Saturday. Mid August. Blistering weather. Across the marketplace people still milled despite the shops were closing. Seeking a place to eat, no doubt; traditional seaside fish and chips versus a ‘healthy’ something-salad. Neve, too, was hungry; she would have walked faster but for the people erratically straying across her path. Anticipating the blissful quiet, she turned the corner onto South Grove – and her pace slowed further.
Someone, somewhere, was playing music. And though she couldn’t source it, distorted as it bounced off the brittle-dry buildings, she knew who it was. She knew from the twangy bass-beat. It was dance music, it was Trance. As she rounded the bend, five houses from hers, there was his saffron yellow Spitfire, again parked by her house.
“In!” Raesan grabbed her wrist so she hadn’t the choice. He kicked shut the door behind them. “Welsh Witch, yeh, she’s been waiting these past three hours for you. Hasn’t given me time to take my gear up – sorry, yeh, it’s cluttering the floor.”
Neve opened her mouth . . . But what to say? And he wasn’t to give her a chance.
“You like the sounds, yeh?” he rattled on. “Thought I’d get classy for you. Here, sit.” He guided her to the swivel chair by her computer. She was too stunned to object – except when she saw his sounds were coming from there.
“You’ve . . . it’s . . .”
“Yeh, yeh, Warren taught me—na, don’t panic, he remembers none of it. But handy that, cos I had to download this one. Headphones on now.” Again, he gave her no chance to object, and his fussing around her chased her questions away. “You have to listen to it properly, yeh, to hear it just as DJ Sakin intended. For The Love Of A Princess, yeh. Protect Your Mind. It’s the Lange Remix.” It lasted 20 minutes.
He was coercing her, he had to be – she liked the music. She recognised the original track from which it had been sampled. The Braveheart theme, from the movie. He stayed with her until it was over, smiling and nodding. As she removed the headphones he said, “Now I’ll put my things away, yeh, while you fix the food. Then we’ll be ready.”
She still wasn’t sure how to take his return, to admit she was pleased or, as he deserved, to be furious at him. Suspicious and cautious, she asked, “Ready for what?”
“To show you how Guy became our saviour. You do want to know don’t you?”
“Yea,” she said weakly, and watched him pick up his ghetto-blaster, a plastic carrier, angular with CDs, in his other hand.
~ ~ ~
Skimaskall cooed as she settled her thick scaly coils on the gold, not a sound Neve associated with dragons. But that coo was the only thing cute of the beast. Seen close, she made a frightening vision. The head of a horse, but sabre-toothed, with a goat’s wide flaring horns, the razor-sharp rings of their growth a-glint. She panted dog-like, her bruised-purple tongue lolling, two pronged and at least two feet long. The air around her was thick with the musk she exuded. Formed to a sticky resin, it fringed her scales in pastel-pink beads, and was smeared over the crotch of Ypsi’s breeches. And that was the scariest thing: she fluttered her eye-lashes as she looked up at him. His face was bright red, his hands a-jitter.
“Come on share. What is she saying?”
Neve glanced round. There was Jiar, his hair a black curtain framing his face, his beaded buckskins looking newly-made. He held a staff as tall as himself – and whence the ivory from which it was carved? She noticed his eyes: deep green, like Raesan’s. Half-brothers. But he stood amidst the arc of watching Asars while Raesan stood apart. What was that comment Raesan had made, of his cuckolded bed? Was Raesan jealous of him?
A voice, silky, seductive, sounded from all around: Please, Ypsi, I promise not eat you. Come lay with me now. Spend eternity together. Rather you than have Guy.
“You are jesting!” Jiar laughed. The others joined with him, a mocking mirth born of anxiety.
But was it Ypsi who’d said it, or the dragon repeating? Ypsi’s response soon answered that. “Can we just get this squirming deed done. She’s been like this since I banefully mounted her back.”
“Too much protestation,” Jiar said. “You’re enjoying it.”
“You should choose with more care your women, Uncle Yips,” Lirabien chuckled.
Of the Asars, Bellinn and mortals, only Guy wasn’t laughing. Stern faced, stripped to his undershirt, he brandished a shovel. “Just—if you could keep her head down, we could get on with the filling.” He eyed the sky. Neve followed his sight. A storm was mounting on the horizon.
