blueinkedfrost ([personal profile] blueinkedfrost) wrote in [community profile] hardmode2011-07-25 11:19 am

"Chosen of Tempus", Baldur's Gate, Branwen

Title: Chosen of Tempus
Author: Blueinkedfrost
Media Creator: The fantastic [personal profile] cypher, who created a wonderful fanmix with illustration
Media Link: Valor's Creed, available at this direct link
Word Count: ~17,000
Fandom: Baldur's Gate
Rating: PG-13
Warnings: None given
Summary: By no means is the Bhaalspawn the only one concerned with the divine. Born in a harsh and warlike land where women are denied the chance to fight, Branwen of Seawolf believes nonetheless that the god of war wants her to be his priestess. A priest, a warrior, and in essence a Viking, Branwen takes up her warhammer to choose her fate.



Contents:

Part I - Prologue
Part II - Growth
Part III - Acolyte
Part IV - Initiation

--

Part I - Prologue

"Go away, Gwen," Vidar called down to her. Her brother and his friend Njall clung to the very highest branches of the tall tree, most of its lower limbs stripped; Branwen's hands could not reach halfway to the lowest of them.

She clambered up along the ash bark anyway. The roughness of it opened scrapes along her arms and thighs, and she would climb some distance only to feel herself slipping back; but she did not give in.

"Go away, Gwen," Vidar repeated. "It's our secret business."

Branwen dared a glance to see how far their faces lurked above hers. They were closer; she would not give in. From all the sagas she had heard told, Eilinn the Eagle clambering the cliff face while black arrows pelted at him and fires roared above-- She was child of Seawolf, isle of mighty warriors. She struggled upward; she felt a line of blood falling from her thigh, a sharp part of the trunk cutting her.

"Go away, mamma's-girl," Njall called. "You can't get up here."

She was near to the first of the branches she could hold. Vidar and Njall were cruel; when they ran she followed them and never cried, no matter how many gorse-scratches lingered on her skin.

Her brother reached for part of the tree, and she heard a stick snap off in his hands.

"Stop it, Vidar!" she cried. "I can get up, I will!" Branwen pushed herself on. Her hands clutched at a thick branch just above her; the bark twisted and buckled upon it, but she gripped more tightly. She did not care that it tore her fingers. Then she saw her older brother holding the stick like the boys were taught to throw small darts as a part of their warrior training. She watched them from a distance when she could hide from her mother, and secretly she practised herself when she tended the family's sheep; she had a sling and stones that shepherd boys used to keep away wolves. She was closer to Njall and her brother now, The bark was giving way in her right hand and it was slipping, but she held with her knees and grasped another branch with her hand.

Vidar flung down the stick and it hit her forehead with a sharp end. She blinked at the pain. "I'm coming!" she called again, and struggled another step up.

"Go away!" Njall plucked his own stick, which missed when he flung it down at her. "Stupid girl!"

Branwen stretched out her left hand for the branch above. It was high above her, but it seemed strong to carry her up. A thin trail of wet blood had started to fall down her forehead. She strained her legs and arms against the bark, clinging and reaching. She was growing every day and she had to reach it. She could see the bottom of Vidar's foot; then her brother swung himself down and closer to her, kicking out. She felt herself lose her grip.

"Vidar!" For a moment Branwen glanced at the gorse and stony ground below. It suddenly seemed like a long fall. "Stop it! I'll fall--"

"We don't want girls up here anyway," Njall said; and it was now a stone from his pockets instead of a stick that he drew to fling.

"That's right," Vidar said; and she felt the tree-bark slipping in her grip. It was not her strength that failed but the silly tree, she thought, dizzy. Something had hit her head. The bark twisted as if it had turned into the hand of a troll in a saga, plunging her away from it. She saw Vidar's hand then reaching for her. Her brother's face was oddly pale.

"Gwen! Branwen, we didn't mean..."

She fell, and the first of her dreams came.

--

Part II - Growth

The sounds of battle were all about her, and she was but an unarmed child. She saw black-armoured soldiers, red-armoured warriors bearing banners of gold and crimson. They clashed together on the grey fields below her feet, and stained the dark strands of grass red with blood. Above her head a hefty pike clashed against a halberd's point. By her left side a swordsman wielded a two-handed blade against an enemy with shield and spear. She stumbled below the spear meeting the sword above her head in an arched point like the stone arches on the village chieftain's dwelling, and tripped on slippery mud below her feet. The dirt was wet with blood and water, more the first than the second. She'd seen enough sheep and pigs and cows slain and salted for meat over the winter that blood itself was less to her than some nobleborn and gentle girl; but this battle frightened her. It would have frightened any child, the men striving to kill each other and the clang of fierce metals above her head. They did not turn to attack her, though, and as a daughter of Seawolf she watched them. Branwen thought it was as if they did not know of her existence; as if she was insignificant through her small size and lack of skill or weapon.

The black-armoured man of the spear was shorter than the one he fought. She saw him strike and lean forward as he did so, and the swordsman went close to him to his unshielded right side. Then the swordsman slid the blade past joints into the red armour of the spear-wielder, and Branwen saw him kill the other man. Her hands were at her mouth in shock, and she did not remember placing them there; she opened her mouth to cry out, but her throat was hoarsely silenced. She noticed also that she had not breathed in this place, that the air was utterly still: and that the chests of the warriors did not rise and fall.

The red-armoured swordsman stepped back from his fallen enemy, and turned to fight another black-armoured man, this one bearing a heavy mace. Then Branwen saw the spearsman's body move and rise once more from the bleeding mud around it. He stepped forward, and fought another swordsman. This one tried the same attempt against him, but the spearsman did not this time allow the sword to come close to his armour: instead he stepped back, and ran his enemy through the neck with the spear's point. Blood flowed upon the mud, and yet another duel began.

It was endless, Branwen thought. She wandered the dark muddy plains below a red sky, all the colours of sunset though she saw no sun within it. There was no sound but the clashing of wood and metal. Then she looked again at a red-armoured man bearing a sword, and facing a black-armoured soldier with a spear: and this time they fought each other to an equal standstill, and lay in the mud once more only to rise again.

She felt herself begin to think: They all fight. And each time they fight, they learn...

Black clouds of fog swallowed her; her head ached badly, and bleary-eyed and dizzy she woke to the blurred face above her.

"Modir," she whispered, her mother, and some broth was forced in her mouth. Everything was in confusing shapes that whirled inside her head. The tree, Vidar, Njall, pain in her head, swirling dark mud. She could remember nothing of it. She closed her eyes once more, and this time there was nothing but darkness and the smell of the lambskin she rested on.

--

Branwen spent almost all of the next year confined on her back. At first she realised nothing at all of it: only that there was weakness in her limbs from the fall, and her head made her fall asleep too often and too quickly. There would be an aching within her skull, and inside her eyes blackness would easily come. Her limbs were numb and would not obey her commands, and each time she tried the exhaustion would take her once more, fading black and hot within her fevered head.

Once, when she was half-awake and drifting, she heard the voice of the village healer, old Ulquissala; the bitter, foul smoke from Ulquissala's herbs choked her and pushed the taste to the back of her throat.

"She may be a cripple should she wake fully at all. The lands of the Lord in the Ice would take..."

Crippled, Branwen heard, and that to her made her stay wakened though the blackness drowned her inside her head. Not to run or climb or tend the sheep or aim a sling: it was not for her, though she had seen old Tarag live on and carve wood and know lore with no need of legs. And if she could do nothing for her family they would suffer in winter, with Alfden far on Jotun-isle and Ingvi but in his first year of apprenticeship, and Sigran a baby.

The duty for her was to move...

She opened her eyes and stared at her mother. "I would not put her to the ice," her mother said, looking away from her, "that would be shameful--she is neither unnamed nor old, and only a child."

"She knows it," old Ulquissala said, leaning on her gnarled staff of elder-wood. "The powers of my Sleeper are not given for no repayment." She served, Branwen knew, the father of the giants' kin Ulutiu within the ice: the old lord who slept a thousand fathoms deep in the cold.

"You will be paid," replied Modir. "Has not Hakon--"

Branwen tried once more to raise her hand. She felt her arm briefly rise; she gazed at her mother and the healer, and saw them turn to her by the rustle of the rough sheet over her; and once more her eyes forced themselves close and she fell into darkness.

Over that year she had no strength in herself that did not come from within. Ulquissala said that it was the injury to her head, and weakness of her limbs that had come from the fall; and that perhaps she would never walk. She grew slowly able to open her eyes and remain awake for hours, and watched that Sigran did not crawl too far on the floor. Vidar brought her grasses and flowers from outside and wood for her hands to try to carve and reshape. He was sorry for it, but over time he forgot about her and went to play with Njall once more. Branwen thought that she might have been the same, to leave outside rather than to endlessly stand over. They were poor that winter; it lasted long, and for what they had given Ulquissala they suffered.

She did not dream again while she slept, but in waking she dreamed of it. She moved her legs with her hands when she had strength; she felt her skin cold and softened instead of tanned and weather-ready. The first task she was trusted with was simply to watch over Sigran, the baby; prevent him from harming himself or prevent him from falling in the fire.

"--And then the mighty warrior Gharlast fell upon the field of battle, and the black ravens circled above his head to eat him as carrion." She told the saga from memory, and parts of it she imagined for herself. Sigran listened to her voice, even though she wasn't entirely sure he understood. "And his brother-in-arms Vallanor rose, and struck forward with the two-handed sword that was forged by the smith of the giants and tempered in Auril's own icy spring at the very end of the world on the highest of the White Mountains. He lunged with the strength of the great bull that pulls the winds of Valkur; and over Gharlast's fallen form he would not yield the grounds of battle..."

Sigran picked at her blanket, and tried to eat its left corner. Branwen continued with the tale nonetheless.

She could craft with her hands; she had pegs to carve from Vidar's help, and her mother gave her knitting-needles and coarse wool to card. But she tried to move, and exhausted herself. If she could walk again she could go back to tending the family sheep, she told herself; but was reprimanded for her black sleeping. In the spring her father Hakon returned from his place in the Thirdhill war-band. He had fought bravely but wanted to fight no more, and his few tales were of men wounded and fighting only for breath, bleeding for death and stinking as food for ravens.

Not all ought to have to fight. Branwen's stories changed to include tragedies of brave men dead before their time, and of healers who came at the last and acted to aid warriors to fight another day.

