The memories at first came in snatches, Guy reluctant to host them. He didn’t want to remember but Raesan forced him. Neve saw no scenes, heard no words. There were only emotion, mangled, shredded, the fabric that once was him, that had held him together. One word tore through him. God. Called in anguish, no plea.
God. But God was no more God the Father, God upon His High Throne. God was a convention of heartless angels condemning the heathens to burn in Hell just to ensure their own adoration.
Neve followed Guy’s eyes as he glanced at Toli. Toli knew heathen tales, he often talked like a heathen. Was he heathen? Yet he swore by the Holy Lord God, and he attended chapel. Besides, wasn’t that archaic thinking, that all Saxons were heathens. That was to confuse them with Danes.
We’ll move the dragon. Let the dragon eat heathens.
Danes. Let the dragon eat Danes.
But that, too, seemed unright. Dane-warriors, aye, he’d happily maim and decapitate those. But not their women, their children. And if he allowed that dragon to live then their children would be food for its foulness.
The ferryman was a Dane, a heathen, and didn’t hide it: Thor’s iron hammer hung where ought be Christ’s wooden cross. One-eyed, drooping lids, whiskers trimming even the top of his cheeks, he clearly was listening to Guy’s talk to Toli. For the nineteenth time Toli sighed as for the nineteenth time Guy reiterated, saying of their plight, of the dragon, of it being unslayable – of the children destined to be its fodder.
“You’re concerned for folk, be they Odin’s or Kristi’s?” the eye-eyed ferryman asked before Guy could repeat it again. “Very unusual that. Not a one of your kind does that.”
He looked from Guy to Toli, expectant of some retort. Guy frowned but allowed the old man to go on.
“I’ve seen all the ways these dragons can go. Full foulsome, we both do agree. And now I’ve a family – a daughter with younglings – so you hear me now. For I’m atelling you, your best recourse is to lay that beast upon gold.”
“Gold?” Guy sneered. “You think I have gold? Not enough to line a goblet.”
The old man laughed. “I said it was yours? Na, my-boy-lord, you’re not using that full-fine skull of yours. There be-ain’t a landlord here arounds who won’t rob his mother to line that dragon’s pit for you.”
Though Guy sniffed his disdain – to be told by a Dane – yet he pondered upon it. He thought of the lords holding land in this region, those who were the most affected. He counted seven, seven of the richest men in the realm.
“And where do I dig a pit for this beast?” He still was disdainful. “It’s huge. I’ve seen it.”
“I’d say out of the way where few will stumble, that would be best-full. No need, then, for folks to know of it – no danger of folks adigging to get what’s been buried. ‘Cause they do, you know. Care not for the danger. I’ve seen them.”
“And I suppose you know just the place.” There was sarcasm still in Guy’s voice, yet he was thinking this Dane might have a solution.
The old man nodded. “Haps I do.”
Guy pondered more on it. It would be easy enough to knock upon doors, to say, ‘Is your master at home?’ Then to drop the offerings into a sack and move on. Seven lords, two days to make the circuit. He nodded, that was good, for Amphora had said that time was pressing.
~ ~ ~
Na, Lady, you need to stay with him.
But I know how it ends. The dragon is laid on a bed of gold. I’ve seen it, you showed me. And she had her own memories – of dehydration. Yet Raesan wouldn’t release her.
Again, the memories came as snatches and yet told a story.
Guy, despondent, he ought to have known the nature of lords, that few were resident, only their serjeants, servants and tenants in attendance. Worse: right now for every lord in the land was south at Sarum making obeisance to the king. There was one exception. The abbot of St Benet. He had returned that very same day. He had woofed a wet laugh. “A dragon? A dragon! Na, get out of here, boy, before I report to the sheriff. T’was a wind-storm, is all. I have my monks out there now, digging a channel to divert the waters into the Run.” Guy started to say of angels but saw Toli’s slight shake of his head. The lad was right. Such talk of angels only would earn him a charge of heresy.
