Lights in the Sky
Kingdom of Wessex
Late in the watches of the night, Cynric son of Cerdic stared out from the fortified village of Beodeoren at the top of the down. The lights were out in the fields below him again this night. They came from out of the sky and then slid round the fields. Yesterday, when he and the other eorls from the village went to investigate, there were strange flattened patterns in the corn. The sheep and cattle had been stampeded and it took most of the day for the families to recover them.
Now it was happening again. He put his hand on his sword hilt, for luck, prayed to Woden, and started down the steep side of the down. If an eorl would not defend his home, his hearth and his village, then what good was he? Better to just be a farmer instead.
Unlike the lights on Sammain, this one didn't flee from him. As he approached the source, he saw a metallic box. It was hovering just above the corn. He pulled his sword from its sheath and shouted to it. “Be you spirit or god, show yourself.”
The box vibrated, filling the air with a low thrum, a throbbing, but he stood his ground. Eorls of the king do not run away, even when their legs are shaking. It settled down into the corn and the throbbing stopped. A door opened on the box. A small man, maybe not a man, but not a demon like Grendel, walked out. He was small, gray and covered in a silvery garment., He started to say something, but it wasn't in English, or the tongue of the Northmen. Nor in the odd language the Christian priests used. Eventually it, he put his hand to a box he wore, like the jewelry the queen wore. Then its voice became intelligible.
“Sorry about that. Had to reset the translator. Who are you?”
“Cynric, son of Cerdic, eorl of King Hengst and you?”
“A warrior, excellent, excellent, excellent.” The creature rubbed its hands together. “And one who uses a sword. Any other skills?”
“I ride, my lance is keen and I'm a fair shot with the bow. Who are you?”
The creature's attention snapped back onto him. “Sorry, just drifting off, had a message on my headset. I'm Olmerk, and I'm looking for mercenary's. Men like you, brave and willing to fight for money. I need a raiding party.”
“Gold. Gold and honor. Now if you'd put down that pig-sticker of yours and escort me to your king.”
Cynric pointed to the dim glow from the fires in the village high up on the down. They were banked for the night, but the rising smoke reflected the glow from the coals. “Up there.”
“That high? Must be windy.”
“It's safe. A good view to see an attacking army or raiding party and it's easy to defend.”
The little man sighed, “I suppose you're right, but it's a long way for me to climb. I'm getting old, and this gravity is a tad strong. Tell you what, I'll be back tomorrow.”
“Why not? You're not going anywhere special, are you?” The creature passed him a small golden coin. “This is a token of my honesty.” Then it or he walked back to the metal box. The thrumming noise started again, and then the metal box shot off into the sky.
Cynric examined the coin. It seemed genuine. Still, it would be wise to be careful, the gifts from spirits of the night often came with dangerous consequences. He carefully hid it on the outside of the fence when he returned to the village. If it was still there in the morning, then the sunlight could cleanse it from whatever evil spirits it held.
The next morning, Cyrnic went to the chief building of the village. It was bigger than the rest with an open court. Smoke from the fires drifted up into the ceiling and out through cracks in the thatch. The king's advisers surrounded him for their morning council. Cynric entered and bowed, “My Lord Hengst.”
“What is it?”
“The lights were there again, last night, I went out and met it.”
There was a gasp that ran around the court.
“There was a creature, and it talked to me, sire”
“Was it an Orc?”
“No, I don't think so. It gave me this.” He knelt and presented the king with the coin. “He said he'd be here today.”
Hengst examined the coin. It was clearly gold, but it wasn't minted anywhere that he recognized. He tossed it to his sage Alfred, “Recognize the Emperor? Or is it from the land of the Persians?”
“No idea, sire. It looks solid, but is it?”
“What do you mean?”
Alfred pointed at a small black dot on the side of the coin. “It doesn't feel the right weight. It's too light to be solid. May I measure it?” The Saxon's weren't renowned as metalworkers for nothing. Their wise men knew about gold. Hengst and Cynric followed the sage to his hut and watched as he measured the weight of the coin, then compared its size to the same weight of gold.
