Ragnar came upon Fardan near his hut, where the priest had just concluded the mid-afternoon prayer. Ragnar clapped his shoulder joyously, and the priest nearly buckled with the force of the blow. "Fardan, you must congratulate me. My grandson is born. He is strong like his father and already his eyes are bright and clear as he looks upon the world."
"Ah, Ragnar, that is wonderful news. Accept my sincere best wishes for you and for your grandson."
"I thank you, Fardan." replied Ragnar.
"And might I add, my friend, how pleased I am to see a smile upon your face." said the priest. "I can tell you something that will cause it to broaden even more."
"What could that be, Fardan?" asked Ragnar.
"Well, Ragnar, it is with great gratitude to the Lord God and the blessed Saint Bede that I am able to report to you that, like yourself, the child's mother has received the sign of the cross and, in so doing, has taken the first step along the path that leads to salvation."
"The child's mother?"
"Yes, your grandchild's mother. She who dwelt among the beasts of the dark forest. She who some called the Bear-wife. Under my humble guidance she has accepted Jesus Christ as her Lord and Savior.
"And there is further cause for rejoicing, Ragnar, because your grandson shall be baptized and his soul, although stained with sin, shall be granted salvation, and when the Day of Doom comes, he shall sit with you at the right hand of the Lord God, in Eternal Bliss.
"And so it remains only to bestow this blessing upon your son and upon the others of your family, and the task shall be complete. Your household shall assume its place in Christendom and you shall see what glory awaits."
It seemed to Ragnar that his mind was spinning, that all the world around him was spinning. How had it come to this? Must he endure now, at this moment of joy, the gloating of this wearisome priest, Sven's cast-off, who, he suddenly realized, had convinced him of nothing aside from his own fears? How easy it must have been for Fardan to accomplish this in the heart of the poor orphan girl. Yet even she had shown courage and deserved better.
"The beasts of the dark forest indeed," sputtered Ragnar. "You are the beast. Yes, you, priest! Stalking – terrorizing – here, on my own land - preying upon the fears and the uncertainty of your victims. You are a blight upon us! You are a pestilence! Be gone and let us be!" Ragnar waved him aside and strode off, out of the infield and up the path to the open pasture.
That high land was empty now of men and beasts, for Ragnar's rams had long since rejoined the rest of the herd for the breeding season. Ragnar came to the stones of the grave-field by the Mirror Tarn and he stood among them, staking his claim, as they did, to all of the windy plateau and the rolling land below.
There lies the valley. There the flat lands stretch toward the sea. There lie the meadows, there runs the river, there stand rock and oak. There lie the stones of Thorbjorn's ship and there the sturdy timbers of Svanhild's altar are planted. There, beside the Old Road, scratched along the ridge-top, dwell Gunnar and his kin. And beyond lies the lake – see it sparkle against the green velvet forest.
This is it. This, to me, is everything there is.
Ragnar sat down upon the damp earth. He leaned on one of the rough, lichen-covered boulders that rested there, one of a ring of stones. Golden grass-strands with their heads of perfect seeds, thick bunches of dark green heather clothed in purple, blueberry shrubs tinged with scarlet, all blended and bowed before his eyes. When was the last time he had looked at these small things, each gleaming like the rarest jewel? They had been here, always, through seasons of plenty and seasons of want, growing from the bones of the earth, and from the bones of his parents and grandparents, their parents and theirs. He delighted in them now, in this still, silent moment. For though he knew in his heart that the turning point of his world had already come and gone, here, in this landscape of cairns and mounds and standing stones; here, at the threshold between this world and the next, was an opening to taste the sweetness of that late-summer blossoming of life, that moment of knowing that the long days are irretrievably gone. It was as if, having climbed for a lifetime, he had at last come up over the crest of the hill and just as he was taking in the panoramic view, he found himself beginning to roll down the other side, wheel upon wheel, faster and faster – and what waits at the bottom?
Around him now Ragnar sensed many voices, many gestures: gentle, harsh, demanding, judgmental - sympathetic. They were gathering behind him now, his forebears: Aelfrid the hero, his great brass-studded shield shattered; Old Ragnar, who had built the hall in which the household still lived, and also Red Thorbjorn, Ragnar's grandfather, drinking and toasting at his return from the lands of the Franks. Although their lives, like Ragnar’s own, had doubtless hurtled from birth to death with barely a pause to reflect, to him they had always seemed as fixed and eternal as the mountain of which they were now a part. But during their lives they, too, must have faced choices. Had they wavered? Had they been afraid? Had they chosen well? Or poorly? He lived with the consequences of their choices, as his grandson would live with his. They had left him here, at their lives' end, but he must go on, with or without their understanding or their approval. It would be for later generations to look back upon him and judge.
As he sat there, resting among the stones, nearly hidden by the tall meadow grasses, two young girls came up the path, walking together towards the Mirror Tarn. They seemed to float across the meadow, golden hair blowing and long, white arms. He couldn’t see what they had in their hands but whatever it was they deposited it there, at the spring, in a manner at once solemn and conspiratorial.
Ragnar waited for them to be done with their small offering, and to turn back toward the settlement. How lightly they tread upon the earth. How simple their desires. A handsome young groom? A new set of ribbons for their hair? He smiled to himself, and felt his heart lighten. Then he rose, gathered himself up, and returned to his hall.
Above is an excerpt from The Bear-Wife, my novel set in 10th century Sweden. I'll be posting updates as the book moves toward publication. If you like you can also check out this post I wrote about the book a while back.