The new beginning of Raven’s Blood. Chapter One. What do you think?
New Historical Fiction by Marissa Campbell
Why must passion always be met with struggle? If I were a man, nothing would stop me from getting what I wanted. But every step I took toward my dreams was met with resistance. My father was generous with his affection and granted me a tremendous amount of freedom and responsibility—liberties unheard of amongst my fairer peers, and truly, I was grateful—but on other matters he was unreasonable and obstinate. Of late, he had been pushing me to marry, insisting that I pick from one of the many suitors that have sought my hand.
To my credit, I had skirted the issue well, until yesterday when a messenger arrived. I didn’t know the cause of the missive, only the effect. Immediately after the note was delivered, my father had knocked on my cottage door.
“Have you come to a decision?” He stood framed in the opened doorway. Formidable in both height and width, a bear-pelt cloak draped off his broad shoulders, and his thick paw rested on the hilt of his sword. Cold gusts threatened to snuff the beeswax candles on my bedside table.
I had been trying to finish a bit of embroidery and set the yellow silk band on my lap. My shoulders squared, and I sat straighter. “No.”
His jaw clenched. “If you do not choose a husband, Avelynn, I will pick for you.” He turned, the door quaking as it closed behind him.
It was time for divine intercession.
“Will you be long away, m’lady?”
At the stables, Marma was waiting for me, saddled and ready. A young page held her reins.
I smiled, taking the lead from his competent hands. “No, Bertram and I will be back by nightfall.”
He nodded and walked back inside, the sounds of a rake grating against the hard packed earth floor drifted toward the door along with clouds of hay and dust.
An impatient nose nudged my satchel. “Good morning, beautiful.” I stroked Marma’s strong, smooth neck. “Looking for a treat are you?”
She snorted, and I laughed, taking out one of the apples I had tucked away in my bag. I held it in my palm. Her soft lips parted and the juicy treat disappeared. I had been delighted when my father presented her to me on my seventeenth birth day. All white with veins and flecks of grey, I had called her Marma because she reminded me of the marbling in stone.
I checked the saddle’s bindings, tightened the breast girth, and secured my sword to the side of the worn leather. Using the simple iron stirrups, I hoisted myself, sitting sideways until I could swing my other leg up and over Marma’s broad back—not a simple maneuver, given the length of my skirts, but an inconvenience easily overcome. Once settled, I wrapped the wolf pelt cloak around me, tucking in the edges.
I usually wore my hair braided when I rode and made sure the long flaxen mass was secured within the cloak so it wouldn’t get drenched. The morning had started dry, but dark shadows rolled overhead, buoyed by a sharp damp wind. By the time Bertram arrived, a cold sleet had started to fall.
As old and wizened as the wrinkled oak trees he so admired, Bertram was my father’s chamberlain, and my most noble tutor. Enveloped in a mantle of white ermine, he stood out in stark contrast to the black gelding he rode.
“Thank you for accompanying me,” I said.
“And miss the opportunity to ride in such fine weather? Perish the thought.” He drew his hood lower over his forehead.
Both Bertram and I turned toward the caller. Wedmore’s messenger, a scrawny twig of a boy ran toward us.
“What is it, Aluson?” I asked. Marma stomped her foot, impatient with the delay. I patted her flank affectionately.
“Your father wants you in council tomorrow. Father Plegmund is away in Canterbury, and you are needed to record the proceedings.”
My pulsed raced. “Of course. Tell him, I’ll be there.”
Aluson bowed to me, then Bertram, then ran back toward the great timber hall.
“A most favourable circumstance,” Bertram said, watching Aluson’s receding form.
I smiled broadly. “Yes, it is.” This would be the perfect opportunity to prove myself, to show that I was just as competent of running the manor, if not more so, than any man. Very few people in Wessex, other than a handful of priests who acted as scribes for kings and noblemen, were gifted with literacy. Bertram was an accomplished scholar, and as his avid student, I took in everything he offered. I could read and write Latin, English, and Ogham letters, and was fluent in Gaelic, Latin, French, Norse, and English. The advantage this afforded was not lost to me. Knowledge was power. And as a woman, possession of that knowledge provided me with a tremendous advantage over most of the noblemen in England. Even the king of Wessex was still trying to learn Latin himself.
I nudged Marma forward. There wasn’t a lot of room to ride abreast along the narrow dirt pathways that snaked through the manor, and Bertram settled comfortably behind. The damp weather would no doubt slow our course as dusty roads turned into troughs of mud, but it was only a two hour ride to the edge of the swamps, and I was confident we would make Avalon in fair time.
