Hild’s bynames #2: Butcher-bird

My drawing after a photograph by Guy Bianco on Unsplash

This is my drawing of a shrike. I’ve deliberately shaded it a little ambiguously so that it could represent a male or female Great Grey Shrike or a male Red-Backed Shrike [1]. Both have hooked beaks, black eye stripes, grey caps and black-and-white patterned tail feathers. But the grey is bigger (22-26 cm), with white underparts, and the red-backed is smaller and slimmer (16-18 cm) with reddish back and wings and a bit of a blush to its underparts.

Though never very common, the grey shrike was (and is) more common than the red-backed shrike; these days the red-backed shrike is very rare indeed. 

Shrike most likely comes from Old English scrīc: shriek (compare Old Norse skrikja “shrieker, shrike,” German schrik “moor hen,” Swedish skrika “jay”). But shrike is not its only name.

According to The Birds of Yorkshire [2], as recently as the nineteenth century, in West and Northwest Yorkshire—in Hild’s time what would have been Elmet and Craven—the red-backed shrike (Lanius collurio) was known as the wariangle, probably from wariangel or weryangle [3]which, according to Wiktionary, supposedly translates to something like ‘choking angel’ or ‘murder angel.’ I’m not so sure. Given the change in pronunciation of ‘g’ in later centuries (so that angel, the word for feathery super-beings came to use a soft ‘g’ and that for seax-swinging people a hard ‘g’) I suspect wariangle was more likely to mean not ‘angel’ (a Christian concept—though I admit I’m not familiar with the murderous strangling variety) but Anglisc (who certainly acquired in some quarters the reputation for stabby murderousness). There’s no way to know, of course, but I had fun with the thought in both Hild and Menewood.

I’ve found no evidence that the great grey shrike was also called a wariangle—but no evidence it wasn’t, either. Both species, however, were called the butcherbird. [4]

The taxonomic name for the great grey shrike, Lanius excubitor, is Latin for butcher sentinel. Sentinel because of the way shrikes stand tall on top of a post, as both a warning and declaration of territory: they practically shriek vigilance and eagerness to tangle. (They remind me of new bouncers at a club: overready to get into it.) And butcher because they spike their prey—smaller birds, mice, lizards, bees, crickets—on thorns and barbed wire fencing, like feathery little Neroes playing with Christians.

They probably spike their prey for a variety of reasons. Perhaps it began as a way to let the toxins of some beasts—grasshoppers, and maybe bees—breakdown enough to become safe to eat; or maybe it’s mating display behaviour: choose me and I’ll feed you right! Or perhaps it’s just a really easy way to both tear off tasty little chunks at leisure and maintain an accessible larder. I favour the latter explanation: although shrikes have hooked beaks very like raptors (if rather small, thrush-sized ones), they lack a raptor’s talons. The spikes make sense—kind of like eating kebab. But I’ll let evolutionists and animal behaviourists sort that one out.

Hild acquires Butcherbird as a byname when, as a teenager, she rides as Fist of the King at the head of a small band of gesiths to deal with bandits lately plaguing Elmet. At first she tries to treat them with dignity and mercy, but after her leniency leads to the slaughter of innocents she hardens her heart. 

Indigo drained from the predawn sky behind them. Flicks and flirts of wind ran over the sparsely grassed slope. Hild lay on her belly. Dew soaked slowly through her wool. She ignored it. To either side, her gesiths inched forward. She checked to the north and south: both bow hunters were in place, bows strung, ready to block escape west with a rain of arrows.

Another flick of wind brought the smell of greasy ash, singed hair, smouldering hooves and the thick stink of unwashed bandits. She counted the huddles around the remains of the fire below. Nine. Some were large enough for two. One was wrapped in a striped blanket that would be blue and green in daylight. The farmwife had been showing the bandit woman how to beat it clean the day Hild had ridden away feeling wise.

One of the lumps by the fire, she knew, was dead.

They’d tracked the family for four days, always heading north and west. On the second day they’d joined a band of wolfsheads: hard, lean, and armed. The band rumoured to be fiends. Not poor folk getting by the best they could.

She’d listened to them last night, drinking whatever it was they’d stolen from some steading, then singing and laughing, and taking it in turns to fuck someone to death. From the sound she couldn’t tell if it had been a woman or a stripling. Not a child. A child’s screams would have been higher. While they fucked and roared and giggled, the last of the rancid cow leg thrown in the fire burned. They must feel close to safety. There was no watch, and whatever they’d been drinking was potent.

Nothing stirred. Light leaked into the hollow, though not enough to change the greys to colour.

One of the bundles twitched, then unfolded to become a thin woman who tottered two paces before slumping into a squat with her shift around her waist.

Hild looked right and left. Nodded. The hunters nocked arrows. Gesiths loosened their blades and checked their spears. She tightened her grip on her stave and settled her seax. Gathered her feet under her. Lifted her stave. Bowmen drew, gesiths rose.

She drew her hand across her throat: no mercy. Strings thrummed, spears lofted. She ran.

She ran silent as a deer, muscles pumping, heels thudding on the turf. Straight for the squatting woman.

  A spear thumped into the woman’s foot and she started to shriek and turn, thin shit running down her leg. Hild was already swinging. Her stave took the woman in the throat. She felt the soft shock all the way to her shoulders, then she was leaping over the writhing ruin, lips skinned back, gaze fixed on the blanket.

“Death!” she howled. “Death!” And the dark hollow filled with men and spears and screams.

