Alex Mullarky is a writer from Cumbria, England, who studied English Literature at St Andrews. She now lives in Melbourne, where she has completed a Masters in Screenwriting and works part time as a journalist.
The Lay of the Last Survivor is a short piece of historical fantasy containing and inspired by Alex’s loose translations of a number of anonymous Old English poems such as Wulf and Eadwacer and Charm against a Wen as well as a passage from Beowulf and the Old Dutch text fragment Hebban olla vogala.
The Lay of the Last Survivor
I am Lunete, the fourth of that name.
Before me, my mother, Ishild; her mother, Else. My great-grandmother Lunete who brought her people to this land gave us her name.
Mine is Lorn; I am the last. I sing the song of my suffering.
Else taught me many songs. Our people sang when they reached this land, and called it Beortholt, for the sunshine and the trees. There are songs for all things. Songs for weaving, songs for harvest. When she spied a wen at the base of my thumb, my grandmother seized my hand, spat on it, and sang.
Wenne, wenne, wenchichenne,
You shall not build here, nor make your home.
Move you northwards to that near place;
There, ermig, you have a brother.
There shall I lay a leaf upon your head.
Beneath the wolf’s foot and the eagle’s wing,
Beneath the eagle’s claw you will wither away.
You will smoulder, like a coal upon the fire;
Like water in the pot, you will fade away.
You will become as small as the linsetcorn,
Smaller than the handwurmes hupeban,
Smaller still, until you are nothing.
She sang it with me again and again until I could recite the words alone. She made me a poultice with leaves of milkblue, with the feather and claw of an eagle, and the toe of a grey wolf, and the wen shrank away to nothing.
I do not have the voice of a blackbird, as they say of Anesa, but because of Else I know all the songs, and when the old woman died it was me they began to turn to with queries about the words. Later still, I began to think of my own words, my own tunes, and I intended to ask Anesa to learn them and sing them, and I hoped they would bring the others great joy.
All that has changed.
It was his singing that drew me in, or I would not find myself where I am today. But when I sat weaving amongst the trees that afternoon and I heard the paddling of an oar and that sweet voice rising over the water, I was spellbound. It was a tune I recognised, though I did not know it by heart; I had heard Else singing it gently as she laundered her clothes in the dusk once, but she had never offered to teach it to me. It went like this:
All the birds are building nests,
Except for you and me;
What are we waiting for, my love?
What are we waiting for?
It was the voice of a man who does not understand the words he is singing, heavily accented, with the words flowing into one another: ‘for-my-love’. I caught glimpses of him between the leaves as he paddled closer, and I believed him to have a wolf’s skin cast over his shoulders, hooded over his head. When a breeze sprang up and the ears flickered, it was the wind that stirred them, of course. It began to rain.
All that is in the past, now. I have had much time to think on that day, back when the beasts were only a dark song for dark evenings. Perhaps he knew then what he was bringing down upon me, upon himself. I knew nothing–and yet it is I who serve out my sentence in isolation. In a fortnight, they will carry my cub to the tor and expose it.
There is a song about the tor, but it is long, too long to work into my song about myself. They say there was once a wyrm who nested on this island, one of the old monsters from before the time of men. There beyond the trees he fell into a slumber so long and deep that the earth grew over him and his flesh dissolved into the soil. There is a tunnel that was his tail, and a cavern in the heart of the hill where his ribs are a vaulted ceiling. But the entrance to the tunnel is a secret. It is never safe to venture into the belly of a dragon, however long it sleeps.
I hear a call outside. I hope my song will not be cut short.
It is quiet.
I should begin with Beortholt, since this island’s history is also my history. Lunete, my grandmother, was one of the five who brought their families here from the mainland many years ago, taking to the water for the first time in their people’s history. From there Beortholt’s song is swift and short: a small people surviving; then, as generations passed, a larger people prospering, trading, spreading to the small daughter islands. A thriving community with much wealth gathered, we named ourselves the Eadwacer: the watchers, guarding what is ours very closely.
And then came the beasts.
I knew the songs of battle but I had never witnessed one for myself before last autumn when the beasts reached our shores.
