Outtakes from the original manuscript

The original, unexpurgated version of Karn's experience with Offa

The search for Karn by his friends

Karn beginning to make his way without Britta

Brother Alphonse, describing the Abbess, and Alphonse's search for Britta

What follows is the original, unexpurgated version of Karn's experience with Offa. This is not recommended for the squeamish—so please, proceed at your own risk. Or skip to the asterisks if you want to look at other deleted scenes, which are much less harrowing, I promise.

Karn waited a long time in the dim hall with only pain and shame for company. That and his thirst. He lay naked and bound, the only sign now that he was Dane a small medallion round his neck stamped with the Hammer of Thor. Thor had deserted him this day. Breath rasped through his parched throat. Had he fought so many battles with fire in his heart just to die basely here in this rude hall? Had the Norns always woven the thread of his life into this fate? He dared not pray for death. Who among the gods would answer?

Ulf had brought him to this, he realized. Ulf knew about the fortress up the river from the church. If only Ulf were here, that he could gut him in payment for the Danir who died today, in payment for his own shame. But he was not like to see Ulf this side of Hel's frozen domain.

Frigid air blasted into the hall as the door opened on twilight. Men wandered in, their drinking horns held high. Women brought bowls of steaming food.

Several Saxons broke away from the loud jesting and victorious laughter to cluster around Karn. He resolved to provoke them into killing him too quickly. He kicked out at the nearest of the three. The man lurched back, groaning and clutching his shin. That brought laughter from the others. When he had recovered enough to be angry, he lunged at Karn with the knife. For a moment, Karn thought he had won, but the Saxon's comrades pulled him back and took his knife, still laughing. The man had only his fists, but he used those instead.

A short, red-haired girl pushed her way among the men, interrupting their sport. Her hair was like a gleaming torch in the hellish hall. Karn lay gasping as she knelt beside him and motioned his tormentors away. She didn't even look at his face, just his body. Her small hands reached out for him, slowly, as in a dream. As she touched his wounds, a shock shot through him. It wasn't precisely pain. Her eyes went from his wounds to his face, as though drawn there against her will. They were green eyes.

Each stared at the other, paralyzed, for several moments. Finally she shook her head and rocked back on her heels. Taking some bandages from a basket she brought with her, she pressed a pad to his shoulder and bound it tightly. She bound his hip too. He could see her hesitate, then muster her resolve as she turned his head to look at the bruise on his temple. She had felt the shock of touching, too. She pressed her fingers around the lump. Her touch soothed his head. The ache leaked away. Then she rose and without another word, turned and left the hall.

Karn found this whole ritual more frightening than all the rest. Why did they send a healer? They must want to be sure he didn't bleed to death before they could have their revenge.

A huge man with a great forked beard strode into the hall. Men rushed to fill a drinking horn edged with wrought silver. He must be the leader of this serpents' den. There was much toasting, raucous laughter, blustery talk. They were recounting their version of the battle, Karn realized with disgust. No Danish scalds would ever sing of this dire day.

His wounds began to throb with greater intensity as the room warmed, even as the sky outside the doorway deepened into night. The smoke from the fire hung in the rafters, wafting down to fill his senses. These poor builders did not even put smoke-holes in their halls. They were little more than beasts, he thought muzzily. The brutish voices and the laughter whirled into a wall of sound. The bright cyrtles of the women who served the food spun before his eyes.

Karn started awake as a foot prodded his belly. There were only eight or nine Saxons left in the hall, including Fork-beard and a scald, strumming a gut-stringed lyre. They filled their drinking horns from bulging leather sacks of mead. Slowly, they wandered, one by one, over to him. He gathered himself. He must give over his shame, his fear of what would happen next. He must have room only for the fact that he was Karn, and Dane, son of Gunnar, mighty warrior. A knot tightened in his belly, his heart beat in his breast. Serve me well, heart, as you have served me in battle these many times, since my battle now begins.

For a long while, the Saxons just looked at Karn, whispering together. Why didn't they fall on him, and do their worst? It felt as though they were mustering their nerve. Spineless dogs!

