Inga was late. It had been two whole moons since she had last seen the blooming of her flowers. In her excitement she had spoken to Hildwine about a son; a son that would quicken in her belly and would carry her husband’s name and legacy. She had been so confident that she had not even prepared her moss dressing. But her foretelling was premature. Her reddened sheets were proof of that.
Inga tried to hide the stain, taking the soiled linen off and having her women scrub it, but it had stained the sheets permanently and that night he had noticed it, try hard as she did to mask it in other ways.
“What is this? I thought you were with child,” he bellowed, seeing it as he tossed the fur covers aside.
“Husband, I will be. It will just take time,” Inga implored, backing up against the lofty bedhead.
Hildwine towered over her as she sat cowering from him in nothing but her muslin chemise. His large frame was fierce and threatening, the belt around his tunic still holding his iron-hilted dagger in its leather scabbard. “We have been trying, woman. You are barren. What use are you to me when you cannot even bear me a son?” He grabbed her by the neck, bringing her up towards his haggard face, and leered down at her. “Do not think I cannot toss you aside.”
“No, Hildwine... dear husband. I’m not barren... I swear to you... you will have your son,” Inga wheezed, her copper hair hanging frailly down her back.
He stared at her with his emotionless grey eyes, his rust-coloured beard scratching her chin, but Inga knew he wouldn’t hit her this time. This sort of talk always roused a hunger within him she was obliged to sate.
“Not unless you do your duty.”
Duty. The word had been on Brigit’s mind a lot of late. She had mulled over the word, repeating it again and again til it lost all meaning.
She watched the Christians in their procession. They brought forward freshly moulded beeswax and tallow candles to be blessed by their priests. A trail of young, fresh-faced candle-bearers filed down the passageway to the altar not long after, the lit candles they held flickering in the breeze. They celebrated and spoke of the coming spring with longing and prayed their devotions to their new god.
The final month of winter was still a time of rebirth as of old. Though, they did not light any bonfires. They did not pray to Brigit for a good harvest, or a long spring or summer. Nor did they bring her offerings. They celebrated the fire she gifted them and yet she was not recognised; not for a single moment.
There was no quickening in her womb this year either. Even if she wanted to help them she could not. For each blessing there must be a sacrifice. This new religion knew this too.
This new religion stole a lot from the old.
She had been sainted, it was true. But what respecting goddess wanted to be part of this monstrosity? This bastardisation of sacred days and maiming of the great Tuatha Dé Danann.
Even if she was sainted, she could feel herself waning. Just as her sacred flame in Kildare had.
“Sister, why do you watch? I know it pains you.”
Brigit stepped back from the mist. Her sister, the maiden, was ever pretty and naive. It was probably she that caused their sainthood. The Christians favoured weakling deities after all. “Why do you not watch? Does it not bother you? They have taken our sacred day and defaced it. Who is this God they speak of? I have never met Him, and yet they revere Him above us. We have shown ourselves to them, given of our children and our powers, and it means nothing to them.”
“Have you spoken to Tuireann?”
Brigit turned, flinging her fiery red hair abruptly. “Tuireann? Even if he did care it wouldn’t matter. He is powerless now. They have all forgotten him. Not that I mind--we were always too good for him. Too powerful.”
“Sister, he is our husband. Should you not confide in him, consult him?” the maiden approached and touched Brigit’s blackened face, the embers still smouldering.
Brigit pushed her aside. “Consult him? Like we need his consent? You speak like the Romans did, or worse yet, like these Christians. Even if I thought it wise to do so, he is but a fairy now. Less even than our old half-mortal husband, Bres. We have more power and more influence. He is subordinate to us. Or have you truly become like these Christians that you do not believe in the power of women, sister?”
Brigit--the maiden--turned, playing with her braided red hair, her young, fair-face gazing out through the mists. “With every moon comes a sun. With every winter comes a spring. And with every death comes rebirth. This is a new world, sister. We must change with it and accept our fate. As all life is reborn, we must too be reborn.”
“I suppose you are why they have adopted us. I have changed my mind--we were never good enough for Bres. At least he never retreated from a battle.”
“Brigit, do not speak so. Our sister speaks wisely. You have a lot to learn.”
They both turned to see their sister, the crone. She hobbled in, her wrinkled face framed by a festive floral wreath.
“You too? Well what wise words do you have for us old woman? Do tell.”