My song is not a battle song, though battles litter it. They were driven off that day, when my mother put a spear in my hand and thrust me out of the door to face the wolves. It was his face I was confronted with then, and already they were withdrawing. They made their camp on the nearest uninhabited island, deep in the fen country, and when they attacked again the following day, my wolf was not with them.
Then the weather turned and there they stayed for the winter, enemies at our door, and we kept wary eyes on one another, and my belly began to swell.
In spring the attacks began afresh. A tradition was born then, when old Rina wore the antlers of a stag into the fight. Before, we were a peaceable people, with no need for battle customs. Now when the cry goes up, the men and women of Beortholt reach for the antlers they keep on a high shelf and fasten them to their heads. I wear them nestled in my hair like a crown. Good for stabbing out an eye while thrusting a knife in. I saw Rina measure herself up against their leader, his sharp beak and her heavy head of antlers, he shaking out the feathers of his massive wingspan, she shifting her furs back on her shoulders. They were too well matched; both of them live still, though scarred.
When they came sailing towards us in their long ships we lined up on the shore and I sang my charm, made new, under my breath.
Wenne, wenne, wenchichenne,
You shall not build here, nor make your home.
Go back, ermig, to your brothers in the north.
They will lay leaves upon your chief.
Under the feet of wolves, under the wings of eagles,
Under the eagle’s claws my people weaken.
May you smoulder, like coals upon the fire.
Like water in the pot, may you fade away.
Your deeds smaller than the linsetcorn,
Your men among worms in the earth.
So little. May you come to nothing.
We are all too well matched. Three times they met us in battle; three times they withdrew as night fell and we took the advantage in the night-time landscape we could navigate in our sleep.
I did not see my wolf again on the battlefield, but my swelling stomach began to draw attention. Questions were asked; we are a small community, they are bound to be. No one came forward as the father and I offered no help to those who would pry. At last old Ninian ordered that I should be brought to him, and he took one look at me and recoiled in disgust, and announced, ‘It is one of theirs’.
That seems a very long time ago, now. It must be two months or more. My time is very close. I feel the babe clawing to be free; it has claws, certainly. I hope he will have ears like his father’s. I think when they learned what the wolf had done, they locked him away, as the Eadwacer have done to me. They do not intend to kill me, but when the child is born they will expose it at once; old Ninian told me so.
It is a funny thing. I have faith in my wolf, though I knew him only briefly. He has kind eyes, and the hair of his beard is very soft. He will make certain our cub survives.
I think perhaps the song is ready.
He will be given to my elders like an offering.
If he comes with his men, they will swarm him.
We are distant.
The wolf is on one island, I on another.
His island is secure, deep in the fens.
The people of that island are savage.
If he comes with his men they will turn on him.
We are different.
I have thought long on my far-wandering wolf,
On the day when fierce tears joined the rain,
When the wolf of war brought me into his arms.
He was a comfort to me, then
–and likewise hateful to me.
Wolf, my wolf, who corrupted me.
It is not the starvation that disquiets me.
Do you hear me, Eadwacer?
A wolf will carry our cub to the forest.
You may readily tear apart a thing which could never be joined
–our songs together.
I hear a sound. I think it is laughter.
No. Not laughter. Shouts.
I hear footsteps and I recognise their timbre. My mother, Ishild, unlocks the door. ‘You must run,’ she says. When she speaks again I do not hear her. I crumple to the floor. I am splitting in two.
My mother kneels down beside me at once, lies me back with gentle hands. ‘The child chooses its timing poorly,’ she says. She locks the door and washes her hands in the pail.
For the next hour my screams almost drown out the clamour beyond the locked door. Beyond the pain in my own body, I understand that there is turmoil outside, and slaughter.
What a moment to be born, my cub!
When finally it is over, my mother thrusts the babe into my arms and rips the cord that joins us with her teeth. I cry out, in horror, not pain. ‘Run,’ my mother breathes, and she unlocks the door and vanishes into bright white sunlight.
‘Mother,’ I cry after her.
I have a screaming child in my arms, but the air is thick with shrieks and cries. I wrap the babe carefully in the blanket that I have slept wrapped in over these past months. She will know her mother’s smell, at least, for it is a girl I swaddle tightly. I clutch her to my chest and, stumbling, climb to my feet.