Fork-beard pressed his way to the center and stood looming over Karn. Karn made to strike with his feet as he had done before. He had no chance. Fork-beard himself kicked out with such force that Karn doubled over, retching uncontrollably. The searing pain with each breath announced broken ribs. Do your worst, Saxon devils. The son of Gunnar will not be broken thus.

Sweat glazed the face of the fork-bearded one. He hauled Karn up by the rope around his neck and one of the others drew up a table. Fork-beard dragged him over the table. Karn's chest pressed against the rough wooden planks. He could hardly get his breath for the pain in his ribs. They roped each wrist to the table legs. No one laughed now. The fear in Karn's gut rose. He could feel them behind him. I am Karn. Son of Gunnar. Dane and warrior. I am Karn.

They wrenched his feet apart and tied his ankles to the remaining stout legs of the table. Rough hands pulled open his buttocks. Even more shocking, a thumb pried open his back passage. He bucked with all his strength against the table. He had not expected this. His squirming only provoked a laugh among the spectators. The one who held his leash jerked it down so that his cheek banged against the table, but the thumb continued its probing.

"I will have my revenge for this," Karn croaked with as much force as he could muster. The horrible impotence of those words only raked his soul the more.

The scald came up to stand in front of him. "They want you to tell the plans for Anglia," he said in broken Danish. "Where will the Danir land and when, how many will they bring?"

Karn couldn't think with the thumb probing his anus. He knew, of course. He had planned the whole. "They can go hang themselves," he muttered through clenched teeth.

The scald shook his head nervously. "You don't understand, Viking. They will continue until you tell them what they want to know," he stuttered. "If not tonight, then other nights. If not these men, then other men. There will be no death, honorable or otherwise. They will keep you as slave for their use. For one of your kind...." He trailed off. "You can trade for a clean death. Tell them now and you can die quickly."

Karn's mind skittered over a vision of such a future. He dared not dwell on it. Instead he bucked against the hands at his backside. "Save your words," he gasped.

Fork-beard barked a question at the scald, who shook his head. Fork-beard jerked his head at the door and the scald scurried away. No one now could understand Karn. He could not be tempted to tell these savages anything, no matter what they did. He had a good idea what they meant to do. He was just not sure he could bear it.

At last the thumb was withdrawn. Karn had never felt so vulnerable in his life. "Bring on your knives, you unnatural, whore-son Saxons," he muttered to himself. They did. He felt a slice across his buttock, a sear of pain. A cheer rose from the fire-lit faces around him.

But it was not the cold metal of a knife that he felt next brush his backside. The silken skin that bobbled against him made him howl in rage. He craned around to see Fork-beard holding his own erect member and rubbing it into the blood dripping from the cut on his buttocks. Anticipation gleamed in the narrow eyes. Fear cycled up inside Karn. Around him, a sea of teeth and eyes gleamed in the red fire light. Then Offa's hands pried open his buttocks and the brutal penetration soaked him in pain. He writhed and struggled, but there was no escape. The hands at his hips pulled at him as the phallus in him thrust. The first rasping pain ceased as the way was lubricated with his blood. Karn bellowed as he twisted. Around him the Saxon chanted now, low and slowly, in time to the thrusts within him. Some rubbed their own groins.

Woden, strike me dead before another minute passes, Karn prayed. He pulled on the ropes that bound him until they bit into his flesh and screamed his rage, his shame. The chanting grew louder and faster until the thumping against his buttocks stilled and he could feel the awful smaller jerking of that Saxon rod inside him as it loosed its seed to wild cheers. Abruptly it was withdrawn, leaving his anus pulsing in its wake. Kill me now, Karn willed in silence, his eyes closed against those glinting Saxon eyes and leaking tears.

They didn't kill him. He heard movement. Again a knife sliced across his buttocks. He felt fresh hands pull him open and a new violation began, a new chant. He struggled against that one, and the next ones, too, but after a while he didn't struggle anymore. The shame, he heard a trembling voice murmur hoarsely. He thought he would at least lose consciousness but even this solace was denied him. The words of the scald seared his heart. They meant to keep him as a slave and use him until he betrayed his countrymen. He felt himself drifting away from the moorings of his pride, his courage, his history.

