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On the Wings of History

But even then I was wise enough not to let my enthusiasms and secret passions show.

My saving grace was my friend Axel, a perpetually tousled boy with dirty hands whose scent – a sandy, greeny blend – I can still recall, along with the eagerness of his breath as he spoke, although I have forgotten the sound of his voice. Between the ages of 4 and 12 we roamed together, exploring our slowly widening world. From our tree-house in Axel’s parents’ garden we planned each new pilgrimage; I conjured up the story and Axel, who was more practical, fashioned the paraphernalia: bows and arrows, a drawbridge and, one early summer evening when we were about 10, a ‘decking of the hall’ of the tree-house with roses, stolen from a local nursery, in order to make our little world beautiful. We often got into trouble.

As we ran through the local woods, armed with spears of birch, we were always prepared for danger. We promised to give each other a ship burial, should it come to it, but though we sensed strange and wonderful creatures in the undergrowth we never came across any actual monsters.

I had no notion then of being in any way different from Axel, but a few years later my first reading of Kristin Lavransdatter coincided with my being forced into a gender. My friendship with Axel was impossible by then; our naïve appetites were mocked in school and we knew that we would do better to ignore one another. Kristin Lavransdatter launched me on to the cusp of womanhood, manifesting my self through the kind of bewildered feminism that is the inevitable course for anyone who was once a tomboy and who has been expelled from that romance.

And so, in my early teens, I lost touch with Axel. Later I became a medieval archaeologist and a writer, if only to be able to continue to roam. That day in Iceland, being blown about by the wings of history in the ruined hall of Stöng, I had the notion that all my years were dissolving, like layers of skin, exposing for a moment the child who was once Axel’s sister-in-arms with a crush on the Dark Ages.

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