Hild’s Bynames #3: Little Prickle

My drawing from an Adobe Stock photo 63039127. Except that link is no longer working, so I don’t know the photographer’s name—but over on iStock the credit is to eve-eve01genesis.

Image description: Black and white drawing of a hedgehog with its face lifted, snuffing the air after truffling about in the forest litter at its feet. The parts of the forest litter that are identifiable are elm leaves and twigs, oak leaves, and two acorns.

I did this post a couple of weeks ago on my personal blog—which I thought was a better place for it. Perhaps because this particular name is more of a pet name than an earned adult name—given by her mother and Onnen, the women who raise her—and so doesn’t belong with the more awe-inspiring definitely-not-fond fear-power-and-violence related bynames she acquires as she gets older. 

But—as I often do—I changed my mind. So here it is.

European hedgehogs—or hedgepigs as Hild would say—Erinaceus europaeus, are native to Britain but the Romans introduced a domesticated variety, perhaps the African four-toed (or white-bellied) hedgehog Atelerix albiventris, or perhaps a cross between that and another breed.[1] They were kept as pets—they eat anything, insects, worms, fruit, nuts—but also as meat, and their skins with their long sharp spines were useful for combing and cleaning woollen garments, and individual spines could be used as pins.

I assume hedgehogs developed their spines for self-defence: they’re eaten by badgers, owls, and other predators. I’m guessing a hungry fox might tackle one if it was desperate enough to risk a face full of spines.

So why Little Prickle? Let me quote from near the beginning of Hild

Onnen pushed Hild forward. The visitors, both slight, with magnificent moustaches and the air of brothers, turned.

“Ah,” said the taller one in British. Strange British, from the west. “You have your father’s hair.”

Yffing chestnut, her mother called it. And her outside one big prickliness like a chestnut, too, said Onnen. Or a hedgepig, said her mother, and they would laugh. No one was laughing now but Ceredig, and it was his laugh-because-I-am-king laugh, the one for important visitors, to show ease in his own hall. Everything a king does is a lie, Onnen said.

Her mother and Onnen only ever use the pet name when they are conveying something emotionally difficult and important. Like this moment after Hild first hears some people calling her a hægtes—a byname I’ll tackle another time.

Long after they’d gone, Cian found her. She wouldn’t speak to him. He left. Onnen came. She sat beside a wide-eyed Hild and wiped at her cheek with her thumb. “So you’ve heard what your own people say. Does it surprise you?”

Hild said nothing.

“Now, see, this is one reason they think you strange. Your eyes flash, but you never speak.”

“I’m not a hægtes.”

“No, no. Of course not.”

“I’m not,” Hild said. “I’m not a seer, either. I just notice things.”

“If you don’t want to be a prophet then stop prophesying. Or at least mix prophecy with some other talk. People know you’re thinking, but they don’t know what. It frightens them.”

“Does it frighten you, too?”

Onnen’s face was white and black in the moonlight, like a mummer’s face smeared with ash. After a moment she said, “I caught you as you slipped from your mother. I taught you your first words.”

It was neither yes nor no. But then Onnen folded Hild in her arms and that familiar sharp woman smell overlain by peat smoke. “Oh, my little prickle.” And Hild breathed deep and wondered why her own mother never held her this way. “You’re like a sharp bright piece broken from a star. Too sharp, too bright, sometimes, for your own good.”

Hild had to grow up entirely too fast, carrying the weight of the world—her survival, her mother’s, Cian’s—on her shoulders from a terrifyingly young age. She, too, developed defences. But she also learnt to lower her spines with those she trusted. And eventually the hedgepig becomes a personal symbol.

When they’d left, Cian cleared his throat, drank more ale, rubbed his lip with his knuckle. Eventually he bent and lifted his bag to his lap.

“I made something.”

He untied the bag, lifted out a lump wrapped in sacking. Hefted it. Held it out.

Hild took the bundle, unwrapped it. Dark wood gleamed in the firelight.

Travelling cups, three of them. Tiny things, fitting one inside the other: small, smaller, smallest. Old wood, black with age. Carefully cut with the grain, smooth as a girl’s shoulder, and as warm to the touch.

“I cut them from the root of the great thorn hedge. The biggest will hold two fingers of white mead.”

She put them back together. They felt dense and weighty in her palm. She turned them, it, over and over in her hands. Old in the days of Eliffer of the Great Retinue… “Oh.” Carved under the base was a tiny hedgepig, prickles out.

“Look at the others.”

She slid them free again. On the smaller one, the hedgepig’s prickles were drawn in; on the smallest one, the hedgepig lay curled in sleep.

“One for you, one for me, one for Begu,” he said. “So we may drink to home wherever we are.”

Those cups, and hedgehogs in general, play a large role in Menewood.[2] I can’t wait for you to read it!

[1] In the UK you can’t keep European hedgehogs as pets, so most cute pet pictures you see are of domesticated. I suspect the photo I used as a basis for this picture is of the latter. Anyway, I don’t much care that it’s not entirely accurate because I just really like it. The forest litter, though, is accurate: the leaves, twigs, and nuts are oak and elm: the trees of Elmet. (That is, the idea is accurate. It turns out I can’t seem to draw an oak leaf to save my life. Acorns? No problem! Elm leaves? No problem! Elm twigs? Not great but okay. Oak leaves? Forget it.)

[2] I’ve become inordinately fond of hedgehogs as a result of writing these books. So much so that there’s even a hedgepig in Spear.

One thought on “Hild’s Bynames #3: Little Prickle

  1. I have always been attracted to Hedgehogs. I have a small ceramic one that sits on my desk and two that stand at the ready on my front porch and flowerbed.
    I am as excited to read your book as you are for us to read it.
    Cheers from Texas.

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