Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 26e - Peaceweaver by Jennifer Nestojko - transcript
(Originally aired 2018/09/29 - listen here)
Welcome to the third story in the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast original fiction series!
Each of the stories we’re presenting this year has a different mood and flavor. We started with daring adventure, then shared the stumbling adventures of young love. This time, our characters are mature women, looking back at a lifetime of devoting their lives to others and wondering if there is still space to find personal joys. The story comes to us from Jennifer Nestojko, a writer and poet who lives in central California. She is a part time medievalist as well as a high school and college teacher. Jennifer likes to translate Anglo-Saxon English and write alliterative poetry, sometimes in Anglo-Saxon. She takes one of her classes through Beowulf every year, and in addition to wanting to write an epic poem about the women who have to clean up the great hall of Heorot after every one of the monster’s attacks, she has always been intrigued by the side story of Hildeburh. That interest led to this story, “Peaceweaver.”
Tiana Hanson returns to narrate this episode, having previously contributed to our debut fiction episode. Tiana was born and raised in Fairbanks, Alaska, and came to the San Francisco Bay Area to chase her lifelong dream of being a professional actress. She has narrated fifteen audiobooks (available on Audible), mostly lesbian romances, and is delighted to find a new creative outlet that allows her queer light to shine.
This recording is released under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Public License. You may share it in the full original form but you may not sell it, you may not transcribe it, and you may not adapt it.
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Peaceweaver: that had been her task. She had held to it, a young bride married off to a foreign folk, but her husband had been kind and she had been given her place as queen by his side. She brought the welcoming cup to visiting guests, she was a goldfriend to guests and nobles and the jarls; she was queen and her word carried weight. There was peace between her people, both the people of her birth and the people of her womanhood. Her son grew strong and tall, learning the ways of a warrior and a leader.
Threads break over time; sunlight frays the working of warp and weft. All things end, and peace itself never lasts long. Hildeburh had hoped, though, that the peace she had brokered with her youth and her body would have outlasted her age. Her son was seventeen when he fell in the same battle that also left her brother for the ravens to pick over and feed upon.
Hildeburh looked at the rising coastline of the land of the Danes. She had never seen it from this vantage point, and it felt strange to be seeing it now as a form of coming home. She closed her eyes to the soft light of spring, breathing the air deeply. She would not show her grief now, not in front of her kinfolk, the ones who had betrayed her husband and were carrying her home as part of the spoils of war. Finn had shown them honor in the hall, given them treasure from his own hand, and they had waited until the bonds of frost and ice had been loosened for this, their return to this coastline, this homeland. It had been a bitter winter, but spring brought no ease to her heart.
When she opened her eyes, she could make out the fort cresting the hill by the beach where they would land. She remembered rides down to the coast from her father’s hall when she was a girl; the sky here had opened up and the smell of salt and sea spoke of possibilities. She used to dream of sailing off to new lands in one of the proud ships with its sail bright against the sky and returning with new treasure. She stood up straight in the bow of the ship she now rode upon; the warriors within had to maintain its pride, as it was worn by winter winds and still carried marks from the previous fall’s battle. She was returning from another land; who knew the fulfillment of such a girlish dream would gall so? There was treasure in the hold, certainly, some given in faith, more wrested from the hands of the slain.
Son and brother both burned on a pyre, and her husband was left behind to be mourned and buried, though she was taken before the funerary rites were even begun. What was she? Was she treasure returned, or wrested from the hands of the dead? No longer was she a peaceweaver; she was the tattered remnants of the hangings above her now cold hearth.
It was in this mood that Hildeburh set foot once more upon the shores of the Spear Danes. She was silent when Ingi, who had been a small boy of three when she had been wed, helped her down the plank onto the sand. He was a warrior now, having slain Ronne, her husband’s counselor. He lifted her carefully up to the waiting horse; she stared at him impassively. Ronne had helped her when she was a new queen to the Frisians. She had learned much under his tutelage. Ingi nodded to her briefly, also offering no words, leading her horse to the road. She knew the way from here, but it was clear that she would have the courtesy of an escort within the larger group. Whether it was courtesy or caution, she cared not.
Her silence was broken only when she was escorted to her chamber within her nephew’s hall. There was no point in being rude to the handmaid who came to offer her water and a change of clothing. When she had washed and dressed and had the tangles combed from hair that was then braided with woven bands, the girl left her to sit in her room and look out the window. It was the same view that had been hers as a child; it seemed to have become smaller. She no longer recognized the figures crossing the courtyard.
There was a brief knock on the door; she turned to see it open, allowing a woman of middle age to come in. “Dota,” she cried, standing up suddenly. “I thought you had married Kaj and left for his lands long ago.” Dota smiled, the calm, secret smile that had been hers all through their growing up together.
