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Peter Alan Orchard
The second story to feature Ulf of Leystoke, Anglo-Saxon farmer turned ironsmith.
Lame after a Viking raid which killed his beloved wife Hroswitha, Ulf leaves Leystoke to learn a new trade. Now apprenticed to the ironsmith Hunlaf in Hemingburh, he is busy doing work for his lord's new church. When Feirgil the Irishman is hired to make the great cross for the altar, life at the forge becomes tense - and what of the master ironsmith's young daughter, the quietly self-possessed Goldrun?
Ulf nearly spat into the fire, but changed his mind and worked the bellows instead. ‘Fond of himself, this Feirgil.’
Hunlaf, on the other side of the hearth, waved his free hand. ‘He may be right.’ He held a door-hinge for St. Mary’s, now a dulling red, up to the light. ‘Done, I reckon. Can’t get a more even turn on it than that.’
He glanced across the red-hot fire for appreciation, found Ulf already hunched over the Irishman’s handiwork and joined him. Against the wall leaned a wooden cross the height of a man. It was simple enough carpentry, with its shaft and cross-piece sheathed in polished sheet bronze that seemed to dance in the flicker of Hunlaf’s charcoal fire, but the real wonders lay on a bench next to it. Christ, squat and slant-eyed, but from his pose recognisably Christ, filled one subtly incised and embossed bronze plaque, the Virgin another, her lozenge eyes startled at the marvel of God’s baby. On yet more strips of metal flowed the sketched beginnings of sinuous lions and dragons, or foliage which snaked and fluttered in the imaginary breeze.
Behind them the door opened, bringing the scent of damp leaves from the street. With a shadow of a smile on her sun-pink face Goldrun said quietly, ‘Feirgil is back,’ and glided out again into the daylight.
‘Well, now,’ Feirgil said, rubbing his hands together. ‘It’s good to have an appreciative audience. What do you think, gentlemen?’
Hunlaf and Ulf looked Feirgil’s wiry body up and down, from his tousled red-brown hair to his soft-leather boots, then looked at each other.
‘Young man,’ Ulf said, ‘you surely earn your keep. This is fine work, eh, Hunlaf?’
Hunlaf nodded. ‘Never seen better, and Godwulf will worship it even before the priest gives him leave.’ His eyes strayed for a moment towards the door, left ajar by Goldrun. ‘You’ve been here a month now. When will you finish, do you think?’
Feirgil gazed at the ceiling. ‘Another month at least. Longer if I need to make changes, though I doubt that I will.’ He laid a hand on each man’s shoulder and beamed happily.
Ulf and Hunlaf took the hint and left him to his work.
After an hour or two Feirgil stood, stretched and went out, leaving his work on the bench. After a few minutes Goldrun came back in and pored over the new decoration blossoming in the metal. ‘It’s wonderful,’ she said softly. ‘Don’t you think so, father?’
‘Iron is my business, not this,’ Hunlaf said. ‘He is a craftsman, though, no doubt.’
Goldrun tilted her head and looked up at Ulf. ‘What do you think, Ulf? Do you have an eye for beauty?’
Ulf thought for a moment. ‘I think it will be an ornament to the new church,’ he said quietly. ‘An ornament. Yes, that’s it.’
‘Men!’ Goldrun laughed. ‘Here’s the loveliest thing that’s ever been in this forge and neither of you can think of two words to say.’ She gave the bench a couple of taps with her forefinger and swept out, leaving Ulf thinking, 'not quite the loveliest'.
Then he thought of Hroswitha, and felt guilty. After that, he thought fiercely of Feirgil and realised he was jealous.