Neve paced, trying to contain her anger at Raesan. Why had he brought her out of that scene? To her, that scene had been crucial. Guy had stated his cause. Kerrid had empathised with him; she had even told them of the Asars’ fall, though Raesan hadn’t allowed her to hear.
She stopped by the window, left open to let in the night’s cool air. Outside was dark, no moon, not even street lighting. How late was it? No matter, in her agitation she slammed on some music – let Nerys suffer at this unsocialable hour. It made up for the nights of waking to the thuds of Lynn falling down stairs. She slurped water, now kept always to hand for these sessions. And, calmer, asked Raesan please to return her to that scene.
“But why, Lady, huh? You know already what happened next. Alan agreed to provide the treasure, yeh. The dragon was laid.”
“No, Raesan. That’s like saying of 1066, that William arrived with an army of knights, fought a battle, and won the land.”
“Yeh.” But he’d already dismissed her, his little digital-game in his hand. He turned it on and started to play.
She felt paralysed. What to do, what to say. There had to be some way to lever that scene from him. He had clamped tight on that memory and she wondered why. There was something here that he wasn’t showing her. It wasn’t only that he’d ended the session abruptly. It was . . . there were pieces missing. What was he hiding?
“Nothing,” he answered as if she had asked. And that further annoyed her. It proved he was still into her head though she’d thought he was gone. She wanted to snatch his game from him, just to return the annoyance. She wanted to kick that blasted foot that kept bouncing as if in time to a tune, yet not the one playing. She heaved a great sigh.
“Then why won’t you show me? Is it Regin-yorl? Does he now get a big starring role and you’re afraid I’ll see him and lust for him?”
That hit some nerve. Raesan leapt to his feet, game thrown down. “Na-na-na-na, wrong-wrong-wrong-wrong. Regin-yorl gets no starring role. So—lust for him anyway, all that you care. Yeh?”
“So show me,” she said, smile bitten back, and sank back into the softness of the settee.
~ ~ ~
Zemowit held up his hands and waited for the sudden excitement to die. Then he spoke into the hush. “You can talk of this dragon all that you will, but no Bellinn of mine will join this knight’s party.”
That was not received with grace, not even from most of his sons. A mumbling hum arose, and rapidly built until it sounded more like a hornets’ nest disturbed. Again Zemowit held up his hands. Again he waited on their attention.
“You need me to repeat what I said when Bagsecg was raiding? When Halfdan was raging? When Hasteinn sought more men to go south?”
Neve noticed he was looking now towards the door where Gudrum, Razimer and Regin-yorl stood. She noticed, too, the way they stared back at him, gaze unwavering. Was there to be trouble, these three with their open challenge? And what of the other Stoats, Eida’s kinsmen? Neve couldn’t see them.
Zemowit looked away; they’d won. Now his gaze ranged round hall. “I said then, as I’ll say now: Beyond our borders there is danger. And it’s not only the axe that severs your head. Should the angel-seekers know of our living . . .” His gaze locked on Alan.
Alan held up his hands, head shaking: no, he wouldn’t say anything. He could not. His wife one of them, and so, too, would be his expected child.
Neve joined with his thoughts and at once regretted it. Those thoughts swirled, like shredded ribbons – or rather like flesh feed into a food-mixer and mixed with syrup. Yet there was one constant ribbon of thought: that he wanted, he needed, he must accept the otherworld nature of his love. His brother had accepted it of Hegrea; he couldn’t do less. And splicing that was another thought: those oaths he had sworn, what now were their worth? Nothing – nothing. And if that were all, there’d have been no turmoil. But a harsh hard spike drove through these. Resist, it said. Resist, this Devil’s temptation. And had he not been devout from the day of his birth? Ay, he inwardly wailed, but God, Your son offers no salve for the deaths I have wrought. And Neve knew the deaths that lay at his hands. They were a great many.
Zemowit, again speaking, pulled her out of that memory.
“Need I say of it? Is there one here who does not know of it? But by your stumbling blindness, you force me to say what you all ought to know. The angel-seekers – wherever they are found – seek to destroy us. As soon as they find us they’ll burn us out – their holy water. You know that it’s true. It happened in Urinod’s land, as Amblushe will tell you. But here I am your lord. And whether you bow or rebel, it’s still for me to protect you. I cannot stop you from leaving, though if I could then I would. But I can say this to yon mortal Guy – and listen, Guy, and understand the full implication of this. Any of my Bellinn that you cause to die in this venture, you will serve me here for five of their lifetimes.”
Zemowit’s light formed as ice around him, shot with fracturing colours. Neve was shocked, this wasn’t the Zemowit she’d seen before. Something had shaken him, deep. Raesan, what has happened? Something between Kerrid’s speech and this.
