Beginning of Day of Wrath, from the collection Star of Wonder, Berkley, November 1999
Dies irae, dies illa
Wulfhera of Froxton hurried along the narrow road between the hedges of empty fields, frosted earth crunching under her shoes, every sense alert for danger. The land around lay so quiet, however, that she almost felt the world had already come to an end.
If Christ did come to judge in this the thousandth year, surely it would be on the winter solstice tomorrow, or on His birthday, still days away.
Piously, she chanted, "Veni, Domine Jesu," as she marched along, though she didn't really want Christ Jesus to come quite yet.
No, it was not the hand of God that silenced life. It was the whipping, icy wind and sleet-threatening sky, and the Danish raiders scourging the coastal lands. These had driven people and animals under cover, and swept the sky of birds.
It was no day to be traveling, and no day to be alone on the road. Part of Hera regretted leaving her companions, but she did not have far to go to reach her home. The sisters fleeing the convent at Herndon faced many more hours on the road before they reached the safety of Canterbury.
Hit by a clawing gust, she paused to lean her sturdy staff against a rough fence and pin her brown cloak more tightly around her, saying a prayer of thanks for its thickness. Thank heaven, too, for the three layers of woolen clothing she'd put on this morning for the journey, and for thick stockings and sturdy shoes. Even so, her feet were icy.
She looked ahead. Not far now. Froxton should be over the next rise. Pray God it was safe. She crossed herself, grasped her staff in her mittened hand, and set out again, fighting dread that her home, too, might have come under unexpected attack.
Froxton had never suffered directly from the Viking raiders, not even years ago when the pagan Vikings had scourged the coast of Wessex again and again. It lay a bit too far inland, and the Viking stayed close to their dragon ships. Who knows what might be happening in these dread times, however, when all the world churned in disorder? After all, Herndon Convent had always been safe before, but now the nuns fled farther inland.
Yesterday, the first refugees had pounded on the big gates, demanding safety within, and last night the horizon had glowed with destructive fire. From the top of the feeble wooden walls, the nuns had watched the thatched roofs of Odswere village shooting sparks high into the night sky. Hera had fancied she could hear the screams of the raped and tortured, though she'd known she was too far away.
The Danes had not reached the convent last night -- and thank Sweet Jesus for it, for the walls would be feeble defense. Morning light had shown nothing unusual except a distant circling of ravens and eagles -- signs of death. Surely like the tides, the raiders would have retreated back toward the coast and their ships.
But who could tell in the thousandth year, when Antichrist should come, herald of the end? Many whispered that the Danish raiders were the Antichrist, and that decades of troubles had been leading up to this season.
The thousand years.
The end of the world.
The Vikings were certainly bolder now, venturing far inland, only weakly opposed by the king. It seemed they came at will to terrorize and demand tribute as if England were a free market, and if not appeased, they destroyed. They set up winter camps here, and sometimes even took land for their own and settled, and none seemed able to stop them.
She scanned the skeleton-treed horizon again, seeking movement. Any woman in their clutches would be defiled into death. She hesitated and glanced over her shoulder, weighing the distance back to her party of nuns against the distance to her home.
Enough of this! She wasn't scurrying back to join the nuns. She was going home. If Antichrist had come, and apocalypse threatened, she'd face it at home, not among strangers.
She set off again. Not far, she told her aching, frozen feet, bruised by stone-hard ruts. Not far. At Froxton she'd find warmth, but more than that, she'd find her family.
For a while, since going to Herndon in the summer, she'd thought the convent was her life. She'd persuaded herself that she'd be happy there all her days. Yesterday's shocking attack had broken the spell. When Reverend Mother Gudrun had decided to send the younger nuns, the novices, and the postulants to safety, Hera had begun to doubt. On the road, once close to home, she'd known she could not stay.
She wanted to be home, not among strangers in Canterbury, but she also had a keening sense of trouble, of being needed. It was over a month since she'd had news. Anything could have happened, especially in times such as these.