Avalon was an enigmatic place, an island suspended between the lands of the living and the dead. King Arthur had spent his last few days on earth there, shrouded in the shadowy mists of time and legend, hidden for centuries in the secret fae worlds of the Somerset Levels. From this strange ethereal place, he would emerge triumphant once again to lead the people to victory and peace. At least, that is what the common folk believed—tenaciously. On some official map somewhere, my grandfather had labeled the island Athelney, but I preferred the mystery that surrounded the name and concept of Avalon better.
Even my father recognized there were mystical forces at work on the island and had presented the land to my mother as a wedding gift. She recognized its power immediately and was enchanted, at both the sacredness of Avalon, and the thoughtfulness of the gift. She had often brought me there. It was one of the few places safe enough to keep our religion alive. With England converted to Christianity several generations ago, the ancient Goddess religions, along with other forms of paganism, were mostly extinct and vehemently condemned by the church. Some still believed and practiced the old ways, leaving talismans and offerings around sacred pools and knolls, but they were careful to keep their beliefs private. My mother wasn’t born in England. She came from a powerful tribe in Ireland, where the Goddess was still reverently worshipped.
She was an ordained high priestess, and I was raised to one day take my place at her side. My brother, Edward, had always been raised a Christian—for a man must be molded in God’s image in order to succeed in this world. But after my mother’s death, my father ordered Bertram to turn my soul’s care over to the priests. Since Bertram had promised my mother on her deathbed to continue preparing me for my role as priestess, he refused. My father had flown into a rage, insisting that by continuing to ‘put impure thoughts’ into my head, I was doomed to suffer eternal damnation in death, or worse, be labeled a witch and killed outright for my beliefs in life. To appease my father, I went through the motions, repeated some words and let the late Bishop Ealhstan, anoint my head with oil. All outward appearances marked me as a pious Christian, but in private, I continued to practice my beliefs.
I smiled fondly. Bertram was the last of his kind in England, a mystical Druid pretending to be a pious Christian.
We tethered the horses just inside the thickening growth and went the remainder of the journey on foot. Surrounded by bog and marsh, one had to traverse hidden pathways to arrive safely at Avalon’s high and dry centre. As the tide receded, platforms and passageways of stone materialized from under several yards of water. Only Bertram, my father, and I knew the way. Of course, my mother had known Avalon’s secrets as well; it was also where she was buried.
We arrived at a little before noon. That didn’t give us a lot of time. The interval between high and low tide was only six hours.
Bertram wandered off in search of interesting tidbits of flora and fauna to collect, and I continued on to the heart of the matter. The island was heavily wooded with a small clearing in the middle, marked by a solitary megalithic stone. That was where I was headed. I needed to speak with my mother.
For a moment, I stood and stared at the mottled grey surface of the stone, afraid I would glimpse an image of the beautiful woman buried in the dirt beneath my feet. No vision came, and I knelt in the soft grass. Reaching into my satchel, I withdrew the last apple. I placed the offering at the base of the stone to appease any restless members of the Otherworld and waited. The energy of the clearing shifted: a nod in acceptance of my gift. A token given in earnest was rarely rejected, but Avalon was ripe with apple trees—that was how the island acquired its name. I felt the offering was fitting.
I removed my sword and knife and leaned them against a large ash tree. Implements of violence were not permitted within the ritual space.
I drew a small circle around her grave with chalk and added two lines, dividing it into four quarters. I sat in the centre.
I rested my forehead on the cold stone and took several deep breaths. I smelled the dampness of the earth, the fetid decay of death, and the sharp resin of rebirth that surrounded me in the swamp. The drizzle had stopped, and hazy rays of sunlight broke through the grey miasma hovering over the land. I could feel the sun’s distant warmth spilling over my cloak.
I traced the Ogham symbols carved into the smooth stone with my finger. I missed my mother with an ache that left me feeling segmented. She would have talked reason into my father, would have made him soften with her tenderness.
Out beyond the dense trees and boundless marsh lay the fury of the ocean that brought my mother and father together. She had been travelling by ship from Ireland to Wales as a political pawn in an arranged marriage. She never told us the reasons for the arrangement or what benefit this marriage was to bestow upon her people, but in the end that contract was never fulfilled. A ferocious storm ravaged the seas, pitting the small boat against monstrous waves, pelting them with shocking gales and torrential rain. Many on board were lost, dragged down into the ocean’s icy depths. Those who survived found themselves marooned off the coast of England, stuck deep in thick mud when the tide withdrew.
