“Raesan?” Neve called even while straightening to a sit. Where was he? Usually when she woke from the trance he was slouched in the recliner, else restlessly pacing. She cocked her head the better to hear. But the house was silent, the only noises from outside: the gulls, ever squawking and squalling, all through the night.
She searched through the house though the certainty was creeping upon her. No, he wasn’t there. His bedroom was empty. No tent, no ghetto-blaster, no box of CDs. But that’s how it had seemed before. Was it an illusion? She walked the floorboards; they quietly creaked. No invisible bags or boxes, no tent, nothing to stub her toe on. He was gone. She looked out the window. His car was gone too. She did not understand.
But that wasn’t true, she told her reflection while in the bathroom, readying for bed. No, she did understand. She had pushed him to reveal what he’d rather keep hidden – his reluctance to help Guy to lay the dragon on its bed of gold. And for that, his own kin had accused him of cowardice.
“I pushed him too hard,” she told her reflection. “And he’s gone.” She wasn’t sure how that made her feel. “Shivering,” she answered herself. “Shivering, in this muggy closed room.”
In her bedroom she paused at the window. Ought she to open it, to let in the night air? But the Watcher was out there; she could sense him-her-it; she thought she could see a faint flickering light, and she now was alone. She left the window closed, the window-locks on.
That didn’t stop the nightmares from coming. Gremlin and grimmen carrying her off to their stifling dark cave . . . Her eyes were dark-rimmed and sunken when she went into work in the morning.
~ ~ ~
“Miss Carpory,” her employer’s voice cut through the mists that surrounded her. She swung round, and dropped the cross-stitch kits she was supposed to be sorting. Slippery-packaged, they skated in a whoosh across the floor. She knew Ms Cox would be rolling her eyes so she didn’t look at her. There was a implicit tut in the added, “Customer’s waiting.”
Well, Neve was out of the reverie now, though she couldn’t remember what she’d been thinking. She swiftly gathered her wits and attended the customer. But even while serving she could feel the tears welling. But why was this, this was silly, she’d no reason to cry. She did not understand. Yet as soon as the customer left she was into the stockroom and crying. Ms Cox found her there.
“What is it? Pregnant? Crying won’t help. Play with fire . . .”
Neve couldn’t look up. She didn’t want to be seen, her face puffy and slimy with tears. Though she did mumble of, no, she wasn’t pregnant, she still was a bloody virgin.
“Don’t use that language, I’ve told you before. So, if it’s not that then . . . Oh, I understand. You’re behind with your rent. I suppose you squander your wages on that boyfriend of yours.”
“He’s not my boyfriend. And, anyway, he’s gone.” The words opened a new dam and she sobbed, uncontrollable. Though at least now she realised the reason. He was gone, it was her fault, she had pushed him; she’d forced him to humiliate himself. That was so wicked of her. She was a horrid, horrid, heartless bad person. Had she a whip she’d have used it, scourged her flesh till she bled.
Ms Cox mumbled of it being as well that today was only a Monday and business was slow. Then said nothing until Neve’s tears slowed.
“An old family friend you said?” her employer’s tone changed to compassion.
Neve nodded, not yet trusting her voice – though she did feel better for the sob. She didn’t usually cry, not like that. She didn’t usually cry, full-stop.
“The Lord gives, the Lord takes,” Ms Cox said.
Neve attempted a smile. It seemed required of her.
“It can be hard on those left behind,” Ms Cox said, a lightly rested hand to comfort Neve’s shoulder. “You haven’t yet taken your holiday allowance. It could be as well to take it now. I would give you compassionate leave, but he was only a family friend, not close family.”
Neve nodded, understanding now what Cox was thinking. Gone: deceased; dead. That was a joke when Raesan was immortal. But she didn’t feel like laughing.
“You’d best take two weeks, and come back refreshed. That’s better than to be like a waste bin stood in the corner – and that’s how you’ve been today.”
Neve nodded again. Actually, that would work out quite well. She was expecting a visit from Uncle James; she’d have had to take a day off.
