“Are you mad?”
“I’m nuts,” Festuscato said. “Remember? But actually, I was wondering if this Aschere has some link with the Jutes. He may have heard the truth already. That might be why he is asking.”
“Your suspicious gland?” Mirowen asked.
“No,” Festuscato shook his head. “Men don’t have suspicious glands. Just idle speculation. But if Aschere is secretly working for the Jutes, it would give him a motive to shred the Danish warriors in the night, if he is the Grendel.”
“If.” Mirowen mused. “But tell me, how do you know the Geats will come? Vingevourt!” She answered her own question.
“Now that is a suspicious gland,” Festuscato pointed. “Of course, I asked the water sprite to tell the young man about the monster and prod him into taking on the adventure.”
“You don’t leave much to chance, do you?” Bran said. He listened in.
“Not if I can help it,” Festuscato admitted. “I spoke with the king earlier, and Wulfgar and Heinrich the Bard were both present. But first I have to ask a serious question.” He turned from them and tapped Gregor on the shoulder. “What’s wrong?”
Gregor trained his one good eye on Lord Agitus and blinked only once. “Hardly slept a wink last night.”
Festuscato knew better than to suggest that thoughts of the monster kept Gregor awake. That would have been near to calling Gregor a coward. So instead, he made light of the whole thing. “That’s not what I heard.”
Luckless picked up on that comment right away. “Ha! You were a whole room away. You didn’t hear the half of it.”
“What?” Gregor looked at the two and did not quite follow what they were suggesting.
“You snore,” Bran said plainly.
Instead of getting angry or trying to deny the accusation, Gregor laughed. “I do take after my father.”
“Quiet,” Mirowen said. The king started speaking, and Mirowen translated for the table.
“Lords, chieftains, friends and honored guests. It has been long years since joy has come to the hall of Heorot, but I have in my heart hope on this day. We have friends who have heard of our trials and have traveled all the way from far in the West to encourage us in our struggle against that which plagues us. You may call me an old fool, but I believe that soon laughter will once again grace this hall.”
At that point, someone tripped Ragnard while his hands were full of dishes. He fell face down, spilling drink, food, plates and cups across the floor. It became a wild flight, while he tried to juggle his load to keep from breaking as much as possible. Men laughed, as if on the king’s command. Ragnard appeared terribly humiliated.
“Clean that up,” Aschere barked at the servant, and Ragnard rushed to get what he needed.
“Not funny,” Wulfgar shouted above the continuing snickers.
“How sad,” Mirowen said quietly.
“Exactly,” Festuscato whispered.
“Friends.” The king sought everyone’s attention once more. “Let us believe in the goodness that is to come. Let us be entertained as in the old days. Heinrich has said there is a special story to tell on this day.” King Hrothgar stopped and turned the floor over to the bard. The king looked spent from the exertion and he seemed content to sip his medicine and listen.
Heinrich strummed his harp and began.
Oswald, son of Griswald / Grandfather of Onela
Husband of Heilburh / Daughter of Hrothgar
(When he was) Full of youth and pride / To seek a fortune
A treasure for the Swedes / Set sail on the sea
Across the whale road / With twelve companions
Twelve warriors of the rich / All were fell warriors
Youth and Strength was theirs / They sailed to the west
Following the gold of the sun / To where the sun touched the sea
To seek a fortune of gold / Into waters unknown
Where no one had gone before / West toward the sun lands
Beyond the Roman shore / Beyond the long arm of Rome.
Festuscato settled back and heard and somewhat remembered the story this way:
A storm came up in the night, one like a hurricane. It tossed the ship mercilessly until all sense of direction was lost, and all that Oswald and his men could do was hang on for dear life. When the storm finally passed, they found themselves in a strange sea full of islands. The water felt warm, but the wind was down after the storm so they had to row among the rocks. At last they found an island with a good beach where they could come ashore. The ship had survived the storm in good condition, but they had no idea where they were. They even had no idea what time of day it might be as the sun remained hidden above the gray, cloud filled sky…
“What land is this?” One voiced what they all wondered. “See how the river flows seamlessly into the sea.”
“And there, on the hill, a hall so large I thought at first it was a whole city.” Another pointed.
“And the field in the distance looks ripe for harvest, though this is only mid spring.” A third wondered.