#

She stood on the brow of the rise, leaning on her staff, looking west and north to a great gap in the hills. They were twenty-five miles west of the Whinmoor. Those were the foothills of the backbone mountains. In the low sun the river running through the Gap glittered, and faint sheep tracks showed along the valley on either side. This was where the bandits had been heading: north, through the Gap, to Craven […]

Morud knelt and kept his eyes on the grass. “Lady, the iron’s hot.”

She followed him down into the hollow, past the row of bodies, to the youth struggling between the brothers Berht. Unlike Morud the brothers were not afraid to meet her gaze. Their own was worshipful. A lady of wyrd, a lady who could kill a man with a blade. Skirt and sword.

A pile of goods for burning lay to one side of the dead fire. A much smaller pile lay on the green and blue blanket to the other. It was a good blanket. Rhin would be able to use it.

The stripling had curly brown hair, hazel eyes, and teeth still new enough to be straight. He went limp when he saw her, but he weighed so little the brothers didn’t sag.

She nodded at the brothers and drew her seax. “Turn him to the light.”

He struggled, but the brothers tightened their grip. She slit the tattered remnants of his tunic. Flea bites ran down his hairless chest. She shifted the seax to her left hand, laid her right palm against his breastbone. His heart beat wildly. She fixed her gaze on his eyes.

“What’s your name?”

“Lady–“

“Your name.”

“Tims, lady. Lady, I beg you–“

“Look at me.” He did. His heart steadied, then slowed. “Tims, are you from Craven?”

His heart jumped. “Lady–“

“Sssh, sshh. No matter.” His heart slowed again. “Tims, answer me now. Are you willing to do honest work?”

“Yes! Lady, I swear!” But his heart kicked like a hare, and his pupils shrank to dots.

She stepped back, sheathed her seax, and nodded to Coelwyn, who shoved a spear up through Tims’s sunken belly and under his ribs. Tims screamed and writhed and Coelwyn shouted for the brothers to hold him still, still you arseholes, and levered the spear to and fro, swearing until he found the big vein and Tims poured out, red on the bleached grass.

She toed through the pile on the blanket: a skin of mead, two good axes, a flawed beryl, a painted leather belt and a bag of rust powder. She hooked up the mead skin, unstoppered it, sniffed. Mad honey. She poured it away.

Cynan and Gwrast hacked the heads and hands from bodies. Eadric carried them to the fire where Oeric lifted the brand from the coals and burnt the wolfshead onto every forehead and hand. He hated doing it, especially the women, but Hild had said, “I’m the king’s fist and you’re mine,” and like the others he didn’t dare argue with this new Hild, hard as iron. He was hers to command.

They hammered stakes across the Gap and impaled the bodies, the heads, the hands, in a long row facing Craven, all branded with the wolfshead. That night, by firelight, her men limewashed their unused shields and painted a staked man and a wariangle in a glistening mix of blood, rust and oil. Men of the Butcher Bird. [5]

After this episode, Hild is called Butcherbird more often than Light of the World, or hægtes, or freemartin. In Menewood there are two brief callbacks to wariangles, though I won’t spoil anything here. But—bonus!—there’s also a mention of shrikes in Spear:

In Ystrad Tywi, close to the bounds of Dyfed, there was a blackthorn where shrikes spiked their prey—mouse pups, caterpillars, smaller birds, bees—a score of dead things drying to husks, hanging as a larder and a warning.

The Red Knight had hung more.

Spear will be out in 19 April, 2022 (see the Spear book page for more details and to pre-order). I’m still hoping I’ll get to narrate the audiobook—I found an accessible studio that doesn’t charge insane rates, yay! When I know, you’ll know.

Hild acquires several new bynames in Menewood—Cait Sith, Hild Gul, and Baedd Coch—and I may not be able to resist talking about them before publication. We’ll see if I can figure out how to discuss them without spoiling anything. There’s still no word on a publication date for Menewood but my finger are crossed for November 2022. Again, when I know, you’ll know. 

Meanwhile, there are still a couple of the old bynames to talk about, so stay tuned for more.


[1] The female’s underparts are vermiculated, that is, have a pattern of wavy lines that look a bit like worm or snake marks in the sand.

[2] T.H. Nelson, The Birds of Yorkshire: Being a Historical Account of the Avi-fauna of the County. Brown and Sons, Hull & York,1907.

[3] As Wiktionary helpfully points out, ‘compare Old English wearg (outlaw, criminal)–which is, I’m guessing, where Tolkien got his inspiration for the terrifying wargs.

[4]I tend to write, and still prefer, butcherbird, one word, but apparently there is an actual Butcherbird, an Australian species that looks a bit like a grey shrike but isn’t a shrike at all; it’s more like a magpie.

[5] This is one of my favourite readings from the book. I thought I had it on video but it seems to have vanished—or maybe I just stuck it in the wrong folder or gave it a non-useful name and tag. At some point I’ll see if I can dig it out.

5 thoughts on “Hild’s bynames #2: Butcher-bird

  1. Hmmm. In the book excerpt the following was noted… “then she was leaping over the writhing ruin, lips skinned back, gaze fixed on the blanket.”
    The phrase “lips skinned back” was also used to describe Aud in STAY as she attacked a man.
    Just curious, is there origin to that rubric?

    1. @Linda No. I just use it all the time—probably because it’s one of the things I do myself during violent activity/great physical effort. No deeper meaning than that.

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