The Grey Dog

Wulf stumbled and cursed. He used an old word, one that was probably used when his ancestors were still in the old country, far away across the cold northern sea. Wulf knew his father still used it, but only when he thought that no-one was listening and Wulf’s mother would have given him what for if she’d heard him say it. It was the name of one of the ancient gods. Nowadays, Wulf and his family were Christians and no-one was supposed to even remember the old gods, but old habits died hard in a place like this. Why else was he hurrying his way to the sacred spring this early winter morning if not to ask for the help of the old gods? Sure enough, the spring had a new name now, St Anne’s Spout, but Wulf and everyone in the village still called it by its old name, Rheda’s spring, unless of course, the priest was anywhere within earshot.


Wulf pulled his prickly woollen cloak tighter around him and glanced up at the snow covered fell top. He knew his father was worried that more snow might be on the way. Anyone with sheep and cattle to overwinter dreaded heavy snow. The little dark-haired sheep were pretty good at finding bits of grass to nibble during the cold weather, but even they couldn’t cope with snowdrifts, and as for the milk cows and the plough oxen, there was never enough winter roots or oat straw to keep their bellies full and the whole village would echo to their hungry bellows.


Rheda had seen many winters. She had come with the villagers when they rode the crashing surf onto the northern beaches and then for the long overland journey through the lands of sometimes friendly, sometimes angry foreigners. Rheda was a valkirie and goddess of the winter. She had watched over the community here ever since they had arrived from the old country, setting up their solid wooden houses and breaking open the ground with their wooden spades and later on, ox drawn ploughs. The soil was dark and fertile down along the gill side, and on the tops, there was plenty of rough grazing for their sheep. Today, Wulf had brought with him some offerings from the land for the goddess of the spring, a piece of new-dyed wool from the family’s sheep that his mother had spun in the autumn. The dye his mother had used was made from dried sloe-berries that Wulf had got well scratched for when he collected them. There was also a handful of precious beans. He felt the beans through the little woollen pouch he carried attached to his leather belt. They were part of the seed his family had saved from this summer’s crop and dried, ready for planting when the soil warmed up again next spring. The rest of the crop was food for the family, soaked and boiled with herbs and a handful of oats it made a filling breakfast to carry you through the day.


Alongside Wulf, trotted the grey dog, Bonecruncher. He was the pride of the village ever since the day he had fought off two hungry wolves determined to have their fill of human flesh three winters ago. They had cornered one of Wulf’s little cousins up by one of the stacks of bracken stored as bedding for the cattle. She’d gone out in the snow, who knows why and if it hadn’t been for Bonecruncher keeping an eye open she’d have never come back. He still carried the scars – a torn ear and ripped lip that gave him a leering grin. Wulf was glad of his company, he’d heard the wolves crying last night and it sounded just a bit closer than usual. Wulf also carried one of the family’s iron knives. He had seen twelve summers now and counted as a man in his community. The knife showed that to anyone who might ask. It was of course the second best knife, but still carried a sharp enough edge if you worked hard enough at it with the whetstone.


Moments later Wulf was standing beside the spring. It gushed out of the steep hillside flanked by two massive gritstone boulders that had tumbled down long ago and got lodged in the damp soft ground. Wulf squatted down and peered up at the dark source of the water. Even on a bright summer’s day, you could never quite make out where the water came from. It was a trick of the goddess, his mother had explained, you should never try to look too directly at the place a goddess lived. Wulf lowered his head, and carefully laid out his gifts, the skein of wool and the polished, creamy-brown beans. He noticed that others had been by not so long ago. There was a little pile of rye flour; some more wool – not as well spun as his mother’s, and a tiny bone pin. He settled and then cleared his mind, just as his mother had taught him. Imagine a deep, still pool of water she had said, clear and silent. Let the world slip away just a little, then when all is quiet, send your prayer the goddess. Wulf did as he was taught, keeping one hand on Bonecruncher’s shaggy neck, because that was who he was praying for today.


The trouble had started when Wulf had gone with the men of the village to see the new stone cross that the Thegn had caused to be made and raised in the church grounds in memory of his father-in-law. The Thegn was a Dane who had married the only daughter of their old Thegn and come to the village bringing new ways. When the old Thegn died, the Danish warrior who was to take his place, caused a great piece of stone to be cut and dragged to the church ground. There one of his men had instructed two of the Thegn’s ceorls in the art of stone carving. The Anglian craftsmen had sweated and cursed, stone was hard work when you had been used to carving wood or bone all your life. But they had done their job and the cross was a marvel to see with its brightly painted knots and beasts that bit their own legs.


