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Of Runes and Repetition

Today I’m sharing something about my writing process. One of the difficulties that a writer faces in penning a trilogy is the problem of repetition. Frankly, it’s almost impossible to avoid when you have the same characters and the same settings in three consecutive books that tell a lengthy story. Nevertheless, it is up to the author to make each scene significantly different from any that have gone before.

In the second novel of my trilogy about Emma of Normandy, THE PRICE OF BLOOD, I created a scene in which Tyra, a gerningakona (Old Norse, meaning a woman who practices magic) casts rune sticks on the floor and tells her mistress, Elgiva, what she sees there. Here is an edited excerpt from that scene:

Elgiva sat on the floor of Catla’s bedchamber, hands clasped about her knees. Two arms’ length in front of her Tyra knelt among the rushes, frowning intently at the rune sticks scattered in the space that had been cleared between the two of them. Elgiva flicked her gaze between Tyra’s face and the rune-marked pieces of bone.

“Well?” she whispered to Tyra.

But the Sámi woman made no reply. Oblivious to everything but the rune sticks, she began to chant softly, words that Elgiva did not understand although the mere sound of them – eerie and in some strange tongue – made her flesh crawl.

She contained her impatience. Scrying the future, it seemed, could not be rushed.

Tyra had closed her eyes and was running her hands lightly across each fragment of bone, fingering them, touching whatever power emanated from the scored ivory. Then her eyes opened, focusing with such needle-like sharpness on Elgiva that she shuddered.

“Two sons,” Tyra said, in a voice so strange it seemed borrowed from some other world. “Both will grow to manhood. Both will leave this middle earth before you.”

Both will grow to manhood.

Her sons, then, would not all wither in the womb as the last child had.

Tyra had closed her eyes again, slumping against the bed frame as if she were a poppet made of rags and straw. The power that had been within her had withdrawn, and she looked haggard, her face so pale that even her lips were white. Elgiva clenched her fists with impatience, but she knew better than to press Tyra any further. The woman was exhausted and all her power fled.

For a long moment she gazed thoughtfully on that drawn and pallid face, gnawing on an idea that she had been considering ever since the first time she had seen the cunning woman’s hands play across the shards of bone with their mysterious markings. Slowly she moved her stiffened limbs, repositioning herself so that she was on her knees, mimicking the slave woman’s stance when she had been reading the runes. She leaned forward just as she’d seen Tyra do it, fingering the small, scored rods, hoping to feel some kind of power emanating from them.

She felt nothing. She sat back on her heels, and when she looked at Tyra again, the Sámi woman was eyeing her.

“You have lusted after my power for many months now, have you not? Her voice was normal again, no longer filled with magic. “Look at me. Each time I use the power, there is less of me afterward. Is that what you long for?”

I had to look at that scene again because I needed to bring the runes back and at the same time make the new scene that I wanted to include in my third book (not finished yet!) different from the one in the previous novel.

I went back to my research. First, I consulted a book on Nordic Religions by Thomas DuBois that I’d picked up on one of my trips to the Medieval Congress in Kalamazoo – a book that appealed to me as much because of its cover as its Table of Contents.

Runes, as you may know, were used by pagan Germanic peoples, not so much as a means of communication, but as a set of magical symbols associated with healing and magic. In cultures that had no written language, like that of Viking Age Scandinavia, words – and even letters – had an element of mystery about them because so few people understood them. And so they were associated in people’s minds with magic and charms that could cure or curse. For instance, a rune could be written on something, then scraped off into a cup of mead so that the drink became a healing elixir. Or runes could be carved on to something to protect it – the mast of a ship, for example, or the hilt of a sword.

I shall teach you the runes of triumph
To have on the hilt of your sword
From the Eddaic poem Sigrdrifomál

I also turned to a book by Horik Svensson that identified each rune and explained how it might be understood and interpreted.

By taking the information that I was able to glean from my research materials, adding it to the clear idea I had about what I wanted the runes to say to Tyra and Elgiva, and throwing in a dollop of pure imagination, I produced what I hope is a realistic and dramatic scene that is still quite different from the scene in the earlier book, yet builds upon it. Here, again, is an edited excerpt:

“Hagall. Nied. Othel. Tire. Elgiva mouthed the names of the few runes that she could recall and edged forward on her chair, narrowing her eyes to search the markings on the narrow, yellowed shards at her feet. After a few moments, frustrated, she thrust herself back against the cushions.

What did it matter that she knew what they were called? The bits of scored bone scattered on the floor looked to her like nothing more than kitchen refuse. She did not have Tyra’s gift and never would.

She watched her Sámi slave bend over the rune sticks, hands outstretched. Tyra’s braid of dark hair pooled into her lap, and candlelight sent shadows flickering over her thin face. The sight made Elgiva’s flesh creep and, knowing what must come next, she wrapped her shawl about her head so that it covered her ears. Tyra would start chanting soon, the sound so familiar now that Elgiva sometimes heard it in her sleep. Mournful and eerie, it turned her dreams to nightmares. She did not like it, did not want to hear it. But it was part of the ritual. If she wanted an answer to her question, it had to be endured.