“As I thought, it's shiny, but hollow. Half the weight it should have.” He tossed it from hand to hand, thinking. Then he added, “Maybe we should take it to Olin. Have him cut it in pieces and refine the gold that's in it.” Olin was the king's favorite goldsmith. “He could see what's inside.”
News of Cynric's visitor and the coin had spread through the village and curious onlookers were crowding around them. Hengst may have been king of this village and the surrounding day's walk, but he knew he ruled only with the consent of the people. At least the consent of the eorls, and this tempered his response.
“Cynric, and Alfred please take the coin to Olin and see what he makes of it. I have my council to attend to and you.” Here he paused and pointed to the people pushing in to see what was happening, “you have your chores and tasks. Let's not forget them. Alfred, you will tell us, and these good people what you find.”
Alfred nodded, then said, “Of course, sire.”
The crowd grumbled, but even in Saxon times, farming was hard work. Hengst's reminder was a gentle hint that it was never-ending, and they accepted his acknowledgment of their legitimate curiosity. All except one young woman, a pale red-haired woman who had the slight cough of consumption.
“Cynric,” Bridget said, “can I come with you?”
Cynric and Bridget had what would later be called 'an understanding.' She was Hengst's daughter, a beauty, and was slowly wasting away from the coughing disease.
“Yes, of course, my love.”
Cynric walked slowly with Bridget while Alfred strode to the smith's. It was both so they could talk and so that he didn't force her to exercise more than she could stand.
She gasped for breath; then asked, “Is it true that you saw a creature come from the lights?”
“I saw the lights below, and walked to them. There was a.” he stopped, Old English is a wonderfully descriptive language, but it lacked the words he needed. “It was like a scip, but closed over and all metal. This little man came out of it.”
She grabbed his arm tightly, “Weren't you scared that it could be an Orc or demon?”
Cynric paused, eorls don't admit their fears, then he laughed, “I prayed to Woden first and had my sword out.”
“I'd have been terrified.”
“I admit my knees were shaking,” He paused, “but my sword wasn't.”
Bridget laughed, something she rarely did these days. “I'm sure it didn't. That's one thing I love about you Cynric. You're brave.” Then she gave a quiet cough. She looked up at him to say more, but the cough led to another, then another, and finally her body wracked as she coughed. Eventually she stopped coughing and slowly recovered her breath. Seeing the worried look on Cynric's face, she said, “It's not my time, yet. But it won't be long. I can feel it.”
When they finally arrived at Olin's smithy, Alfred and Olin were examining the coin.
Olin said, “Good, you've finally arrived. It's no time to dally with your sweetheart.”
“What do you make of it?”
“Alfred's right, it's not the correct weight to be solid gold. Not even an alloy.” He pointed to the black dot on the face of the coin. “This piece of glass or enamel bothers me. It's as if there's something inside. Something looking out at us.”
“Do you think you can open it?” Alfred asked.
“I'll try my best chisel,” Olin agreed. “It's made of the finest hard steel. There's nothing it can't cut into pieces.”
He put the coin in a vise, and grabbed one of his engraving tools. Then he started pushing on the surface. The chisel skidded off the surface and barely left a scratch in it.
“It's not gold.”
“What do you mean?”
“I use this chisel to finish the carving on the jewelry I make. To clean up the details from the casting. It does not slip like that on gold, not even on hard red gold.”
Alfred glanced at Cynric and the said to Olin, “It's not gold then. Is that what you're saying?”
“Yes. I can do a fire-assay, but I've never seen the like. It looks like gold. It feels like gold, but it isn't gold.”
Alfred took the piece from the vise and examined it closely. “Since it was given to you Cynric, what do you think?”
“What good is something that just looks like gold?”
“Practical as always. I like that in an eorl. Let's do the fire assay.”
Olin smiled. “We'll see how it does against my mallet. I'll have to flatten it out first.”
He placed it on an iron anvil. Then he retrieved a massive sledge hammer from his workshop. “Thor himself would like this hammer.”
While they all watched him, as he raised the hammer, a voice came from behind. “I wouldn't do that if I were you.”
“What?” They turned and looked at the small man-like creature, dressed in a silvery suit.
