Guy looked to Toli, not daring to show his ignorance by asking where was Eldsland. Toli, usually so keen to display superior knowledge, merely shrugged. And who was this woman Gunnhild who also was missing?
“We don’t know that’s the answer,” Geirri said, abruptly dismissing Blide’s claim. “She never has entered there before.”
Blide’s chin jutted. “You want I go do the runes?”
“But where else?” Hawk challenged his brother. “I told you, their tracks lead to the well.”
“All tracks lead to the well – our Blide’s tracks lead to the well.”
“I’d not have the need to seek there if you sought more,” Blide jeered at her brother, arms akimbo blocking the door.
Guy wished she’d move so he could slip out. He didn’t like to be in the midst of a family quarrel, one that was beginning to boil. Neither did he know the cause; more ignorant than a child at a mummer’s tale.
“Have I not said to have patience?” Geirri snapped back at her.
“Patience! Patience will have me wed to Vamuli. Is that what you want for me? Seems Vamuli, alone, minds not a bastard. Geirri, we’ve no longer the land as enticement. Or have you not noticed? Fram! Go whet your beak! I’ll go do the runes.” She turned, but threw over her shoulder, “Then haps someone will do something about fetching them back.”
“You’ll need the blood,” Hawk called after her.
“We need meat for the meal,” Maeru said, a focus of calm amidst the volatile Oddssons.
“Lo!” Blide sang back at her brother. “Good Wanderer sends us guests that we shall have blood. You.” She pointed at Guy, now in direct line of the door and watching her. “I need you, come with me. You others, crowding inside, afraid the gods will hear you complain?”
“Um.” Guy held back. What was her intent? Was it his blood she intended? But with the brothers staring at him, and Maeru smiling and nodding, he’d no choice but to go. Blide, already far ahead, was wading through the small flock of sheep. She returned dragging a lamb.
“Your coming has fetched us meat for the four days. We ought thank you. Well hold it! Though we eat it now, there’s one less later. Will you hold it tight. I need its throat.”
Though relieved it was the lamb’s blood she wanted, not his, still he’d no experience of this. She murmured words. To thee we give. Let it find favour. Guy flinched as the blade cut flesh. “Drenga!” She sneered at him.
“You judge me mare-hearted?” What was a lamb compared with the men he had slaughtered.
She looked up from collecting the blood in a small wooden bowl. “You understood what I said?”
“Yet word and tone did not meet. Drenga, brave warrior, as a jeer?”
“Then you heard . . .” Her face paled. “You heard what was said before? With my brother?”
“All of it.”
He stood aside while with deft strokes she slit the lamb’s belly and hauled on the innards, spilling the sweet heat of them. He offered no help, which likely she’d scorn. For a while she was intent on the chore. Then she needed his help to strip the skin.
“You know how to do it? Na, but you wouldn’t. So hold him, I’ll ease it.”
Her hands moved as if of their own accord. How many times before had she done it? He had to look away else be entranced by their constant movement.
“Which bit of it would you rather I not know?” he asked while she worked. “Was it of your birth? One week at our lord king’s court and you’d realise to be bastard is nothing. And it was not of your doing, why ought you to suffer.”
“Nothing for a man with a sword who can win his land. But for a woman, and with no dowry?”
“My lady, dowry or no, I’d take you.”
The wrong words. A knife was suddenly at his ribs. “You touch me and this goes in. I might be a bastard, but I’m nobody’s lay.”
Guy was careful not to move. A man he would fight but . . . “I meant no dishonour. Only that I would marry you.”
Beside them flies were already gathering on the raw lamb. Yet she ignored that to look intently at him. “You think me kept by that gate?” Without her eyes leaving him she nodded to where the gate was hid by the hall. She smiled – no, he realised, a smirk, yet knife now withdrawn. She held it in front of her, a licked finger run the length of it.
“That looks unusual,” Guy remarked. “May I see it?”
She was proud of that knife. How easily yielded that he might admire it. And it was unusual. The blade, the length of his hand, was pattern welded, the hilt polished ivory. But this was no heathen’s knife. The small ball-pommel was engraved with Adam and Eve and the Serpent.
“A woman mightn’t have strength to wield a sword yet she still has a need to defend. This was my grandmother’s. She gave it to me the day before they drove my father away.” She cocked her head at Guy. “I too have Breton kin.”
“Earl Rauf?” It was no guess. He ought to have thought, he ought to have known. Rafn’s Isle, now Count Alan’s, would have been in the rebel-earl’s hands.
“Surprised he’s my father? He was a good lord. And he loved my mother, even without land and a name.”