The Dane had ridden by while Wulf had been standing lost in awe looking at the mighty stone cross and had noticed Bonecruncher skulking in the shadows. He had asked the boy about the dog’s scars and Wulf, knowing no better had told him the whole story. The Thegn had then called to one of his men in his mother tongue and they had had a rapid conversation that Wulf only dimly understood, but fear had started to grip his heart when he saw the Thegn’s greedy expression, so he had slipped away with the dog while the men were still talking. Ignoring the shouting behind him, he and Bonecruncher had run all the way back to their village. Wulf’s father was furious when he heard. The Thegn like all of his kind was a hunter of wolves and wild boar in the forests, and a dog as brave as Bonecruncher would have suited him just fine. He wouldn’t stop until he possessed the dog for himself.


And that’s why Wulf was asking for help. The village couldn’t afford to lose Bonecruncher, especially with the winter and the wolves once again closing in around them. Wulf shuddered. An icy wind had risen while he was desperately asking Rheda for help. He stood up a bit too quickly and as he did, the wind grabbed his cloak and pulled it away from his shoulders. The old bronze pin, mended more times than he cared to remember, broke, and the cloak folded itself up in a bundle and dropped, splash, into the pool at the base of the spring. Wulf could have cried. It looked as if the goddess was laughing at him for being so foolish and he now faced a long, cold walk home carrying the soaking cloak. Wulf wearily gathered up it up and wiped a tear from his face. Anglian men didn’t cry.


Later that night, back in his family’s house, he’d hung the cloak on a roof post near the fire pit in the centre of the room and gone to sleep more troubled than ever, listening to his mother rhythmically turning the quern stone as she ground the flour ready for tomorrow’s batch of bread.


The next day, he woke to silence. During the night, the snow had come with a vengeance and lay on the turf roof in a heavy blanket, damping down all the normal village sounds. Then all of a sudden out of the quiet, he heard his father calling with fear in his voice. Wulf leapt up and ran for his cloak. Then stopped short. It was hanging where he had left it, but not exactly. He put his hand out to touch it, then realised that he couldn’t quite see where the edges started. He shook his head and rubbed his eyes – it was a bit like when he’d been knocked out playing sköfuleik, a game they’d copied from the Thegn and his men. The wooden ball had hit him on the side of his head and when he’d come to, the world had lost its sharp edges and he’d seen double for hours afterwards. His father’s voice came through the open door of the house then, sharp, urgent. Wulf turned and as he did so, out of the corner of his eye, the cloak came back into focus, and without thinking, he grabbed it and ran.


Outside he bumped into his father who was yelling Bonecruncher’s name. Wulf’s felt sick to his stomach. He knew immediately what was happening – the Thegn was on his way – he’d found out which village Bonecruncher belonged to and even now, he was driving his black pony across the ford below the village. Wulf’s father grabbed him and yelled in his face, they’d lost the cursed dog, did he know where it could be? Wulf looked down at his father’s strong hands grasping his cloak and suddenly he knew exactly where the dog was and what he had to do. His father took one look at his face and let go. Wulf ran straight as an arrow toward the bracken stacks, slipping and sliding and gasping as if a whole pack of wolves was snapping at his heels. Behind him the sound of hooves rang out on the frozen ground, getting closer and closer. Wulf scrambled round the corner of the nearest stack, and there was Bonecruncher – he’d been out patrolling, sniffing out where the wolves might be, following the heavy paw marks in the new snow. Wulf fell, bashing his knee and getting a mouthful of snow, but he had hold of Bonecrusher’s stiff grey hair. The dog looked startled and thought about snapping, but Wulf had a sudden power in his hands that frightened the dog into submission. He just had time to throw his cloak over himself and the dog and then the black horse and it’s tall rider was on them. Wulf held his breath and locked his arm round the dog’s neck. And then the world seemed to stop and Wulf knew that the goddess had answered his prayer after all, because the Thegn looked right at them and didn’t see them. The cloak, still damp from the spring water, had made them suddenly part of the earth and the bracken and the snow and the dog was safe.


The angry Thegn had gone, vowing to return for the dog at dawn the next day and every day after that until he had it. But Wulf knew that look as hard as he liked with his keen warrior’s eyes, the Thegn would never see the boy and the grey dog again, except perhaps out of the corner of his eye for a fleeting moment and then, when he turned his head to look, they’d be gone again and he’d eventually begin to think that maybe he’d never really seen the boy and the grey dog at all and that he’d dreamt it and his storyteller might eventually make the story into a song to be told around the hall fire at night after he and his warriors had eaten their fill and the drinking horns were doing their endless rounds. And so, Rheda granted Wulf’s wish and Bonecrusher looked after his village for many a long winter after that.