“It’s not what you think, sister. I do not like this new religion either. Their priests have either murdered or violently converted our followers so that they now all follow this so-called god of peace. But we have no other choice than to let these people follow their paths. Even if we show our wrath, they will only more fervently worship this new god. We are but myths and legends to them now; stories to tell curious children. Fairy tales as they call them. It has been many years since we were spoken of as goddesses, too many years to change it now.”
Brigit swung around, angered by the old woman’s apathy. She glowered at her, her red eyes aflame. “Should we not fight this? We have been here since before their god and yet we stand divided and debate about matters that should only concern mortals. Yes: soon we will be nothing. Fairies like our brethren. We will retire to the land of the Sidhe and fade from memory. But if we act, we may still hold power and meaning, even as lower beings; maybe even to await a future age where we will regain our former glory as trinity goddess. I would rather fight till we are nothing than have us fade into nothingness without a fight. I want us to be remembered, to have a legacy beyond sainthood in this new religion. If it is all for naught, I want these people to recall us in years to come and wish they had not given us up.”
The old crone thought for a moment. “Alright. What would you have us do?”
“I will not do it.”
Brigit turned. “Sister? You will not help us?”
“Why should I? The battle is already lost,” the maiden said, glancing at Brigit with her wide azure eyes.
“The battle has not yet even been waged, sweetling,” Brigit said.
Inga held the rosary tightly.
Please Lord, give me a son. Give me son to bring pride to my husband and a son for me to love. Do with me what you will, but please Lord, let me bear a strong, healthy boy. This I ask of Thee, the sacred Trinity, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
She got to her feet and crossed her chest, kissing the beads as she looked up, pleadingly, at Jesus Christ upon the cross.
“Yes, my lady,” the golden-haired girl said, not meeting Inga’s gaze.
They strolled out of the church, passing the oaken pews and the nuns busy at prayer or counsel. Outside it was a bustling spring day, both women dodging pushy merchants and stray pigs as they walked through the muddy roads of Woking.
“Tell me Gytha, do you come from a good family?”
“Yes, my lady. My father was an ealdorman before he died and my mother is a descendant of the first king, King Cerdic--” The girl hesitated.
“Not the first king, dear girl. My family also came from kings, but not Saxon or Angle kings. From Britonic kings, although once invaded, we were reduced to farmers. My father was not born with his title of ealdorman. He worked for it; fought by the side of King Aethelbald, and even lost his life for it.”
“Yes, I know... my lady.”
Inga paused. She looked at the pretty, timid maid she had been assigned. Gytha stared down at her feet, her plump lips pursed in anxiety. “I do not blame you Gytha. I know you are an orphan. I do not blame Hildwine either. You are beautiful and he and I... have had our problems. It would be foolish for me to believe he would not seek your company. And you would have made him a far better wife than I have,” Inga said, taking Gytha’s hands in her own.
She glimpsed her slightly aged skin alongside Gytha’s alabaster colouring and avoided the fear and jealousy it brought on. It was not the girl’s fault she was reaching the end of her childbearing years.
“My lady, it’s not like that--”
“--Hush, child. I know what it is like. I’m a woman too. I do not wish to be your enemy. You are so young; young enough to be my own daughter. Though Hildwine longs for a son, I have always fancied having a daughter. I think you would make a fine one, so I wish to have you see me as a mother to you, now that yours is gone. Let us not have animosity between us, but only love.”
Gytha peered up at Inga and smiled bashfully. “Of course. I would like that.”
Inga and Gytha made their way home, Inga grinning triumphantly. But still, she prayed, chanted and begged each night.
Give me a son. This I ask of Thee, the sacred Trinity. Amen.
Brigit listened out beyond the mist. Her ears were searching; searching for prayers. Would anyone be calling her name tonight? No. All she heard was the name of this new god, his son, Jesus, and sometimes Jesus’s mother, Mary.
This new religion had goddesses too.
Through the mists she heard the followers that were once hers call out to this new god, asking for forgiveness and asking for their hearts’ desires. But then she heard a familiar phrase.
Give me a son. This I ask of Thee, the sacred Trinity.
She knew it was not for her. She knew this new religion had its own trinity. But the woman who pleaded so wholeheartedly both intrigued her and enraged her with jealousy. This was a daughter of the Britons; twice over had her family forsaken the gods and converted to this new religion. Her prayers went unanswered and yet they sounded so fervent and pure. Brigit would have pitied her, if she had not decided that it would be she, the original trinity, that would answer her prayer.