His brother Miles listened.
“I saw the angels, my brother, I believe you. But now you’ve found the task too big for you, so now you go to Bigod. He’s the sheriff, it’s in his jurisdiction. He’s the one to slay the thing.”
“But that’s the point. It’s not to be slain!”
“It’s a dragon. Like witches, they’re not to be suffered to live. And where do you propose to dig this pit to lay it in?”
Guy hadn’t answered. He didn’t want Bigod involved. This was his dragon to lay.
Miles called after him. “If you don’t tell Bigod, he’ll treat it as treason. Withholding information. A dragon is a threat to king and his country.”
“You’ve gone asking the wrong ones,” the ferryman said when, on his way to Ristun (Adele would mock him but he had to take her away to safety and, as a desperate thought, maybe her uncle would in some oblique way offer help) Guy owned his lack of success.
“You said the landholders.”
“I said there be-ain’t a landlord here arounds who won’t rob his mother to line a dragon’s pit for you. Fully different, my boy-lord. Hey, say what cares a high-seated lord should a few peasants go missing? Na, I’ll show you the one to be asking.”
“I’m on my way to Ristun.”
“This be-in’t far out of our way.”
The one-eyed ferryman uncoupled his boat from the hauling rope. Already resentful at being in the old man’s hands, yet Guy bit back his words and simply watched. Inside he was seething. Twice now that ferryman had refused to come closer to shore. “Affixed a rope, sir, can’t come afetching.” And he, the fool, had risked his horse in riding through the flood to the drowned riverside staithe.
With the boat released into the slug-like flow of the water, the ferryman pulled out a punting-fork. Guy glanced in panic at their horses tied to the ferry-boat’s stern.
“I don’t know what you’re intending but these horses will swim only the width.”
“Then best let them go.”
Guy started to speak but exasperation had stolen his words. All around, no land visible for a mile either side. Islands of grass-heads showed above it.
“They’ll swim ashore. They’ll await upon you,” the ferryman said.
“And while left alone someone will steal them. Or worse, that dragon will take them for mates.”
“Sir, if you don’t need me, I’ll . . .” Toli sharply closed his mouth on his offer. Yet Guy accepted.
The ferryman took them closer to land so the lad wasn’t so wet in the swimming. That done, the ferryman headed downriver.
“This be-in my lord,” the ferryman said and patted the boards of his boat. It wasn’t a cockle for fishing the rivers but a full sea-going vessel. It had space by each oarlock where the oarsman sat on his own sea-chest. It had fore and aft holds and a central boxed mast. “My lord, my land, my family,” the old man said with a nod. “Been a-ways, this keel with me. Together we’ve fought for them English, together we’ve fought for them Danes. You get less ‘ticky when there’s an axe held over. I’ve fished and atraded into every vik, in every land. But here now I’m asettled, for sake of my girl – though she’s agone and tied herself to Dunning. You know Dunning? One of Guihunmar’s tenants up by yon Bewer’s blocked mouth.”
“You mean where it’s all flooded lakes,” Guy said, lip curling.
“So you be-in seen it? Seen them horses there too? Seen how they pack onto them few islands as left? Counted them, huh? Na, you would not have. Well, if you’re aseen them, pointless me taking you there. But that there’s your man.”
While Guy mulled upon that, the ferryman manoeuvred the keel to return them upstream. He upset the mallards that quacked and fussed as they rose.
“Guihunmar?” Guy had to query. “I’ve not heard of him. That’s a Breton name isn’t it? But I thought our king’s brother chased the last of them out. So what’s he doing here? Lying low?”
“Whoa there. Yon river mayn’t flow but your mouth surely does. Na, no rebels here, Sir. None. Na, like all hereabouts, yon Guihunmar’s no more than tenant. The steward, is him. And his lord’s a kissing-cousin of your lord-king.’