My father, hunting with several of his men, was also caught off guard by the storm. Rather than return home, they were forced to wait out the storm inland. When morning broke, they rode out to the shore to see what damage the storm had caused. Imagine their surprise when they saw a ship stranded without water, and a beautiful woman standing on the bow.
So enamoured was my father that he order his men to cut down a hundred trees and split them into planks so he could walk across the silt. Once he reached the ship, he dropped to one knee and begged for her hand in marriage. Besotted at once, she didn’t hesitate. They were inseparable until the day she died.
Was it so hard to see why I wanted that kind of love too? I thought my father understood. Why was he pushing me away from something so wonderful? None of the suitors he paraded before me had been able to steal my heart. Some were warm and friendly, others shallow and filled with greed and avarice.
I had to be guarded. My mother and father knew nothing about each other when they met, whereas, I had the unfortunate distinction of being worth a great deal to an ambitious, greedy suitor.
My father believed in sharing his wealth equally between his children—despite the abysmal failure of that same strategy carried out by his own father before him. Upon his death, my grandfather had entrusted the Earldom to be divided equally between his two sons. But this act of good faith resulted in bloodshed and civil war throughout Dorset and Somerset, as jealousy, greed, and distrust raged between my father and his brother, Osric.
The conflict happened before I was born, and King Aethelbald forced a peace between my father and uncle, insisting the terms of my grandfather’s will be upheld. I’d never met Osric. He was not welcome in our home, and my father never spoke of him. Other than being the Earl of Dorset, I knew nothing about him.
But rather than deter my father, the conflict left him intent on overcoming the specter of the past. He was firm on his decision—Edward and I would both inherit an impressive amount of land and holdings upon his death. As part of this legacy, I was to receive Wedmore, and many suitors were eager to snatch a piece of the pie. I was merely a means to an end in their eyes.
I thought about Ulfkell, the Earl of Wiltshire and shuddered. Older than my father, with a stooped frame and sagging sallow skin, he had shuffled into the hall with a procession of gifts—swords, shields, gold, and silver—and a monk to record the betrothal agreement. I was thirteen, my mother gone only one winter.
“I can’t marry him! I won’t! Please, Father.” I sat on my bed, my legs curled into my chest, tears moist on my cheeks.
“All young girls must marry …” His voice was soft, doubt lifting the words into a question.
“He scares me.” Fresh rushes had been laid on the floor, and the room smelled of straw and thyme. My mother always mixed fresh herbs with the rushes. “I miss Mama.” I cried harder.
He ran his fingers through his hair. “I wish she were here.”
“She wouldn’t make me marry him.” I hiccupped. “She would have let me pick my husband … like she picked you.”
“Very well, you may choose.”
My sobbing came to an abrupt halt. I gazed at him through watery lashes, not daring to believe. My heart hammered in my ears.
I stood on the bed and flung my arms around his neck. He held me tight.
I didn’t recall discussing a limit to my freedom that night, but after four years, it would appear my time was up.
I closed my eyes. “What am I to do, Mama?”
I listened, waiting for an answer or a sign to appear. I heard the abundant calls of birds around me, the soft rustling of a small animal rooting through the bushes nearby, but nothing sounded amiss. I felt the warmth of the sun on my head, a cold breeze nipping at my cheeks and nose, but I did not hear or sense any answer.
I opened my satchel and pulled out an earthen bowl. From a small stoppered urn, I poured in enough water until it quivered on the edge of spilling. I made a tinder nest of dried fungus and grass, and struck the flint with the steel firelighter until a spark caught the kindling and it began to smoke. Cradling the nest, I blew on it softly until the glowing ember surged and caught the grass, a hungry flame emerged, and I placed the nest carefully under a handful of small twigs. I reached my arms toward the sky and offered a silent invocation to the Goddess and my mother’s spirit. I added an extra appeal to Thor, the Thunder God, and Jesus, the Christian God, for good measure.
My mother and Bertram followed the Goddess, but since living in England they readily adopted the English God into their pantheon. As warrior and chieftain, my father—while a Christian—still held a soft spot for the powerful Sky God, Thor, so it was not uncommon to find the Gods fraternizing with the Goddess in their worship and rituals.