“For our legacy,” the sisters whispered.
“Can I hold her?” Inga asked, holding her arms out.
Eadwyn handed the baby over. She was swaddled in warm woollen blankets and squirmed as Inga cradled her.
The women cooed and smiled at the fledgling, the baby oblivious to all the attention. Inga imagined it her own, pretending the eyes that peered back up at her were the eyes she and her child would share. She imagined a life where her daughter would grow into a fine woman and love her mother as much as she loved her. She would be a beauty, talented in the arts, and make fine conversation: all that Inga was or wanted to be. After a son, she was sure girls would follow. Girls of copper hair and hazel eyes. How she would love to have someone by her side, to teach and coddle, and to admire with pride. A girl to be her legacy, as a son would be Hildwine’s.
“She is beautiful Eadwyn,” Inga gushed, but her mind’s eye saw another child.
Inga handed her back once she started to mewl, reaching for her mother’s breast.
“What have you named her?” another woman asked.
“Ceolwyn, after my late mother.”
“Ceolwyn,” the women chanted.
“Fetch me some ale, woman,” Hildwine roared as he and the men entered the hall.
“Gytha, please fetch my lord husband a horn of ale.”
The women dispersed as Hildwine and the men approached the throne.
“Husband, what news?”
Hildwine slumped into his great chair as Gytha handed him his ale. He motioned her away when she lingered beside him. “Many ships have come ashore. We will be going to battle on the morn.”
Inga wanted to question, but knew it was not her place. “Whatever is best, dear husband.”
“Play!” he demanded, and the minstrels played.
That night, he had his way with her again, but this time Inga prayed in her head, thinking of little Ceolwyn.
Give me a child. This I ask of Thee, the sacred Trinity. Amen.
Brigit, the maiden, wandered through the mist, her oxen, Fe and Men, at her side as escorts and protectors.
The battlefield lay with ruined men and bloodied weapons. There were a few that meandered past the bodies, searching. But there was one that seemed content as he pulled a sword out of a man’s belly. He was the one Brigit had told her about.
Brigit approached the gruff man. He was robust and hairy, with stern eyes that pierced through an onlooker’s soul. But when he saw Brigit alongside the beasts, his gaze softened.
The maiden was familiar with that look.
“You’re the ealdorman. The one they speak of,” she said, circling languidly and arching her back the way the human men liked.
Her sheer white chemise floated in the breeze, Hildwine ogling her barely-hidden bosom. Before he could even notice, the mists surrounded them and his comrades disappeared, leaving only the oxen to graze peacefully.
“Who are you?”
“I’m Brigit, the maiden. I’m here to fulfil your destiny.”
Hildwine’s mouth was agape, his eyes intently following her slender form as it approached. “What destiny?”
Brigit smiled, feeling him quiver ever so slightly when their lips met.
She was careful not to reveal her other faces as he stared after her lustfully.
Without a word, he ripped her chemise in half and it fell to her feet.
Brigit gave way with a moan and it was done.
Inga lay awake.
What if Hildwine has been lost? What if the men find us here? There is no one to defend us.
She tossed and turned, her bones restless and her mind wild.
She got up and fetched herself a drink--a strong one--and crawled back in beneath the covers.
But still her mind was full of thoughts.
The shutters flew open, letting the autumn rain from outside fly in. Inga went to close them, hugging herself from the cold winds, but stopped when she saw it.
It sounded a hoarse caw.
It watched her; stared at her. She got back into the bed, holding the covers close.
“Caw!” It flew down upon her.
Inga lay still, afraid to move. “What do you want?”
The raven blinked and bent to peck her belly. First it was barely a poke, but then the bird pinched and bit and had made a hole in the covers and Inga’s smock.
“Caw! Caw! Caw!” more ravens came through the opening and perched upon her, claws digging into her flesh.
Inga screamed, immobilised as the ravens pecked at her till blood soaked the sheets and streamed down her sides. They squawked, boring their beaks into her, until a great hole was left.
“Caw!” the first one sounded. The others--two dozen at least--took flight and formed a black cloud above Inga.
Inga screamed and screamed, and the ravens flew out the window into the thunder-claps of the night.
She whimpered as she watched the one left behind blink at her: it seeming almost confused. It roosted at the side of her bloody wound and coughed up a large acorn. It took up the seed and dropped it into the hole in her belly. Inga shrieked, and the bird took flight.
