Regin-yorl sat on the edge of the dais, his lieutenants, the Stoats, beside him. Gudrum, Razimer, Raum, Eilif, Eirik and Eida. He didn’t look happy. But then that high seat was his and Zemowit sat on it.
Neve had tricked Raesan into showing her this. Now she understood the Atonement, understood the Oath, she knew how important it was to find her mother and Grandpa Eddy. Only, how to find him when they couldn’t even agree his identity. He was Regin-yorl, she was certain. And the proof of it lay with the Cesars, though she couldn’t say why. Gudrum knew. Every time her thoughts returned to this scene, there was Gudrum looking oddly at the Cesars as they stood at the far side of the hall. But how to ask Raesan to show her again, when he was jealous of Regin. It was ridiculous, across one thousand years. Besides, the man was her grandfather.
It was Raesan himself gave her the chance. All week he had slumped on the recliner, not playing his music, not even playing his hand-held game. Neve guessed why his depression, confirmed when, her playlist on random, The Doors People Are Strange started to play.
“Must you play that music?” he snapped at her. “Rutting apt, wouldn’t you say. Strange and lonely, yeh. And The Lost Boys, it’s the jigging music from Lost Boys. That song is saying of me.”
“Raesan, it’s not . . .” But what could she say. “I hardly notice the words, it’s the keyboards. That Ray Manzarek was simply brilliant.” Yet she skipped that track. “Is that why the gloomies? You’ve shown me Guy’s story so now you must leave, be strange and lonely again?” And if he left now she’d never again see the Cesars.
He’d looked at her, face blank, while outside the rain had lashed at the windows, the rainclouds so heavy it was almost as night. She’d grabbed the moment, saying of the Atonement, the Oath, of finding her grandpa and how she needed Raesan for that. She needed to go to Eldsland again. She was careful not to say of Regin.
“I think Gudrum has the answer. Him and the Cesars. If you’ll show me again . . . ?”
“Gudrum, eh, King of Danelaw?”
Neve had looked away lest he saw how she chewed on her lip. Would he take the bait? It was obvious he didn’t want to leave. More ventures into Eldsland, that would answer them both.
He left the recliner. He strolled so nonchalantly to the chimney-breast wall, his finger tracing around her embroideries.
“Cos, you, yeh, with your chasing history . . . I could show you Gudrum when he was young. Gudrum, yeh, in the Frankish court.”
True, his offer was tempting but she couldn’t accept. “We’ve not the time. Look, it’s already September. So many weekends we’ve spent on this. And now that you’ve shown me the reason, I know I must hurry. For even after we’ve verified my grandpa’s identity we’ve still to find him.” And she couldn’t begin to guess at the how of that.
“Would be faster, yeh, if you didn’t go work everyday,” Raesan said. “I could show you Gudrum right from his young days. You’d like that, Lady, with your history. And we’d soon have the truth of your grandfa, too – if we repeated it every day.”
“No, Raesan. Sorry, but you can forget that; I’m not quitting work.” It was her sanity, it kept her grounded. Besides, work provided an escape from Raesan. And while there she could review what she’d gleaned from his memories, winkle-out what might be hidden. Like reading between the lines.
“But, Lady, you don’t need to work. I know you have money – your Uncle James said. And if you didn’t work, yeh, then we could be more together. Then maybe you’d find no need to lust after that one.” He turned a hopeful face to her.
She ignored his scarcely-veiled implication. He had behaved himself recently. Still, if he must play his games . . . “No, forget it. I don’t need your memories. I know where my mother is, and likely my grandpa’s there too. I’ll book a flight to New Zealand – as you say, I do have the money.” For someone who’d never played poker she congratulated herself on keeping a straight face.
He rested his back against the chimney-breast wall, his hands the while fumbling to find his pockets. But he was wearing pyjamas, pink teddies on navy. He shrugged instead. “Na, you’re jesting me. You’re a penny-pee-pants, you, afraid of flying. So, let’s talk instead of your grandfa, yeh. Can you prove that he’s Regin-yorl? Cos I can’t see it as him.”
“The key lies with the Cesars.”
Oh, she had tricked him, but now she realised he’d tricked her too – into agreeing that he could stay. Still, while verifying her grandfather’s identity, she would get to feast her eyes again upon Razimer.