“You,” she replied, “were the one who left for farther lands. I crossed no sea.”
“Now you have returned?” asked Hildeburh. “Shouldn’t you still be tending those closer lands?”
Dota snorted. “Do I look like a farmer to you?”
“Kaj was no farmer,” Hildeburh retorted, a bit sharply. “He oversaw farmers.”
Dota shrugged. “He oversees them no more. He died in a feud with a neighbor. The neighbor’s son now sits by my hearth and I am here.” Her shrug was dismissive, and there was a look in her eye that let Hildeburh know, from almost forgotten experience, that she would get no more out of Dota for now.
“Have you come, then, to welcome me back, now that I myself have returned,” Hildeburh asked, trying to keep the bitterness out of her voice. Women tend the hearths, but they are easily ousted from them.
“I have come to get something from my room,” Dota replied, calmly. “It seems that we are to share once again. Just as when we were girls.” Dota opened one of the boxes on the lower shelf on the wall, pulling out a skein of wool. “I will see you in the hall at eventide.” It was not a question.
That a feast was held in honor of the returning warriors that evening was inevitable. The hall was bright with candles and the shining gear of the jarls. Cups of gold and silver at the high table reflected back the light, and Hildeburh recognized a brooch on Hoc’s shoulder as one belonging to her husband. Hoc, named after his father, was king now. He had been much younger when she had left home; she had scolded him for stealing sweets from the kitchens.
Hoc stood, silencing the hall in that motion, bringing all eyes to him. “We welcome you back,” he began. “You have kept faith with your people, bringing glory to the spear Danes and erasing the shame of the winter’s long exile.”
There was much clattering of shields and cheering from the men. Dota, who was sitting at a lower table, quirked an ironic eyebrow at Hildeburh. Hildeburh smiled to herself. She was used to sitting at high tables, her face schooled to the proper expression, but she found herself close to tears.
Hoc had been going on, praising his warriors, and he was giving out treasure, golden rings, and torques, and blades scrubbed clean of blood so that they too reflected the light. Ingi, Hildeburh saw, was given praise and a fine sword. Hoc came to the end of his gift giving and then turned to her.
“This night also gives us cause for joy,” he intoned, “for our royal princess, Hildeburh, has also been returned to us. She too is a great treasure of our house. Welcome back, dear aunt.”
Hildeburh stood. “I thank you for your welcome, and I accept the hospitality and protection of your hall.” It was a short, and to her ears, stilted speech, but the warriors applauded and Hoc looked gratified. She sat back down, toying with her cup of mead, looking into its golden depths as the skald began his rhyming.
Her returned childhood seemed to be not such a bad turn of fate later that night, when she once again shared a bed with Dota. In the darkness came the familiar touch once again, and Hildeburh turned to her old friend, embracing her as she so often had when they were younger. Then there was no harm in two friends sharing affection; now that they were both widowed, there was again no harm.
The next morning Dota was gone before Hildeburh awoke, and she spoke little to her throughout the day. They sat in the solar, weaving in silence, while the younger girls chattered about them. In the hall at supper they sat at different tables, though Hildeburh was not given a place at the high table again. She did not miss the high table, but she wanted Dota’s company. Hildeburh was sure that Dota regretted their previous night’s caresses, but that night she was woken once more in the darkness to Dota’s touch and sweet kisses.
This became the pattern of Hildeburh’s day; working in the stillroom, weaving in the solar, and wondering if the night would bring a closeness that was shunned during the daylight hours. Dota did not reach for her every night, and Hildeburh wondered what would happen if she reached out for her. She tried one night, but Dota rolled away. Hildeburh lay still in the darkness, wondering what she had done wrong.
The only time their tasks crossed was in the solar, and there was little privacy amongst the young girls weaving or plying their needles. Dota did not always come to the solar, however; she found tasks elsewhere. One afternoon, with the pale sunshine making its way across the floor, one of the young girls sat next to her. Her golden hair hung in long braids, and her clothing was modest, but of good weave. She smiled shyly, naming herself Edela. “I know you are a friend of Dota’s,” she said, after having glanced about the room. “She used to speak much of you.”
Hildeburh smiled back encouragingly. “We were childhood friends,” she said. The girl was no more than sixteen, she judged.
Edela looked down at her embroidery. “I was the daughter of one of her landholders,” she said. “I served in her household from a young age.” She hesitated. “She cared for me. “
There was more to what the girl was saying. “Is that why you followed her here?” she asked.
The girl blushed. “I could not go home. Farthin, he that took Kaj’s place, had plans to marry me to one of his men.”
Hildeburh shook her head. “Was he not a good prospect?” she asked.