Inga screeched and cried from the pain, too afraid to let her hands venture to the source as she felt something within her writhe. Eventually the pain was so much that she fell into unconsciousness.
When she awoke it was morning. Her hand darted to her abdomen, but there was no gash; no wide gaping hole.
But then Inga felt it.
A grin crept across her face.
Bone and wood thunked together, ale swirled and splattered about, and chortles filled the hall. Small children ran about the tables and benches, and servants wound between people, serving drinks, receiving gropes, and taking bowls and plates with remnants of the wild boar and winter vegetable feast. There was chatter and laughter, minstrels playing jovially in the background. The atmosphere was one of hope and happiness.
“A son. Finally I will have my son,” Hildwine bellowed happily above the noise, knocking his horn against the cups of those near him.
Inga smiled, rubbing her stomach, her babe kicking in response.
“Look at her. My wife. She is beautiful. Aglow and heavy with child.”
“It sounds like she won’t just be full with child tonight,” Raedwulf said, and the men guffawed.
Gytha got up, her head bowed.
“Gytha, wait. Please stay,” Inga begged, reaching for the girl beside her.
“Let her go,” Hildwine commanded.
Gytha dashed off, tears in her eyes.
Inga lowered her gaze, suddenly ashamed.
“We don’t need her kind around here,” Hildwine said, his teeth ripping into flesh. “I knew a son would come. I had a dream. On the battlefield a woman named Brigit, red-of-hair like Inga, came to me. She said I had a destiny, and I ravished her,” Hildwine took a piece of chicken wing and made a bawdy gesture with his tongue.
The men laughed, but the women averted their eyes demurely, the holy men in company muttering their contempt.
“And what of you, Inga? Did you know you’d become heavy with child?” Eadwyn asked, cradling Ceolwyn.
“Yes. A raven came to me in a dream and dropped an acorn into my womb. Then I felt him quickening when I awoke.”
“Isn’t the raven the bearer of death? Bringer of darkness?” Edith said from across the table.
Inga stared back blankly... but then she blinked and cleared her throat. “Yes, but it is also the bringer of wisdom and the animal of seers. I believe it was telling me I was with child.”
Edith nodded, but didn’t appear convinced.
“Nothelm, you should quieten your woman. She speaks out of turn and brings false omens,” Hildwine spat scornfully, standing afterward and raising his horn. “To my son. May he be strong, healthy and virile like his father.” Hildwine grinned.
“To your son,” everyone echoed back.
Brigit looked through the mists, a small smile upon her face.
“Are you happy sister?” the maiden said sourly.
“Yes, aren’t you?” Brigit said, turning.
“This will not only affect them--it will affect all,” the crone mused.
“Doesn’t it worry you both?”
“Sweetling, do not worry. Death is not the end. Besides, this will allow them to remember us and how powerful we were.”
“What of the child?”
“The child has been given a gift. One that will set it free,” the crone replied.
“And set all else to flame,” Brigit grinned.
“I only hope it does not suffer. I already have love for it. Just like all the others,” the maiden said, a tear running down one cheek.
“Oh sweet child,” the crone said, hobbling over to her sister. “Do not worry, there will be one that will love the babe.”
“The child does not matter. How many have we given up before? What matters is the curse. Thrice we will curse them. The mother will die in the greatest pain for rejecting us and the ways of old, the father will die in agony for never acknowledging us in the first place, and our child will have a gift, a gift that will forever be proof of the power we once had and sully this God and his so called powers. Even if we fade into myth, they will remember.”
The maiden and crone stared at her.
“Thrice we will curse them,” they recited.
The time was nigh--Inga had started getting painful contractions and the women assigned to her during her confinement were preparing for the birth.
Inga screamed in pain as each jolt went through her. “How much longer?”
“They are too far apart. It could still be half a day,” the midwife said.
Inga cried feebly. She was in so much pain and discomfort, she just wanted the experience to be over. She kept thinking of Ceolwyn to soothe her. A little baby in her arms to call her own.
Finally, after all these years.
Inga sat propped up in her bed, sweat upon her brow, the room dark and dimly-lit by candles, tapestries lining the walls and the great fire before her warming the chamber like a womb.
She looked about, suddenly aware. “Where is Gytha? Where is Gytha! I want her here.”
Ymma came to her side, rubbing away the perspiration with a cool cloth. “My lady, she has been sent away.”