She inwardly grinned as Kazla’s memory arose of him. Razimer in eye-shadow and soft pinky silks. And he’d been a Viking then? His colours now were more muted – wrapped against the evening chill, a quilted-wool cloak, deep navy, lined soft blue. But she knew, embroidered in blues and greys, huge across the back was a bull’s head with enormous horns, and that marked him as a warrior still. As if the hefty double-headed fighting-axe, that rested head down against his leg, did not. Or the wide-bladed sword that hung from its baldric, its leather-covered scabbard making friends with the axe. Even the seven streamered banner cradled in the crook of his arm announced him as a fighting man. She ought to have despised him. There were even hints of more knives and axes beneath his cloak. Surely the man must have clanked when he moved.
He was watching his sister. Neve didn’t need to join with his thoughts to know him conflicted. She guessed the cause, having already found clues with Kazla. His loyalties were divided. Sworn to protect his sister, yet sworn as well to Regin. He had asked her, twice already, to leave where she was in the north, with Baran-jarl, and travel with him and Regin. But she wouldn’t, and he was afraid of what trouble she’d get into, the wild little cat.
I thought it Gudrum you wanted to see, Raesan said. Now you’re worrying of little Kazla.
Oh, is she not your type?
He said nothing, except he changed the view. Now Gudrum alone was in her sight. He wore silks, dark reds and purples, all heavy with gold-threaded embroidery. He looked more the yorl than Regin, Indeed, he looked the king that he’d been. Some habits . . . she supposed. Like Razimer’s belt, his too fair-strained with the knives, and a sword. A double-headed axe was hung from it, its cutting edge steel, the blade silver inlaid. The design looked the same as she’d seen on his coat: the Tree of Life. Yggdrasil.
Who is his source? Most others here were Silver Folds (Water as she’d renamed them), though Razimer and his sister were Crystal, their source being Zemowit. But alone of the Bellinn-begots, Gudrum’s light was Flame. Only the Asars Jiar, Zrone and Freilsen, were that.
And she was suddenly awake, on her settee, again.
“You didn’t have to bring me out of your memories just to answer me that,” she snapped.
“What, Lady, afraid I won’t let you return to him? Convenient, yeh, that Gudrum was always so close to Regin-yorl. Gudrum’s father was Conan, grandson of Freilsen. But he doesn’t know that. His mother, yeh, the neglected wife of Harald Klak, was seduced at the court of Louis the Pious. But our Gudrum knew nothing till a certain valkyrie, yeh, explained to him, one night, of his nature.”
“But . . .” she said and then was quiet while she thought. She could understand how she, a Silver Fold, might be confused of her source: Was it Amblushe or one of the Cesars? And she could see how easy it would be, amongst so many Silver Folds, to inbreed unknowingly. Yet that couldn’t be so for someone like Gudrum. “Raesan, you said this inbreeding thing was hard to avoid because few Bellinn know of their source. Yet Gudrum has a fire light and no one else does – least, not any Bellinn in that section of Eldsland. So where is the problem?”
“The problem, yeh, is what you don’t see. Yon Gudrum’s grandfa was Freilsen, yeh. From Freilsen he takes the Flame Fold. But what you and he don’t know, yeh, is that he’s also a grandson of Uadnis – Kerrid’s daughter. Uadnis, she was a busy breeder, yeh, so it’s well that she’s dead – though not before she seeded the western seaboard with her Bellinn daughters.”
“But I don’t understand. I would have thought Kerrid’s light stronger than Freilsen’s. So why is Gudrum a Flame and not a Gold?”
“See how much you don’t know? It’s cos Uadnis, yeh, didn’t take Kerrid’s Gold Fold. Her father was a Silver, being son to your own source, Amblushe the Mother of Millions. And before you ask, no one knows why one type takes, yeh. and not the other. I only know of Gudrum’s sources cos I’ve lived in that land since, well, a very long time. So you see why it’s not safe to beget? And you haven’t yet seen what happens to the inbreds, there being no old ones where I show you.”
“But Old Cesar—”
He laughed. “You think she’s a grimmen? I told you, horror movie ugly, the grimmen. Distressing that, too, for the decayed ones’ parents – as Svana and Snaebiorn will one day learn. Cos when it comes, see, it’s usual those parents still are alive. Computate it, yeh, the Nocks’ longevity halves at each generation.”
She didn’t need the numbers; she nodded. “So what of The Watcher, is it a grimmen?”