The reek of sweat and mead in the smoky hall, the smell of blood and semen was like to gag him. It was Fork-beard who goaded them on, laughing, toasting the latest Saxon to step to Karn's backside. One by one they trailed out into the night, as they had their fill.

Finally only Fork-beard remained. He untied Karn's feet. The fetters were not needed. Karn lay across the table, distant from himself, as though he watched the whole. With one hand still holding his drinking horn, Forkbeard pulled aside the flap of his breeches and picked up the handle of a broom. He broke it over his knee, then laid into Karn's sides and back even as he thrust into his rear passage. The grunts of pleasure quickened with his blows. When he was finished, he cut the bloody ropes and pushed Karn off the table to loll like a child's rag doll on the floor. Karn heard from far away Fork-beard mutter some caressing words. They were a promise of the future.

The Saxon drew his other sword, the metal one, and lifted Karn's balls, grinning. Karn felt the threat dimly. Somehow, he rolled away. The sword point pushed into his side, as Fork-beard cursed and pulled it up before it could kill him. Karn doubled over slowly. Then Fork-beard staggered out the door, calling out. Karn felt the blackness coming up to grab him. Too late, oblivion. You are too late.

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The following thread of small scenes chronicles the search for Karn by his friends Jael, Thurmak and Bjorn the Bear-hearted.

"Here is the plan, valiant warriors." Ivar pointed one oddly jointed finger at a map drawn in the Centish soil. The campfire lit up his grizzled visage and that of his brother, Halfdan.

Jael looked around the circle. Ulf was there, of course, and Thurmak. There was Egil and Bjorn the Bear-hearted, others he knew less well from Halfdan's camp. But no Karn. None of his friends could understand it. He must be dead. If breath still warmed his body, he would have been with them in their hour of triumph over Cent.

"We leave a small contingent to stay here on Thanet Island for the winter and consolidate our gains in Cent." Halfdan nodded solemnly. "Egil will choose and support the puppet king."

The trusted jarls of both men squatted in the dirt beside them. Firelight winked on chain mail and finely worked buckles. Egil nodded in acceptance of his assignment.

"I strike out for Anglia with a small advance force," Ivar said. "We carve a base of operations and prepare for a spring campaign. Most will go with Halfdan to take Jorvick before the winter comes. Two rival kings dispute that land. It will fall quickly."

Suppressed excitement hung in the air with the smoke of the fire.

"Where do we strike Anglia to establish our base?" Ulf asked, not waiting for Ivar and Halfdan to lay out their plan.

He gets above himself, Jael thought. Why does Ivar not put him in his place? Has he taken Karn's place in their leader's heart so soon? Jael's own heart contracted. Ulf was no match for Karn's skill in organising an army. He could not craft a song of victory as Karn could and he had not bothered to learn the secrets of the peoples who traded with the Vikings, like Karn. Yet already the scalds sang of Ulf and the battle and Ivar did not suggest other themes.

Jael looked over at Thurmak. They had shared their suspicions. Ulf was the one who had goaded Karn to take that little church. And he was the one who had scouted out that area.

Ivar pointed to the line of coast drawn in the dirt in answer to Ulf's question. "Where the little island will afford us sanctuary as Thanet does to Halfdan's forces here."

"Where?" Ulf asked again, peering at the awkward map.

"Where we left Karn," Ivar said. Jael and Thorn exchanged another glance.

"In spring, we add Anglia to our treasure hoard." Halfdan grinned in the firelight. "And we claim this great island from the Orkneys to the white cliffs."

Jael looked up to see Ulf's face. He thought he saw a shadow cross it. But he might have been mistaken. "Good," Ulf snapped out. "Who can stop us?"

Ivar looked up under his brows around the circle. "No one except ourselves and the gods. We leave Cent in a fortnight."

The Danir were silent as their ships sliced through the water off the coast of Anglia and approached the blackened hump in the water. The little island was burned to the ground. Was it an omen? Had Karn died here? Jael suppressed a shudder. Some evil deed was done here. The island was dead. He hoped that Ivar would not call a halt.