What did she fear most? The coming of Danish pirates, or the coming of Christ? As a good Christian, she shouldn't fear the latter - "Veni, Domine Jesu" -- but she was young. She didn't want her world to end yet, not even if the new one would be the glorious Kingdom of Peace.
Reverend Mother Gudrun said the only danger was the Danes, and she was wise. According her, the archbishop said the same thing, and even the Pope in Rome. Just because the thousandth year was looming, did not mean Apocalypse.
Many thought otherwise, however. The convent was not cut off from the world, and they'd heard how some people were praying and fasting, hoping to wipe away a lifetime's sins before the Last Judgment. Herndon had started to receive an astonishing number of special gifts accompanied by requests for prayer. Some of these had been from people giving away all their worldly goods, hoping to be poor Lazarus in the bosom of Christ, not wealthy Dives burning in hell.
Hera did wonder what would happen if the thousandth year passed and life trudged on as normal. She suspected some of the donors would be knocking at the convent doors sheepishly asking for their property back.
Many people were looking forward to Christ's coming with song and joy, as they should, foreseeing the glorious day when death, toil, and suffering would cease to afflict mankind. Others, perhaps despairing of heaven, were seeking the glorious day now and indulging in every earthly pleasure while they could.
Most of the time, Hera believed Mother Gudrun, believed that God did not count in worldly ways, but as she struggled across the bleak landscape, fleeing soulless enemies, she murmured prayers. Prayers for safety, and prayers that Christ not find her wanting if He came. She was almost a Bride of Christ, was she not? But she was a Bride of Christ who was running away from the wedding. She'd taken no vows, but she feared her flight was a black sin.
The road turned, and at last in the distance she glimpsed her home on the next rise. Froxton Manor, enclosed by a ditch and an earthwork topped by a spiked-pole palisade. Most of the buildings were hidden behind the walls, shown only by wind-whipped smoke rising from the central vents. The thatched roof of the two-story manor house was visible, however, blessedly intact, and the wooden watchtower rose even higher. She could see a figure in there, and soon the watchman would see her. He wouldn't blow his horn for a solitary traveler, however, and his silence meant there were no enemies hereabouts.
She relaxed a little, and her frozen feet became happier to make speed. To the right the church tower of Becksham rose where it should be. To the left, gusts of smoke, almost invisible against gray sky, hinted of Tildwold being at peace.
Home, and all was well.
Deo gratias. She'd never expected normality to taste so sweet.
Would she return to Herndon, to the religious life? She'd willed herself to have a calling, but in her heart she'd always known her motives were flawed. Truth was, she'd run away, run away from Raef, from the thought of Raef and Edith, from ever having to see him again, see him with her-
She blocked off those thoughts. If Christ came, her anguish over Raef and her dilemma over her vocation were two of many worries He would take from her.
Froxton slid behind a bare-boned coppice, then came clear again. Not far now.
Perhaps the convent wasn't for her, despite the comforts of order and wonderful music. Six months had been time enough to heal and accept reality, so she should be able to live in the world again now.
Raef had been a lifelong friend, but clearly that's all he'd been -- on his side at least. He'd chosen Edith of Tildwold, who was kind, gentle, and pretty, and who would make him a good wife. Doubtless she was with child by now. Hera grimly said some prayers for Edith's health and safe delivery.
And that she never have to see her. See her and Raef.
Or, if she did have to see them now and then, that she be able to greet them as if they were both just old, comfortable friends....
The first thing Hera saw when she staggered into her father's hall was Raefnoth Eldrunson standing wide-legged on her family's central table, gilded by the nearby extravagant fire, ale-horn in hand, leading a chorus of a bawdy song.
She stopped dead.
Dear Mary, even drunk he was the embodiment of her most wicked dreams. He towered like a god, teeth flashing as he sang, light dancing on gold arm bands and buckle. His blond hair straggled his broad shoulders, his strong, clean features glowed in the fire's light.
A god or a beautiful devil.