But she had said too much. Everyone knew that Earl Rauf was married, though not married to Blide’s mother; married to the sister of the earl of Hereford. The rebellion had been plotted at his own wedding feast. He cared not for the woman’s lack of land and name? Blide’s mother had been but a body to bed. He could feel her embarrassment as she returned to the lamb, head down and buried in her chores. Heart, kidneys, liver, neck, saddle, with a swift blade the lamb was divided, its parts laid in neat order upon the skin. She wrapped them then, and gave them to Guy. She carried the brimming bowl of lamb’s blood, carried as if it were liquid gold.
Maeru was to have no part in the next, left to prepare the meal while with gestures, no word now to be spoken, Guy and Toli were herded into the orchard, beneath trees already heavy with apples. Hawk had prepared some wood chips, rune-signs marked upon them. He gave them to Blide who laid them upon a bleached linen square.
Heathen, the word kept repeating in Guy’s head. What would the priests say of this? Yet he watched. He had spoken with angels and here Blide was a witch who had stolen his soul.
She chanted. Her words, with the rhythm of the old English songs, yet were not English or Dane. She sprinkled the rune-chips with blood. He shuddered. Demon-worshipping heathens, and he was amongst them. Yet he remembered God as a meeting of angels who denied Micha his kill, He remembered the helpful ferryman, Ganglari.
He watched the rune-chips tossed into the air. Watched as they fell. Heard her praying – he assumed she was praying, her eyes closed though her hands not clasped. He barely saw her fingers move, so swift were they. And there, she held three of the rune-chips.
“Odal, Perdhro and Naudhr,” Hawk said, reading the signs he had marked upon them.
The brothers nodded. To them those signs had intrinsic meaning. Not to Guy. He watched, bewildered.
“Right,” Geirri said. In defeat, he sounded weary. “I’ll no more gainsay you but give thought, now, to how to retrieve them.”
~ ~ ~
The lodge sat to the north of the chase, between the Linn and the mews, along a track through deer-cropped grazing. The walk there had given Guy a chance to ask questions. Particularly of Eldsland. Where was it?
“Here,” Blide had said. “Exactly here – or what’s left of it. In the days of the haugs it spread from the Renegale-Wentsum to the Tais and the Garen.”
“Once Rafn’s Isle was as wide,” Hawk cut in, his previous sullenness returned.
“Then, I don’t understand. How has Count Alan and his lady disappeared into it? Why can you not see them?”
“Oh, they’re full-well here,” Blide insisted. “A trick of the eye, and the place. My mother taught me. The well is the key.”
“Is Eldsland a land like the Breton Other-land?” Guy asked, her explanation having confused him further. “Like . . . elf-land?”
“Elves?” Blide spat. “What would elves be doing here? They have their own home.”
“But to be here and yet not? Are these folk like the Fates of my homeland?”
He knew what she meant. England might be his home, but it wasn’t his homeland. That ever would be across the sea: the place of his father’s birth.
“I was right of the Odal, it does apply to you,” she said. “Fates are spirits. Demons. Godlings. Na, the Bellinn are flesh and blood. As living and breathing as you.”
“Then why can’t I see them?”
“I said, a trick of the eye and the place. You will see them – and wish you had not.”
She had left him to ponder upon her riddles while Hawk dropped back, again to walk with him. The day was hot yet Hawk’s presence was like a dank cellar.
“She spoke of the well?” he asked.
“A gate, if I understand her.”
Hawk nodded. “Her well. We have three. Tree Brunna, three wells, the name. But that well is hers.”
Guy looked at him, to prompt explanation.
“Brunhild set her unwanted suitors three impossible challenges,” Hawk said. “Haughty Sigrid burnt hers while they feasted in their mead-halls. And Ragnhild, Erik Blood-axe’s daughter, set them to murder each other. But my sister, she has her well. Though at least she does something. Me, huh. Yet I will not be like Geirri. I want what my fathers had. So much lost since the days of Gudrum-king, and I mean not only the land.”
“I’m a stranger to you, yet you tell me—”
“Odal, she pulled Odal. Ah, you do not know. Odal for us is Tree Brunna. But for you, Odal is the outsider. You could burst it wide open. Destroy it, all gone. Toli now, he’s kin, he’s safe. And Nihel, well his kinsman is already there. But you, Guy of Hamahall . . . so, Frank though you are, you and I must be kin.”
There was a flash as of sun on metal and there in Hawk’s hand was his long sharped blade. Guy knew what was to come, knew it from tales Fyren once told him. His brow tightened in anticipation.
“This,” Hawk gestured for Guy’s hand. “Then blood, bond and word. You understand?”