But the signal was clear from Ivar's ship. A dinghy from each of their many ships was to put in to the island on the side opposite the mainland.

As Jael waded through the waves to shore, it seemed impossible that Karn was not beside him. It had been less than a month since they had parlayed here. Now only blackened oaks loomed above them and only the rocks and the surf were unravaged by fire.

The others looked as nervous as he did as they clustered on the beach.

"Make haste," Thurmak said, his voice lost in the pounding surf. "I like it not."

"Have you never seen what is left after the rage of a fire?" Ulf challenged loudly. But Jael could see his eyes dart to the right and left, beyond his control.

"Perhaps this fire is what prevented Karn..." Bjorn the Bear-Hearted trailed into silence.

Ivar raised a hand. "If so, the gods had a hand in his fate. We may never know."

"Should we choose another place for our attack?" Ulf asked.

"No. We attack from here." Ivar's voiced brooked no questions. "Let us lay our plans. Ulf, you scouted this coast. You can advise us. Then we use the morning tide to go ashore."

Jael wondered whether Ivar suspected Ulf as they did. If so, the leader concealed it well. Perhaps because he had no proof, just as they had none. Still, since the burned island was potentially a bad omen, it was significant that Ivar insisted that they land here.

"But we stay on the ships tonight," Bjorn pressed. "Not on this cursed island."

"Agreed. We stay on the ships."

Jael and Thurmak stood on the shore near the Saxon village among the Danir and stared at the huge blackened patch of sand and the charred debris that still littered it. There could be no mistake. It was Jael who first was drawn away from the hundred or so Danir still on the beach, away from the crews unloading weapons from the dragon ships, to the burned smudge upon the pebbly shore. It drew him as though it were a black and evil vortex to the underworld.

There was no question what it was, of course. Each blackened stick that still poked through what ashes the winds left had one rounded knobbly end. The only thing left was for Bjorn to kick at a round, blackened stone and turn it up to reveal staring sockets.

Jael closed his eyes in grief for his countrymen, one in particular.

"So this is what happened to Karn and his band," Thurmak finally croaked.

Jael raised his head in time to see the blood lust seep into the eyes of Bjorn the Bear-hearted. "Let us avenge their deaths upon this miserable village!" His voice rose into a battle cry.

Jael and Thurmak exchanged glances. The poor village they saw on the hill above the beach could not have defeated two score armed and valiant Danir. Still they drew their swords. Bjorn called on the gods for vengeance as he started up the hill. Danish swords longed to be quenched in blood. Jael resolved to question the first Saxons he saw to find out how the Danes had died. After the village had paid, they would find the others, the ones who had really killed Karn and his band. Jael's heart cried out to Karn's spirit in Valhalla, as a war-cry rose to his lips.

Jael stood among the hacked bodies of two races in the fortress they found about a mile in from the village above the beach and pulled off his leather helmet with the metal nosepiece. His hair was plastered to his head with sweat, his chest heaved against the straps of his mail shirt. There was not a single Saxon left alive between here and the surf. That thought swelled within him until he turned his head toward the heavens and let his shout spiral up. "Karn," he screamed. "You are avenged."

Thurmak came up beside him and laid a bloodied hand on his shoulder. "We have done good work today, fraendi. Karn drinks with the Valkyrie. There is no doubt he died bravely."

They strode out through the shattered gates, past the log ram that had breached them. "Now there is the question of Ulf," Jael said grimly.

"He knew this fortress was here. He sent Karn to his death," Thurmak's voice cracked with emotion. "Now we go to Ivar."

"And tell him what?" Jael asked wearily. "There is no proof. Ulf will feign his grief, and deny all. No, our revenge must still wax. I swear Ulf's time will come."

They strode in uneasy silence toward their fellows, coming up from the village.

"At least we quenched our swords in Saxon blood," Thurmak said. Jael could see him trying to recapture the swell of victory, soured by the thought of Ulf. It was gone for Jael as well.

Jael's gaze swept the fortress. "There were not enough Saxons here to win out over Karn and his hale jarls," he finally said. "Twice so many were not yet enough."