In the last days of summer was when she had fallen, and now again the warm growths had come and the new lambs were beginning to wean. Sigran could talk now and run quite well; Vidar climbed high in the trees. Branwen found it a battle to feel pain in her feet.

But the very pain of trying meant...that she was not dead. That she could fight. She lifted her own legs to force back feeling and muscle to them.

It was almost summer once more when she took her first, tottering step from her pallet. A scarlet triumph sang through her blood and set it to tongues of licking fire. Her teeth were set against pain and bared half in victory and half in suppression. She stepped again across the rush-strewn floor; fell; but even as the black cloud found her she saw, dimly but in bold colouring, that she had begun.

--

The path was red stoned and red thorned, and she ran on it at first without thinking of the way her legs moved. Then she knew it to be another dream. Branwen slowed her pace, and looked to the sides. The thorns surrounded flowers that were not flowers: strange round mushroom-growths made of fog and water. When she looked into them, she saw the legends she had stored for herself and learned to tell come to life.

Jagnar One-Eye swung his blade without stopping, and slew twenty men and orcs in only the turn of an egg-tumbler's time; blood came from his back as if he had been badly whipped but he fought onward.

Mjatholm fell to the poison with his blade sunk within his enemy, and all the purging herbs were unable to help him; but he died with the tyrant who had taken the lands of his father, and the spirits called valkyries who were warrior-maidens rode down from the skies, bearing swords themselves, and armour that glittered with the wild soaked brightness of a storm.

A gold light radiated down upon the warrior Sefian who asked for the ability to aid his comrades, and he became strong and beyond value to them although he could no longer wield weapon himself...

Branwen had learned more of what the stories told since that time a year ago when she was still a child. She looked closely at the red thorns, crimson as fresh blood, and she reached to their sharp ends. Her hand was cut and she felt the pain in full: her palm, the soft veins below her wrists, the knife-sharp cuts open in her. She gripped to the thorn she took for herself with her right hand, blood spilled and slick and iron-salt-smelling, and sought to clear the path.

The thorns rose up to surround her; or was it that she swept herself into their midst? They cut skin and for all she dreamed the pain was true and the slick blood if anything too vivid to be real. She lost heart for a moment, in pain beyond any she had ever known--

But Finglavir of Kirstedholm pressed on for all his many wounds.

Stories and tales were part false and part truth. If she had not learned so many, perhaps she would have had a smaller forest to force herself through; if she had not learned so many of what she could, perhaps she would not have had a forest to force herself through at all.

Her legs felt alive, pierced through by the thorns and screaming in exhaustion.

--There was a glimpse of something that had not been in tales: a shadow of a grey faceless helm dented by war, that retreated.

She had begun to walk no longer through the maze of red thorns but through the grounds of battle and a dark red mud. The storms of battle blazed through a black sky. Here, swords and polearms swept through the air and they were not so far from the top of her head as they had been. She walked through the battle.

The man was tall and burly, and none of his skin was visible below his battered grey gauntlets and armour. In his hands was a great black battleaxe stained and pitted by use. Below his grey war helm his face was hidden. A red-armoured woman bearing a sword stood by his side, and like him her face was covered. Around her neck twinkled the ruby-red head of a horse with stars for eyes.

Life is itself a battle.

The deep voice of the man seemed not to speak so much as to make itself directly heard in the head, or as if it forced the thunder overhead to speak its words. Branwen had some knowledge from the stories of what this was. She was frozen in her tracks by it; but then the words of the proverb came to her in time and she did not fall. 'Tis better to die on your feet, than live on your knees.

The red-armoured woman's laughter was throaty and oddly warm. Battles are fought first with wisdom and mind, and battles are fought everywhere. A metaphor is a metaphor.

"But," Branwen argued, words exploding from her chest like drops of blood, "I think you have taken me here for a reason."

You could learn and remain within your home, the red-armoured woman spoke again. Her voice seemed oddly sad, and reminded Branwen vaguely of that of her own mother. Strategy and tactics serve in any place in life. There are ways I can see that would be longer and safer for you; would require another sort of courage; and would be still of use to others.

"They say..." Branwen said. "They say all on Seawolf are born of warriors. The Battlelord; and his...his daughter?" For tales of red armour glimpsed by the side of visions of the Shieldbearer were rare in the accounts that had reached her bedside, and she only guessed. She looked into the cragged mountains behind the grey-helmed warrior of the hidden face; and there she had started to see a great black stallion and equally giant white mare. They stamped the ground as if to cause earthquakes, and smoke and fire seemed fit to burst from their mouths with their furious snorting. Behind them black ravens searched from the skies for prey.

Some of the most valourous of My kingdom. The grey gauntlet drew together, trapping air between its fingers of iron. Branwen of Seawolf.

The iron warrior knew her by name, and yet she was not afraid of him.

You have the strength. You have the spirit, the faceless warrior's thunder-voice boomed around her. I may have great need of you. But the Lady of Strategy would remind...

That there are those who fight only by their minds, spoke the red-armoured woman. Yet you may not view that as your path. Risk weighed in the balance of benefit. Go, Branwen of Seawolf, and turn to either of us at your will...

The red-armoured woman raised a gauntleted hand, and white fog flowed from it to cover the battlefield. It surrounded Branwen, soaking her hair wet and running by its thickness, paler than her house-kept skin. She shook, but she did not want to fall; her knees were weak but she pushed herself; and then all of a sudden she was lying down once more, and could see no more of the presence of the figures.

--

She spent all the time that she could outside now, for she knew now what it was like to be without it.

"Vidar! Can you show me more of what you have learned?"

Branwen was in her twelfth year now; she had almost forgotten fevered dreams, but not quite their substance. She walked to her brother carrying a long stick she had stripped down herself for the size of the quarterstaves they gave boys to learn. Her brother no longer wanted to be a warrior so much as when they had been younger, but like any other boy he learned under the village elders with his friends and would hate to be thought less of a man.

"You're a girl and you're not strong enough," Vidar said, as usual.

"And if you can't fight me, which of the men could you fight?" Branwen reminded him, again as usual. "Had you not practised the high-guard backfoot with me, you would not have done so well against Snorri..."

"Because, Gwen, you're both my least and most favourite little sister," Vidar said. He rose from his seat with a sigh, and took out the staff they had given him. Staves led to spears for the boys, for it was only a few who possessed or could afford a sword. Illugi had not only a sword but a sword sharpened by dweomer, inherited from a raider-grandfather, and was a source of great envy. Branwen beckoned him outside to the small valley not far from the pigsty, where they would not be noticed.

Her brother took a low grip and came at her quickly; Branwen prepared herself to hold the block.

After, Branwen's largest bruise on her rib was slightly darker and much more tender; but Vidar had fallen on his backside in the mud once, and complained that she must be somehow cheating. She was shorter than he, but no cobweb, brown and solid from running outdoors and sheep-tending.

In the village men still left for the wars with Torstvik isle, the returning of raids from Isleifsvarn and Stonecliff and Ehrlasst, aiding of Seawolf's allies Otkelholm and Varlslake. In her village Branwen had never seen the chieftain of all Seawolf nor his band of hirdmen, only the men like her father who had returned from fighting. They said that chieftain Saevil Snakearmed was a head taller than most men, his hirdmen strong in war; he and most of his warriors followed the Battlelord and prayed at highsuns for courage and strength. But the raids were far from their small village; and Branwen's father and mother prayed to the Earthmother that it would continue so. She agreed.

But there are times when anyone of courage has to fight, the tales of her people would have told her. We are strong because we are willing to die on our feet...

Her oldest brother Alfden fought; from him they had heard nothing for a year. When he returned the farm would belong to him. If he did not--and that was a terrible thought indeed--then Ingvi would own it, Vidar likely to manage it. Her brothers would take brides and they and their children would stay another generation.

She was quieter than she had been and sometimes she stilled to stare into the distance, and for that some thought of her as strange. Branwen cared little for that; when she was still she wanted to try to remember whispers she had half-forgotten, and when she was quiet she thought of running and what she had seen of the boys' quarterstaff practice, the scenes rising before her eyes in colour and motion. What if Torfi sidestepped more quickly and put down the staff on Njall's shoulder? Jorgli, quick-footed, backed to the corner by slow, broad, Karstbein. Iving raising the staff high above his head, the sun behind him... Sometimes the ground below them was soft mud, where they lost footing.

There was always work to be done, and if there were villagers to whom she had nothing to say then let it be so.

In the field she counted the heads of the sheep; the number of the scraggly-bodied herd had increased, almost all of the last season's lambing living. Branwen had spent long nights tending to the sickly ones, rubbing them with blankets and forcing ewe's milk mixed with mouhgain and jherryseed to their throats. Vallanor Long-Legs, Gharlast the Big, Asgota the Plump, the smallest Sefian the White... She could not see Sefian. She cajoled the herd into the high paddock to continue to graze and went to search.

The setting sun darkened the ground; turning stony hills black and grass dark grey even as the sky was aflame in a riot of colour. Branwen had no fear of darkness and could endure cold, but it would be more difficult to find Sefian. She searched for the last place she'd seen him running. There in answer to her cry came a distant bleat. She stumbled over prickled gorse and sharp rocks; there was still much light to see by.

Then in the evening she heard the howl of a wolf.

Sometimes the wolves the island was named for were heard distantly, but for all the boys' longings to kill one with sling or spear they kept further inland than their village. But she hadn't imagined the cry; and there was Sefian, bleating, trying to struggle from a thorn-bush that held him. She couldn't see the source of the call.

"Sefian, I am coming," she declared loudly. A hand flew to the sling she kept at her waist. "Then your wounds will be bathed and Gerda will give you milk."

There were so many darkened rocks and shadows. Branwen took another sure-footed step across the craggy ground to Sefian in his struggling; she had made herself know how to walk any ground.

Then she saw the grey dark-eyed white-toothed shape, and it flew out of its crouch between rocks.

The pebble and the sling-- Sefian, a fragment of a thought-- Her hands moving faster than the thought had come, and the moment later the sling had swung and the wolf had moved, off its course away from her sheep--

Sefian's bleat was hysterical now and his struggles with the thorns marking him. The wolf snapped. Branwen took another pebble to her sling, to aim it quickly.

--Seawolf, warriors, by-- she almost-thought, in disarray but the form of the smooth pebble and the linen of her sling clear to her.

The second pebble had hit the wolf's side below the fur and the wolf was slender, its side-ribs outlining the shape of a skeleton. It howled again. She saw a bloodstain across its face, that her first shot's mark had managed to hit the eye; she'd no knowledge of how that had been guided-- She ran forward, herder's crook taken back to hand, to make sure it would not seize the prey. At last Sefian burst from the thorns; and the wolf leapt at her.