“Cousin to our king?” Guy tried to think who that could be. Any man with any wealth was cousin to the king. But a Breton? Then it came to him. He sat, bolt up. ‘The King’s Counsel! But you jibe me.”
“Be he red or read, he’s Alan by name. The wealthiest man for far-far around. Some say the wealthiest in all the land. And them’s his horses stranded there, abegging that dragon to come to eat them. Good Breton horses. Good fighters I hear. Worth some. Worth saving.”
“I’ll say. The most valued in all the land. I have one.”
“That grey?” The ferryman laughed.
“Not Grimbag, no. You think I’d go jaunting a Breton fighter? I left Tawn-Tur with my lord. But I had no idea the King’s Counsel . . . but that is a tight-kept secret.”
“Expect his gold mines akept equally tight,” the ferryman said.
“Oh, and now I know you’re jibing me.”
“Not so. He has gold mines, a-north.”
“He has lead mines,” Guy corrected him.
“Oh, you’ve not been ahearing of them magicians of late? Them as turn lead into gold? Now, if you’re to go a-north to see him, that Alan, you keep your mind as open as you’re akeeping those eyes. Word is he’s deep in with a witch. One of those Ladies of the Lake, them Bretons asing of.’
Guy waved the tease away.
Next, the same ferryman was with Guy on a quayside, fast-talking to the captain of a cog. Uselessly, Guy protested his lack of silver. “Hush, my boy-lord. You’re to work the ropes. I’ll guide you along, haven’t fear.”
Their sea-journey must have passed without memorable incident for Guy’s next memory was of the same ferryman, now at York, arranging for horses to take them to Hindrelagh. “And that’s still a fair distance,” he warned Guy.
And in all this time neither Neve nor Guy had heard mention of the old man’s name. Guy was riding away before he realised, too late to ask.
~ ~ ~
“Sir.” Toli’s voice brought him back. “Sir, we’re approaching.”
Guy shock himself, surprised. He hardly remembered the turning. And they’d been told the journey would take them three days yet here they were in only two. Yet there was the castle, its tall curtain wall atop a high rocky ridge. A white frothed river curled around it. Guy’s eyes fixed on the standard that floated above it with its long tails of red. There was no mistaking that red Mercian knot, displayed upon white. It belonged to the King’s Counsel. A hawk hovered above it. A good omen?
The King’s Counsel’s red, black and white livery was everywhere; on the gate-warders who blocked Guy admission. “Your business?”
“To speak with your lord. Of the utmost urgency,” Guy added, sternly, having given his name.
A lad was sent running. He returned with a nod. The gate-warders nodded Guy through.
Inside the wall was a sight familiar from tens of castles, everywhere cluttered with building materials as stone replaced wood. But this one castle was different in its triangular shape. Though the hall was still a squashed rectangle. Of weathered wood, it had yet to be replaced. With the riot of raucous calls coming from it, Guy was surprised it still stood. He imagined it crowded, in his head heard the chatter and the sudden bursts of staccato laughter.
He saw from the door he wasn’t wrong. A meal was progressing, the entertainers’ pipes and drums lost to the din. Guy and his squire were invited in. Banners in bright profusion hung from the rafters, wafting in the heat of the torches. Tables arrayed, the benches around them crowded.
His eyes found the lord’s table upon the raised platform. There a hefty-built man scraped back his chair to be up on his feet. Fashionably dressed in ghost-green silks cut with rose pink, the man was porky around his middle. And in that heat he’d no need of that cloak. Exotic furs, walnut-brown. Next to him, Guy felt like a pauper.
He looked, but he couldn’t see the King’s Counsel – Count Alan the Red or the Read, or Roussel as he was known to those nearest.
“Welcome,” the big man on the dais slurred having intently squinted at Guy. “Any knight of Rauf Rainald’s . . . Sit! . . . Eat! . . . Take for yourself a woman, we’ve plenty.”
That was a lie, for women were notably absent. Though there was a screen, with glimpses of hair and silks and possibly fairer flesh hidden there.