When the chanting began she gritted her teeth and, eager to distance herself from it, she pushed herself to her feet and paced to the far end of the chamber, frowning at the barren state of the walls that surrounded her. This was the queen’s outer apartment, and it should have been draped with lavishly embroidered hangings. Emma, though, had taken everything of value or beauty with her when she fled. Only the large wooden bed had been left behind, and even that had been stripped of its curtains and linens…

When Tyra’s chanting sudden stopped she sat, unmoving, her head bent and drooping like a wilted blossom on a thin stalk. Her face was so grey that Elgiva feared she might faint. Moving swiftly to a bench that held a flagon of wine, she poured some of the spiced liquid into a cup and, kneeling, she placed it in Tyra’s hand. She waited while Tyra sipped some of it and a little color returned to her sallow cheeks.

“Well?” she said. “How long will it be until I can return to London?” Tyra stared at the cup in her hand, her mouth shut in a tight line. “Answer me!”

“What you desire may be beyond your reach.” The voice was Tyra’s, but it sounded strange and hollow, as if it came from the back of a cave or the bottom of a well. Tyra’s eyes still did not meet hers. She looked into the middle distance with an unfocused gaze and a face blank as stone. It was the face of prophecy, Elgiva realized, and she held her breath, waiting for it.

“The road that lies before you is strewn with difficulties – far more than just weather and time. There are malignant forces at work over which you have no control.”

Tyra’s voice – flat, dead, and empty – did not even sound human. Elgiva had to force her hands into her lap to keep from covering her ears.

But now Tyra’s eyes fixed upon her at last, and she whispered, “I cannot promise that you will ever return to London.”

Elgiva felt a chill creep along her spine. Never before had Tyra given her a reading such as this. Nor had she ever before avoided her gaze. There was something wrong here. Could it be that she was not lying, yet not speaking all the truth?

She crouched above the bones scatter on the floor and picked up the one that lay in the middle of the grouping. She held it in front of Tyra. “What does this mean?”

Tyra blanched and shook her head.

“By itself it is meaningless.”

“Perhaps,” Elgiva said. “but it is not by itself. It is at the heart of everything you have just told me. Tell me what it means!”

Tyra clenched her lips tight, and Elgiva thought she would have to slap her to get her to speak. The silence built between them, but finally Tyra’s eyes met hers and she murmured, “It means death.”

Elgiva stared at the piece of bone in her hand, then dropped it as if it had burned her.

The scene, hopefully, echoes the reading of the runes from the earlier book. Both are written from Elgiva’s point of view, but although her motives in each scene are the same – answer a question – the questions she has asked are vastly different, as are her reactions to the answers she receives. Tyra’s reticence about even giving her an answer adds conflict to the second scene that sets it apart from the first one. Both scenes, though, end on a dark note. That is meant to keep readers turning the pages!


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6 Responses to Of Runes and Repetition

  1. Jenny Stoltey says:

    First off, I would like to say that I am greatly and patiently anticipating Book 3. (No pressure, lol.:D ) I do have a quick question regarding an issue that I encounter on a regular basis when working on my historical fiction adventure. After researching mass amounts of non-fiction accounts of things such as rune rituals, or the like, do you ever find that what you write is fairly identical to some of the accounts you’ve read? And how acceptable do you think this is? With scenarios such as rites and rituals, it is difficult to sway from the set order of operations, if you will. How do you separate your fiction from the historical fact of these acts? Do you feel poetic license is ok given that you are writing under the guise of fiction based on historical fact?

    • Patricia says:

      Hi Jenny. A quick question indeed, but not easily answered. Given something like rune reading, for example, there are no actual accounts of rituals! At least, none that I have discovered. A great deal of what we know about such things comes from sagas or from interpretations of archaeological discoveries…women buried with such items, etc. So it is pretty wide open for a novelist to interpret how they were used in any way she wishes. In this particular case, I probably drew more on what I’ve read in fiction than on any historical account. Bernard Cornwell has a character reading rune sticks in more than one of his books, but I honestly couldn’t tell you if what my character does is the same. It’s been too long since I read his books. A great deal of my own description of what Elgiva does is made up out of whole cloth, in particular the chanting. And yes, this is fiction. All we really know, factually, is that there were women who were considered capable of reading the future by casting the runes; that the runes were somehow considered magical. There have been women like this in all centuries, in all societies going back to the ancients. We have them today. Palm readers. Tarot cards, etc. so I guess I am drawing on a culture of foretelling and setting it into what I know of the Scandinavian culture to make it appropriate for that time and place. Does that answer your question?

      • Jenny Stoltey says:

        That was a fantastic answer…and exactly what I was curious about. I can relate with your explanation of how we tend to interrupt things simply from what is found in graves and sacred sites. I am just glad that I am not the only one who has run into this particular issue. Thank you for your response! It is most helpful!

  2. Jenny Stoltey says:

    No, I don’t believe I know Luan. I do hope to branch out and network with some of my fellow historical fiction writers/buffs/geek gods and goddesses now that I am joining the Historical Novel Society. I had no idea that this even existed…finally, I have found My People! Ha!

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