"Why did Matthew and John go away?" Joan asked suddenly. Her mother had explained this to her several times, but Joan wanted to hear it again.
"You know why. Your father took them with him on his missionary journey."
"Why couldn't I go too?"
Gudrun sighed patiently. The child was always so full of questions. "Matthew and John are boys; one day they will be priests like your father. You are a girl, and therefore such matters do not concern you." Seeing that Joan was not content with that, she added, "Besides, you are much too young."
Joan was indignant. "I was four in Wintarmanoth!"
Gudrun's eyes lit with amusement as she looked at the pudgy baby face. "Ah, yes, I forgot, you are a big girl now, aren't you? Four years old! That does sound very grown up."
Joan lay quietly while her mother stroked her hair. Then she asked, "What are heathens?" Her father and brothers had spoken a good deal about heathens before they left. Joan did not understand what heathens were, exactly, though she gathered it was something very bad.
Gudrun stiffened. The word had conjuring powers. It had been on the lips of the invading soldiers as they pillaged her home and slaughtered her friends and family. The dark, cruel soldiers of the Frankish Emperor Karolus. "Magnus," people called him now that he was dead. "Karolus Magnus." Charles the Great. Would they name him so, Gudrun wondered, if they had seen his army tear Saxon babes from their mother's arms, swinging them round before they dashed their heads against the reddened stones? Gudrun withdrew her hand from Joan's hair and rolled onto her back.
"That is a question you must ask your father," she said.
Joan did not understand what she had done wrong, but she heard the strange hardness in her mother's voice and knew that she would be sent back to her own bed if she didn't think of some way to repair the damage. Quickly she said, "Tell me again about the Old Ones."
"I cannot. Your father disapproves of the telling of such tales." The words were half statement, half question.
Joan knew what to do. Placing both hands solemnly over her heart, she recited The Oath exactly as her mother had taught it to her, promising eternal secrecy on the sacred name of Thor the Thunderer.
Gudrun laughed and drew Joan close again. "Very well, little quail. I will tell you the story, since you know so well how to ask."
Her voice was warm again, wistful and melodic as she began to tell of Woden and Thunor and Freya and the other gods who had peopled her Saxon childhood before the armies of Karolus brought the Word of Christ with blood and fire. She spoke liltingly of Asgard, the radiant home of the gods, a place of golden and silver palaces, which could only be reached by crossing Bifrost, the mysterious bridge of the rainbow. Guarding the bridge was Heimdall the Watchman, who never slept, whose ears were so keen he could even hear the grass grow. In Valhalla, the most beautiful palace of all, lived Woden, the father-god, on whose shoulders sat the two ravens Hugin, Thought, and Munin, Memory. On his throne, while the other gods feasted, Woden contemplated what Thought and Memory told him.
Joan nodded happily. This was her favorite part of the story.
"Tell about the Well of Wisdom," she begged.
"Although he was already very wise," explained her mother, "Woden always sought greater wisdom. One day he went to the Well of Wisdom, guarded by Mimir the Wise, and asked for a draught from it. 'What price will you pay?' asked Mimir. Woden replied that Mimir could ask what he wished. 'Wisdom must always be bought with pain,' replied Mimir. 'If you wish a drink of this water you must pay for it with one of your eyes.'"
Eyes bright with excitement, Joan exclaimed, "And Woden did it, Mama, didn't he? He did it!"
Her mother nodded. "Though it was a hard choice, Woden consented to lose the eye. He drank the water. Afterward, he passed on to mankind the wisdom he had gained."
Excerpted from Pope Joan by Donna Cross Copyright© 1996 by Donna Woolfolk Cross. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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