Inga, Inga, why call her Inga when her name was Ingvilda; she ought to tell him. But he was the lord and what was she. A dirty nockling, and that’s why he chose her. She looked down at her smock. And what would the Cesars say of that? Even her belt wasn’t properly plaited. They’d tut that she had not the woman-arts. Ay, rather break swords with her brother Vindalf. Ingvilda repeated Zemowit’s message before leaving Regin-yorl’s hall.
This wasn’t the first time she’d been sent with a message for the lord’s lady Cesar. Three times before, Neve found without the looking. And she still didn’t know which Cesar to give the lord’s words – though she had learnt not to ask which one was his lady. Freaking fussum, those Cesars are the oddest of Asars. Rather she’d hie off and not encounter them. Ay, rather be stuck to a spider’s web, flailing. And where was the difference? In her mind’s eye she saw them, three grey spiders spinning grey webs between the grey willows. As if reaching that well isn’t scary enough!
First was the véhus with its crows and its haugs all bloody and glistening. Then the Road of the Dead. Crossing that meant breaking its bounds and breaking the bounds meant loosing the dead. According to Alfi, once loosed they’d chase after her, wanting her blood and her lights – though Ma said not: na, they’d be north-travelling, not chasing her. Still, she shuddered just thinking.
“You needs best to veer through the woods,” Vindalf had told her. “That’s a way to avoid the Road.” Ay, but Alfi had had words to say of that, that that’s where roamed the razor-tusked boars, just waiting to gore her.
That last time she’d crossed it, she’d run. Her foot slipped, she splashed into the river, and that’s where she stayed, feet plunging through it. Vindalf had said, when later she’d told, that’s fine ‘cos the spirits can’t run in the water. “So?” Alfi said looking over her shoulder. “Those spirits could still lurk in the murk round that skog.”
That skog round the well was the worst for the terrors. Though pretty flowers bloomed there they were guarded by vipers – as Alfi had warned her. Why can’t another run these errands? Another not named Inga-Ingvilda. For ahead now was that very same skog, and with the day nigh declining it was thoroughly gloom-clutched. Freaking fussum! Why me?
Neve wanted to tell Ingvilda, it was Alfi’s tales, that’s all, that were scaring her. But that thicket ahead wasn’t Arthur’s Sleep – and even there the warning hiss of a near-trodden snake could have her stomach aflutter. Neither was this Dowsingham where the worst danger was some crazed lad on a bike. This was Eldsland and who knew what lurked there. Perhaps something worse than blood-supping grimmen.
Ingvilda’s fear fed, too, on her memories. That time so dark she’d not seen her feet, no notion of where she might be treading. The hisses, not knowing the creature – though when it broke cover it was only a cat. Then the sudden crash through the bushes, the crack-flap of wide wings. A ghost-owl, the summer haunting of winter. Neve wanted to prod her. Why did the Bellinn girl not use her senses? Because her logic was numbed by her fear.
Neve found in the girl an earlier memory and instead encouraged it. That creaking was only the arms of tall willow and ash. Those weaving tendrils only river-raised mist. And though the newly-born ferns arching over the path might obscure it, nought but dark violets and hooded horned lords hid beneath. Then ahead in the clearing were the silvery lights. Ay, and it might look pretty from here but Ingvilda knew that glittering spray would be laced with swirls of putrid green. She held back, not daring to deliver her message. Whichever was the lady, she’d not be pleased with what she’d to say.
It wasn’t her planned intent to spy, yet she watched from the back of a deep-fissured tree. They ranged, the three Cesars, around the well. Not a normal well this, it was weird. It was magical. It didn’t reflect what was around it – though she could see the trees in the water, though upside down. But the trees that grew around the well were hung with purple tassels and golden tails, this being the season. While those in the water were hung with scraps of gauzy-grey and a few brightly-coloured ribbons new. But the oddest thing of the well: the Cesars weren’t seen at all in the water – not even Old Cesar who was leant-in that close Ingvilda wondered did she sup it.
A cuckoo called. The crone looked up. Ingvilda’s heart fluttered. But she’d not been seen, Old Cesar’s gaze still on the water, face hidden deep in her hood.