She'd stopped to brace herself, to step back now her duty was done. That gave her a chance to step back, but the claws-- And it was big, and breathing with hot breath--

She kicked out. Her hide-wrapped foot hit that bony midsection. Branwen's hands on their own swept out the crook, like a quarterstaff--if she'd thought at all she would have been petrified by fear of it--

The wood hit the wolf's body with all the strength she had, which was little. She could see it--thin, old, starving--pushed back; then she hit again. The crook reached the head of it. On the rocks there was a drop--not too far--

The crook raked down and pushed back the wolf; and then, fearing, she kicked out again. It fell from the rock's edge. She could feel blood upon her arm now; the pain of three long cuts past shoulder and forearm, below her clothing. She forced herself to the edge to look down. There the wolf remained, the fall not much higher than her own height; but one of its legs was bent. Its fur was orange in a last beam of dying light, and the blood over its blind eye the brown of earth.

Jumping down to its teeth and claws still frightened her. But she had to, she thought; it would steal another's sheep, perhaps even return. She selected a large rock and aimed it carefully at the skull. On neck and shoulder it harmed the wolf, sending the starved creature to the ground to stay there; it twitched and stilled.

Branwen went after Sefian to return him to his ewe, and then spent greater time than strictly she had to applying poultices to him. By that time it was dark.

--This is not the action of...of a brave child of Seawolf! she told herself, suddenly. She would have slept in the small shelter; instead she made a makeshift torch and went to look again upon the wolf. It had not moved, and she had truly killed it.

"It was old and starving," she had to speak the truth.

"Then you must have happened across it while it was already dying," Vidar said, and did not seem to notice the mark of a sling bullet at the eye of the body or the lesser one on the side. The tanned skin was gloves and leg-wrappings for winter, and nobody called her Branwen Wolf-slayer.

Bola Kolsdottir from three landholdings over had new-woven clothing that harvest season, and wore her cedar-brown hair in two plaits bound by thread dyed a madder red. Branwen had no reason to notice this, but somehow she didn't look away; they were of the same village, but to walk between holdings was often long. Past the brightness of the ends of her hair Bola smiled, plump-cheeked. Something in her had changed. Branwen stopped and stared, though went unnoticed while Bola spoke the news to Vidar.

"--The priest's hut, filled at last," Bola said. "An old man, all but a cripple; I've a thought he'll find little here. Of the Battlelord, of course, and from the look of him and his scars..."

"Ulquissala will be green as one of her brews with jealousy if he heals," Vidar said, laughing at his own wit. Bola smiled prettily.

"At least 'tis not a doomcrow," she said; the name for Talassans who worshipped the Storm Lord.

"Of course I know him not," Branwen's father said. "I saw many of the Battlelord; of the Waves' Captain; and of the Frostmaiden bitch; and I know they cannot heal all with pure miracles as their stories would say. Leave it."

And of course her father spoke the truth. But in the dirt street of the small gatherings of the village, the priest to the Battlelord was an old man in black and once-crimson rags bearing a network of scars across his face and hands; white-haired, where he had hair left, all but a beggar. Branwen took the bread she would have had for midmeal, warm that morning from her mother's oven.

"Would you have bread?" she asked him. The look in his eyes was wolfish below his steel skullcap; she froze, but did not turn away. He held out a clawed hand.

"Give," he said. His voice matched his face: rough, cracked, and broken by war. She reached out and gave him the food. He brought the first small loaf to his mouth as if he had not eaten in days; crumbs flew everywhere. There were only two teeth left in his mouth. "Obligations...to clergy," he said. "Tempus helps fight; and for his broken-down servants, they scrounge."

Below his rags, Branwen saw, he carried an iron warhammer, spotted and cracked by use. And yet well-kept.

"You're a priest of Tempus," she said, half-desperately, half only trying to remember the dreams that called her while she woke.

The priest said nothing at first. Beside them was a line of thick mud from a recent rain, part human and animal waste besides dirt. He took a plain clay cup fastened to his robes and took up a handful of the waste to fill it; and he spoke words she couldn't understand, not to her but with a hand passing over the cup. Then at once there was steam rising from it, Branwen saw. He held it low enough that she could see, and the clay was clean and filled with boiling water; then the priest dipped the other loaf of bread into the clear water, wetting it to softness before bringing it again to his broken mouth.

"Small blessings," he said, and his black eyes were not looking at her. "Tell me, child!" Suddenly he had leaned down to her; his breath was foul in her face, and though his scars were fearsome Branwen felt she could not dare to glance away. "Wars I have fought for the Foehammer; Seawolf against Isleifsvarn, Seawolf against Stonecliffs. Yet all of the isles of the North worship the same. Why is this so?"

She had learned as many stories as she could, though she was better at remembering events than exact words like a skald.

"My father fought," Branwen said eventually, "and the father of my father died in battle. I do not know nothing of what it means."

"War is fair because it oppresses all equally," the old priest uttered. "The deserving warrior wins, but fortune has its sway and deserving warriors die screaming like cowards. What meanings do there remain?"

It seemed a terror had opened before her eyes, and the mud by their side was no longer only mud but steeped in the red blood of people, scattered with caltrops and daggers and the remains of shields.

"--They say priests have not only the power to kill," Branwen said.

The priest dipped the remains of the bread into his water; ate and drank in a single, quick gulp.

"--I will bring more," Branwen offered softly.

He raised a gnarled fist in her direction, but brought it down on empty air. "Go now, little girl. Your father calls."

--

It was not the only day she brought food and drink to the priest. Dried apples, lambskin flasks of goats' milk, lumps of bread and slices of salt pork meant for her. Custom had that old priests were to be honoured.

"The village is poor," she said to him in explanation, or excuse. The sheep had to be constantly moved to find grass to graze; the ground was stony and often dry; compared to the few times she had visited larger villages on market-days they were far from wealthy. She and her mother and brothers were all used to never-full stomachs in the winter months.

"Your best men go to the chieftain to fight endless war," the priest said, and raised a flask that she had not given him to his mouth, drinking on the dark liquid contained by it.

"And some return," Branwen said. She had grown courage enough to answer the old man back when she went to the priest's hut. In some ways he was a memory for her. Or a promise.

"Make sure even foes are armed. Look upon all who act honourably with favour, whether friend or foe," the priest replied. She repeated the words in a whisper to herself.

War is fair because it oppresses all equally-- he had also said.

"War should be fair, because... War should be fair. Nobody should attack someone who doesn't want to fight," Branwen said.

"Fair, is it now?" From the side of his mouth the priest spat a brown liquid to the ground. Her family would forbid her coming to see her if they knew, but she was quiet to come when she could spare time from sleep or duties. "And would you rather fight a fair-armed enemy believing exactly as you in the Battlelord's promises, or unarmed weakling of coward's snaketongue?"

"A fair-armed..." Branwen began. Then she stopped, confused. It was better if the boys in training were equally matched; they learned. But she did not want to hurt someone who believed the same. Or turn into a bully of anyone weaker. "Neither!" At last she had an answer she wanted. "It's best to fight a fair-armed warrior and doer of wrongs."

"It is not the name I would use for a denizen of Isleifsvarn or Stonecliff or Ehrlasst. Men, same as all; men still as hopeless at mending their own belly-wounds, or killing a horse shrieking in pain."

It was her father's experience, Branwen thought, and waited confused at what she must do.

"Why is that?" the priest of the Battlelord asked. "Tempus allows the same men ruled by chance, one upon each side."

"...There are some evil men who want territory that they have no right to," Branwen said. "Seawolf is not an isle of thralls." She was freewoman born to freeholding, karl rather than slave.

"Seawolf is not an isle of thralls," the old man mocked. "Do you know what makes all the most trouble? Wagging tongues like yours. Women's wagging tongues. Smooth-tongued that keep out of strife themselves. Hiding behind words."

Branwen flushed. "I do not talk to make others go to war! It would be best to fight against only those who want to take slaves. Smooth-tongued..." she repeated slowly.

"The smooth-tongued and fleet of feet that avoid all strife and never defend their beliefs wreak more harm than the strongest raider," recited the priest, and those words caught something inside her.

"--War is fair because it oppresses all equally," Branwen repeated, as if some wind-gap had suddenly been filled by the right chink of wood to build a hut secure, "but war also gives a chance to defend equally, the smooth-tongued who cause it on purpose--" The boys who practised most were the best in training; they were equal in that, although like her they could have been hurt and confined--

"War is fair in that it oppresses and aids all equally," the priest said, and again Branwen felt that gap filled.

"Tempus rides the white mare Veiros and the black stallion Deiros and brings ravens to the battlefield," she said, "and he is--was--worshipped by Vallanor and Mjatholm and chieftain Saevil Snakearmed himself."

"Another thing said of him," the priest said, smiling his blackened, gummy smile, "is that slow attrition is far crueller than decisive slaying."

He was old and sometimes he spoke almost as if he resented the god he served, but he had his prayers for spells.

"Will you go back to war?" Branwen dared to ask, but he was silent to that, spitting once again on the ground.

He wore his skullcap nestled below a dark cowl, less filthy now than when she had offered to wash it. They also said that clerics of Tempus did not cover their faces, because his face was covered by a steel-grey helm. Grey, she thought, sword-grey, sword-black, axe-black. The priest was a crow in his dark garments and remnants of grey-black mail, those that fed on the fallen.

Something crashed on the ground. "Seer, mad, simple or fool?" The priest towered over her; she looked at him. "You fade and you stare to blank emptiness. A girl-child with no sense; a stinking sheep-herder brought to madness. I am sick of it."

The words, for a long moment, stilled like a half-formed child in her throat. Her mother; her father; Sigran growing. But her warrior brother Alfden fought far-off, fought others of Tempus brought perhaps by smooth-tongued thieves who would steal his life and would have willingly stolen that of her father.

"Let me go with you as a servant when you leave," Branwen said, looking into his face and not allowing her gaze to be vanquished.

Then she was able to remember the dreams.

--

Behind the door her father spoke of pigs.

"Ornolf of Greyfur-holding would give three for her. She's strong and knows how to work."

"--Your daughter is barely a step above a thrall and a mad shepherd-girl of no value. Do you dare to lie to me?"

Her mother spoke for her: "She has a chance to wed as a freeborn woman. This is...madness itself. We would hardly give her to you..."