Edela shrugged, a gesture very similar to Dota’s. “He had land, he was well respected. He was like Kaj, though. All temper. Dota claimed me as hers and took me away. I saw,” she faltered a bit, and lowered her voice, “I saw what Kaj did to her. I came willingly. My father died in the feuding. No one else would speak for me.”
Dota had spoken for Edela, and Hildeburh knew what courage that must have taken, so she was out of sorts at being avoided. Dota had taken to staying up late enough that there was no question of conversation or anything else in the reaches of the night. Tired of being avoided, she woke one morning before the dawn. Dota was snoring lightly beside her; for once she had not stolen away early. Her face in the new light was more wrinkled, and her body was softer now with age, but Hildeburh knew that she herself had the same marks. Dota was still beautiful to her, and Hildeburh recalled watching her in the same way so many years before. When Dota showed signs of stirring, Hildeburh turned her face away, not wanting to be caught looking.
Dota opened her eyes and frowned. “Awake so early?” she asked grumpily. She had never been fond of rising early and Hildeburh had been waiting for the morning her natural patterns to reassert themselves. The fact that Dota had been coming to bed so late had worked in her favor.
“I wanted to speak with you,” Hildeburh replied. “The day seems to bring too many tasks, so I thought to make time when all is quiet.”
“What is there to speak of?” Dota sat up and grabbed for her under tunic. She put it on and began to unbraid her hair.
“I have missed you,” Hildeburh began. Dota brushed her hair silently, her face turned away. “It is good to be sharing a room with you again.” Still Dota remained silent. She began to plait her hair, which had a few strands of grey in it now. The grey had not shown beneath her veil.
“Dota,” said Hildeburh, “why won’t you talk to me?”
Dota deftly pinned her wimple and veil into place. “What do you want me to say?” she asked.
“Anything! Here we are, once again, and I know so little about the years between. I know you, Dota, or I knew you once before. Who are you now?”
“There’s a riddle no skald can answer,” said Dota, almost angrily. “I am a widow, and that is good enough for most. My husband died dishonored, and thus I carry that mark myself.”
“My husband is now deemed an enemy; but I am not one,” Hildeburh said sharply.
“Oh,” Dota replied, “I refuse to feel stained, as a good woman should. His choices were all his own. Still, what is there for me now? Shamed widowhood and the sufferance of the king.” She shrugged, “You are a princess and therefore something to be retrieved after battle.”
“Like a gold coin lost beneath a chair, but once found thrown into the pouch,” Hildeburh agreed.
Dota looked at her finally, hearing the echo of her own bitterness in Hildeburh’s voice.
“So we have both returned,” she said, standing up. “You, however, are the only one who is the gold coin.” She moved to leave. Hildeburh grabbed her by the hand, but Dota shook her off, walking firmly out the door.
Later that afternoon the solar was quiet; it seemed that the young girls and the other women were helping with the spring cleaning of the hall. Only Dota and Hildeburh were present, each at her own loom. Dota made no move to speak. Her silence was woven between them, each thread laid down by time and distance, until Hildeburh felt wrapped in it, stifled. She wanted to rend it into pieces, but did not know what words to choose.
“Dota,” she began, “why are you angry with me?”
Dota said nothing, but continued with her weaving. Hildeburh stood up and went to her side, putting her hand on Dota’s arm. “Do not ignore me!” she cried.
“You are not my queen, to order me so,” said Dota. “You are queen only to the dead and broken, and they do not speak.” She shrugged off Hildeburh’s hand, continuing with her work, her eyes on the emerging pattern.
Hildeburh sat down, looking at her empty hands. After a long moment she said, “The broken can speak, Dota. I am queen no longer, but I learned that much.”
“The broken can scream, for all I care,” replied Dota. “They still are not heeded.”
“Who broke you?” asked Hildeburh.
“Who says I am broken?” replied Dota, looking up from her loom, her eyes fierce. Despite their fierceness, they held remembered pain. Hildeburh had seen such a look from one of her attending ladies, one who served at court as an escape from a drunkard of a husband.
“Kaj?” she whispered.
Dota held her eyes for a moment and then looked back to her loom. She once again began to weave, but her silence had changed. Instead of wrapping Hildeburh, it seemed to wrap around Dota, as if it were a shawl protecting her from the cold.
“I did not know,” Hildeburh said. “You were so far away and we heard so little news from you. Then I too was gone, across the sea. I did not know.”
Dota snorted. “We heard about you – reports reached even our holdings of your wisdom and kindness.”
“If you revile me so much,” said Hildeburh heatedly, “then why hold me at night? Or are you like a husband who ignores his wife during the day only to seek out favors in darkness?”
Dota flinched, the arrow having made its way to the right target. She studied her weaving, as if looking for flaws or dropped threads. “You responded when I touched you,” she said.