“Please don't. Those probes are expensive. Besides, all you'll do is break your anvil.” It was Olmerk.
Cynric drew his sword and stood between them and the creature. It continued, “Very brave and totally unnecessary, Cynric son of Cedric.”
Cynric stepped towards the creature, “Maybe.”
“Put that damned pig poker away. You might hurt someone. Here. These are real.” The creature pulled a small pouch from a pocket and tossed them to him. “Now can I have my probe back?”
Without lowering his sword, Cynric passed the pouch back to Alfred. After a few moments, Alfred said, “He's right. These are gold. Cynric, I think it's safe.”
Only then did Cynric lower his sword.
Olmerk said, “About time.” It hummed tunelessly as it walked into the smithy. “Impressive. I must say for such a primitive culture, you did well to detect my probe. The Romans would have just put the coin in circulation.” It picked up the coin from the anvil. “I'll keep this.”
Satisfied that he had retrieved his probe, Olmerk smirked. “Take me to your leader,” It paused, “I can't believe I just said that.”
Alfred replied, “Why?”
“Why were you upset that you asked to see our leader. Isn't that what you should ask? To see our king.”
“Nevermind. You, with the pig-sticker. Who is the head dude around here?”
No one understood him, and Cynric said, “Sir, your language is uncouth.”
Olmerk tapped on the little box he wore. “Sorry, the translator still needs to be adjusted. Cheap Xylbereth knockoff.” Then he continued, “Goodman eorl, where is the king?”
Cynric shot a glance at Alfred for guidance, and he replied, “If Cynric accompanies us, at the ready, I shall escort you.”
“Ah well,” the little man said, “if you must. You know, if I was going to harm you, I'd have just blasted this little turd mound of a village into cinders. Instead, I've come to trade. Do business, you understand those concepts, don't you?”
Cynric put his sword back in its sheath, but he didn't fasten the clasp. He could draw it in the blink of an eye if he needed. Olmerk, just as well, didn't know about clasps on sheaths, and took this as complete acquiescence to his proposal.
“Good, I hoped you'd see the sense of it. Come on, time's flying, and I need to get off this backwater rock of yours soon. If you're not interested, I'm sure there are lots of other barbarians who could supply my needs.”
Bridget spoke, “We're not barbarians. We're civilized, not like those Northmen or those horrible Welsh.”
“Good lady,” Olmerk bowed to her, “I spoke out of turn. A flippant voice is my besetting sin. I need a swordsman or two for a raid. An honorable endeavor to,” he paused, “to recover jewels that a hideous dragon stole from my palace.”
“I see,” Cynric bowed to him, “if it is an honorable task, then perhaps we are interested. The greater the danger the greater the honor.” He strode out from the smithy, then turned and demanded, “Are you coming? Olin, will you look after Bridget? See that.”
Bridget sharply interjected, “I may have the coughing sickness Cynric, but I can still look after myself. I am the king's daughter.” The exertion tired her and her breath quickened. She gave a quick cough.
Cynric stopped, “You will? I'd just like to be sure you don't hurt yourself. You know how I feel about you.”
“Yes, yes, the world revolves around her. It's the same old story. Look, master swordsman, I can find my own way if you want to dally with your heartthrob.” Olmerk was impatient. Camped out on a primitive planet where there was neither a suitable brothel nor the far more important, traffic control and early warning system left him bored and anxious. “The sooner I can get off this little rock of yours the better it is for me.”
Olin laughed, he had daughters of his own. Healthy, and here he knocked on the lintel beam for luck, so far, and just as independent minded as the princess. “My Lady Bridget, I shall be charmed to escort you to the king's hall. But first, perhaps, you could give me your opinion of this work.” He pointed to a piece of delicate gold-work that was sitting on the bench. He was cleaning it up. “It's not finished and I'll have to set the enamel inserts, but I'd like to hear your opinion of it.”
Eorl: Old English for a warrior or brave man. Both the rank and name of Earl comes from it.
Orc: Old English for ghoul (Despite his disclaimer in 'the Hobbit' Tolkien borrowed it from Old English.)
Scip: Old English for ship