Greyfur-holding was a small farm; Ornolf's wife had died in childbirth three years ago. She'd not thought that she would be given, but other marriages were made among their village. And it was the priest of Tempus who called her valueless and mad.

"--Contract her to me as servant." The priest's deep, cracked voice was unmistakable to hear. "To tend to my clothes and meals. That neither I nor another man shall lay hand on her, if that suits your liking." A dry laugh. "You would find she's done so already; come herself to give an old warrior what he deserves. Or find in me what her madness led her to seek."

Her father's voice was angry. "We would have forbidden her. I returned from my years. I met too many cursed crows like you. You cannot have--"

Then there was the clink of metal; of a large sum of metal, coins run against each other. Branwen pressed an eye to a crack in the door. Gold was almost unknown, and that amount, concealed by his outer self, begging and seeming to starve... It made her draw back in surprise. "What dowry for her else?" the cleric demanded. "What needs for those other strong sons of yours, hey? What of another hard winter? Give her to me for five years and a freewoman she would be once more."

"You cannot bribe us--" Her mother's voice sounded, strained and old.

"Be silent, Geirny," her father said. "If what you say is true; she disobeyed already to go to you..."

"The Foehammer strike me down if I lie," the priest said piously.

"Five years and a freewoman," Branwen heard her father repeat, with thought, and then there was the clink of the coin.

--

Part III - Acolyte

"The whim of a senile priest, and took more gold than I'd to spare. Carry those robes, mad-child."

To travel with the priest was none she had expected. His birthname was Stolny, son of Kaifrik from--somewhere in the land about Wolfstooth, he would say, the bay of the town where Seawolf's chief lived in his great longhouse. He walked from village to village in no order and some days he would speak only to bark at her the single order to carry their small stock of possessions. There were other days where he would speak further, but never in full: fragments of battles that she could never piece together, sometimes jagged half-words of the doctrines of Tempus that she stored carefully. For all he called her mad, perhaps he too was not beyond the charge. He begged to support himself as an old warrior, and what coin he had remaining was stored in some pouch deep inside his clothing. They slept in the open when they were between shelters, below the shadow of rocks or thin trees. She watched him carefully for signs.

"Gods play tricks on mortal fools," Stolny muttered. "Pick the black leaves from the thornbush below; damage them not."

Sometimes there were these orders to gather from a plant, usually one that scratched her badly. He'd called her barely a step above thrall and mad, but he himself had the signs of an old man who had seen too much. She could reply proudly that she was freeborn of Seawolf and no coin could purchase her, and stoically made it clear enough that she would follow but give no more than fair exchange.

Red thorns that bloomed, unexpectedly, below dank green moss below a rock; to be ground to a thick paste he chewed. Clear sap from thick and spiked waterplants that could--in fact, did--soothe burns, from one night when a fire had lightly burned her. The black leaves placed in smoke for a heavy thick smell; some used with a dampened and ill-smelling moss in a concoction that made her finger feel numb when she dared to lightly touch it.

It was, she began to realise through watching, something like those fragments of herb lore from verses taught by her mother. Bold jherryseed atop the fen, the pink of breath to come again. Moughain mullaberry milk the red seed, reach through for spirit in Earthmother's need... The lines confused but helped to remember the remedies she used for the sheep.

"...You have rufegrass with liar's root," one evening she managed, hesitantly. "My mother said that with calamus it soothed..."

"Your mother's a fool," Stolny said. "Only a fool lets calamus with liar's root."

Branwen bristled; she ought to defend her mother's honour. "I used calamus and rufegrass when the lambs were too heavy to eat, and more lived than in all the flocks of our neighbours."

Then the priest glared at her with wild dark eyes, and although she stood her ground she was quiet. "More than one way to skin a sheep," he said. "I have seen soldiers skin what still lived."

There was also a sort of wood-beer, boiled and fermented in a small flask that seemed to be smelted of some combination of iron and copper, that he did not share as herb craft. And they seemed to travel from one end to the other of Seawolf-isle, though Stolny chose not to stray beyond the outside of larger towns: only the priests'-huts of small villages. Branwen had not travelled so far before in her life. The earth was darker in some places; ears of cows longer and shorter; cliffs gentler and craggier; and few warm welcomes to an old servant of Tempus.

They walked in the early night on a long road marked by horse's tracks. Branwen could keep pace; despite seeming frail Stolny seemed to be able to tread in darkness or rain or sunlight as long as he liked. Even in the long winter they had gone on after outstaying a welcome of charity, wandering in snow. She had learned something of the hardiness of a warrior travelling through strange lands. Now spring had come once more, and though it was dark at least it was warm. Branwen fixed one foot in front of the other to walk not too far behind him, even if her legs were beginning to numb.

Then Stolny held up a hand and suddenly stopped; she looked for what had caught his attention. In the dark it was near impossible to make out moss on thick tree-trunks, spears of grasses rising sharply above the dirt. Something, too large for a deer, rustled behind them.

Men moved around them; three, perhaps more that she could not see in the dark. Branwen saw a slight signal from Stolny that she thought indicated her to keep quiet. She stood steadily by him.

Stolny's voice was high and reedy, and sounded very old. "No charity for a broken priest of the Battlelord? Come where these eyes can see you. Do you know enough to respect the cloth?"

A man laughed in response: low, and threatening. "A hand-waver? Did my service and got nothing for it. No; you won't get anything from us. Perhaps a bolt lodged in your gullet."

They were thieves, Branwen thought, shocked; outlaws, nithings. Dead-men without honour. To harm a priest bought ill fortune, it was said. And Stolny and she must look as if they held nothing of value; these must be desperate, and that might be more than enough to have fear of them.

"Three-fourths of loaf of bread; a flask of water; a lump of cheese the size of the second finger of my right hand," Stolny said, once more in that reedy voice. "Would you have those things from an broken old priest, or perhaps the clothes on his back?"

"Or the fair-haired girl at his side," said the speaker. Branwen reacted with fear; but she was still child of Seawolf, still meant to be warrior born--

"No," Stolny said, and his voice had turned deep rather than reedy, though still it was the sound of an old man.

"It has been some time since we knew a woman's touch," the first man said, and a second followed it up with laughter.

"There are the stories," Stolny said, "of what may happen to those who dare disturb priests. Of the castings that the old and practiced become capable of--"

"Them castings need time and handwaving." The man walked leisurely from the trees; there was a naked sword blade in his hands, pitted and tarnished but glimmering in the moonlight. "I'll take that bread now. Don't fancy rummaging through your robes once Bolnan sends a bolt through you."

--Leave him alone, he's old! Branwen thought; she would have burst out with the words, or reached for her sling and whatever it could do against men like these, but again Stolny's look signalled at her to stop it--

He was whispering in the darkness, and one of his hands was below his ragged clothing. Then as the outlaw came he must have heard it too:

"Cursed chanting!" he erupted, "Bolnan, do it now--"

"--muspel, gullveig, surt! Tempus!" Stolny finished, his voice rising from whisper to yell at the last.

The only casting that Branwen had seen of him was to boil away mud from waters. A strike of flame erupted from the heavens above, to a space beyond the man with the sword; and then in Stolny's hands was the dark grey warhammer. She saw it as if time had slowed its motion, the hammer all but flying into the right hand of its wielder, rising and falling in a single arc through the air that was somehow much faster than the movement of the shortsword; and going through the head of the man. The outlaw fell.

Then there was the sound of running feet, the third man escaping; and Branwen looked to the priest to see if he would cast again. There had been fire from the heavens, she thought, stunned; like nothing she had ever seen before, like a bolt of lightning but golden rather than purple-pale, a bright gold of nothing that she had ever seen...

And the very movement of the hammer, even now returned to its place deep within Stolny's cloak, no sign remaining of what had been done. To move the arms, like that; to lift it and set it through the air as easily as swallowing a drink of water, to be capable of--

Stolny had already left, began to walk on as if he would leave her alone in the dark. Branwen ran to catch up to him;

"Standing with your mouth open when the Sleeper alone knows what lurks behind: I knew you mad, girl," he said. Disappointed--as if she had expected something else entirely--Branwen looked aside at the dark trees. They did not, she hoped hazily, house more brigands. If they could keep the pace they had now with hours more they could be safer, closer to the village of Sidrinn; there they could rest at dawn. She was resolved enough to continue through the night, Branwen thought; in a jumbled heap the details of what had happened flowed like a stream in a storm in her mind.

"Stood your ground," Stolny spoke once more. "No coward. But for the sake of Tempus keep your peace lest there be worse."

And so she did not ask him of his castings while they travelled to Sidrinn. In the dawn's early light she closed her eyes at last, sleeping roughly against the wall of the shelter for priests or beggars. When she opened her eyes briefly while the sun still rose, Branwen thought that she dimly saw the priest clutching a sleeve more crimson than usual, laying hands and chanting once more across himself; but she was tired almost as if she'd been put to sleep on purpose. Something dark and red dripped from his garb...

In the afternoon sun she was promptly sent to search the deep growths for the hop-plants he used for beer.

If he could teach me, she thought. A wide stick lay on the ground; she picked up the light wood. It wasn't heavy like a hammer; and the arm was wrong. Stones would add weight; she used a hide lacing from her left boot to bind it with a grey rock as a head. If I could defend against men like that. Then as if she stood armoured on a muddy plain she swung...

It was still all wrong. Higher, then lower. The way the stone-and-wood moved against her arm. The way of the arc that was much faster, stronger; muscles balanced against its weight and the pull of the ground and air. Then she thought of foot-stance, to balance her legs, like her brother and the other boys were told for the staff; this was not unlike some of the things of which she had dreamed. Branwen lifted the wood and stone again.

She stayed far longer than her habits, not returning until sunset, and Stolny too had wandered from the priest's hut. At many times he wished to be alone.

"You return late, sheep-girl," he said, reappearing like a flapping raven on the horizon.

She had travelled with him for some months now. "Who can tell when you'll return, old man?"

He gave a familiar cough. "Do you know the meaning of these?"

Runes were scratched on a stick; Branwen shook her head. Few in their village had any understanding of reading or writing; she only knew how to scrape out a tally of sheep. In the view of some women should not even know that.

"'Tis best--yes, that which you learn through scratching and clawing by one's own will be the best learned," Stolny said. He sat down abruptly, and with the stick drew patterns in the dirt. "This I have decided to teach; none learns it in silence. Anything else and you would no longer be my servant."

