a step forward. Without thought, Hengist lashed out, striking the older man squarely on the nose. Blood sprayed and Agiefan staggered back, caught in the arms of other villagers.

“Hengist,” Agiefan spoke from behind the hand that sought to staunch the blood-flow from his nose. “We have no fight with you. But your mother is not wanted here.” He spat blood onto the gravel of the path. “She must leave this place.” Agiefan flicked a glance to his own son, Hengist’s best friend, who stood looking on aghast. “You are welcome to stay here, Hengist. But she must go.”

Hengist looked at the people gathered around them. Folk he had known all his life. Friends and enemies. Old and young. Agiefan’s son, looked on with pleading eyes. Hengist’s gaze fell on the glowing beauty of the girl, Othili. She was as pallid as the rest, but there was no hate in her eyes. There was something else. Excitement?

Then Hengist met the stare of the strange man, Paulinus, the priest who had come from a faraway land. The priest’s eyes were dark and hard, like caves hewn of granite. For a moment, Hengist felt his rage screaming to be unleashed. He could leap at Paulinus. Rip out his throat or snap his neck like an autumn twig.

His mother’s hand on his leg stayed him.

To kill Paulinus would serve no purpose. Hengist would be struck down by the warriors who protected him. But Hengist scowled at the priest. He would have vengeance over this man and his king.

He pulled his mother to her feet.

“Help me to pack my things,” she whispered to him.

He swallowed, unable to speak for a moment. He would not weep before these people.

They walked away from the crowd. The scent of woodsmoke was pungent in the air. The snapping sounds of the burning ash followed them.

“I will come with you,” Hengist said.

“No,” Nelda turned to him, a savage glint in her eye. Blood trickled from her lip and her face was bruised, but Hengist did not believe he had ever seen a more beautiful woman. “No, my son, you will stay here and you will be great! You will serve kings, like your father did. And you will bring them down, Hengist.” She clutched at his arm so tightly that it hurt. “Stay and topple these worshippers of the soft Christ god.”

He was ashamed at the rush of relief that washed over him. The thought of fleeing their home terrified him.

“Your father was a thegn of renown,” she continued. “You will be greater. You will serve kings, feeding the wolves with the gifts of your slaughter. Oh my son, you will cast terror into the spirits of your enemies. You have been touched by Woden, who goes by many names and guises. But the name that suits you best is Frenzy.”

She pulled his face close to her own, smoothing his dark hair back from his forehead with her lithe fingers. Her touch both thrilled and unnerved him. Her breath was metallic.

“Remember,” she said, spitting blood into his face from her bleeding mouth, “you are Frenzy. Woden-touched.”

Hengist stared back at the dark Christ priest. Behind Paulinus stood the sacred ash that was now a towering torch of flame and smoke.

Yes, he would stay. But he would never forget the day the new Christ god came to the village. Hengist would never forget and he would see to it that Paulinus and his king, Edwin, would remember him when their time came.

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