The question seemed to throw Raesan into confusion, his gaze rapidly shifting. Well, she couldn’t wait for his answer, she wanted to return to Eldsland. Though she did ask him of Kerrid, had she many children still living. “You’ve shown me only Lirabien,” she said.
“Yeh, Lirabien – and you think he’s kept away from the women? You could think on that, yeh; Who’s your father? Are you an inbred, doomed to end your days as a grimmen? Ah, but that Lirabien, he’s old-old now – yet he still he has his boat.”
“Ship,” Neve corrected without thinking.
He bit his lip before he continued. “Did you know Lirabien has Freilsen’s blood too? That’s why his great age – double the blood, double longevity.”
“Yea, Raesan, I take your point now. So will you take me back to Eldsland, to where we were?”
“With Gudrum. No need to see anyone else.”
She nodded – and found herself, almost at once, slipping into Gudrum’s thoughts. His gaze at first was locked on the Cesars. But it shifted to Hawk, and again to the Cesars.
But it wasn’t the Cesars he saw, not all three. For Gudrum there only was one.
The hall faded from around her. Gone the Bellinn, gone the dais with its drums and banners. Gone the silken-gowned maidens. They were in a wide tree-dotted valley, a chilly May night with the smell of may-blossoms and dew thick on the ground. A three-quarter moon hung to the west. Several times Gudrum glanced at it, drawn there by the swoop of an owl. He sat by a campfire, his warriors around him variously laughing and whispering, their horses tethered and nickering behind them.
His men hadn’t yet noticed the woman. Gudrum had, and he kept an eye keened to her as she meandered her way past the thousands of other encampments. He saw how the men looked up at her passing. And even at a distance he saw their shudders. She disturbed them, every one, these men at their preparations, sharpening their axes, seaxes and swords, inspecting their armour be it a mere padded-coat or, for the fortunate ones, scale-formed of iron, bone or boiled leather. They helped their comrades shave their heads the better their felt skullcaps to adhere – pointless a helmet that slipped or rattled. But amongst these there were others, like Gudrum himself, initiates of the cults be it boar or bear. They spent this time communing with spirit, for that spirit was all the armour they wore. She disturbed them all by her nightly wandering. She disturbed Gudrum too.
He knew who she was despite she hid in a black Arab robe. The memory was still fresh of their first meeting. It was the day that he’d allowed his cousin Rorek to believe him dead. It had seemed easier that way. Twenty years past, twenty years gone. He corrected himself: twenty-two.
Twenty-two years, and what a bloody trail he’d left behind him. He ought to have stayed and helped his cousin to regain his seat, to overthrow the bairn Erik. But those years could not be undone; he was what he was.
She now was nearing his own small encampment. He looked round at his men, each chosen for loyalty, for fearless fighting and their battle-rages. Chosen too for their devotion, though not all were initiates. All wore his arm-ring, even the Bellinn. He snorted, self-deriding. Around his fire was a glow brighter than seen by the other kings there. For here with their Bellinn lights were Eirik and Eilif, and Eida and Tythwar, Raum, Razimer, and Regin. A lump rose in his throat. That one such as Regin should acknowledge him his king, that was honour beyond any asking.
His men had seen her; they were none-too-quiet in their whispers. She was a valkyrie, they said – though the Bellinn amongst them knew better. She was here on the eve of the battle to decide who she’d take to the Hall of the Slain.
They had seen her many times walk thus on the eve of a battle, many times since they’d joined the raiding army. Many times, too, Gudrum had seen her as she walked through the aftermath, that great swathe through life that was the reaper’s reward. He’d seen her seek out, not the dead, but the wounded. He had watched from a distance as she had healed them. For she, like these thousands of men, had followed Bagsecg-king to England and there stayed, despite Bagsecg-king had lasted only the year. That was now eight years past.
Bagsecg-king had led Gudrum here too, tempting him and his men with stories of land. Oh, there was land right enough, but in the north and held by the Trondheimers and the Trondheimers and Danes didn’t mix. Least, not without murder done first.
The valkyrie was close enough now that he could see her eyes, could see where they looked. Not at him. They looked, as ever, into the thick of his men, to Inn Hrafn who sat with hone-stone to blade.
A word with you, Gudrum Kin-of-Kings, he heard her voice in his head.
Not in front of my men. Did she want them taking dire omens?
Ney. That thicket beyond the brook. Meet me there.
. _____ .
Next episode, 17th September: Raven Maze