He was teaching her to scribe; in the runes of their land as well as the letters of the common tongue. She would not have guessed him for a learned man. For that she was slow. It came harder to her than the sling or Vidar's lessons in staff, or how to tell over to herself the events of the sagas. But she was not stupid, she told herself in times when Stolny grew especially sharp-tongued that she could not understand some complex formation of language; she had learned a lot of his herb lore simply by watching which plants he combined. And when she practised sling by drawing sap targets on trees, she had learned enough that often they had a rabbit's meat to share; when she took up a long stick, or any other makeshift instrument for battle...

She scratched in the dirt with a stick, idly intending to practise lettering. This village was called Gleisheim, on the north-eastern side of Seawolf; warmer than her home village, with sandier soil. Letters were sounds and changed for different sounds; she had learned how to spell simple words.

The stick began to move almost of its own accord.

War, she had started to spell out, three letters and the long sound of the middle. War is fair in that it oppresses and aids all equally. It came slowly but surely. War should not be feared but seen as natural force, human force. Valour in war blazes in all. All regardless. The smooth-tongued and fleet of foot that avoid all strife wreak more harm than the worst raider or tyrant or horde. Arm all for whom battle is needful. Life is itself a battle. Battles are fought first with wisdom and mind, and fought everywhere. Valour can blaze in all.

Branwen blinked heavily; her scratches covered a good deal of the bare light brown dirt, and she had written more than she had thought herself able to. These were fragments from Stonly, words that she had chosen to keep; some not from him but from dreams. Parts of a larger whole, as if the tallow of many small candles could be joined together for a blazing lamp. The creed of Tempus. To write and rune it was to know it. She breathed in the dusty air; the words were inside her skull as well as before her in markings. She reached inside herself, as if expecting another dream to come; but though none did, the tallow burned inside her.

"Not the full creed I gave my life to," Stolny said, "but it begins. You learn none but what you take for yourself in this world."

And as for those dreams and prophecies... She stepped strongly when she trod the earth, all weaknesses of the childhood accident overcome. To ask him for more guidance would be--weak, not right for her; but she watched and listened and practiced alone while he rested.

The gods may help the deserving; or the deserving have worked, and face the calls of fates and fortunes...

They passed through a harbour where three warships of Isleifsvarn had come and burned before leaving. People walked wounded; planks of houses and ships floated in the waters; fields lying barren; huts destroyed, fishing boats ruined, animals loosed or killed in the fields.

This was none of their fault. "You must know how to hand-wave to heal," Branwen asked of the priest. There was a boy her age or so, old enough to fight, whose right hand was missing and his roughly bandaged wrist bloodied; an old woman with a cut across her face and a patch over her eyes; a fisherman who limped too heavily. "You are a priest. And--yarrow and calendula for bleeding..." she added, remembering.

"Do you know that the longer the time, the more difficult to heal the wound?" Stolny said. "Do you know that it is nigh impossible to return what is lost?"

Her brother Alfden was at such a war. "You should try," Branwen said, "earn your keep--"

It was remedies of a mundane sort that they tried to give. In some decaying wounds, maggots crawled. There had been a priest of Tyr in the village; he had died in its defence. Water boiled, all the herbs they were able to find made to scant poultices, bad flesh cut off with a knife seared by fire and burned closed once more by a brand. Desperate enough to take what they could from an old priest; and they told the tale of the raid.

The chieftain's band of the Thrudmul warriors defended--

"And was Alfden Hakonsson there?" Branwen demanded, speaking not in her turn in her sudden shock. "He is my brother; of that band; very tall--" Perhaps less tall compared to her, now, although she expected that she had not yet reached the end of her growth. "Fair of hair, a mark on his right cheek..."

Branwen heard for the first in years that he lived; that her brother fought bravely and was harmed by the enemy but left with the other warriors. A true warrior born of Seawolf; there was fierce joy that he lived and still stood on his feet rather than fleeing as a coward. And yet she could not show too much of it when so many others here had lost.

Men, same as all, Stolny had spoken bitterly; men still as hopeless at mending their own belly-wounds; men for both sides who equally serve Tempus and the other gods...

They remained seven days in that war-torn village, with the same scarce sleep and supplies as all there.

Tempus commands wars, just wars, that homes or family or wells or livestock should not be destroyed, that war is not reckless or dishonourable.

My brother may need the same help one day, Branwen thought, and conquered herself to work hard to aid wounds. Sharp mixtures inflicted pain but cleaned away dirt; pus and illness had to be drained or cut away; there were screams and out of that she hoped for the return of health.

"Do the people of Isleifsvarn truly serve the same gods?" she said.

"Many claim; some do." Stolny walked onward, gaunt and forbidding and tired below the stern lines of his face.

Then they...hurt my brother. Then warriors and healers are needed, both, to save... Branwen framed the words carefully in her mind. It cannot be reckless.

"Gods' favours are fickle at best," Stolny said sharply. "Chance governs it more than any other."

"But valour and honour and the work of warriors and healers govern too," Branwen debated. "I know they are in the creed. We did not leave it to chance but acted. I know what you believe."

"You don't," said the old priest, a twist to his scarred mouth. "Go back to your sheep and live long in the hills."

"The time is not even half over, and you need me." For oftener and oftener she was his support, especially in the winters. "And I would stay."

"Mad-child," he called her once more.

--

It was the height of summer again, and instead of the small settlements on Seawolf's coast they were in the great town beyond Wolfstooth bay, where Saevil Snakearmed and all his hirdmen lived when he was not away to make war. It was the largest settlement Branwen had ever seen, and especially to walk into its centre; she resolved to ask why this time they went inwards instead of remaining on the outskirts of a town. The houses were wood and iron and stood close-grown together; the streets smelled of animals that had been crowded too closely together, tanning, waste, thick smoke. She could hear the clang of metal shaped in a large open smithy with five men working at once; the stride of horses' shod hooves against streets stoned rather than dug; a babble of voices raised in talk and song.

There were so many people, some even prosperous-looking. Warriors roamed the streets freely, most with chieftain Saevil's mark, some of the insignia of other warbands, the green-and-purple boar of Olnvi, the grey-and-gold of Vallanor and now his descendant jarl Traviss. In the harbour rose the high masts of trading ships visible in the distance, and below the stench of the city there was still the familiar sea-salt that belonged to the air. Branwen stared unashamed at the bustle of it, and nearly tripped over a loose stone in the road. She carried a staff openly, longer than the one Stolny sometimes chose to lean upon; in the months since she had stared to do so he had said nothing about it. A flash of colour in the streets caught her eyes, and she saw a girl of her own age with clean brown hair below a bright red kerchief. She carried a roll of yellow cloth over her right shoulder; her light-coloured overdress was over a grown, plump figure. Her face was smooth and pale; Branwen felt herself, oddly, watching while the other girl turned to an older boy and laughed with him.

Then she was walking by the two of them, and they looked only with revulsion back. "Stinking beggars," said the boy; and they went together away. Indeed they were filthy, Branwen thought; she had managed to outgrow her clothing beyond her meagre skills to mend, to say nothing of what their journeys had coated them with. But they were not beggars, and she wished she'd been able to show those two so.

Stolny stepped through the streets as if he knew them by heart. He had come from near to Wolfstooth bay; perhaps had spent more time here than he had told her. There were carts of travellers running through the streets cramming them perhaps fuller with people than expected to contain, many merchants calling their goods to the open air. A true crowd; perhaps on a single street stood as many people as from her home village. There were feast-days of summer, Branwen remembered; some dedicated to chieftain Saevil's victories and long life, to the gods Chauntea of the earth and Valkur of the seas, and to the Battlelord...

"Are you here for a festival of Tempus?" she blurted out; Stolny answered.

"As for highsun Tempus asks for prayers directed, so in the days of summer his feasts. Sagas and burial of the fallen; initiation of the new; and on the three days before midsummer, ale and feasting and and battles for the old. Making widows from drink-poisoning and game-playing."

"And you will meet with your old comrades?" Branwen asked; the pressing crowd of people and their raised voices made it difficult to hear him, but either their stench or Stolny's grim and scarred face cleared a space of two feet or so away from them.

"Who can tell? Last time I came Ragnar sat the chieftain's throne." The father of Saevil; Branwen would not have been surprised to hear the name of Ragnar's father. "In his earliest years, mind." The near-toothless mouth spread into a gloat of age. "The lay to the fallen sung by the shrine atop Ghanail cliff-face for all of four days to list the dead; then the wouldbe boys herded to Ragnar's thornhouse to seek trial for offering themselves. And then the Battlegames to find the favoured novices; those victorious to be known as priests in the chieftain's service. And at last the full celebration, for novice and seasoned alike. Skald-songs of victory, ceaseless sparring, and still more ale. The Foehammer takes meat and drink when he can."

As you do, the reply lingered at the back of Branwen's tongue; Stolny turned down nothing offered. Then the account of it caught her imagination: wouldbe priests of Tempus, novices, taken and offered a chance to prove themselves...

Stolny walked on, calling her to hurry; and in the packed centre of the city they came to an inn already filled with people. Surely too full for such as they, Branwen thought. Stolny forced his way across to the full-bodied woman who spread herself across the largest table to await customers; she raised a thick forearm as if to send him outside herself, with or without her breadpin in place of a weapon. Then to Branwen's surprise Stolny spoke a few words to the woman, and passed across some coins hidden by his hand; she nodded and gave a softer reply. Branwen hadn't been able to hear it; perhaps she was another follower of the Battlelord, or her husband or father? Or somehow he knew of her from his older times in this town; she was not a young woman. The inn's keeper gestured to one of her younger maids, Branwen's own age or so, who wrinkled her small nose to gesture them to a room. It stood above wooden stairs, small and clean, with a bed on one side and a pallet on the other and even a space to light a fire below an opening in the roof.

"Thank you," Branwen said, since Stolny did not; "and could we have some water for washing? It has been a long journey." She almost sounded like a spoiled noble from a tale who expected to be waited on hand and foot, she thought; but it was certainly past time for them to clean.

"Take some silver for the city." Stolny pushed across some coins to her; he lay on the bed.

"New robes, perhaps," Branwen advised; older ones repurchased, more likely, but something cleaner.

He pointed impatiently. "Go; I need nothing here. Take the run of the city while you can."