“I welcomed you,” Hildeburh agreed. “You are more of a homecoming to me than anything else could be.” She found a gap in her own pattern and carefully began to pick it out, dismayed at her lack of attention.
The light was beginning to wane. Dota carefully tidied her space and then stood up. She paused by Hildeburh’s side before leaving the room. “A poor homecoming, then,” she said.
“No,” said Hildeburh, “a rich welcome. I know your value, and always have. You are treasure beyond compare.”
Dota stared at her a moment; there were tears in her eyes. “Of course I have missed you. I have always missed you. What choices did we have?”
The tears Hildeburh would not shed in her husband’s hall, the ones she would not shed on the ship or at the high table, began to stream down her face. Dota reached out and caressed her cheek.
“I do not know,” she said, “what choices I have now.”
That night Dota came to their room quite late. Hildeburh was awake, listening for her arrival. Dota undressed, crawled beneath the blankets, and then lay on the edge of the bed, her back to Hildeburh. Hildeburh turned to face the wall, the one with the window in it, though now it was covered. She stared into the shadows all night, until dawn came creeping in. Then she rose silently, getting dressed, and leaving the room. She knew Dota was awake; there was no sound of gentle snoring, only silence.
Hildeburh made her way to the keep’s herb garden, which at this point was only a promise and hope of things to come. She sat down on a bench; the stone was not yet warmed by the sun, and its cold seeped into her. She felt a twinge in her hip; this winter’s cold had brought her ached in her joints, reminding her that her body was aging. It had been a hard winter in many ways, and spring had brought no relief. Was there any point in trying to warm Dota’s winter? Perhaps it would be best to live with frozen silences. Spring had brought death, once the thaw came. Dota’s anger brought its own pain. Hildeburh scuffed at a bit of frost on the ground by the bench. She had spent many hours in this garden as a young girl, learning herblore and tending to the plants. She loved the smells that rose when the sun warmed the plants. Those days seemed so far away, and in the cold sunshine, Hildeburh found she could not imagine the coming of summer.
There was a step behind her, and before she could look, Dota sat down on the cold bench. There were circles under her eyes, but she looked more at peace. She put her arm around Hildeburh, lightly at first. When she was not rebuffed, she moved in closer.
“Remember old Una?” she began. “We thought she was so ancient, puttering about the stillroom, telling us that happiness came later in life.”
Hildeburh smiled at the memory. “We thought she was crazy.”
“She always had a treat for us, though. And a smile. I now realize that she was not all that old,” Dota said.
“She would tell us, when I got restless, that we were going to do battle against the encroaching weeds, and that the treasures we would return with were more valuable than gold, since they cured illness.” Hildeburh rested her head against Dota’s shoulder.
Dota took a deep breath and held it for a moment, then exhaled with a sigh. “I think,” she began slowly, “I think that I am still waging war, but with no spoils worth bringing home.”
“I am one of the spoils of war,” Hildeburh said, with her own sigh. “I would be worth more if I could heal rather than harm.”
There was a long silence, while the sun warmed the garden and their bodies warmed the bench and each other.
“You brought no harm,” Dota said, finally. “I left first, those many years ago, and I would not have told you about my marriage had you been able to ask. I missed you fiercely, but we had each followed the road fate set for us. “
“Now we are back, where we started,” said Hildeburh.
“Yes,” said Dota.
“I do remember Una,” said Hildeburh. “She and Gunild shared quarters.”
Dota leaned into Hildeburh. “And much more. Right now, I have no more answer for you than that.” She stood up, once again stiff and aloof, and walked back into the keep. Hildeburh stayed for a while, trying to see the garden as it had been on summer days, as she would see it soon in the coming months.
Later that afternoon the solar was filled with chatter once more. The young girls were excited; one was now betrothed to a jarl in Geatland, strengthening bonds between the Danes and the Geats. Dota pursed her lips and looked up at Hildeburh, her eyes ironic.
Despite the gossip, the girls were attentive to their weaving, working as they were taught to mind the weft, to gauge the tension, to take thread and make it into something whole and beautiful. Hildeburh attended to her own work, warmed by Dota’s presence. She smiled to herself as she thought of the coming night, when tasks could be laid aside. She was certain that, despite last night’s cold and sleepless vigil, this night would be warmer.
She had not failed; she had woven peace between two nations as best as she could, but there could be no lasting peace when grudges were held more closely than gold. She glanced over at Dota, who was frowning in concentration and then she looked to her own pattern. There were many forms of battle, she thought, and Dota had survived a long and grievous war. They both deserved a better spring. Peaceweaver: all her life she had been taught that this was her task. Perhaps there was more than one way she could weave peace.