~ ~ ~
Friday. Market day. And, as Neve had feared, the restaurant at the Angel Hotel was crowded. She cursed herself for opening her head to Raesan. Now she couldn’t so easily close it, and the thoughts came at her from every direction. She stood in the foyer just trying to regain her calm. And now she had to walk into a bar where she’d never before been, and if Uncle James wasn’t yet there – Please let him be there – to be in that place all alone. Why couldn’t he have visited her at home? But no, “We’ll make a day of it. I’ll treat you to lunch.”
The dumpy blonde receptionist eyed her as if a trespasser. She caught the young woman’s thoughts – decidedly un-pc. So much for racism being dead in this town. She felt the woman’s eyes follow her, and that didn’t help her feigned confidence. But at least the bar was clearly signed, with the restaurant sited through and beyond it.
Relief surged. Uncle James was there to greet her. Her anxieties fled. She smiled. She had feared he would notice it if she’d had to force it.
“What’s your preference?” he asked as he guided her through the bodies three-deep at the bar.
“Old Tom used to drink that – when he was drying out.”
“I’m not alcoholic,” she said. “I don’t usually drink.” She vaguely remembered Old Tom, Thomas May, his partner’s father, now long since deceased.
“I’ve asked for a quiet table,” he said as they moved away from the crush. “They’ll probably think this an illicit meeting, so we might get some looks. Are you all right? You’re terribly quiet.”
She smiled. “But, Uncle James, you’ve always said that of me.”
“Hmm. Made any friends, yet? Weren’t you seeing a vicar, didn’t you say?”
“A reverend doctor.” She was saved from saying more by the waiter calling them to table.
As requested, it was in a quiet area, though they had to weave between others to reach it. It had a window-view, too – onto a blank brick-lined alley. They ordered the food. Then while waiting he cleared a space and laid the documents in front of her to be signed.
“Oh, do cheer up,” he chided as he handed her the pen. “You now are a very wealthy woman. In fact, I ought to make you pay for this lunch.”
“Oh, is it not charged to expenses? And this Stanley Starling soon will be wealthy. Has he really bought the entire property?”
“All bar Blythe’s Meadow.”
“So how long before he turns it into one massive housing estate and takes away my past, erases my memories of Phoebe?”
“Is that why the depression?”
For answer she sniffed and signed the papers. She then picked at her food, aware that James kept glancing at her.
“Nevey, please, what is it? This is not like you.”
She shrugged. But she had to give answer. He’d only keep asking. “I’m worried about a friend, that’s all.”
“The dear reverend doctor?”
“Gosh, no.” She laughed.
“So you can still laugh? I was beginning to wonder. And ‘worried of a friend’; that means you do have one. Is he local?”
“What makes you think it’s a he? And no. He’s just been . . . visiting, sort of. What?” she asked at James’s raised eyebrow.
She laughed again. “James, he was a friend of Grandpa’s.”
“Oh. So he’s terribly old?”
“Yea, you could say.”
“Would I know him? I knew some of Edmund Rawn’s friends. And best you keep talking about it, you’re brightening up. So what is his name, this friend?”
“Family from Lincolnshire? Market Rasan,” he explained when she frowned.
She shook her head. “Middle East.”
“And he was a friend of Edmund Rawn’s? Well, yes, I suppose that is possible. I understand he led a colourful life before he settled with Phoebe. So why are you worrying about him? Oh, gosh, yes, if he’s your grandfather’s age, one moment fine, the next moment dead. It happens.”
“But, he’s not dead,” she said.
James again raised a brow.
“I just feel I would know.”
“ID on him would trace him back to you? Yes, that so often happens. I remember telling my mother the same when I was at Oxford. ‘Mother,’ I’d say. ‘You’ll know if I’m dead. The police will knock at your door.’ She still complained if I forgot to phone. So why are you worried?”
“I wasn’t kind to him, and now he’s gone missing and I feel rotten.”
“He’s been staying with you, It was kind of you to take him in. I’m sure he’ll turn up again. Or he’ll send you a postcard.”
“You’re just trying to make me feel better.”
He nodded. “I like to see you happy. Anyway. I’ve news of these murders across Yalesham Marshes. You know John May handles the criminal cases? Well, last night he was called to the station. I can’t say much, confidentiality and all, but the police have him. It seems he had befriended the women.”
“H-how old was he? Would that be . . .?”