Guy nodded. He understood though that word heathen screamed again at him. But too late to fuss of that now, he held out his hand. The blade stung as it sliced. Hawk’s clasp was strong. The Dane’s blood mixed with his.
“Not done with full rites,” Hawk said. “Denied the oath-ring, denied the lord and the vé-hus. But Odin, Hoenir and Loki sees us, let these Binders be witness.” Hawk nodded at Guy. “Now you say.”
“Um, say what?”
“Just repeat as he said,” Toli prompted. But the lad had been walking alongside Geirri. Now he was witnessing this?
“Let the Binders be witness,” he said. And though the angels had destroyed his notion of God, yet he prayed his soul wouldn’t sizzle in hell.
“And your word, to match mine?”
Now Guy understood Hawk’s opening words, of Geirri and loss. It was the sharing that bound. But Guy couldn’t share while Toli was there. Hawk knew. He shooed the lad away. Together they watched him scurry, to walk again beside his uncle.
Guy took a deep breath, unused to unburdening his woes. “My brother always has scorned me. So I thought . . . to show him my worth I would marry my lord’s daughter. And now my desire has brought calamity.”
“Oh, that is deep,” Hawk remarked.
Deep indeed, and what might Hawk say when he knew of the dragon? “That’s why I’m here. To undo it.”
“And so Ganglari delivers you to us. I did wonder why, now I see it well-met. Now, though Frank and Dane, we now are brothers. So now together we’ll undo it. Then together we’ll undo my own.”
And regain the full width of Rafn’s Isle for the Oddssons? That would double the charge of treason against him. He had indeed sworn away his soul. But now wasn’t the time to worry of that. He waited outside the lodge.
Heathen images covered every inch of the wall. Had the sun been low and raking they would have stood the clearer, but it was now two hours past noon. Guy preferred to ignore them but they drew his eyes on. Confusing, the intertwined elements at first hid what then became visible. An antlered man, cross-legged amongst contorted beasts. Real beasts, beasts of the chase, not the Devil’s mockeries as seen in the books from the East. Deer stood startled while a furtive wolf stalked them. A bear reared. There was a fox. Here a hare and a weasel. And soaring above them, plummeting at them, hawks. Hawks and hawks and more hawks. Far to the left, needing Guy to turn to properly see it, a woman, naked, though her body swarmed with birds and berries and nuts and flowers. A heathen goddess. Guy studied her closer while waiting for Geirri. Geirri was inside the lodge, gone bearing the remains of their own hurried meal, and to talk with the distraught Breton count.
A shadow climbed the carvings before him and warned of someone behind and approaching. But the hay-meadow scent gave her away; it only was Blide. Yet his sore and blood-caked hand reminded him he now was a brother to her brother. One glance at her and his thoughts turned incestuous.
“That’s Frigga,” she said.
“Huh? The woman?”
“Giving you those thoughts.”
He couldn’t deny what the flush of his face revealed. He thanked his God that the lodge-door opened and saved him from more.
It was Nihel, the Breton Count Nige, Alan’s brother. Black-eyed and haggard, trembling, curled in on himself, he looked ancient. But he wasn’t young. He had fought at Hastings, he had to be at least forty.
“That’s not his skin,” Blide said close-in to Guy. “Hel-cursed.”
Geirri shushed her. ”He’ll be fine now, now he’s doing.”
Nihel heaved a huge sigh. “So, Eldsland, is it? I ought to have known it. Who’s this?” His eyes lit on Guy and Toli.
“Sir – Lord Nige. Guy de Hamahall, and my squire, Toli. I apologise. I arrive on an ill-day. Yet my business is urgent. I am seeking Count Alan.”
Nihel straightened his back and shoulders, his strength recovering even as he stood on the high step. “And how do you know he is here?” His trembling limbs were slower to settle.
“Sir, I was given a riddle.”
Nihel raised a brow. “Hegrea?”
“Sir, she said, when I find her lover’s brother I am to tell him that Hegrea tells him to help.”
“Won her over.” Nihel chuckled, not entirely good-humoured. “And Arith, did she mention an Arith?” He now was as sharp as an eagle.
Guy hesitated to answer. Hegrea had spoken straight into his head. They were intimate words, he was reluctant to share.
“Well?” Nihel’s anger already was building. “You give the wrong answer, I’ll kill you.”
Guy swallowed, eyes shot wide. “Um.” But what was the right answer? “Ay, Sir, she did, Sir, aye.”
Nihel cocked his head and waited.
Guy glanced at Toli, for some clue of what he was to say.
“Well,” prompted Nihel in impatient and threatening tone. “What did she say?”
“Um. Sir, that she . . . that Arith was a great dragon-slayer, Sir. That she-she lay in his arms. And that I, a mere mortal, am no equal.”