Bjorn joined them. His face was splattered with Saxon blood. "You are right, fraendi. We haven't got all those who took Karn and his band."

"What mean you?" Jael asked sharply.

"I heard one cursing that their fellows left but a few days ago to join Edmund."

"Loki take them!" Thurmak spat. "I want them all."

Jael turned to several Saxon bodies lying next the road and began heaving them over.

"What are you doing, man?" Bjorn shouted.

"Tell Ivar what that Saxon said," Jael shot back. "Thurmak, find one of these dogs left alive. Ivar will want to know where Edmund hides. There we find the rest who killed Karn."

The men camped around Offa's fortress at Dunford were now dwarfed by a vast Danish army of two thousand camped over the rolling hills of Anglia around it. Halfdan and Ivar the Boneless had set their headquarters in the fortress and their most trusted jarls with them. The village immediately next to the fortress had been looted and its inhabitants driven off, to make room for the Vikings. But Ivar and Halfdan had ordered that there be no more killing. Any peasants who tilled the land, artisans, women and children in the surrounding countryside were to be left alone. The fruit of their labour would be commandeered to supply the Viking horde.

In the early morning, steam rose off the grass of the meadow at the western edge of the camp. Ulf and seven or eight others gathered there with horses, some brought with them, some gleaned from the countryside. They tightened the leather girths of their saddles, ready to forage out into the land for more horses. While their Saxon enemies marched over hill and dale, and tired themselves, the Danir would arrive on horseback, fresher for battle.

Swords or axes took their places in scabbard or saddle holster. It was not only that the villagers and churls might not give them horses willingly. They might run into Saxons, scouring the countryside for supplies as well.

Ulf was proud that he had been selected to lead one of the foraging parties. It was a measure of Ivar's trust. Already he displaced Karn in the strange leader's eyes.

Ulf ordered his men about briskly. He was determined to bring home more horses than any other foraging party. He had handpicked the best men he could find. He smirked to himself. Karn's foolish friends had obviously not endeared themselves to Ivar with their bleating about going after Karn's killers. They had not been given the leadership of any team.

Ulf snapped the cinch on his saddle tight and turned to see if his party was ready to start. The sooner they started, the sooner they might return to accolades.

But the sight that met his eyes was one calculated to spoil his mood entirely.

Bjorn and Jael rode out of the woods, Thurmak behind them. They were ready for a trip. Their packs were tied on their saddles. Their faces were grim, but somehow self-satisfied.

"What do you here?" Ulf challenged.

Bjorn made a low sound in his throat very much like a growl. Jael smiled. "We come at Ivar's request to join your party."

Ulf felt as though he had been slapped. He did not want friends of Karn dogging his every step and looking for mistakes. What was Ivar thinking? He looked about and saw the rest of the party staring at him. He swallowed hard. He could do nothing if Ivar had indeed sent them. How could he question that here in front of everyone?

"Then you'll have to keep up with better men than you are," he snapped and swung himself into the saddle. If they wanted to come, they would have to work for it. He pressed his horse without preamble into a canter.

This takes us to the point where Karn's friends, and Ulf enter Stowa. The scenes were cut to focus more on the main characters and to avoid the distraction of additional points of view.

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Several small scenes showing Karn beginning to make his way without Britta were cut.

Karn watched fog roll in and lay heavy on the swamps after Britta left. She must follow her magic. And he could not trail after her forever, allowing her to provide for him. Now he had his own way, too. He would find her again, when he had made himself whole. She would wonder at a Danish warrior, experienced in the ways of the world, conqueror of many lands.

That was for later. Now, without Britta, the whole of the Saxon island pressed in on him. All humans here were enemies. As night came on, he hobbled Thorn with a bit of old rope and sat in the doorway of his adopted hut until the damp and the cold seeped into his wounds and drove him to try to start a fire. There was no wood within walking distance, but he was used to that. Trees were scarce in Denmark, too. He limped to the highest point he could find, up against the ridge of lime. Squatting in the dark, he cut black cubes of peat, formed by rotting vegetation over countless years, and lifted them out. They were damp, but not dripping.

