“No wonder you’ve no friends,” Raesan said, stopping mid-pace to hover behind her. “You’re like that song you keep playing, Facts, Facts, Facts. Always on that machine.”
“You filled my head. I’m only trying to verify.”
“Oh, Lady doesn’t trust me no more.”
She supposed he’d reason to complain, every evening after work, hitting the internet. And she’d found mostly that the facts did fit. Though she could find nothing of Earl Godwine and King Sven’s daughter Thyra. Yet Godwine’s father Wulfnoth had disappeared off for a time and when he returned his son Godwine was thick-in with Cnut. It was possible, she had to grant Raesan that.
But it was more the situation with Count Alan that interested her. Count Alan, her supposed great-grandfather. She understood now his three oaths: the first to his lord and kinsman, Conan Duke of Brittany; the second to his wife, Gunnhild, sworn at St Edmundsbury Abbey; and the third to his oath-brother, William Duke of Normandy. And she had known of a kinship between the Breton dukes and those of Normandy, but now she had found a grand genealogical tree that some helpful person had designed and published to web for her to find. Seeing it displayed graphically there was no mistaking that, yea, Duke William and Count Alan were cousins – though at a remove. They shared Great Aunt Emma, mother of Edward Confessor.
“But that means that Alan and his brothers had as much right as William to that throne.” She sat back from the screen while she mulled implications. “No wonder the oath. William needed to hobble Alan even more urgently than he did Harold. And all those deaths at the same year . . . that William, he really was a ruthless bastard, talk about meaning business.” She’d found a spate of deaths, all in 1064, all in suspicious circumstance, all unexplained, all the victims having some, though distant, claim to King Edward’s throne.
“Like I say, Nevey No-Friends,” Raesan said, sullen. “Chained to that machine.”
“That’s not true. Have I not been out in the garden, now the nights are lighter?” She’d been weeding, though cautiously, still not sure what plants might be lurking. And used only to veg and herbs, not knowing how the new shoots would look.
“Talking to your copi, yeh, I’ve heard you. You’ve time for spirits but a cold shoulder for me.”
She spun round on the chair. She could have retorted that she’d no intention of allowing him close ever again. The liberties he’d taken with her buttons. But he’d caught her attention. She’d no need to ask him, as usual he anticipated.
“A copi is a wee spirit, yeh, like that one out there. A whit of a wight, you might say.”
“You know something’s there? It’s not my imagination?” Though she’d not yet caught sight of it, twice now she’d seen like a dark smoky patch by the hedge.
“Lady, all places have a copi, you ought to know tha . . . na, you wouldn’t, I keep forgetting. See, keep a copi happy, yeh, and a copi will be copious with gifts. Like me. But hurt or ignore it, then you’ve got trouble. You might remember that, Lady.” He towered over her. Standing while she still sat, he seemed threateningly tall.
“So this copi-thing isn’t a grimmen?” She knew then answer, she just needed him to say it. After all, she’d been out there most days saying Good Morning, or just a Hello, ever aware that Warren next-door catch her and what he’d say then.
“Na, the copi’s a spirit, I said. While the grimmen . . . but there are grimmen out there too, yeh. Waiting.”
Neve swallowed. “Why waiting? I mean, if they want my blood . . .?” Why didn’t they just come get it.
“I told you, Lady, yeh, but you don’t listen. And since you won’t use your tricks, I must be here to protect you.”
She swivelled the chair, turning her back to him. He was playing with her, the infuriating man . . . child . . . fallen angel!
~ ~ ~
Regin-yorl’s hall. Again. Bellinn-lit in rippling, swirling blues and greens. The women, pretty in flowerbed silks, again were singing in rounds while, spindles tucked into belts or under arms, they spun their Eld-spin. Neve still didn’t know what the language. Was it the Usaric of Raesan’s youth? Or was it Slavic? Zemowit’s folk inhabited from the east-lands of England to the east bounds of the Ukraine. And again she wanted to examine the saga-band that, hung on the walls, encircled the hall, door-to-door. It could be a sister to the Bayeux Tapestry. But what was its tale? Did it tell of Regin-yorl’s heroic deeds . . . or of Zemowit’s? And what were those deeds? Would she recognise them maybe from the Norse sagas? But, again, Raesan’s eyes refused to see it.