“What have you seen?” asked Young Cesar, sat upon a tree-stump her back to Ingvilda. Were it not for the fade of their cloaks Ingvilda never would know the one from the other. Young Cesar’s cloak was new-dye bright like sparkling spring-moss. She too leant forward, wanting to look.
Ingvilda reached upon tiptoe, hoping to see what the prophecy. That’s what they did here, everyone knew it: saw the prophecy by staring into their well. But still Ingvilda hadn’t the height. A storm-felled tree was convenient beside her. She clambered upon it. But her feet slipped on a cascade of toadstools and she yelped.
Mother Cesar looked up, halting the spin of the thistle-top fibres that spilled from the basket beside her. But, the ginnreginn loved her; movement in the well recalled Mother’s attention. From her higher place atop the log Ingvilda now could see into the water.
A woman, young, head clasped in white; she had the light, it twinkled about her, but too indistinct to say which fold, though unlikely Gold. She was pulling towards her a willow spur already busy with wisps of weavings. She tied upon it another.
“Must be a full gown she’s tied to that tree, a shred at a time,” said Mother Cesar.
As if the young woman had heard, she looked directly into the well. Ingvilda drew back, not to be seen, though not the Cesars, they didn’t stir.
“Norns, I know what you’re weaving for me.” How distraught the young woman sounded, like the morrow held for her something dire. “My life is my lord’s to do as he will. And for want of better he’ll give me as wife to his steward. Vamuli Ulfsson, you must have you seen him.” She spat her opinion. “I beseech you, please, please, do not let it be. I give you these weavings, threads enough that you might weave something other for me.”
“Ah, bless her,” Mother Cesar cooed. Of the three she was the most kindly, the least likely to bite off Ingvilda’s head when they caught her spying.
“I plead,” the young woman said, hands tight clutched to her, “send me a brave man to serve as husband – brave as the Danes now denied me. Send me a young man, fair faced and strong.” She blew into her hands, blowing her wishes into the well.
Young Cesar nodded. “It’s true of the Danes. They truly were fair in our days.”
“How would you know?” snapped the crone, her hand to her arm and resting there, a glint of gold between her fingers. “I tell you, in yon gone days my Dane was bravest. Oh, the battles he fought for his king.” A golden beaker appeared in her hand. She reached out with it, over the water.
“What are you doing!” Mother Cesar tried to snatch it.
And into the well poured the dark green liquid.
“Pained lassie,” Mother said. “Is she not ours to help.”
“But she’s beyond the seven,” Young Cesar jeered at her.
The crone, Old Cesar, ignored her. “Here I grant a passionate mating.”
“You gab-head!” Young Cesar said.
Mother Cesar leant yet closer. “I see here a child to be spun.”
“Hers,” Old Cesar said, thoroughly pleased.
“Ney, not hers.” Mother Cesar turned severe. “I see a Bellinn, one within the seven. I see old wounds opened for the love of that child. Yiy, Old Cesar, why’d you do that ill-done thing.”
“Ay, well it is done,” Young Cesar sneered.
Ingvilda had given no thought to Mother Cesar’s prophecy these past four moons. But now remembering, she thought of Amblushe’s granddaughter newly arrived these past two days, and her with her belly warming with life.
“Oh, wow,” Old Cesar expressed, leaning far forward.
Was this the same memory? Neve wasn’t sure. But no, it couldn’t be, for the leaves that before had been budding now were green umbrellas shading though Ingvilda was again stationed upon the old willow tree. From there she could see a man in the well.
Black hair tied, hard worked muscles, a silver Thor’s hammer a-dangle, revealed as he pulled off a brown-green tunic. Ingvilda chuckled. As the man released the knot on his breeks so Old Cesar, already dropped to her knees, nigh clambered into the well. Fancy the old lady having to peer so closely. Didn’t she know what was hidden there.
“Ouwh!” Old Cesar cried as Mother Cesar, stick in hand, stirred the image and broke it.
Ingvilda, too, was disappointed though for an entirely different reason. She wanted a better look at the man. She thought she might know who he was. Neve too had recognised him. He was Hawk. And the wishing woman had been Blide, his sister.
“Why your fussing?” Young Cesar jeered. “You don’t dream in a while he might look at you? You ought to see yourself clearly, Cesar, you’re old.”