Branwen had every intent of doing so. She left, slightly cleaner, to carry out the errand. Ask for more talk, she told herself. For Ragnar's--Saevil's--thornhouse. She gave coin for trews and a loose shirt to fit her. She looked at herself in a puddle and thought: hair could be cut; bindings could be wrapped; the chin was clean but the skin was work-tanned. She had travelled near to three years with a servant of the Battlelord, and the dreams passed through her mind.

--

This time she knew the way through the red thorns that scraped her skin. A saga beat in her bones and blood, and the words came to her. War; valour; battle; defence. Healing allies; arming against foes; iron-bulwarks for beliefs and family both. Warriors.

Tempus! she called with her mind, and once more she stood upon that plain of endless warfare.

They fight and they learn; and then they feast within their afterlife...

She thought of staff and sling, and they were both at her side. That meant that warriors upon this plain could show her what it meant to fight; to fight a fair-armed enemy believing exactly as she did in Tempus' role and place...

My father fought; Stolny fought; my brother fights.

The warrior came at her armed with a sword. He blocked her first swing of the staff with an armoured hand; his sword slashed downward at her.

Vidar learning to fight, she remembered. The arc of the warhammer and the placing of feet in mud. Torfi to sidestep more quickly and put it over the shoulders--

Branwen stepped aside though not back; the staff hit the armoured shoulders. It seemed to do nothing to the red-clad warrior. This was real and true; nothing stood between them but what they themselves could muster. She could tell that the swordsman was not fighting her as a child. He moved forward; spun forward, impossibly fast, and the sword reached her. There was pain.

But, she thought, this place is no mortal place. She could show that she could bear it.

When the swordsman came close the staff was too long to defend against him. She considered running back to use sling, though that would have seemed cowardly; and the red-armoured warrior was too fast. The...the way...

The staff was too long to stop the sword when close. Therefore she had to risk anything to keep him back. Branwen stepped away again, and swung the length of the staff in wide arc. She hit again; then tried to force the staff's end to the throat, where the armour--it was not human armour, jointless and impossibly smooth--was flexible enough to allow the figure's head to move.

The swordsman was no man at all but a woman, Branwen could now see; the same red knight as before. Her staff slipped from the knight's throat in her surprise.

You grasp the point of range and footing, spoke the woman. This time she sounded less like Branwen's mother and more as a companion of an age. Her skills were peerless; she surely must be far older...and belonged to far different planes. Go onward.

Then there was a peaceful grove coloured by dark green fronds that grew from water-soaked earth. A rich blue waterfall flowed from gentle rocks to a clear fresh spring. The waters were liquid moonstone: still at times within the dark rockpools and gently flowing at other times, the flow ever renewing itself. The waters were clean and pure and in peace. The song of the waterfall was soft, gentle, and more mellow than any mortal mother's lullaby. The valley rested in a secret heart between land and sea. Ferns and grass grew in plenty. In this valley no blood could be shed. A woman's voice whispered of stillness and peace.

This is no place for warriors by rule, something spoke to her, though whether it was her own words or that of another Branwen did not know. But it is to be protected.

And it was no place for her, truly; perhaps for her mother, perhaps for her youngest brother. I do not want to give up and live in peace; I want to continue...

Then the waterfall in its valley disappeared, and was replaced by a sword-bearing whirlwind.

If you wish to fight: then you can do none better than this! it growled; Branwen thought it had not used words, that it did not know how to use words and its fury was simply imagined in human terms. Six dark arms wielded an endless circle of swords. Only war makes you strong. Peace is for weak fools. Slay them all. Reave them all. The swords flashed; the thick smell of blood rose through the air and drowned all near. This is the only meaning of war. I am Garagos. Kill them all.

The blades swept closer to her neck. She could not breathe for the blood in nostrils and mouth. But she stood there, waiting, though she felt as if any moment could have ended her.

War is more than mindless fury, Branwen came to at last, stiffly thinking-over the words. Be honourable in battle. Not even because of your foes--because it's right to fight fairly--

A deranged, fierce hiss. Then you would never be one of mine--be banished forever!

She stood still in what looked to her to be darkness. Once upon a time she fell off a tree trying to chase after what she was told she could not have. She heard the calling in her head.

"Tempus," she said, her voice a strangely even battle cry, "I accept the place you wish of me."

Then at last she had fought her way through, and red mud rolled below her feet. The giant man in the faceless iron helm stood before her. In his hand was a warhammer rather than the battleaxe of before, shaped akin to Stolny's weapon. Almost too late, she thought: It is only three days until the initiation of the wouldbe clerics of Tempus.

It is not I who objects to bloodshed, but fairness in warfare that prompts the limitation of weapon, the giant instructed. The hammer swung in his arm as the arc Stolny's had once made, and yet to that it was like comparing clumsy boy to saga-hero. Learn.

For: the god did not win battles but helped the deserving warrior to win battles, Branwen knew now; because it was dishonourable to try any less than the extent of one's strength. She imitated the movement, then did so again with the position of her legs corrected and her muscles starting to approximate the right way; and over again. She felt the presence with her and did not know how long it instructed, that he could spare what might be seconds to him but decades for her.

"And I will be one of yours?" she pressed to ask, a hammer spinning in her hands. If I prove myself.

An iron gauntlet rested on her shoulder and partly through her neck, though it gave her no pain. No. You will not be one of mine, came from beneath the iron helm. You are one of mine. Take the first of my gifts for my priests.

A cold blue light shone about the iron fist upon her, burning like a cold star, or the heart of a fire. It settled inside her body, from neck down to heart and organs, spiralling down the veins of her arms past her hands and to the tips of her fingers. When she moved them the blue flared from their ends, from her skin, and she knew it to be a part of her that she could summon from the presence within her. The first gift of a priest was almost always to heal.

The weapon given remained in her right hand; and then the gauntlet gripped her wrist. Instead of cold metal it was the warmth of fire, of heat in blood and vein and courage. The image of the warhammer changed to an icy, pure blue.

One of mine should not go unarmed to fight for entrance, Branwen heard told. But a fight it must always be: for war heralds advancement.

Then she was awake and staring into the clear icy surface of a mud-puddle pale with dawn's frost, her hands empty and arranged in the shape of a hammer's hilt.

--

Part IV - Initiation

The fair-haired boy third from the end had no fear of the Battlegames. There were one-and-twenty youths present, from beardless and ungrown child to full man, and the priest of Tempus third from the end was neither tallest nor shortest.

Upon the road with Stolny she had been taken for a boy at times, Branwen reminded herself; if clothing was grimy and loose-fitting enough few troubled to look further. She had the shape of a woman, but with Tempus' strength man or woman mattered not. More worrying was that she had spent the past two days and the early part of this one in escaping Stolny's eye to practise; she could still not fully believe that at her prayer to the Battlelord the ice-blue hammer appeared from thin air to rest in her hands, and yet had all the substance of iron and the strength to place cracks in stone. This she had also not told the old priest of.

She saw five priests of Tempus in full holy vestment: they wore dyed crimson robes that blew cleanly about their shoulders, gold and silver glittered at the edging of their yellow-and-white sleeves, and the hammers and maces and flails they carried shone like the sun. Their leader carried a carved and gilded wooden staff and his symbol of the shield glowed with flames, and it was he who spoke to those who would receive initiation in public. Vjorl Jormansson: the high priest to the chieftain, and the subject of almost too many warriors'-legends for one man himself.

"Tempus does not win battles," the high priest spoke, "he helps the deserving warrior win battles!" And to that came a cheer, for it was of the creed. "The Lord of Battles has no use for those who fail to fight valiantly. Many men may try to enter his service. Few will be chosen. This is the time now for boys tied to their mothers' aprons to leave lest they fall; the time now for any with doubts to speak and withdraw. The shame to leave now is far less than the shame of failure later. Which of you has not heart and soul to serve Tempus?"

And then Branwen felt and saw his power: for the eyes of the high priest flashed red-gold, and like a hawk his piercing stare swept across the full assembly of boys. She straightened her back and met the eyes, for had Tempus himself not called her to this? Her gaze held for a long moment as if he had the power to seek inside her, but either he sought only for her prayers to Tempus or Tempus himself shielded her from discovery. Then one of the younger boys cried out.

"I see--I see blackness! Please stop--I am not meant--"

An armoured guard took the boy firmly, laying a gauntleted hand on his shoulder; he wept as he was removed from the arena, to be released. That gaze of the high priest had caused that; he was powerful. But you should not bow to power simply because it was power, for that was the way of the deceitful toad-servant, and none of Tempus ought to expect it.

The tall boy beside her looked down, his face serious. "I tried the year before," he whispered. "There were three then sent away at the beginning. Whose son are you?" His clothes were good, thick and small-stitched, though none here wore any ornamentation to show or hide the position of their family.

"My father was a warrior in Seawolf's service," Branwen returned. Then it went quiet once more; the morning sun glittered sharply against the holy symbol borne by the high priest. His eyes still held a trace of that red-and-gold vision that searched for the right spirit turned toward the deity; he spoke further of the priesthood.

"You are not here because you know nothing. You are not here from weakness. You fight for strength. Tempus cannot accept those who flee battle. The games test more than one form of strength: of the arm, of the soul, of the blood, and of the liver." The seat of courage in the body; Branwen felt her heart beat, the red blood of warfare coursing about her shape. "Chance governs warfare; skill governs warfare. Learn to face both."

One of the priests by Vjorl came forward with a black-coloured sack in hand. He offered it to the first boy, who reached within and drew a grey tile marked by lettering, too far-off for Branwen to decipher it. It was followed until all possessed a marking, numbered by a rune inscribed in the older language of their people, one that she knew only the principal letters and symbols--and was grateful to Stolny for that, and hoped that he would approve of her deeds this day.

It was a matching for the purpose of duelling. Her token was found closest to a boy of her age or so; he had a weapon of his own, a fine-made warhammer; she had been given an iron-banded club, almost weighty as a mace. Better to honour the rules of the trials rather than to summon that other hammer. He nodded to her.

"I am Thorst Asavilsson, freeborn and jarl-born, and in this fight I declare my right to serve Tempus." His voice had not quite finished breaking; but he set his chin fiercely. He wore his black hair loose and cut to his chin.

"Bran, child and sibling of warriors," Branwen said, taking up her own weapon assigned. "I would say...may Tempus look upon both of us with favour as earned." She had not intended to say too much, lest voice give her away. To try to hurt one who aimed at the same purpose--no, these Battlegames were to select those worthy, not to harm those of equal will and honourable ways.

"Bran? You are misnamed, then," he said, with a grin she had seen in the past--Bran, raven, darkness--and their fight began.