Instead, again, Raesan’s eyes fixed on the group around Amblushe. He made no attempt to hide his lust for Amblushe’s pout-lipped, baby-blonde daughter Zelina. Not surprising, Neve supposed, for a male with thoughts stuck at the age of sixteen. Zelina’s pink and mauve silks revealed somewhat more than the brightly clad local girls. Neve watched her play with her armband, all silver and opal. Was there nothing warm about this woman? Like her mother, Amblushe: both were ice.
Raesan must have realised it too, for he looked instead at Gunnhild. She was trembling, visibly, the lower folds of her gown all a-quiver. Her hand touched, and fell away, touched, and fell away, her gold filigree cross. What a shock it must have been for her this day, a devout Christian, raised in a convent, now to discover her grandma was this fierce white Amblushe, an Asar, immortal. To discover too that her blood was Bellinn. Neve remembered her own shock, and she’d not been fed upon tales of elves, demons and angels.
Finally, Raesan’s eyes came to rest upon Count Alan. Neve felt again his anguish, and she now knew the cause. Indeed for him a Gordian knot. And to have succumbed to that unholy lust, even though this woman was his wife. And now she was pregnant, and that was his fault. Like a cornered fox, from beneath his red hair his cornflower eyes shifted.
Raesan. Grandpa Eddy cannot be their child. Just look at their hair- and eye-colour. Though I do like to be here, why do you keep showing me this?
You still think you know everything, yeh, just cos you’ve some facts stored here and there. But open your head as well as your eyes and, Lady, you might learn something from here.
Before she could think, her head was filled with Alan’s anguish. He was the cause of Gunnhild’s death – for she would die, and probably most horribly, once William knew of the child. He mulled, again, that he could tell William that Gunnhild wasn’t Harold’s get. But, again, what difference, Harold’s or another. It was the child’s maternal grandmother, Gunnhild’s mother, Eadgyth Swannhals, that offered the threat. Abbess Leofrun had known that too, the interfering old bitch. That was the reason the abbess had abducted her, now six weeks ago.
Of course he’d headed straight for Wilton. And none had questioned his purpose there, for hadn’t their lord king summoned his barons, every one of them, to neighbouring Sarum for Lammas, each to swear their fealty anew, so severely had the Dane-king shaken him. William was then to return to Normandy. It was the first time in twenty years that William had told Alan not to accompany him. “I need you here to defend the north. That is their entry. And you best-know these men.” And even when the danger had passed Alan had remained here. Oh, William was not to be happy upon his return.
At Wilton, Abbess Leofrun granted him audience. “My Lord Alan, I appreciate your concern for your ward. But you cannot see her.”
Was he being denied access? “But . . .” Stunned, he could scarcely scrape a word together. “Why?”
“Because, my Lord Alan, I will not have you with your maleness trampling into our infirmary.”
“Gunnhild is ill? What is it? If she’s unwell, I have a right—“
“You have no rights here. Now take your trampling boots and your metals parts and be gone!”
“I shall ask of my lord king permission to see her.”
“Ask as you will, he will refuse it. He will say as I; you must wait until she recovers. Her death is not imminent. Now go.”
But Alan halted midway to the heavy oak door. He turned. “Tell me, Lady-Abbess, what right had you to remove my ward from St Mary Magdalen?”
“Would you rather she falls into my sister’s hands? You hear it not from me, but you must know my sister is still discontent. And Harold’s daughter would act as a powerful focus for another rebellion. Especially now she is pregnant, producing an heir.”
That word. Applied to Gunnhild? It seemed the floor moved beneath him, as in a quake. He thought he might fall. Yet he could not touch the wall to support him. The abbess must not know. And the old women laughed, that while women fainted with their pregnancies, the fathers fainted on hearing the news. He forced himself to hear again this other news, of Leofrun’s sister. Leofrun’s sister Ealdgyth had been King Harold’s second – Church-wed – wife, though that hastily done after his coronation.
“And how did your sister know where Gunnhild was hidden?”
“She visited. And why not, when Hindrelagh is my foundation. Visited, and recognised her stepdaughter.”
“And you knew her, too?”
“Of course I knew. Am I a fool? I’ve known all these years.”
“And you told the new abbess,” he accused, needing some legitimate cause for his anger.