“I know what I am. And who is to blame, eh? Refusing Lord Alan.”
The smallest of gasps escaped from Ingvilda. That mention of Lord Alan had brought her a memory. She’d forgotten till then, for what was it to her. Yet she had seen him, Lord Alan, beside that very same well, seen with that very same angel-seeking, sparkling lady, Amblushe’s grandchild, who now waited with him in Regin-yorl’s hall. And now she remember Zemowit shouting and she sent to deliver to his lady a message. Ay, but which one was she, which of the three?
~ ~ ~
Again the twin pipers piped and the five drummers drummed and the long-haired man dextrously plucked at his zither. Vether, Raesan informed her. Silk-made nasturtiums again swirled through the Bellinn-lit hall as they returned to their dance. It all was repeating as if Neve hadn’t been with Ingvilda to deliver the message, not seen the well at the heart of the willow-wood, not overlooked the Cesars, not heard Blide’s imploration nor yet seen her brother on the brink of loosening his breeks.
You want to know of Alan and Gunnhild, Raesan reminded her.
No, she’d rather know of the Cesars. They intrigued her. Why did the three share the same name? Though was that so odd? She remembered in Dowsingham Eliza, her daughter Elizabeth and granddaughter Lizzie all did the same. But Old Cesar, was she a grimmen? Was that why she kept herself hidden beneath that greyed green cloak? And was that why she lusted after Hawk, for his blood? Though Neve had to admit, he was worth lusting after.
But there was another question, not thought before then. But now she had seen the véhus and the haugs again . . . these Bellinn, nock or Asar, offered sacrifices at them, but offered to whom?
You really don’t know, yeh? But with us or without us, always this world has had its divines, the ginnreginn as these particular Bellinn call them. How else the world? And why should our fall change any of that? You don’t remember, but I know—Kerrid revered them. The divine five, yeh: the Mother and four sons, Head, Horn and two Hands.
Something of his answer discomfited Neve. She’d have liked time to digest and to mull upon it. What did he mean by divines and How else the world?
But already Raesan was filling her head with more memories. It began with a swift look at Alan. Then in a blink the hall with its music was gone. Now was a pleasant warm day and she was walking alongside a stream. She recognised it, the Linn, the same little river that Guy had crossed when following Blide. Meadow flowers and grasses scented the air. For a moment she was acutely aware of the life now lost with her grandmother gone. She ought not to have left Dowsingham. But truly, this could be the same stream as ran through that village. The Biss. See, the same dragonflies with their black-spotted wings, clicking as they darted o’er the same bubble-burbed water. The same gold-speckled meadow, the same pink drifts of bistort and rusty patches of dock.
Her thoughts were recalled by Alan’s own idlings. He’d problems of land management, and problems too among his tenants, and they too had their problems, and every one clamoured of taxes. Then there were his men, and not knowing yet if the Danes would invade. That could be his last battle, bringing his death. And neither ought he to be thinking such when she walked beside him.
Neve hadn’t realised that Gunnhild was there. Gunnhild, rightful Queen of England if Raesan spoke truly, her grandfather being the grandson of King Ethelred the Unready. No wonder Edward Confessor had named Harold his heir, and the English thegns had readily accepted. In Harold and Eadgyth Swannhals the conflicting claims of the English and Danes were united. Yet the stupid man had jilted his handfasted wife of many a year to marry – in church, all legit – the widow of the Welsh king.
Alan glanced at Gunnhild, though slyly not to alert her. And still the quickening after all these years. Would it ever diminish. “I ought not to be here,” he said. And why this anxiety to say the right thing. He was her guardian not her courtier.
“But I hear the Dane king has not yet a full fleet. And Stefan and Nihel will send word if there’s news. Besides, I am glad that you’re here with me.”
Her words inordinately pleased him. Old that he was in his daily dealings, ancient when at the king’s beckon, yet with her he was still a young man and she still a girl. “You say that only because when I visit Tree Brunna I take you out of the convent,” he teased her.
“You know here is my favourite place. Was here we first met.”
“You remember?” He hardly could speak. Time had tempered that oath into pain and it plunged with her words straight through his heart. “But you were a child, nine years old.” A child, too, he could kiss without mortal consequence. Why did that ache not lessen with time?