Grunting with effort, he hauled the peat bricks back to his dooryard. Then he gathered the greyed and weathered sedge rushes from the ground around the buildings. Getting the fire was the work of an hour or more. His knife struck stone, sending spark showers over shredded rushes in his firebox. When at last he was rewarded by a tiny tendril of smoke, he sat in his tattered hut, and nursed his fire against the immensity of the Saxon night.

Karn sat in the doorway of his house and cut the last willow sticks for the door of the oblong eel trap he held in his lap. He was hungry. The supple wands were bound tightly with rushes at the corners, the slats so narrow that a nice fat eel could not escape. Then, a rock bound to the door for a weight, he would prop it up with a stick and set his trap in the shallow water, baited with a piece of flesh from last night's fish. The eel would swim in for the bait, displace the stick, the rock would hold the door shut. Roasted eels for supper. Karn's mouth watered. Later he and Thorn would begin their work on the lime plateau. Yesterday he had spent making new fans of rushes to repair the roof of the little hut. Now he must get on with his plan.

Even as Britta was no doubt getting on with her plan. He wondered if she had found her witch, and whether the witch explained Britta to herself. And whether that was good or bad.

He rose, the tight lattice square of the trap complete. He would likely never know whether Britta found her witch. He had promised himself to find her again, when he was whole. He dared not think why. It had been a futile promise, most likely.

He limped off toward the deep water, carrying his empty trap.

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Originally, there were scenes from the point of view of Brother Alphonse, describing the Abbess, and Alphonse's search for Britta. Here are some examples:

Brother Alphonse knelt in front of the Abbess. He shuddered, but it was not from the cold pouring in through the arches of her private audience chamber, open to the morning sky. Interviews with the Abbess always unnerved him, but this time he had made it worse by inadvertently touching on one of her obsessions.

"Brother Alphonse, do you side with those ignorant Irish monks when it comes to the date of Easter?" Ethelreda, Abbess of Ely, was named for the pious daughter and wife of Kings who had founded this priory two hundred years ago. The original Ethelreda had kept her virginity through twelve years of marriage to the King of Northumbria, until in disgust he had allowed her dedicate her life to God. Her namesake was just as determined.

Alphonse watched the Abbess's white wool robes swirl about her red leather shoes as she paced in front of him. Why ever had he dismissed the disagreement over dates as an internecine squabble? And why had he done it where others besides Brother Sebastian could hear?

"I... I am too ignorant to know the difference in the dates," he decided to say.

The pacing stopped. "You need only know that the Church of Rome dictates the date."

Alphonse dared a hasty glance at her countenance, trying to gauge his fate. The Abbess's old eyes were bright and so dark as to be called black. Her wrinkles were a whorl that spun down to lips used to puckering in thought. White wisps of hair escaped from the skullcap that fitted tightly to her head and down around her ears. Alphonse had heard it covered a bald pate.

"Yes, Mother." He hoped his voice did not crack. He could see the way this was tending. There would be an atonement. The Abbess's atonements were legendary. Some had not survived their penance. Mother of Mercy, forgive me, he thought, for she will not.

"You will be banished from this sanctuary." She pronounced his sentence so easily.

He began to shake. He had not been out in the world for fifteen years. "Yes, Mother."

She strode toward the window and looked out to where he could see the rising sun, just pearling the grey mists of Ely. "While you are out in the world, I have a task for you. If you perform it well, you may be re-admitted here."

He could not believe his good fortune. "What task, Mother?"

"I have heard rumours of one who performs miracles of healing and destruction." The old woman's voice hardened. "I would like to examine her." Brother Alphonse felt a flash of pity for whoever the Abbess sought. "You will find her and bring her here."

He chanced a look up at the ancient profile. "How... how am I to find this one?" he asked, trying not to sound plaintive.

"She has red hair and a black wolf as a familiar." The Abbess turned from the window and came to stand over him. "The whole countryside talks of her. Finding her will be easy."

Alphonse had his doubts.

"Brother Ilwith will go with you," the Abbess ordered and waved his dismissal.