And now she’d looked up she saw Regin-yorl’s Stoats standing atop the mounded sand, standing guard. Her eyes found him at once, his dancing red, yellow, green lights advertising his place. Her eyes would have lingered but movement in the pit tore her gaze back from Razimer.
Ypsi must have said something to Skimaskall for the dragon now rested her head on her coils, her sea-green wings folded over. Guy and Toli made a start on the shovelling. Hawk hurried over to help.
But the dragon wouldn’t be still. Her head came up. But now it was swaying this way and that, her goats’ ears pricked as if sourcing a sound. What had she heard?
Horses – Neve, too, could hear them, galloping fast from landward. But this was an island. Yet she, like the others, turned to watch. Would it be Sheriff Bigod, come to stop the proceedings?
It’s Zrone, Raesan said just as the two riders came into view.
Yea, I can see that now. The other was Count Alan, his gold-threaded embroidery and jewels dazzling in the sun’s sudden spearing.
Zrone slid off his horse in casual manner, all elbows and knees. He, like Ypsi and Jiar, showed a preference for buckskins, though his were plain, un-beaded. As Raesan had been at pains to show her, he had no woman to sew for him now, Hawena being dead these past years and he’d not yet found her reborn. “We come from Huat, with warning,” he said, unusually brief for him.
“Oh, and what now does my brother concern himself over? Ah!” Jiar answered himself, “He’s worried that Ypsi will succumb to Skimaskall’s charms.”
“This is serious,” Alan broke through the laughter. “The abbess—but nah, it is too long a story.”
“I’ll tell it succinctly,” Zrone offered, arms spreading wide in a flourish. “That magnificently uninformed rat, the archbishop, has exorcised Saint Keldred’s well.”
I— Neve was about to say she did not understand. What archbishop, and what was this of a well? But Raesan was faster, his words pressing and urgent.
We’ll go now, now Alan is here.
Yea, fine. But go where? Though I’d rather stay and see this. She didn’t understand what was happening. Why were the Asars a-buzz with horror? She could feel it, too, raging through Raesan. No wonder he wanted to go. Yet he allowed her to stay.
“So my brother fears Neka is now set loose?’ Jiar glanced from Zrone to Kerrid. Her face had blanched, leaving her grey.
Zrone theatrically shrugged. “What other reaction, a dastardly demon, when divine water is sprinkled upon him?”
“He flees,” Freilsen answered him.
Now! Raesan said, now in a panic. I’m taking the memories from Alan. And with a dizzying jolt Neve found herself in Alan’s hall at his castle at Richmond.
It seemed different to when she had visited with Guy, when he’d been seeking the Breton lord. Then had been evening and a riotous feast filled the hall. Now was morning, and despite the torches the hall was dark, the hanging standards more like a thundercloud. The fire feebly burning might not have been there. It failed to warm in the face of the rain that lashed cold against the walls. Around it like hearthrugs lay several long-legged, scruffy-haired hunting hounds. They outnumbered the people –Nihel and Stefan, Alan’s brothers; Ernald his constable and Eudes the chamberlain. Zrone was there too, and two Bellinn women. One she recognised as the witch Hegrea. The other?
Something of her hinted at kinship with Amblushe and Zelina. She had their ice-blonde hair, though her face had more colour. Her clothes too: she wore silks of pale blue, fern green and onyx. Then from Alan’s memory came the woman’s story, though he’d not long learned of it. This was Atall, Amblushe’s granddaughter, half-sister to Gunnhild, begotten by Luin upon a very young Leofrun. Born in Eldsland, with Hegrea’s help, her mother had left her there and forgotten her.
Abbess Leofrun also was here, standing, strident, in front of Alan’s chair.
“And what is this?” he asked of the abbess. She was waving a rolled parchment.
Clearly she wasn’t here as the Church’s ambassador – not in clothes this rich and ornate. Though, true, the greens and purples were dark and subdued, but their fabrics were silk and heavily embroidered in patterns most irreligious. And that girdle! Was it possible to load more gold upon it. As for that cloak, a voluminous heavy silken affair, it must have been three feet in diameter – how much fabric was there. The amethyst and gold filigree brooch that held it seemed poor in comparison.
“A charter.” A grin spread the abbess’s formerly dour face as she flourished the parchment. “And you cannot gainsay it, it is already countersigned by the king.”