“I did not. That was your dear cousin, our lord king. But now here she is safe – though, thanks to you, pregnant. You’ve failed in your duty as a guardian, Lord Alan; you’ve guarded not well. And I hardly need say what our lord king will do if hee discovers it.”
“And at that, Lady-Abbess, I must protest you holding her here. It is no safe place. What, Wilton, where all royal ladies are hidden? It never is a place of safety. It’s the first place that any will look.” But even as he protested he felt the cords of his oaths tightening and strangling him. And what would God say of it when, perhaps any time soon, he was called to account.
“Lord Alan, you may object until no breath is left in your chest. It remains that you have proven yourself unworthy. Now for the third time, I must request that you leave. Now!”
What choice had he. But he left in no doubt of what must be done. Though first there was his cousin’s court at Sarum. And how bitter that renewal of oaths. His cousin’s smirk was not lost upon him. Then immediately he returned to Hindrelagh and his part-raised walls of his castle, Richemont.
He called for his brothers to attend him in his private chamber away from the hall. He’d no need to ask for Hegrea. Where went Nihel, there went she, as if iron chains joined them. Then while striding the length of the wooden floor, he explained of his problem, of Leofrun and of Gunnhild.
“God’s blessings, our Roussel,” Stefan said to the news of the pregnancy. “I take that it’s yours?”
“Mine, o’yez, mine and her death sentence. She ought to have remained here, at Hindrelagh, hidden. At Hindrelagh none would have noted it. One more English lady with a Norman bastard. Isn’t our St Mary Magdalen renowned for it now.’
“The numbers lessen,” his brother Nihel said in objection.
“Lessen or no, she would have been safe. And within the family’s eye.”
“How ‘safe’ when our lord king has told the abbess the truth of her?” Hegrea said. “No, Roussel. Word of her pregnancy soon would have reached him. Better to be anonymous again, even in Wilton.”
“Better yet in my keep,” Alan said. “I’m taking her, stealing her. But I’ll need your help to it.”
“But you’ve no need to ask it,” Nihel said, a sudden dramatic spread of his arms. The brothers had experienced much together. Nihel had kept the men away when Alan, sickened by what the bastard had asked of them, had vomited a whole week’s feasts over the mutilated corpses of the children. Alan still woke in the night.
“You have my aid, whatever I can,” Stefan said.
“Hegrea, you served Earl Alfgar, you know the sisters. What counsel can you offer?” Alan asked.
“What would you know? That Leofrun is twisted with jealousy against her sister? She is the elder, and yet Ealdgyth marries first Gruffydd and then the king Harold. The world talks of Ealdgyth while none knows of Leofrun. She has no reason to like Norman rule, yet she’ll be your lord king’s right hand if it’s to thwart her sister.”
That wasn’t what Alan wanted to know. He welcomed Nihel’s compassionate hand on his shoulder. “You’re right, Roussel. We must remove her, and hide her. But how?”
“Your sister,” Hegrea said simply, as if Alan should know what she meant.
He frowned, and looked at his brothers, particularly at Nihel. But before any could answer there came a knock at the door.
No word was given yet the door was pushed open and entered Alan’s half-sister Eleri. White-blond hair, unearthly pale skin, she was a renowned beauty. Not for the first time Alan thought of finding a husband for her, and soon, before the woman in her burst through that light woollen gown. “My Lady Hegrea. You called for me?”
Alan looked from his sister to Hegrea. And now he was losing his wits. He’d heard no call for Eleri, though it was true, she did wait upon Hegrea as her maid. He saw Nihel bite at his lip to stop from laughing. “What?” he asked.
“Roussel, my brother, at times you are dim.”
Alan continued to frown, not at all understanding.
Nihel explained. “Just two breathes since you remarked of our Lady Hegrea, that she had served Earl Alfgar. Do you not think that odd? Look at her. Then say how old are Leofrun and Ealdgyth.”
Alan mouthed the word, while his blood ran cold. “Faerie? Your lady’s an elf? Fair-folk.” And now his mouth wouldn’t close.
“Bellinn, my Lord Alan,” Hegrea said.
“I don’t . . . I . . . Hells and damnation!” He swore and threw up his hands. “Either this land is beset by quakes of late else I am unwell. The room spins upon me.”
“Breathe deep, be calm,” Hegrea said.