So... the hulking favourite of the Abbess finally paid with banishment for his nocturnal forays into the town. The man was a half-wit, but the Abbess always seemed to overlook his sins. Ilwith was hardly the companion Alphonse would have chosen. But obviously all the choices here belonged to the Abbess. He rose and retreated hastily from the audience room, his stomach churning with dread. Ilwith was waiting for him, a bundle already in hand. He had known about Alphonse's sentence.

"We are banished," Alphonse said morosely to the balding man.

"We are charged with a mission," Ilwith answered, without expression. He turned to follow Alphonse back to his quarters. He didn't seem upset at all. Ilwith waited, blocking the door as Alphonse gathered his few belongings, almost as though he was a guard.

"If we find this red-haired woman, the atonement will be hers, I think," Alphonse muttered as he packed. "I only wish I could put away all emotion as the Abbess does when she works the will of God. I always feel too much for the sinners. I am afraid I will never be more than a simple monk."

"The Abbess is a strong woman," Ilwith agreed.

When they were out the gates, Alphonse turned back and saw the monastery riding the fen mists like a ship rides the sea, its stone tower touched by the first sun. How he longed for its sheltering walls. Brother Ilwith plodded stolidly away. Alphonse could hear the clump, clump of his heavy staff. That staff might be welcome out here in a world inhabited by thieves and warring thegns and Jesu knew what else. He prayed he could find this woman and bring her to the Abbess quickly. She was his only passage back to the life of faith he knew. If he failed to find her, he would not dare brave the Abbess's wrath. If he did find her, she would have to brave it.

Brother Alphonse knew that this was the moment of truth. He had been summoned to the Abbess shortly after he and Brother Ilwith had locked the red-haired woman and her dog in one of the monk's cells. He knelt before the Abbess now as she paced the stone floor. All he could see were the shoes and the swirling hem of her robes as she crossed the square of light that shone in through the open stone aperture. Back and forth she walked in the cold. But the cold did not account for Brother Alphonse's quivering. Was his penance over, or just beginning?

"None of the options are good," she was muttering.

"Yes, Mother," he echoed, but he wasn't sure what she meant. Surely it was a great thing for an Abbess to declare a saint. Would it not be wonderful if they should find one here in Anglia? He had seen the joy and faith of the woman whose babe she had healed, of the woman she got with child. How could that faith and joy be created by other than a saint? He wondered if God would punish them all for how Brother Ilwith had treated her.

"Where did you find her?" the Abbess snapped.

"In the fens," he answered, trying to keep the tremor from his voice. She must see through him. He could conceal nothing from her. Better that he should confess than that she find out from someone else. "I didn't want to tie her up," he sputtered. "I didn't want to hit her over the head."

"I knew that. That is why I sent Ilwith, you fool." The Abbess dismissed his confession. "And the stories?"

"They all agree who saw these things that something happened," he said in a small voice.

"I will examine her," the Abbess said. She seemed distressed.

Dare he try to soothe her? "Would it not be wonderful if it were true?" he asked softly.

The old Abbess stopped and turned slowly on him. "Already the credulous whisper her name instead of the name of the Holy Mother of God. She distracts them from the One True Word. That does not seem wonderful to me."

Brother Alphonse tried to sink into the cold stone floor. "Then she is a fraud?"

"It would be better for us all if she were," the Abbess said bitterly.

"I do not understand, kind Mother," he said, knowing that whatever else she was, the Abbess was not kind.

The Abbess snorted. "If she is a saint, even if I declare her after her death, she will become the object of a cult of the credulous. The monastery will be secondary to a chit of a girl."

And you will be secondary, Alphonse thought, beginning to see the problem.

"If , on the other hand, she works her wonders as a spawn of the devil, to distract them from their prayers in their efforts to get something from her, how do we fight that, eh, Brother Alphonse? We must destroy her, in the name of God, and try to convince the peasants that we were not destroying a saint."

"So it is better if she is a fraud," he whispered, his stomach sinking. He did not like to think of those green eyes rolling in terror as the monks held a torch to faggots piled at her feet.

"Not better for her, of course. She must be destroyed either way. But better for us, if we can convince the general rabble she is but a trickster."

Brother Alphonse could not reply, only shudder. The Abbess misinterpreted his distaste.