“Look.” A fourth shouted, and they saw in the distance, men coming to them, the likes of which have never been seen in this world. One was dressed all in gold which was polished to such a degree, it was hard to see even with the sun behind the clouds. One was dressed in silver, but with a long black cloak that streamed out behind. One was dressed in what looked like diamonds, but when they got close it was seen to be the finest chain mail ever fashioned, and it was indeed studded with diamonds, as well as rubies and emeralds. The fourth was dressed in Bronze polished as bright as the suit of gold, but this one wore a necklace of purest amber. And in the midst of this magnificent foursome stood a plain man dressed in a plain brown robe with only a crude chain of iron around his waist from which hung a simple cross. Behind them, prancing in perfect precision, were two dozen of the finest warriors on horseback. Each was covered in steel plates from head to toe, and each carried a lance pointed perfectly at the sky.
Oswald and half his men fell to their knees. The other half fell to their faces.
“Welcome.” The man in the plain robe spoke. “And stand up you men. You have no need to be afraid.”
Oswald alone stood. He was afraid of no man.
“I am Veritas,” the man said. “To whom am I speaking?”
“I am Oswald, son of Griswald, grandson of Oren, Prince of the Swedes, and these are my men.” He assumed he was addressing the servant of the Great Ones that stood before him.
“Welcome,” the man repeated. “This is Lord Eddinas, king of the elves of light.” He pointed to the golden man. And he likewise pointed to the silver, the chains of diamonds and the man in bronze, named each in turn. “Lord Timbender, master craftsman of all the dwarfs, Lord Batswing, king of all the dark elves that live under the earth, and Lord Longleaf, king of the fee.”
With that, Oswald fell to his knees as one of his men mouthed the words. “The land of the gods.”
“Hardly,” Veritas laughed. “This is the place of the Kairos, this and the seven isles and the innumerable isles that trail out from here. Normally, it is in the careful hands of Lady Alice, but alas, my hands are the ones present at the moment.”
“Most favored of all men,” Oswald began, respectfully. “Please assure your Lords that we are mere sailors come here by the storm and we will gladly leave this holy ground as soon as we get our bearings.”
“I will, certainly,” the man in the plain robe spoke again with a laugh, and then the strangest thing of all strange things happened. He spoke to those Great Spirits like he was the master and Captain of their ship. “My thanks, my Lords, but it seems you are making our guests nervous. Please return to the castle and I will be along when we are finished here. My knights of the lance, I see no threat from these men to our home. Allow me some private time with these men, so we may speak, man to man.”
The horsemen saluted and turned to ride away. Each Lord in turn bowed low and walked back toward the Great Hall on the hill. Only the last hesitated.
“Quite sure, Longleaf, my friend. These sailors are merely confused by the storm and lack only directions to find their way.” And Veritas smiled while Longleaf nodded, bowed like the others and became small, floating briefly on wings too fast to see before he flew off to join the others.
“What wonder is this?” Oswald spoke. “That even the Spirits of the Earth bow before a plain man.”
“It is no sorcery, if that is what you think,” Veritas said. “It is simply what I am authorized to do.”
“Authorized?” Oswald asked.
“What God in His wisdom chose for me,” Veritas explained. “As you are authorized to be prince of the Swedes, captain of your ship and explorer of lands unknown to other men.”
Oswald thought for a minute. “This is true.”
“And I am authorized for one more thing,” Veritas said. “By imperial order of his August Emperor, Constantine, I am authorized to be Bishop of Cyrene, the Emperor’s representative in the great councils of the Church, and the one to speak to Oswald and his men of the Word made flesh.”
He expounded to them, then, the story of the Word, how he came into the world, took the form of a man and gave himself to die. Though he was innocent, he was condemned. Though he was horribly killed, yet he lives. And when he was done with the telling he said simply that it was time for Oswald and his men to go home.
“But which is the way?” Oswald asked.
“The Word is the way, the life and the truth,” Veritas answered. “Look to the Word and I am sure you will find the way.” And with that, he turned and walked off slowly, not one daring to ask him any more questions.
Oswald and his men pushed their ship back out into the waters. “Look for the Word,” Oswald said like a man who had much to consider. In that moment, there appeared on the sea, shimmering in the return of the sun, an arch like one might find in a great hall of a king, but big enough for the ship to sail through. This they did, and when they came out the other side, the sea of islands was utterly gone, and they found themselves not far from home.
Oswald spent the rest of his days exploring the world, but secretly they say he was looking for the Word made flesh. Whether or not he ever found it, no man can say. And thus ends the story of Oswald, son of Griswald, Grandfather of Onela, husband of Heilburh, daughter of Hrothgar.
There was a moment of silence as Heinrich the Bard ended the tale before Seamus burst out, “Here is the Word.” He held up his scripture for all to see. He rushed to the center of the room, and Luckless had to go with him to translate, while Bran stayed at the table to later critique the cleric’s work.