My eyes cannot cope with the brightness of the sun until I am surrounded by it. Old Ninian is dead at my feet, his throat torn open by teeth. I suck in a breath and cover the baby’s eyes lest it fathom something of what it sees. The dwelling in which I was kept is some stretch from the settlement, separated by distance and a clutch of trees. I hold the girl tight to my chest and stride between gnarled trunks. I flinch at every twig-snap, but the beasts are not in the forest.
They are in the village. The grass is littered with bodies, the paths that generations since my great-grandmother have worn down are smeared with blood. The sight makes my stomach turn. The people I have known all my life–everyone I have ever known–cut down as they ran, lying where they fell in grotesque parodies of flight. I watch as an axe is thrust between a woman’s shoulders by a man with the black feathers of a raven spreading from his arms. The woman’s cry curdles my blood, and she falls, twitching. She was the last.
No. I am the last.
The beasts stand together, surveying their work. There is not an antler among the dead. How were they able to set upon my people with no warning?
They are discussing the dead; I see it in their gestures. Who will loot the bodies, perhaps. Who will finish off those who still breathe. An eagle squawks in anger. I gather myself together. I should be splitting at the seams with rage. Instead I feel cold, and very calm.
I step towards them. A hand closes on my forearm before I can raise my other foot and I turn quick as a startled doe to face my wolf.
He is distressed. I do not understand his words, but his tone is clear. His eyes are wide looking at the babe I hold, the girl-child who squirms and attempts to suckle. He reaches for it, and I press it close to my chest. I wrench myself back. My foot catches, and I stumble. I land on my back and the child falls from my arms.
The wolf picks it up. He cradles it gently, cooing to it. He offers me a hand. By some miracle we have not yet been noticed by the others. I begin to pick myself up. My hands are wet with blood, my body twisted up over a corpse on the ground. I scramble away from it, horrified. Then I cry out, a long, low wail.
It is my mother, Ishild. Her face is broken and bloody. She stares at me in terror.
The wolf speaks more urgently now, grabbing for me, as the beasts take note of our presence. I claw at him, push him away, and then I drag my fingers through my hair and tear, howling like an animal. The wolf backs away from me. Blood runs from my scalp onto my face, and I grab more fistfuls and pull again.
The wolf has my child. I reach for it, and he holds it away.
The beasts do not care about me. They have begun to search the houses. I know what they seek; they won’t find it there.
The wolf lays a hand against my cheek. I turn sharply and sink my teeth into it. He flinches. His eyes are full of dismay. He backs off a few paces, begins to walk away, then runs. He has taken my child.
My mother lies broken beside me. I dig my nails deep into the skin of my cheeks and keen.
Tripping, falling, I run through the trees towards the tor. It rises above the leaves like a beacon. I have entered the belly of a dragon once before, on the day when old Else showed me where the accumulated wealth of the Eadwacer was safeguarded. I find the opening in the hill, the sliver of cave that cannot be seen from almost any angle. I push my body through it. In the darkness on the far side I feel for the pile of stones that has been left here with just this situation in mind. One stone at a time, I wall myself into the barrow.
In the darkness you cannot see the glint of gold, but you can feel it, cold and hard beneath seeking hands. I half-climb, half-wade into it, singing as I go, part charm, part keen.
Heald ðu nu, hruse, what watchers could not–
The harp is silent, the music gone.
The hawk has flown from the hall.
The swift mare fled from the courtyard.
fela feorhcynna forð onsended.
I sink deep into the hoard, roll golden coins across my bare skin. It is so very dark.
I wait–a long time indeed. I hear nothing but the deep silence of the tor.
At last I feel the rage begin to burn into me, where before there was only coldness. It resonates through me until I am humming with it. My flesh is burning. If I open my mouth my breath will be flame. If I open my arms the skin will fall away and my wings unfurl.
I am Lorn, the last of the Eadwacer.
It is very dark. I think I will sleep.
This piece was based off of a society with a strong oral tradition; to honor that tradition, a reading of this piece by Caterina Giammarresi is available here. More information about Alex Mullarky and her work is available on her website, www.alexmullarky.com.