She tore her eyes away to look around the smoky, raucous room packed with red-faced drunks. What was going on here? The place looked, stank, and sounded like a scene from hell. Searching macabre faces for her family, she did not find any.
Despite icy, painful feet, she marched over to the table and looked up. "What are you doing here?"
She had a hundred questions, but that one had spilled out. Immediately she thought back over it, praying it hadn't revealed the spear-sharp shock of seeing him.
Pity her, but nothing had changed. His body was as strong and perfect, and her reaction was as fierce. His face was still as handsome, and his blond hair.... His blond hair, she realized from up close, was tangled for lack of a comb. His cheeks were stubbled, and his bright blue eyes, which had always shone with zest for life, were strangely flat.
For a moment, he looked down dazedly as if he didn't recognize her, but then he leaped from the table in one bound. "Little Wolf! Come from the convent to save us all!"
Before she could react, he swept her into his arms and kissed her soundly.
He'd never kissed her before.
It wasn't a loving kiss. Despite the nickname that only he had ever used, it wasn't a kiss any woman would want.
She pushed at his chest with all her might, spitting out, "Let me go!"
He obligingly stepped back. "Ah, another sin on my damned soul. I've kissed a Bride of Christ." He turned to his grinning audience. "What's one more sin, eh, to those already on the greasy slope to hell?"
They cheered, and Hera stared at them again. She spotted some of Froxton's servants -- their eyes slid guiltily from hers -- and a few of her father's men-at-arms. There were too many strangers, however, and a lot of soldiers she didn't know. Were they Raef's housecarls -- his private force?
His home was Acklingham, down the river.
"What are you doing here?" she asked him again. Then she added the important question, "Where are my family?"
The tarnished glow of jollity faded, leaving him shockingly haggard. She saw now that his fine clothing was soiled, uncared for over too many days. Only his gold ornaments shone clear.
He sat suddenly on a bench, his back to the table, and those around turned away. Quiet settled, an uneasy quiet they'd perhaps been keeping at bay with noise.
"It's not good," he said as soberly as possible for a drunk man. "Two weeks ago, the shire reeve called out the local forces to oppose the Danes here. Your father, my father, me. I was to take my ships to sea and block the mouth of the river. But the Danes came ashore farther down. They took horses-"
"Horses!" Her tired legs suddenly weakening, Hera sat on the bench nearby. The Danes had always raided on foot. "No wonder they're coming farther in land."
He swiveled to face her. "Aye, the devils."
"And our men took a stand against them?"
"They did. And unlike many, unlike King Ethelred, they stood firm."
She said it as fact. No one stood against the Danish Vikings and lived. That fact had broken the spirit of everyone, leading to armies fleeing, and kings paying the pagan devils to leave England in peace.
Until the next time.
"My father is dead," Raef said, taking her still-mittened hand. "Yours is not. But he lies sorely wounded at Sutton Priory, Hera. And most of the men perished at their sides as is right." He pulled off her mitten and clasped her hand, but then said, "Hera, you're frozen!"
He dragged off the other mitten, and clasped both her hands between his big, callused, warm ones.
She looked down at them, dazed almost to death by weariness and shock, and by his touch. Friends, she reminded herself. Despite a four years difference in age, they had been friends as long as she could remember. Her brother Edmund, of an age with Raef, had not wanted his little sister along on hunting trips, but once she was old enough, Raef had never minded.
They'd touched often. He'd even let her swim with them in the summer river as long as she never told her mother. Distant, golden days.... His touch shouldn't bother her now.
He let her tingly-warm hands go and went to his knees to pull off her leather shoes and rub her feet. "I don't suppose you can feel these at all. What was the convent thinking to let you walk here on such a day? Did they send no escort?"
She winced at the blessed pain of returning sensation. "The Danes were threatening, so they sent some of us to Canterbury. I ran away."
He looked up with a flash of humor that was almost like the old days. "Ah, my little she-wolf. I knew a convent would never hold you. I don't know why you thought it would."
Because you married Edith, you stupid man!, she thought. But she was grateful he didn't suspect.
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