“Breaking confidentiality?” James shrugged. “You’ll probably hear it on the news tonight anyway. No, he was only a kid, a teenager. Schizophrenic, apparently. Oh, and now you’ve gone quiet again. Tell me of your embroidery. Any new masterpieces?”
~ ~ ~
Two weeks’ holiday, what was she to do with it. After Uncle James’s visit she wandered about, at a loss. She tried sitting on the beach but the shrill of young children playing grated upon her. She caught up on the gardening. The trapezoid plot at the back of the house was now in full bloom. Though it was so hot, the soil quickly dried and she had to water it every day. But there was one patch, no matter the water, it refused to refresh. Above it, the leaves of lilac were crisped, as if with being caught close to a fire. That’s where the Watcher stood. Though in truth, Neve had seen neither light, movement, nor shadow this past week. That made her think, what if it had been Raesan as she’d first thought. What if he’d posing as the Watcher, just to scare her, to keep her dependant upon his protection?
Where was he? Why couldn’t he simply be hiding, the way he did before? Or was he the murderer? He’d pass as schizophrenic, no problem there. But why? Though that would explain why he wasn’t here, with her. Annoying her.
She stood up and threw down her trowel. “What the friggle jacks am I thinking. So I feel bad that I pushed him away, but do I really want him back?” She certainly didn’t need his particular form of irritation: his restlessness, his bleeping games, his roaring car-engine, his endless questions, his tag-along like little lost sheep, his ever-present threat of violence, even if he never had struck her. “And here I’ve been moping and wasting this time. I should have been figuring out answers from what I have learned.”
“Talking to yourself, again?” she heard Warren’s voice on the far side of the high wooden fence.
“Preparing a spell to incarcerate Merlin,” she called back to him.
And what did she know, what had she learned from her time with Raesan? That Regin-yorl was her grandfather, though Raesan was adamant that he was not – because Regin-yorl wouldn’t have gone against the Oath. Yea, that was a problem. What she’d seen of Regin-yorl and what she knew of her grandpa, neither would have broken that Oath. Though she had reasoned to Raesan that, for Phoebe’s sake, her grandpa would. Yea, but to then desert them, Phoebe and Constance, without explanation. So he had feigned his death, Neve amended, and Raesan’s explanation of that seemed fine and realistic. She could understand it, for Phoebe’s sake. But to not tell his daughter of the Oath, to allow her to bring another Bellinn into the world – for by the terms of that Oath, Neve should not have been born – by that omission he had compounded his sin. Yet there had to be a reason for it, and sooner and later Neve would discover it. For now she set it aside.
Then what of Raesan and his cowardice, if that was all he’d been hiding . . . Truth was, she, too, would have hesitated before volunteering to be crisped by a dragon. And for that hesitation she had pushed him until he fled? What kind of beast was she? Why not rename her Skimaskall.
She sighed. And another truth: it was less that Raesan was gone, and more that without him she was stuck here in the present. Though she had her memories, she never would again visit Eldsland. She never would know how Guy’s story ended – apart from, apparently, the dragon was laid in its pit. But did Guy get to marry his Lady Adele? Or did he propose to landless Blide? Then there was Hawk and Young Cesar. She’d seen the looks between them. She’d also seen Old Cesar’s reaction. Open jealousy. And then there was Razimer . . .
How long was she lost in that sweet memory of Kazla’s last hug of her brother – before the distinct sounds of Neil Peart at his drums broke through. The title track of Rush 2112 played through her headphones.
2112. She’d still be alive in 2112, and she would know no one. Every one now living, all aged and died. All but the Bellinn.
She understood now why the Bellinn stayed hidden in their own communities. It wasn’t in fear of how they’d be treated. It was to avoid the emotional entanglements, to not have to cope with the death after death, to not have to suffer the loss. Besides, there was also the matter of identity. She and her mother were the only Bellinn with registered births. No birth certificate, no legal identity, questions asked that cannot be answered. Deportation. Yea, to where? No wonder Gunnhild’s son became a pirate, and her grandpa travelled with the gypsies.
At that moment the heavens had opened, a summer flash-storm. She ran for cover, back into the house, washed the garden-muck off her hands and put the kettle to boil. She sat at the table and heaved three sad sighs in a row.
“But I do miss Raesan. The bastard!”
. _____ .
Next episode, 6th August: Hell’s Gate