“Ribald, sit,” said Ribald’s neighbour. Young, delicate, he looked better suited to the Church than to battles. But Guy knew who he was, had seen him several times at the king’s court. “I’m told you come seeking my brother?” he said. He was the Breton Count Stefan.
Guy bowed deeply from where he still stood at the far end of the hall. “Lord. I do seek audience with Count Alan. On a matter most urgent.”
“Ho! Hark at his manners! Who’s his lord, did he say?” called a blond drunkard sat at the high-table.
“See his badge on the boy. It’s old farting Rainald,” said his companion, drunken arm swaying.
The first, the blond, choked on his wine. “Must have learnt manners from others, then. Have you found favour, mayhaps, with the king’s little Willie?”
Guy pretended ignorance though he knew well the allusion. The lord-king’s son had taken to wearing his hair washed and long.
“Hush it, Eudes,” the Breton Count Stefan snapped at the drunkard. “I’ve told you before, you’ve treasonable mouth. Now, Guy . . . is it Guy, was that the name given?”
“Guy fitzPeter—de Hamahall. Lord.”
“Peter? An uncommon name this side of the water. Would that be Peter de Lissay?”
With a slight nod of his head Guy answered, “The same, my lord.”
“Then I must call you cousin.”
Guy straightened though he’d not been slouching.
“You look perturbed.” Stefan laughed good-naturedly.
Indeed. By what connection could this Breton count claim such a kinship?
“Your mother was Marta de Guincamp?”
She could have been Queen of the Fae for all Guy knew. She was dead, dead of his birthing. And never more had her name been spoken.
“But Marta was sister – by Samson’s first wife – to Hawice, my betrothed. Ha, well, I say welcome again, Cousin. Bodin, make room for him there.”
A red, black and white liveried lad directed him to the bench nearest the lord’s high table.
His head was swimming. One moment the unwanted twin of a distant father, the next . . . And he was suddenly aware, despite the kinship with the lord-king, his new-found family in their own land were deemed rebels. He lowered himself to the bench, all elbows and feet, while a page brought him a thick trencher. Platters and dishes were arranged around him. A glass goblet filled with wine. Guy cast a look back at Toli and hoped he was receiving the same.
“Now,” said Stefan, “we shan’t have to shout at each other. And not all the hall knows our business – though you’ve yet to say what is your business. Urgent?”
Guy took a deep breath. It hasn’t escaped him that his newly-found grandfather was named for Saint Samson. “My lord, there is a dragon, terrorising parts of our Lord Alan’s lands.”
Stefan’s face took a serious cast. He leant back against the deeply padded high back of his chair.
“If the Danes have taken to raiding again, then the king must be told, recalcitrant Robert or not.”
“My lord, you misunderstand. I do mean a dragon. May I call my squire? He has an item of evidence.”
“Get away!” Ribald said, having overheard. “We’ve no more dragons. They’ve all gone to Wales.”
“Not Wales. Brittany,” said the one beside Guy, Bodin, his tone deadpan.
“You both are wrong,” slurred Eudes with much drunken arm-waving. “The dragons all have eastward gone, to warm the cockles of—what’s his name’s heart – Khan of the Cumans?”
“Sir?” A page had fetched Toli.
“That skin, give a scrap of it to Count Stefan.” But Toli hesitated. “You did bring it?” For a moment Guy’s heart was in his boots.
“But you might yet need it, Sir.”
Toli carried the tatters of dragon’s slough where ever he went – even to the craps. They were in a satchel, no small bag. He handed to Guy what must have been the smallest piece there. Guy presented it to Count Stefan.
Seeing this was no idle story, the others now crowded round. Ribald, Bodin and Ernald, bastard brothers of the King’s Counsel and the Breton count. Bardulf, Landric and Eudes, holding various stations, the last an unlikely chamberlain. There was a general rising in the hall as others wanted to see but etiquette forbade it. So Stefan held the sloughed tatter aloft. In the torch-light, like gold-threaded silk gauze, it shimmered. Gasps and oh’s of awe filled the hall.