There seemed no choice but to obey, the calmness coming like sleep upon him. He inhaled deep, aware now of the scent of the women; he’d not noticed before. He slumped to a chair, a wistful glance at his bed behind curtains.
“I wish not to startle you, Lord Alan,” Hegrea said. “So first I shall tell you that what you now see is not the truth.”
He was about to ask what she was wittering about when . . . Impossible! There stood Gunnhild, in this very room with him. It took him a moment to realise that she stood where Eleri had been.
“It is an illusion,” Hegrea explained. “But if it fools you, then certainly it will deceive Leofrun too. I suggest we replace one with the other. Eleri will act as Gunnhild. For a while.”
He nodded, very pleased with the plan. He would ponder it later, the logisitics of how it was done. But BBellinn. Fair-folk. Elves. What would Abbot Baldwin say of him?
“There is one problem to it,” Hegrea said.
“Whatever, say it, we’ll solve it,” he said.
“For the illusion to hold requires a Bellinn to be close. I am happy to go, to lodge close by Wilton.”
“No,” Nihel wouldn’t have it. “No, let Conn hold the illusion.”
“Conn, my own man Conn, he too is your fair-folk? Is there a mortal here, but for me?” He could see that Nihel was stifling a grin. That alone kept his temper in check.
“I must agree, your keep is somewhat aglow,” Hegrea said, her head demurely low.
Demure, Alan had silently muttered, more like another hidden grin. He’d not been amused.
And that had been five weeks ago. He’d had five weeks to get used to the Bellinn being always around him though he couldn’t see which were which. It had rankled that Nihel had known yet Nihel hadn’t told him. But he’d had to forgive him, he needed his brother beside him.
His brother was beside him on the road again to Wilton. That’s when he told Alan of Gunnhild. “She’s Bellinn, too.”
Alan glanced around at the men, though they rode at a distance, and Nihe’s talk was quiet.“But how? I don’t understand.”
“A long story, rings out our Breton tales. There was in the east a Lady Amblushe. Mother of Many, they called her. Well, one of her ‘many’ was a gold-smith named Luin. Long time ago he begot a child on Hegrea. She didn’t see him again till the boy was grown to a man. Then, well, to cut it, there was an open confrontation between the three, Luin, Hegrea and Eblan Murdan. Luin caught the worse of it and disappeared into the hills of North Wales, there quietly to work at his craft. Meanwhile, Hegrea eventually moved south, to our own Breton shores. But it seems about thirty, forty years ago, this Luin, now rapidly aging, made a bid to impregnate as many woman as, well, as he could. He particularly picked on a Mercian family. On Leofrun, and Eadgyth.”
“The both? You do mean Abbess Leofrun?” Alan could feel his eyes popping.
“Abbess Leofrun. She has a Bellinn daughter, name of Atall. Hegrea hid the woman while she was pregnant. She kept the child and raised her in Eldsland.”
“No . . . And you know all this yet you tell me nothing?”
“But what need had you to know? Besides, as Hegrea said, we thought you’d start asking, seeing how she never ages. She’d not have lied had you asked her.”
“So how old is she, how many years? ‘A long time ago.’ Nihel, you know what the Church would say of all this.”
“What the Church doesn’t know . . . My brother, Roussel, there is no harm in them. Healers, mostly. As for Hegrea—ah, but why say when you’ll not believe it.”
“Believe what? Come on, say it. I am your lord; I could command it.”
“No.” Nihel shook his head. “My lord is our father, and you know it. Yet I will say. She tells me she has lived through some four thousand years – give or take five hundred or so.”
Alan’s jaw dropped and there, for a moment, remained. But there was something more he must ask, though Heaven only knew, he didn’t want to know it. Yet he must. “My Gunnhild, tell me, is she also . . . immortal? How-how many years might she . . . live?”
Nihel shrugged. “Hegrea thinks likely three thousand.”
“Mary, Mother of God. And I thought her a child, scarcely a woman.”
Alan’s thoughts were abruptly cut as silence fell across Regin-yorl’s hall. Then first one woman sang. Then another. The round now developing was no happy song but a sneer and a taunt as through the open door came his own brother Nihel. And with him the huntsman Hawk, prodded and guided by—Dear Mary, Mother of God, no. Alan realised these young men must be Gunnhild’s own kinsman.
. _____ .
Next episode, 21st May: The Saga Band