He came, deer-fast, ready to strike quickly; and she blocked, then swung away the club to fight back. The warhammer of Tempus-- Her practice-fights with Vidar came back to her. You had to not lose your footing, as dreams had taught her. You had to use range--though here their reach was less than an inch's difference.

Below their feet lay flat sands, easy to stand balanced upon. Branwen shifted herself forward. That was--she knew some of Asavilsson's strategies, had practiced them first as improvised, in the past days as learned from dreams. Then one she did not know, a spinning blow that came from below, and ended in her ribcage.

She felt the sands below her body, thrown to her back. She kept moving, throwing herself aside, but he had stopped fighting--

"Do you yield?" the boy said; fairly and honourably. Branwen stood. She'd lost, but not failed; hadn't stopped where she lay, had not been thrown from the arena.

"Thank you," she said, meaning it, "but I would as much as you."

Then again they fought. Attack rather than defence, because the purpose was not to run from a fight. Then Thorst's hammer swung forward, out of her field of vision; Branwen knew it could find the back of her head as if she saw it in a dream, or that the hammer's end could turn from blunt to spiked when it met her bone.

But by range Asavilsson was close; she hit his stomach in the vulnerable place by the ribs. He flew back. Branwen waited as he'd done, expecting him to get up; but he lay still and gasped for breath. His face was twisted in pain. Before she could think about it she was kneeling down beside the boy, for Tempus' sake helping an honourable fight by placing hands on his chest and praying-- Blue light soaked through her hands, and then he was breathing properly once more.

He started at her. "You--cast--?"

"Continue," rang the low voice of one of the priests in supervision.

Thorst had recovered his balance quickly; he seemed fit for it. In the end she was able to hit his right shoulder, and he stepped back.

"That is two for you," he said; "my arm does not lift properly..." He couldn't fight like that; did she dare pray again?

"Two from three," the priest spoke; he laid his own hands over Thorst's shoulders, pronouncing a prayer in formal words and older language. "I judge Bran the victor, but both to remain in the trials."

In the second of the games far fewer of the one-and-twenty novices remained. There was a circle marked below a low, black-wooded, thorn-laid roof that cast shade; sand marked with a circle and subtler lines; and a flask that smelled of goats' blood. Branwen gagged at the taste of it.

"Follow me," the robed priest chanted, "follow to full battles. Test strength on the past. Test strength where it cannot be disguised. Dream of Tempus himself...."

Branwen was flying into dark air; her head spun, and it was a night without stars or moon. The isle of Seawolf was a distant outline below, and then she could see other isles scattered in the sea, shapes she barely knew. Once Stolny had sketched a rough map on the ground, a crescent for Isleifsvarn and a round plum of Ehrlasst, long Otkelholm and wide Varlslake. She spiralled further up into the air and dark clouds blocked the vision of the isles entirely, and then she was so far into the black sky that even the clouds were no longer visible.

Then she plummeted downward like a falling stone.

Come to witness, a voice said, come to prove yourself.

The harbour curved inward like a bird's wing reversed. She blinked and saw in light; it was dawn, the sky blood-red where the sun rose from the eastern seas. Smoke rose from wooden cottages and fishers' boats surged through the water. She still saw it as a bird would see, and then she realised that it was the village that she and Stolny had seen from within. And she saw that three warships were distant black dots upon the horizon, like large toothed seals darting through deep waters.

Then the warriors of Thrudmul would have come here upon a longship of their own. She searched with her eyes, seeing the ground opened from above to her: it was already moored and half-concealed in a cavern to the lower side of the coast, painted by the eyes of the All-Seeing. Her brother was already here; and because she could see none of them, they must not know of the enemy's approach. She watched: the doom came.

A fisher-boy was first to see. Branwen watched him, small from above, running to call for others. The warriors were surprised: the first of them ran half-naked from their lodgings, shaking his loose red hair behind his back. They grasped for bows, throwing-spears in rough haste. She saw them standing about the beach. Already the enemy were close enough for arrows to be loosed against the approaching ships. There were priests among her brother's warriors, one of the shield of Tempus worn in brilliant scarlet on his chest, one of the lightning-bolt cloud of Valkur of the seas. There had been a priest of Tyr of the village in addition, Branwen knew. He stood behind them, wearing grey plain robes, his right hand bandaged in symbol of the god.

The invaders' ships were separated; the defenders split themselves alike in a line. That weakened them, Branwen thought, sadly. Perhaps they would have been stronger in a single unit. She knew what approached.

The first of the ships came close and disgorged its men, while the archers beyond still loosed arrows. Branwen saw Seawolf's warriors raising shields, protecting themselves. An arrow broke through into a man's shoulder; he clawed at it, and blood marked his armour. The priest of Tyr stepped forward and clutched the wound, speaking words over it that she couldn't hear or decipher.

The invaders broke through the line. Branwen saw their destruction, hunting for what they could take. Stores of coin--small as they might be, in this place that did not deserve such a raid; stores of food; crops to set afire; weaponry to seize from fallen enemies. Then she saw her brother; he carried a sword, running quickly, fighting one of the enemy. He had changed since her last memories of him, but he looked like her father and like Ingvi; unmistakably Alfden, tall and strong and valiantly winning his battle. Then he was hit by an arrow, and screamed although she heard no sound. The progress of the battle seemed to waver before her eyes, and she could not heal him.

When she blinked again, the battle was at its worst; the enemy's ships were all landed, and smoke filled the air. It stung her eyes. The priest of Tyr had his holy symbol raised high, and spoke words above the screaming crowd; this time she thought she could read one phrase that passed his lips, to heal. He stood by a wounded--boy, not man, too young, bleeding; he placed his hands across a deep red wound. And it was then he fell, as she had known he would, to the blade of an axeman who cut him down from behind. Dishonourable--Lokispawn--!

Then the raiders sought their ships once more, achieving for what they had come. Another young one stood to try to stop them; a shepherd, perhaps, for that was more crook than quarterstaff he carried. A tall, broad man ran; around his neck glinted something coloured crudely yellow; then in watching what she thought couldn't be stopped, Branwen saw the shield of Tempus about the neck of an enemy. She expected him to murder the boy, for he was unmistakably a warrior of Isleifsvarn; but he did not, and took time to run around him while the defenders sought to kill them. Then he raised his large shield to catch an arrow; pushed down the Seawolf child, and retreated--

Their ships were leaving. The Thrudmul longship lay bobbing in the waters, its men trying to tend their wounded or still loosing hopeless arrows after those who fled. Had it been retained by even a small group, perhaps it could have at least rammed one of the fleeing ships, or come close for arrowfire; as perhaps if the defenders had remained together...

The air rippled before her, as if by a heavy fog. Branwen saw it dance in front of her eyes as if the grey smoke had turned to that invisible, distorting effect of a clear fire close by. Then she saw it begin a second time, but it was changed. The warrior with red hair raised his spear in a rallying-cry; she saw the fighters gather in a phalanx. Yet again there were cries and the clash of weapons, priests chanting, the whole moving too quickly for her to fully understand. There was her brother; one of his companions raised a shield, she saw, and a black-fletched arrow of the enemy plunged to it. Perhaps of that wound he was free; but though she saw in this vision that they held together, they were outnumbered by fighters who were--equal, she had to acknowledge. The houses and crops burned, though she thought that perhaps losses were lessened. Different men died this time--

A small group of three broke from their defence while the raiders left, to take the ship to bring down one of the enemy by any means. It skimmed through the waves; all it could to was to ram. There was a great noise of colliding wood, as a thunderclap; splintered logs breaking and falling to the sea; the enemy priest bearing the symbol of Tempus within the Sea-Queen's waves. Branwen could see his face closely, then; a black beard and a smoke-scorched face, fighting against the waves. Then it seemed as if she was close enough to lay a hand to the cloth and light mail across his shoulders; to see the slick oil that held down his hair. She was close now to the glint of his shield-symbol at his neck, red stone and glittering false-gold, and for a moment she touched him to pull him free from the waves--

He saw the boy in his path and held back; to kill the defenceless was against everything in the creed--

He was a boy; the foreign warriors tore at his village and he heard his mother's scream--

Enemy, always the enemy, better to fight fair-armed enemy, Seawolf was the enemy who slew children of his--

Tempus take me to your halls when I perish!

The blue waves fell around him. Water blocked her vision, and then instead of bright blue water she could see a small patch of sky through a knothole to the sun above her head. Branwen's head ached. She could feel a pain in her throat: she thirsted, her voice too blocked to speak yet. She could hear the voices of the priests talking, but it was not to her.

"Divinations--" one spoke. "How many of these show signs of battlevision?"

"Some. I know the second one in his sleep muttered the name of Karsi; perhaps Karsi Kaifriksson, or else who knows what visions of war? Now those sons were fighters of the past--"

"The third is silent," the other priest said, "I doubt he will be granted. But his father will find something--"

"The fair-haired one is woken. He saw, at least," said the first of the priests of Tempus. "Perhaps Tempus will favour still more than the year before."

--

Hours of the day had passed; though the dream-visions had seemed to take little time. Branwen could stand on her feet once more, her thirst quenched through water. The sun was red in the sky. It was almost the sixteenth hour, she judged by the summer. Asavilsson stood not far from her; eight remained in these trials. Tempus does not win battles unearned...

There were armoured men of the chieftain's household watching from afar, besides the priest. She glanced over their faces, the colours of insignia on their cloaks. Thrudmul, she saw the grey-and-red colours, at least three of them mingled with other warriors; but at the distance she could not tell if her brother was here. It was no strangeness that warriors celebrated the summer festivals and came to battlegames.

It was a challenge of fighting once more; this time for endurance above simple ability. She had the hammer she had won in the first trial, and she drew a match against a youth taller than she. Fetaln Rafniksson: a family name, he said, that even boy peasants who wished to pretend to be priests ought to know.

"This I won in fair battle," he said, bearing a mace that glimmered with that slight sheen stronger than metal Branwen had seen only rarely. "It will be right to use to defeat you."

"Are you a witch, that you know the outcome beforehand?" Branwen said, and stepped upon the wide raised wheel of wood that marked this ground. It was edged by a rope strung to upwards slats at its rim, and raised slightly above the sands. By the rules of the challenge they remained atop it for as long as they could endure; to throw the opponent from it was forbidden. To face the fair-armed opponent and to refuse to turn away. She thought she knew how to wield the weight of the hammer in her hands.