Alan tilted his head, inviting a fuller explanation. Apparently Abbess Leofrun had done something clever, and now wanted to gloat of it.
“Your ward has finally taken the veil. And she has assigned the last of her holdings to me and the abbey. Her dower manor of Costringham. See?” She prodded at the air in front of Alan with the deed.
Alan looked to Hegrea whose odd mixture of clothes seemed to be tatters beside the abbess’s. Hegrea nodded. He indicated the abbess should pass the parchment to her. Leofrun hung back a moment but then proffered the charter. As Hegrea’s hand closed around it, it fell in a shower of dust.
“The charter is useless,” Hegrea softened the abbess’s accusation. “It was not Gunnhild who signed it. See. Gunnhild is here.” Beside her, Atall morphed into a likeness of her half-sister.
“Besides,” Alan said, “that charter would not have been valid even were it Gunnhild who signed it. For that manor isn’t Gunnhild’s to give. It is mine, and has been for a good many years.”
“Ney, ney, you are wrong,” Abbess Leofrun said, in a panic, shaking her head. “Ney, that manor of Costringham is her dower land. You’d only the right of it as her warden.”
“Abbess Leofrun, I had it by the grant of our lord king. And I thought you’d have known it. William took all the lands, and Gunnhild, a child, how was she to redeem it? But tell me, my lady abbess, what is your interest in that tiny hamlet? For, I swear, there are not above two families live there.”
“My lord count,” she now was flustered in her apologies – and still she kept glancing at her daughter who she thought was Gunnhild. “My interest, you ask, my interest, ay. It is the well. A healing well, see, it will make for the abbey a pilgrimage shrine. With the right miracles to start it, it could outshine the wells of Walsingham, even.”
Beside Alan, Zrone took a sharp indraw of breath. Alan glanced to him; he seemed to be shivering.
I don’t understand of the well. Why the alarm? Neve asked when no explanation was forthcoming.
It’s what Huat said, yeh, of a sort of Ragnarok. He’d seen in the Web a great disturbance – a ‘climactic battle,’ he said, yeh. Remember? And it was to ‘wipe we Asars away from this Earth.’
Yea, but why of the well? Where’s the danger?
Oh, long explanations, and Huat always could do it better than me. But . . . See, while up-bubbling the healsome waters, wells, yeh, give entrance to another dimension.
You mean to the ‘Otherworld?’
Na, I mean to another dimension. Now hush. All this she’s saying, you need to know, yeh.
But it wasn’t easy to follow what the abbess was saying and, now she’d started, it seemed the flow couldn’t be halted. On she gabbled, explaining her years of resentment, that while she still was young and a feast for the eyes, though grieving the death of her beloved betrothed, that arrogant son of the family’s old enemy, Harold Godwinsson, had passed her up in favour of her, even then, decrepit sister, the widowed Ealdgyth – and all because she’d held the allegiance of the northern thegns as well as the key to the gates of Wales. It was as distraction she had founded the nunnery at Hindrelagh in Gilling, as founder she’d became the abbess there. She had intended to devote her works to helping poor girls, raped and made pregnant – of which, post Hastings, there were a great many.
On she went, relentlessly, about how little time she’d been at the Hindrelagh convent. No sooner founded than their lord king William moved her on – and all because her brother Edwin had died on his way to Scotland with his rebels. Neve noticed she said nothing of those rebels being the ones who had killed him. That was in the aftermath of Hereward’s uprising at Ely. She complained, so bitterly, that then their lord king William had given the Gilling estate to Count Alan, and he had sent her away. With a wobble of jowls she up-jutted her chin, the movement reverberating down through body to up-bounce the cross, silver inlaid on bronze, that rested upon her silk-encased breasts.
“But, see, I’ve heard of a rumour.” She nodded to aver its veracity. “Ay, I’ve heard a whisper that you and yon Gunnhild were wedded a mere pair of years before our sainted king Edward died. I’ve heard even more: that my own brother Edwin was witness to it. I have not a doubt there were others? Ah, but who today is alive to say it? So many English have died since Hastings. So I suppose you, you brute, can breathe easy again. But then, I ask, can it be true? Oh, such a advantageous alliance for Harold it’s true, to ally with the ducal house of Brittany. Yet the Bretons fought alongside the Normans. If the rumour proves true –” she glanced at Stephen and Nihel who stood like heraldic beasts in support of Alan “– likely your Breton kin will not like it at all. Myself, I wouldn’t know. Was then I was grieving for my betrothed.”