Nihel laughed, he roared, his strength fully returned. “Penalty, boy, for ever loving a woman of beauty. I have to constantly check on her.”
“She, um, does have a strange beauty, Sir.” Guy thought it wise to agree.
“A Bellinn beauty. And if misfortune favours, you are about to see more. But, advice, boy—what did you say your name?”
“Advice, Guy. Do. Not. Touch. So we’re ready? Let’s go.”
Guy looked at Hawk, a silent plea for explanation. The change in the man in just those few minutes was unbelievable.
“He’s doing things now,” Hawk answered.
~ ~ ~
Blide led them, Geirri left to return to the gatehouse alone. She set a good pace, Nihel beside her. Guy’s eyes travelled from one to the other, his mouth slowly and sourly down-turning. That Breton’s violet and grape silks sat a mite too complementary next to her woollen blues. Worse, she no longer hid her hair with that white linen falda but let it fall like black night. Breton, like her adulterous father. Guy was glad when Hawk fell in beside him, glad of the distraction.
“Lord Nihel speaks of this Eldsland as if he has already been there,” Guy said.
“He has the witch for his lover.”
‘Then why was he waiting if he has no need Blide to enter?”
“Is Tree Brunna, Hindrelagh?”
Guy didn’t understand.
“Here is not the only Eldsland,” Hawk said, which to Guy was no explanation. “Now quiet, my brother. You’re best not to think. You’re best only to see.”
But Guy didn’t like what he saw: Blide with the Breton Nihel beside her. But he saw too that she was leading them in a wide circle.
They crossed the river, the bank hard and pitted where the deer herds had trodden in wetter weather. The smell of fish took him back to the beck at Maringtorp – where Adele waited, scarlet headed. He heard voices: Rainald’s knights joking of her; Miles telling him of Jean de la Forez, the mercenary. But the voices left him, weaving like water through the waving green ribbons of weed.
It wasn’t a circle but a diminishing spiral. They crossed the same stream, though further in. By now Guy was sweating, his cloak discarded, bundled and tied like a weight to his back. The worn planks of the bridge creaked with his weight. Ahead, Blide dropped something, small, into the water. A heathen rite? He cast a look down at the silver fishes, darting and glinting. Hawk had said not to think. He repeated it over, he must not think.
A narrow trail took them through woodland where earthy smells rose: fresh foliage and the scents of pink and white flowers, something decaying. A slight breeze helped keep the flies at bay.
They crossed a meadow, soft with thickly grown grasses holding the damp. Marsh kingcups, flags and vetchlings. Gold everywhere.
For long days he was walking, days without night – or, if he thought, so it seemed – lost in this chase. Then, like a vision of Mary, there was the well. A trickle flowed from it into the stream. Around it, a willow and two ash-trees hung with ancient tatters of cloth and ribbons woven more recently. He tried not to think yet still he saw Blide sat at a loom. So many ribbons she had woven to tie to the trees with her wishes. He sweated, his licked lips salty. His eyes tracked her strong body. Begetting their babies would be—No! Yet he groaned, body engrossed in his fancied desire.
And still she led them, now through rushes, heavy spires nodding. Through hazels, rough leaves brushing. Twixt willows and ferns and . . . and now there only was her. Darkness, no longer the sun spearing through leaves. Coolness caressing. He started at a sound. Fool. It was a beast of the chase. But a boar? A boar could be dangerous. He realised now he’d seen no beasts all the while they’d been walking, only the fish. Because at midday they were wisely keeping shelter out of the strong sun? Not even a cheep from a bird.
Blide walked beside him now, tormenting. He wanted to touch her. Just a brush of their hands. He imagined how that would be. But lightning shot through him and he caught his breath on a gasp – and felt her hand, real and physical, touching his. He turned his palm to clasp hers. And instead she slipped something hard and cold into it. He knew without looking. It was her Garden of Eden knife.
“Why?” he mouthed, not daring to speak.
“The rune, Naudhr. You will have need.”
He didn’t understand, but that had become his usual state here.
“You are the outsider, inside. Inside is constricted, no space for a sword. So a knife.”
“But I have a knife.”
“This one,” she said. “For Adam and Eve engendered need when banished from the enclosure.”
“You know the story?” Their voices were hushed.
“Must I worship your White Kristi to hear the tales? Take care. And return to prove I’m no fool.”
He turned to thank her. But she wasn’t there.
Ahead Hawk and Nihel. Behind Toli, laden with two shields and three spears, for he also was serving the Breton and Hawk. And a woman’s screech cut the air.
. _____ .
Next episode, posting Tuesday 2nd April: Regin-yorl’s hall