She looked up at him, her hazel eyes sparkling. “You were my father’s dearest companion. As he loved you, so I loved you too. My dear Uncle Alan.”
And now she was teasing him. But he envied her strength, this woman who seemed yet a child. It came from her prayers, he knew. Why then did his prayers not serve him so well. He found no ease in God though Baldwin, his dear friend and abbot, had spent long hours in counsel with him. Was it God who had tangled him into this Gordian knot? Well taken his badge, the three loops of the Mercian knot, the three oaths that bound him. The first sworn to his Breton family, that he would obey them. The second to Gunnhild, to be ever true to her. The third to that bastard who sat on the throne, and that one tricked from him. Three loops, three knots, three oaths, the three fates who surely had cursed him at birth. Commanded, no less, to be her protector! Rather would he ravish her. Though kindly, with affection, of course. He dared not to touch her.
He shook away the crushing thoughts. The day was pleasant, and she was beside him. One thought lingered. To hold her hand. Oh that he could with impunity as when uncle and child. But now? He dared not to think what that one touch would unleash. Though the chase was defended, he wondered of eyes – particularly those of Vamuli Ulfsson, his steward at Rafn’s Isle. He ought to be rid of him, inherited from that rebel de Gael. He ought to give the position to Geirri Oddsson, he’d done well as steward of the chase.
A ribbon of water lay before him. A narrow channel, it flowed from a willow-skog that seemed like an island. He turned his step to it.
“Ah, we’re close by the Lady’s well,” he said as light as he could. “Shall we sit awhile there? Take our ease.”
He ought not. To take her there where all was hidden, where the only eye was that of the well. That was to invite the forbidden. Yet even while thinking, his feet were following the rill. And Gunnhild, compliant, walked alongside him.
“New wishes?” she remarked, fingers touching the bright red ribbons as she wandered around the rag-trimmed trees. “Whose are they? You know?”
“Mine,” he laughed for she was amused. “You’ve found me out.” But he shouldn’t have jested, for he did mean it. Besides, he knew whose ribbons, and if he were to be rid of Vamuli then what would he do with Geirri’s sister? He must set his mind to it. But not this day.
Gunnhild sat by the well, having found a fallen tree conveniently there. He oughtn’t to sit on the log beside her. Yet he did.
“That was quite a long walk,” she remarked though both knew it was not. Yet she must have been hot beneath that wool cloth. A lady of her standing yet she’d not wear the silk, though he’d gladly provide it in every rich colour. So pretty then she would look – as she had as a child
“Are you thirsty?” He didn’t wait for answer but knelt by the well to scoop its water. And she was kneeling there beside him before he could stand.
He watched her sip from the cup of his hands. Her nearness, the heat of her, intensely aware of the herb and wax smell of her. It was enough to transport him, though not to heaven. This wasn’t by God’s doing. Not in this place of heathen wishes. Her eyes were as deep as that well-pool as in the cool of the trees she looked up at him. If love were a colour then he painted her in it, if a cloth then he wrap it around her. But love was a song they’d once sung together, and still it enchanted. He watched as slowly she licked at her lips with the tiny pink tip of her tongue, taking into her the last of the water. He imagined that tongue licking his and savoured it even while tearing away the image. And he swore, though he hadn’t moved, that she now was much closer. Too close.
Her eyes didn’t waver, gazing at him as her lips, without sound, formed his name. He couldn’t help it, he’d no excuse for his actions, his hands slipped around her. So long he had dreamt of it, could this truly be her slender form held so firm against him. Oh, were she still the child and he still young and these years not brought them to this.
“Have you ever thought . . .” she began, her breath warm on his chest. “Alan, you know in God’s eyes I am your wife.” She looked up at him, beseeching.
And he dared not ask what she was thinking. What could she know of a man’s desires. She was a nun, though her vows not taken.
“Would it be wrong?” she pressed him. “Just a kiss.” She waited no answer but offered her lips.
What was he to do. He ought to gently set her aside. He ought to stand and walk away. But she was right. For these twenty years past she’d been his wife.
. _____ .
Next episode, 7th May: Lady Elfgiva