“Dragon skin. Else an amazing deceit,” Stefan said quietly, to those who stood close. “And you say this dragon is terrorising parts of my brother’s demesne?”
“Particularly around the Bewer, my lord.”
Stefan’s gaze sought out an age-creased man, his red-hair faded, clothes costly but fashion bespeaking a previous age. “Guihunmar. You know of this?”
“I have heard nothing, Lord Stefan. I would not be here.”
Stefan sent him the dragon-skin in the trembling hands of a red liveried page. Then asked off Guy the story. Uncertain of how much to tell, Guy found himself telling it all – except the role of Adele.
“So dragons and angels?” Stefan remarked. “Yet I heard, what, disapproval, was it?”
“My lord, the angels forbid the killing. And thus I seek the gold. An ancient remedy, so I’m told, to lay a dragon on—”
“On gold,” Bodin nodded, his thinning hair falling. “I have heard the same.”
Bardulf, too, had heard it. He vigorously nodded, his dark curls bouncing.
Stefan sighed. “O woe, my kin, to bring me such news.” He shook his head and stroked at his pink shaved chin. “A problem you bring us, kinsman, a problem indeed. And one to which I have no solution. My brother, the Lord Alan you seek, alas, is absent.”
He was the King’s Counsel, he would be at the king’s court. Why was that an insoluble problem? A message could be got. But around him were whispers and nudges and tones of concern. He caught snatches, heard the words “nun” “flee” and “scandal”.
Only then did he see the lady sat by Stefan’s left hand. How had he not seen her before? Palest pale hair escaped a hat that no other woman in any court would dare to wear. Ribbons and threads and silks and gauzes, all smoky colours, loosely woven and falling. Her hat blended with that palest pale hair. Was it grey? Yet her face was unblemished and young. His eyes were drawn to her lips, and there fixed. Brown they seemed, unlikely, yet inviting kisses. He saw then her eyes, huge and grey yet nut-brown, seeming glazed. Oh that he could look away. Too late, he remembered what the ferryman had told him, of the King’s Counsel in league with a witch
There came the sound of tiny bells as she stood, as she walked – nay glided – towards him. And unexpectedly dropped to her knees. Silks cascading, endlessly falling, formed mauve and grey pools before him. All noise had ceased in the hall. Not a whisper. Not a clatter or scrape.
Guy swallowed. Hard. It sounded impolitely loud to his ears.
Her hand, small as a child’s, pale as a marble madonna’s, rested upon his unworthy knee. Those eyes, grey-nut-brown, looked deep into him. He’d a sense of his head being a book and there she was turning the leaves. He almost could hear the rustle of vellum.
“A knight willing to sacrifice his own . . . to save others?” Her voice was deep, a drum at the hand of a master musician. “I give you a gift – in return of the long ago gift of Arith.”
Arith, the mightiest ever of all dragon-slayers, in whose arms I once slumbered. Her words sounded directly in his head. I would that you were the equal of him. But mere mortal . . .
“Do you enjoy riddles, Brave Knight?” she asked aloud but waited not for his answer. “Then here is how to find Lord Alan. Look for a green castle within a deep moat, with high walls around it. You may circle the castle three times the three yet you’ll find no door to enter. There is none. A falcon guards to the north, while honeybees bar to the west. And at the south is a knighted hart. Where then to find ingress?” She laughed, an enchanting sound. “Ask the Danes to the east. And when you find my lover’s brother, tell him Hegrea tells him to help.”
Guy’s eyes followed her back to the dais where again she sat beside Stefan who signalled the musicians to play again. At once the general chatter returned. Yet over the increasingly loud brouhaha Guy heard her say to him, “Forget the red lady. There is one more fit who awaits you.”
. _____ .
Next episode, Tuesday 19th March: The Oddssons