"Don't worry, Brother. Saints are few and far between. We will let the people see her failure before she dies. Then they will turn again to the Abbey as the source of their faith." She seemed to think for a moment. "I will not see the girl for a few days. I must think about the questions we will use to test her." The old voice was cracked with the strain of murmuring prayers for so many hours every day, for so many thousands of days. She went to the window and stood staring out for several minutes.

She was a powerful woman. She did not have to leave her cloistered halls like the Bishop of Lincoln who ran his See like a common administrator. They came to her, all of them, kings and thegns, traders and bishops. At her whim, they found absolution from their sin or excommunication from their church.

"And," the Abbess said thoughtfully, "put it out that I want to see anyone who claims to have been healed by her. We will see what these peasants have to say for themselves."

"The people that I talked to spoke most persuasively," Alphonse offered.

"There are always those who make themselves important by pretending they have been party to whatever new miracle they've heard," the Abbess snapped. "But that is our job, is it not? To separate the wheat from the chaff in the service of God?"

Alphonse prayed that he would never be found to be chaff.

"Now go."

Alphonse rose to his feet.

"Be sure that she fasts in preparation for our interview." The Abbess covered the distance to a large table that acted as her desk in strides brisk for her age and sat down in the huge carved chair. Alphonse scurried to the door. "And take that dog away. I want her to have no distractions as she contemplates her sin."

Alphonse nodded. But heaviness hung in his heart. He wished he had never found her.

Brother Alphonse shook his head as he took the woman and her baby back out the gates of the monastery. What proof had the Abbess expected? The baby's foot was a good as new. The woman who said her lover told of falling trees on an island...she hadn't even claimed to see the thing herself. The woman who conceived with gray in her hair? It was not inconceivable.

Alphonse smiled at the woman and pressed a coin from the offerings into her hand to help her on her way.

"I hope the Abbess declares her a saint soon," the woman said eagerly. "I want everyone to know what I know."

Alphonse nodded sadly, as he turned away. He had seen the look on the Abbess's face. She had heard nothing she could believe from these people who had journeyed so far to tell her their stories. It would go hard with the girl who was or was not a saint. When he talked to the people himself, he had been ripe with their belief. Now he saw them through the Abbess's eyes, and he was not sure what to believe. He turned back into the compound and made his way to the Abbess's study. She was writing in a vellum book. He knelt silently.

"They tell me she recites large passages from the Bible," the Abbess said without preamble as she continued to scratch her quill over the stiff pages.

Brother Alphonse knew he was about to enrage the Abbess. How could he not repeat what the red-haired girl had told him? It would be as bad as lying outright. "She said to me yesterday that her father taught her to read the Bible as a child."

He waited for the storm. "Read?" the Abbess asked slowly. "No one can read anymore. Not even the monks. Who was her father?" the Abbess asked sharply.

Brother Alphonse was glad he had foreseen that question. "A priest... an Irish priest."

"I might have known," the Abbess spat. "Only one of their kind would have taught a peasant girl to read." The Abbess grew thoughtful. "That gives her pride and power." The Abbess rose from the desk. "You saw this morning how they believe in her," she muttered, as she went to stand in front of the great windows. "And she is clever, very clever. She claims the power, but denies she can provide current proof. Later, she can start her tricks again. The rumors will spread, fed by those ignorant peasants, until she has a cult of her own..." The Abbess trailed off. "And there is something even more dangerous about this one," she mused. "She may read the Bible, but she threatens me with declaring that her power is from witchery rather than from God, if I do not acknowledge her. Oh, the threats were veiled, but I understood them all the same. She knows as well as I do that the old religion dies hard among these simple people."

Alphonse began to shake as he realized how much more acute his Abbess was than he.

The Abbess grew decisive. "Announce a gathering in the courtyard in front of the Abbey gates. Disperse the monks into the town. I want all of Ely there to see me test her. They must know clearly that she is a fraud, or her cult will grow with her or without her. And tell Brother Ilwith to pile plenty of faggots round the stake."

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DANEGELD by Susan Squires

May 2009 (re-release)
ISBN: 9780505524461

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