I appealed to them all now. I needed to know what my future held and if I would ever fall in love, and for that I needed the last item from my satchel—my divining bones. I opened the white silk pouch and tipped the small bleached bones onto the ground before me.
They fell into almost two distinct piles, with one small fragment traversing the void in between—a choice perhaps between two paths, or two sides. Each bone had an Ogham symbol carved into its surface. Huath/Hawthorn was turned upwards—a test ahead, as was Tinne/Holly—attack or defense. Muin/Vine was also prominent—wealth … my inheritance, my legacy might be in jeopardy. I frowned. The most worrisome symbol was Ioho/Yew, for it stood for destruction and transformation.
I didn’t like the message. A test, or challenge ahead, where I was either being attacked, or must become defensive, my legacy, my wealth and status might be threatened—and before transformation and rebirth, there would be destruction. I leaned over my earthen bowl and looked upon the water’s reflective surface, hoping a clarifying image would appear.
A ruckus of thrashing and screeching emerged from behind me. I turned. A magnificent raven burst from a large ash tree, its wing injured as it tried to fly overhead. I watched its struggle in fascination and several large droplets of blood fell onto my face. Startled, I blinked and jerked back as the warm moisture ran down my cheek.
The ground shook. A loud crash brought my attention back toward my mother’s grave. A boar, as large as two grown men, barreled out of the woods, huge tusks extended from its long snout. I imagined those vicious points goring me through, and my hands grew clammy with sweat.
I held very still and tried to merge with the inanimate stone that hid most of my body from view. I prayed the beast would not see or hear me. My breath, shallow and quick, sent small puffs of mist billowing into the air above me. I became aware of each sound my body made—the rasping sound of my breaths, my heart hammering in my ears, the thundering of blood rushing through my veins—as my body prepared to either fight or flee. I prayed to the Gods neither would be necessary, as the boar could easily out run me if I tried to flee, and with my sword out of reach, there wasn’t much opportunity to be victorious in a fight either.
Cool perspiration prickled along my spine and pooled within my armpits and beneath my breasts. I winced. If the smell of the fire didn’t reveal me, then the smell of my fear would.
The boar pawed at the ground and snorted as it sensed another presence in the clearing. It turned its beady eyes in my direction. I swallowed the bile rising in my throat.
The raven reappeared, careening recklessly out of the sky. With its claws exposed, it took a daring swipe at the pig. Distracted from me and infuriated with the raven, the boar gave chase, vaulting back into the woods in pursuit of the great black bird.
Seeing the angry twitching tail disappear into the undergrowth, I wasted no time and scrambled to my feet. I grabbed my sword and knife, stomped on the few remaining embers of the fire and threw all my paraphernalia back into my bag, pausing only long enough to register a droplet of blood on the center bone.
After what seemed like an eternity of pacing back and forth, Bertram appeared as if refreshed from a lovely afternoon stroll. He looked at me, at the marks around the clearing, where the boar’s tracks were still fresh in the newly turned up earth, and back as he surveyed the drops of dried blood clinging to my face.
“It’s time to go,” I said, grabbing his arm.
“Are you going to tell me what happened?”
I explained the events summarily, my feet keeping their brisk press forward.
He looked around at the blur of passing reeds and rushes. “You can let go of me now. I think we’re safe.”
With one final glance back over my shoulder, I released him and slowed my pace. “What do you think?”
His bushy white eyebrows meshed together in the centre of his forehead. “What direction did the bird come from?”
“And the boar?”
“West, it came out of the woods in front of me.”
We walked in pregnant silence for several more yards. Bertram’s eyes focused on something in the distance. He voice startled me when he continued. “War is coming.”
Sweat slicked my palms. “Why was I marked with blood?”
“That could be a very bad omen.”
War, blood, death, and destruction—not something to look forward to in my future. I grasped for something, anything else, to take away from today’s events. Was it possible the vision meant something else? I was after all fine. The raven saved me.
“I had also asked about love. And the raven is the Goddess of the East’s familiar. Perhaps the vignette was to signify that I give one of the suitors a chance, that he may prove worthy of my heart and offer me security and protection … a way to avoid calamity—the boar—in my future?”
Bertram rubbed his snowy beard between his fingers. “It’s possible, but we must proceed cautiously.”
I nodded. A vision could have several meanings, but it was ultimately up to the priestess to decipher the signs and omens. I was far too eager to view the vision in a positive light rather than a negative one. Love, safety, protection. These messages were infinitely better than interpreting the situation as an imminent sign of bloodshed.