It began. Branwen learned quickly he was older, stronger, years-practiced. There were counters to the hammer's strikes she knew; his arms were stronger and by the dweomer he moved as if he carried a lighter weapon that struck with more force.

Then Rafniksson's mace was aimed for her left shoulder, and she knew she could not block in time. She retreated, weaving back, and felt the glancing blow rather than the shattering hurt her. By the terms to retreat from injury was a fair strategy. Then an underarm blow with the mace that she was barely able to defend against, and from his height above he directed a blow at her skull.

For endurance; for a warrior is not rewarded for fleeing when there is duty to hold. Words were too easy to say, and it was largely without words that Branwen continued. She drew in breath to her lungs; the day's light reddened above; her bones jarred with the force of meeting the dweomered mace. She could walk with bruises against thorns that barred her path. Time wore on. If that blow landed on her forehead, it would kill her; she distrusted Rafniksson's honour. Then when the hammer met the mace directly, it shuddered in her hand, the iron and wood weakening. He saw the weakness clearly. For a time she tried to avoid with hands and body rather than risk the weapon, but he left her no choice, backing her to the ropes that confined their arena to halt her movement. The mace's head met her hammer on its head. It sprung apart in her hand. The useless remains fell to the ground below her feet.

"Yield to leave this place, boy," Rafniksson said, "or be harmed."

Branwen felt next that tears had sprung to her eyes. She was falling aside, skimming across the wooden wheel, and then she felt the pain in her chest, her ribs from his blow. He'd left her no time in his offer. While she stood within this he had allowance of means to make her surrender.

She spoke to show honour of her own, though her voice wheezed. He steeped slowly across to her, the mace raised for another painful blow. "Might I...use weapon I have fairly...earned?" She had begun to reach for it with the prayer.

"If you can find one here--" Rafniksson agreed in mockery, raising his mace, and then the blue-glowing hammer appeared for her.

This was the weapon with which she had practiced.

They came together, clashing, and with it she was as good as the opponent. She should learn enough to be better. Tempus' hammer was strong and light, and she pulled her blows in case of injury too far. Branwen had seen her opponent's surprise; like a warrior he hadn't stopped fighting. She hit a returned blow to his ribs, and because her blood was up she could ignore her own aches. She was faster, now, Tempus' hammer light in her hands, and though Rafniksson still returned her blows at times she understood his movements. Both gave as much as they had to the test of endurance; both weapons still in rough equality. The speed of it was furious.

The mace whirled past her skull. Branwen stepped below it, closer in, drawing back her right arm. Then she returned the blow to the ribs; he fell back, and she saw that she had hurt him. He gasped for breath, his tunic sweat-stained and torn. She could feel the materialised hammer ice-cold in her hand, the effort of holding it and standing upright despite her own pains. She felt herself breathing harshly, and wondered if he would get up once more--

"I...yield," Rafniksson said bitterly; he had looked aside, and spat to the ground. Branwen followed the direction of his gaze and saw that the other trials had completed already. Only they had still fought, and the eyes of the priests and the novices rested upon them. She reached a hand to her head; she realised then that had she not stopped those blows he had not pulled them. It was over, anyway. The sun had begun to dip below the horizon. She looked at Vjorl the high priest, marvelling that he watched, expecting that she had earned the right to stand as a priest of Tempus. With still more wonderment she saw more clearly the Thrudmul emblem upon her own brother, who stood as if he was hale and healthy now.

"It is done," one of the priests who had spoken over the seeing-test said. "There is a victor accepted by Tempus; there is one who fought as if he belonged to Garagos. Bran Hakonsson is fit to be ordained--"

Her brother glanced upward at the name of their father; it was not an uncommon name. Branwen dismissed the ice-blue hammer with a thought, the aches and pains settling into her skin. Asavilsson stood there also, by his stance triumphant too; they had earned their will to follow the god of war.

Then Rafniksson got to his feet once more. "No," he said. "This is no boy--a girl who cheated--look at her!"

He staggered toward her; her tunic caught in his thick hands. Branwen pulled away and heard the cloth part. She leaned upon the ropes slung about the wheel.

"I am a priestess of Tempus," she heard herself say, "and I was told to come to this circle to demand the initiation."

There was a whirling in her ears, as the sound of many voices or of an approaching storm. A gathering of whispers and shock.

Vjorl spoke, his voice cold iron. "Women cannot be priests," he said. He raised his staff before the assembly; Branwen could see the sun's light upon his shining and polished symbol of the shield, and envied. Priests used such symbols to focus their casting. "Liar; cheat; girl, you may return to your family--"

"My family is here," Branwen said, and pointed to her brother in the crowd. Rafniksson pushed her from behind; she fell on hands and knees to the sand below the arena, but stumbled to her feet near to Vjorl. "Hakonsdottir; my father and brother are warriors both; Alfden, in vision I saw your arrow-wound in your shoulder; I am glad you were healed of it--"

Instead of welcoming her, her brother's face was cold. "I knew nothing of this," he said. "My sister was said to be mad in my father's village; a hearer of voices; a follower of an ecstatic madman. Her dishonour is not mine; cast her from this place."

Alfden's blue eyes were like those of her father and like Ingvi, but neither of those had ever looked with such hatred upon her. She looked next at Asavilsson; he only looked sadly away, refusing to meet her eyes. Then to the five priests of Tempus once more.

"--Banished from this place," Vjorl said, "for trying to make mockery of these ceremonies. For--blasphemy; sacrilege of our traditions; take her far from here--"

"Does Tempus say that to you?" Branwen said. "Pray; I--"

"I need not ask my god once more what we all know!" Vjorl the high priest of Seawolf said, and to his staff came an angry red sheen. He pointed it to her. "Hakonsson, your wayward sister; remove the treacherous child."

"Valour...blazes in all..." Tempus himself did not appear to win this battle for her. Armed, grown men came on either side of her. "You are wrong, Alfden."

Then came the first blow, hastening her removal. "No sister of mine," she heard her brother's cold voice. "No...shame to our family; I will be head of the family one day and I call you outcast. Nameless. Be gone as a nithing to the family. Never dare to blaspheme again; by dawn tomorrow you will be outlaw--"

Then she was beyond the compound's gates, thrust into the crowd of people by the guards. Her brother turned his back on her for the last time. Rough stone scraped a line of blood on her knee. They threw after her the splinters of the club she had used, the weapon tainted by woman's touch. Then she was limping across the way, bruised, lost in the darkness. Now she was too weak to summon the hammer.

I was told to go to that circle--I was not told, exactly, but I believed it was a sign--I am still a priestess of Tempus, I know he is with me-- Branwen stumbled in the Wolfstooth streets not knowing where she was; it grew dark. Then she was walking by Stolny's side, a splinter of club clutched in her right hand and tipped with blood.

"They--" Her lungs barely formed words. "Cast me out. Alfden. My brother. I saw--"

The weight slowly lifted from her legs; she walked almost as usual, with the old priest leaning upon her though her ribs and arms ached still. It seemed important to tell him all but the order of it was upside-wrong in her head like broken yarn inextricably tangled.

"A vision in the thornhouse. The arrow to Alfden. Another priest of Tempus--this war. Could there be a war fought to end war? I wanted to save my brother when I went to fight, then from the vision there are other priests of Tempus for the isles thought enemies for the same raids and to fight to stop it all--"

Stolny seemed not surprised at all. "For years I told you the same: that is the nature of these wars. It took you great time to learn."

"I thought that might be the duty Tempus wanted of me. Honour, Asavilsson not Rafniksson. War ended by fighting for it. My brother home. The other priest of Tempus not drowned. But they forced me away--" Branwen said.

She did not know where Stolny led. This part of the chieftain's town was not where they had stayed.

"And they will hunt you down once more if you remain here, for your humiliation of them," Stolny said.

"I do not even have symbol," Branwen said. "Vjorl is powerful, all of them powerful. I fought them. I could not try to fight my brother. They will not let me be a priest to their view." Now the air smelled strongly of salt and old fish, and was loud with the sounds of the cracking of wood on wood and the washing of sea waves. Sails and masts became part of the dark horizon, rising higher than houses. These were the docks of Wolfstooth, the longboats of chieftain and warriors. There were also crafts built for trade with the wares of other regions.

"You must leave before dawn," Stolny said. He marched through the docks like a man far younger. His staff hit harshly against the ground. "Do you know the least of this isle? No, of course you do not. Seawolf itself is the size of what cities elsewhere would call a town; all the people upon all warring islands are smaller in number than single cities across the Realms; beyond our isles and beyond even Ruathym there is Waterdeep and Amn and Chult and a vast eastern continent and still other continents unknown. In my time I travelled long enough to understand this. And to our endless wars there are armies five times greater who would pierce through all we had in hours."

Ruathym was as distant a place as Hel's realm and the only named place she had heard of: and it was so far a southern isle that it might as well have been the other side of the world or halfway down the fall from one of its edges. Branwen was hard pressed to imagine further than that while her head ached with it all. Stolny led her to a travelling ship, smooth-lined and foreign, crewed by a short bearded man atop the deck: a dwarf, only heard of in the past. By him a female sailor--a foreign ship most certainly. She stepped in front of a lamplight on her deck, and her ears were lightly pointed. Her steps held an unusual rolling grace; Branwen could see only one picture at a time, exhausted as she was.

"Their ship has come and gone before," Stolny said. Branwen did not think to ask of his knowledge. "An eight-man crew; they take and vary. And at times face pirates," he added quietly. "Ask passage from them for labour."

Branwen's head spun still. The sun had set; she was not a priest in the eyes of her people; she would soon be outlaw.

"I owe you two years of our contract still," she said, unbelieving, soft-voiced.

"No; an exchange," Stolny said. "You won that club you carry in Tempus' sight?"

The splinters of it dug into her hand still.

"Then trade a weapon earned in a holy ceremony to purchase the contract," he said.

Branwen heard him speak in words she did not know; but certain of the syllables she did know. She would know this herself one day. Then her right hand was pink-fleshed and whole, and Stolny held the weapon he had traded. It had been her only possession earned by law of contract.

"Go," the old priest said. The dwarf on the deck of the boat was called Harglims, and the half-elf Vaenna the Silvershot. They promised a worked passage.

On the ship that carried her away from her homeland she served as a deckhand, scrubbing the rough planks until her body grew as weary as it had ever done in trials or wanderings. When her feet touched solid ground, she swore her clerical services to the first adventuring group she met; and walked her path in irregular patterns as she believed Tempus was there to guide her, by gradual degrees turning southwards.

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