The Bellinn are divided. The Asars too.
How do you mean, divided? Show me.
You don’t need.
But I do.
Na, Lady. And it grows late, yeh, you should sleep. Don’t forget, you have to go work in the morning.
Raesan, I want to see.
Want-want-want. So don’t blame me, yeh, when Crabby Cox hands you another letter.
For a moment Neve’s head felt queasy, like her stomach would on a fairground ride. But, really, what was the change in the scene. Ah, yea, Raesan now was giving her an eavesdrop on Guy and his squire – “What do you make of these folk? Are they to be trusted?”
“You know, Sir Guy, what my ma used to say. God created those southerners, those Moors and the Jews. But their God didn’t create us northerners. See, we’re descended more from the elves and their gods – though, truly, I never thought to meet one. But they’re mighty more friendly than were those angels.”
Neve wanted to smile at the squire’s honest sentiment. And she was pleased when Raesan didn’t change the focus but allowed her to lock onto Guy. Used to mixing with earls and princes, and for a few days he’d accompanied the angels, so he wasn’t intimated by these, his present company, even though they were in great numbers. Besides, Toli was right, these Bellinn were more friendly and approachable than those angels had been. So he drew in breath, and gathered his courage.
“Kerrid. Lady.” He wasn’t sure how to address her but since she’d not turned him into a toad, he pressed on. “Perhaps, if you’re offering help in this mission, you’d begin by asking Zemowit to release us? Only, without freedom how can we complete the deed?”
Kerrid nodded assent to Zemowit.
How many times, now, had Neve visited this hall, how many times had she seen this Zemowit. Yet she still was amazed at how young. Maybe that was Guy’s thought, not her own. Yet it was true, he seemed no older than in his late teens. And she could understand why he had so many daughters and sons. He’d have little need of Asaric coercion. She could imagine the women waiting in queue to jump into his bed. Though there was the Christian Church to consider, with its influence, dictates, prohibitions much stronger then. That would have had its effect, those same said women held back by their fear of this devilishly handsome supposed demon. She suddenly understood the stories of the medieval witches.
Zemowit gestured, a barely discernable flick of a finger. The mortals were free to go.
“How are you thinking of doing this deed, then, hey?” the red-headed Ypsi asked. “Only it’s a hulking great deed you’ll be doing. Needs patiently planning, that.”
“It needs treasure,” Guy said. “That’s why I came seeking Lord Alan.”
Alan raised a quizzical brow. “How so? Say more, young sir.”
“Lord Alan,” Guy dipped his head – that’s more than he had with Kerrid. Neve was amused. Here he was more anxious at talking to Alan than he had been when addressing the queen of the Asars. She was tempted to join with him again. But no, she might learn more by remaining apart. “As known in the sagas, dragons guard treasure,” he said. “Thus, if I can find enough gold—”
“Dig a pit, line it with gold,” Zemowit said for him. “Ay, that dragon will sleep forever upon it. Though I want no Bellinn involved, this is a good plan.”
“Except for the gold,” Guy said. “I’ve been unable to—”
“No one wants to give it?” Alan said. “And you say this beast has flooded the lands in Wihomarch’s keeping?”
“Those that border Hreppessey – Lord Alan. I saw the horses there myself; all crowded close on an island. But, My lord, it’s not the water, for that recedes. It’s when the little ones hatch and, hungry, they’ll feed on . . . whatever. Everything. Horses, people, children – maidens.”
“To be plagued again by the Vikings!”
“Lord Alan, this dragon is real.”
“No, I meant . . . and the angels, they want to allow it?”
“They say it will give the folk there a reason to pray.”
“Folks? Danes,” Nihel said. “Most will be Danes.”
Alan violently shook his head and looked round to Kerrid. “They’d do this? All the innocent slaughter just to win a few prayers? For the Danes mostly now are Christians; there’d be no conversions.”
“You forget,” Kerrid said. “The Danes are our people. This is done to turn them against us.”
“Well I have all the gold this young knight needs. I’d give all the treasure in all this land to know my Gunnhild is safe.”
“I need only a bed of gold,” Guy said, now developing a high colour.
“You shall have all my treasure. But, you know a place to dig this pit, to lay this beast?”
Guy nodded. Neve could see he didn’t intend an answer, but Toli leapt in and said it for him, saying of Haggleland. Alan grinned. “Sheriff Bigod’s land. I take it he doesn’t know?”
“I’ll help there,” Lirabien said drawing glances towards him. “Just pile into my ship.”
“I offer my horses,” Zrone added his support.
Raesan, have you cut this again?
Why would I do that, Lady, huh?