“By whom? Who sent her away? I asked for her not to leave my side.”
The women exchanged glances amongst themselves, Ymma hesitating.
“Your husband, my lady. He sent her away.”
Inga lay back, frowning. “Of course.”
Ymma went back to her duties and Inga was left to inspect the faces in the room. All of them servants. She had seen them before, known many for years, but they were all strange to her. She wanted Gytha.
Inga cried out as another contraction came.
“Here, my dear. It will soothe the pain.” An old crone, wearing a heavy brown cloak, was by her side.
Inga took the cup from the woman’s skeletal fingers, and stared at her face quizzically. “I’m not aware of who you are, old woman? Has my husband employed you?”
“Yes. You could say that. Don’t worry, my dear. I am here to help you. I am here to help fulfil your destiny.”
“Destiny?” she said, drinking the bitter contents.
The old crone smiled, “To be a mother of course. What all women want.”
Inga nodded, grimacing. “Of course.”
The contractions came and went, only to flood through her body faster and faster and more intensely, until all she felt was never-ending pain. It took hours and hours, Inga calling out to the women, begging them to help her. They only smiled and said it was normal, she was doing well, and not to worry. But the pain was too much; Inga felt like she would burst.
What they thought would only take hours, turned into a day, then another, and another.
The women began to whisper, peering at her from the corner of their eyes as they spoke. When she mumbled concerns in her exhaustion, all she got was women soothing and cooing at her as they would a small child.
When the baby’s time finally arrived--on Candlemas morn--they placed Inga on the birthing stool, the midwife below pulling the baby out; Inga too exhausted.
In her stupor she only saw the baby long enough to find out its sex... and its affliction.
“No... No. My husband... He will not be pleased.”
“Shh, shh. Just rest,” she heard one of them whisper.
But when she drifted off, it was into death’s embrace.
It was done.
Hildwine stormed in.
“Where is it?”
The women cowered at his rage, as he burst through the wooden doors.
“Tell me!” he ordered, turning his attention to a mousy-haired girl.
“My lord, she’s laying by her mother,” the frightened maid said.
Hildwine strode over to the bed and saw the thing beside its mother. The baby would have been normal, beautiful even, if not for the blackness strewn across its cheek. It resembled an ashen scar, parts inflamed and red, like embers in a hearth fire.
“A changeling! God sent me a changeling!”
He grabbed the baby up by a leg, her blankets falling away from her and baring her feeble little body. She wailed at the sudden jerk and at the crisp touch of the snowfall outside, her tiny cries travelling through the streets of Woking as her father swung her in his tight grasp, towards execution.
The women rushed out after him and the baby, some crying, some begging, some watching wide-eyed. But they all followed him, until he reached a stump.
He lay the baby down, the maids, servants and midwife all begging him to leave the child, let it live, for its mother’s sake.
“I don’t care for its mother. She is a dead thing now.”
He took up the axe, lifted it in the air, watching his daughter below scream and screech in fear.
The axe came down, but before it could hit the nameless child below, Hildwine stopped. He clutched at his chest, coughing as he stumbled back and dropped the axe to the ground. His skin grew cherry-red and perspired heavy droplets of sweat, and his eyes were blood-shot and bulging. He grabbed at his neck as flames began licking out from his mouth, eyes and ears. Before long, his clothes caught fire and the flames burst out over his flesh, cooking it and making it bubble away. He shouted as he darted about, searching.
The women backed away as they watched him run through the laneways, burning and screaming. They tried to throw pails of icy water or heavy blankets over the lapping flames, but nothing would quench the fire. The babe had quietened though, its ashen birthmark smouldering. The women began to feel uneasy. When Hildwine had finally fallen to the ground, his body charred, the flames still crawling about him, the women made their escape, leaving the accursed child behind.
From the shadows though came Gytha. She approached the child upon the stump, the baby smacking its mouth together, seeking something to suckle, and staring back up at Gytha with its large azure eyes. It seemed harmless. An innocent tossed aside.
Gytha took the child up, cradling the babe in the folds of her cloak, humming a lullaby.
“A sweet nameless thing,” she said.
“Brigit,” the sisters whispered in her ear.
“I think I shall name you Brigit. It suits you well,” she smiled.
Gytha walked away, the dark roadway taking her and the child away from the eerie and unsettled streets of Woking.
“It is done,” the sisters chanted.