Alan glanced at Hegrea, though the abbess didn’t notice. It was the same year that he married Gunnhild that she was brought to bed to birth the seed of the Bellinn Luin.
“So you agree, when I hurried Gunnhild away from Danes – their king Cnut could have wed her and strengthened his claim—”
“My lady abbess, forgive my men’s merriment.” He shot a sharp look at those around him. Their laughter stopped. “Only Cnut has been dead these past many months.”
“Ay. Ay. But not then, not then – and anyway, you now have her back again. So have you yet told our lord king of her, um, condition? He will be most concerned.”
Alan sealed his lips on a sarcastic reply. He’d heard but only two days before that his lord king William was dead. He didn’t know yet what the new king would say.
“My lord count, a gift of that manor – so small with only two families – it would help bury the rumour. Think on it, too, how it would add to your reputation. A newly-built shrine, a convent beside it. A hostelry too. You can choose the saint for the dedication – though I do think Saint Mary, Mother of God, that be the appropriate.”
Alan held up a hand to quieten her now. “My lady abbess. It becomes obvious, you’ve not returned to the Tree Brunna estate since it was last in the hold by your father. A shrine there wouldn’t be wise – I’m developing the same at Saint Ceorlwyn’s well, across the river. But truly, if your desire is sincere, to benefit your abbey, then I’m sure you’ll find some other means.”
The abbess said nothing. She turned and silently walked away. Neve thought she was leaving – she’d seen her eyes beginning to brim. But she stopped before she reached the door.
“If I find another well – though it’s on your land . . .” she said. “One with powers equally healing . . . one some saint has touched . . . ?”
Alan smiled at the abbess, to offer her sympathy along with encouragement. “We have the wells of Saint Michael and Saint Edmund already known.”
“But the well of Saint Keldreda, that has long been neglected. It is on your land, ay, but that land is waste. If it still has powers and if the Church approves it, my lord count, would you grant me the land?”
“Saint Keldreda’s? That’s unfamiliar to me. Where is it, on this supposed waste land?”
“Helgrind Moor. Over to west of here.”
No, even when told, Alan still didn’t know it. He looked to Hegrea, she knew this land well. She nodded.
“Ay, lady abbess. I’ll grant it to you – if the Church approves it.”
Abbess Leofrun nigh whistled as, again, she turned and left the hall.
As soon as the door closed, Alan again looked to Hegrea. “Well, what do you know of this well? Will the Church approve it? Has it a history, any miracles happening?”
Hegrea laughed. “Na, the Church never will agree it. Keldred? You heard Eld Freilsen say it, back there at Tree Brunna. It’s my people’s name for Kerrid, and you’ve met her. She’s . . . you might call her the Queen of the Bellinn. As for the place, Helgrind? A Breton you, you wouldn’t know. But ask any Dane or Northman here and he’ll tell you. Helgrind is Hell’s Gate. Na, you can rest easy, the church won’t agree it.”
“No-no-no-no-no, Lady Hegrea, you absolutely and most swiftly must unsay those unjustified words.” In his agitation, Zrone was dancing, his knees and elbows jutting and cutting at every sharp angle. “Oh, uncomfortable this, significant echoes of Neka’s banishment. And two blinks since Huat has prophesied – the final battle is to start when Neka escapes the abyss.”
Raesan! Neka, banishment, abyss: what’s all this about? Is this part of the stuff you’ve omitted? It did seem that way.
“This Saint Keldreda’s well, it gives onto the abyss?” Alan asked.
Zrone, still jumping, spread his hands. “I’m an awesome wise man? No-no-no-no, horses are me, magnificent horses, not oracular Webs. No-no-no-no, I need converse with our Huat, and make it unflinching fast. Huat knows of these troublesome things – he knows of the Costringham well, the Serpent’s Well, so he calls it. That’s why Huat and Freilsen spend much of their time there – to tirelessly guard it.”
“But you panic for nothing,” Nihel told him. “You heard Hegrea. The Church won’t approve it. Besides, if this too were an entrance, why is no one there guarding it?”
. _____ .
Next episode, 13th August: St Keldreda’s Well