She didn’t know why, it was just that their talk seemed clunky, like bits were missing.
“I can offer you more than gold,” Alan said. “Though how you would use . . . I have in my hold our Lord King’s Liber Consilia, the very same strategies the Romans used a thousand years gone to win them England. Perhaps it can be used with equal effect upon your dragon?”
“Romans?” Guy tittered. “Begging your forgiveness, Lord Alan, but Romans never were here in England?”
“Oh but they were,” Freilsen chipped in. “It’s almost like yesterday. I remember watching them. Such savage soldiers, they needed their testicles taken!”
“Hush, Freilsen. Long ago now.” Ypsi rested a consoling hand the bleached-out Flame’s shoulder.
Raesan, are you making this up? What are you covering?
This is exactly how it was. You wanted to know.
“If I might ask,” Guy said, though he had to moisten his dried-out lips before he say. “H-how old are you, Lord . . .?”
“Freilsen. Eld Freilsen. And age, years, what are they to we so old? I tell you, in answer, young questor, I walked this isle when ice held the north and yon sea had no waves. Is that not so, Aldhe Keldred? Aldhe Keldred agreed to walk with me, then Aldhe Keldred ran.”
“Please,” Kerrid. “That’s old, that’s over, that’s done.”
“A heart still hurts.”
“As I remember, it wasn’t your heart,” Kerrid snapped back at him.
“Ah, and he still hurts.”
What? But you want to see how it was. See Jiar there, yeh? Sitting like a man whose bed was usurped.
Raesan! Why was he doing this? And why the viciousness to his words?
“These warm days I prefer to walk yon mortals’ land, and weave the stones of Carnac.”
“Please. Forgive my pressing,” Guy tried to cut through the talk, to return to the matter in hand—
—and as if the doors of hell had burst asunder, of a sudden the hall was filled with clamour. Neve wanted to ask, again, what was happening, but what was the point. Clearly Raesan was altering the sequence of his memories. If that was intended to deceive her, it wasn’t working. It only alerted her.
The clamour resolved into the Bellinn offering their help while others – Amblushe, her daughter Zelina, and several of Zemowit’s sons, loudest amongst them – shouted their dissent. Then through this din a loud crack sounded. It could have been thunder, it was equally disquieting.
Huat, my Uissid-brother, said Raesan. The shamanic looking Asar had brought down his staff, hard, against the planked floor.
All heads turned to regard him, no longer perched on the dais but standing now beside Kerrid.
How does he do that with his light? Neve had never seen the like. A Silver Fold, like her, but of the first degree, his light—His quiddity, Raesan corrected her—had become like a fountain, jetting straight up from his head, to fall in a veil of silvery stars. An amazing effect that attracted the intended attention.
“I must speak, mustn’t I,” he said, initially hesitant. “For you should know, shouldn’t you. Hmm? See, I have seen in the Web a great disturbance that relates to this venture . . . I am sure . . . I believe. A great, great peril attaches to it – a climactic battle, good and evil, that wipes we Asars away from this Earth. There, now I have said it, haven’t I. So be warned.”
But Raesan didn’t answer.
“Sir Guy,” Kerrid said into the resultant silence. “You are to keep me informed of your progress. Jiar and I must be there when you lay this dragon.” She turned and looked directly at Neve. But no, it wsn’t at her; she was looking at Raesan. “Jiar, Ypsi and Zrone, each have offered their help. What of you?”
Ah! So this was what Raesan didn’t want her to see. Wow, she could feel the fear in his belly, the clench and the churning. And his head was in turmoil. What to do? He couldn’t allow Kerrid to think him a coward – though quiet in himself, he knew what he was.
Ypsi rescued him, or so Neve thought, his voice strangely tremored. “Leave him be, Our Lady. You know our Raesan’s policy, always the same. ‘Don’t get involved.’ Don’t do a jigging thing.”
There was anger building in Raesan; Neve felt it. Yet he still didn’t speak up to offer his help.
“Ypsi’s the right of it,” Zrone said. “So let’s leave Raesan out of it, ha? He only knows how to dance with amazing birds.”
Whatever the inference, it loosed Raesan’s tongue. “Guy.” He turned away from his Uissid-brothers. “Whatever you ask of me, yeh? Freely given, you know it.” But Neve could feel how his entire body trembled.
Then, from some place behind her, and obviously not intended for general hearing, burst into the sudden quietness, Skrauti’s coarse words. “Well I’m against the whole swiving thing. Let the dragon reek and ravage, it’ll distract from our attack. Then after, we can kill the dragon, and there, we’ve the folk on our side. But no, that interfering cow of a Kerrid now won’t allow it.”
. _____ .
Next episode, 30th July: Neve’s Holiday