The question niggled at her. Neve wanted to ask but dared not, not while Raesan was driving through late afternoon traffic. What if in anger he lost focus and swerved. He could cause an accident. He could kill her. He could kill many others. She envisioned a multi-car pile-up. And even if all he did were to hit the brake and kick her out of the car, it was miles before the next town where she might catch a bus or a train. Yet the question ate into her. Why had Feilan called him evil, and Kalina, a demon? What had he done? And was that the reason he’d not Reconciled with the others. Had the angels refused him? She glanced at him. His eyes were fixed on the road. His ears burned red.
The afternoon merged into evening and still she said nothing. The day’s heat dissipated dissolving the shimmer from the road. A cool wind tore at her hair. She thought she could smell the sea air. They soon would be home.
Raesan crunched the gears as he took the turning off the Norwich Road and onto Yalesham’s High Street. The Spitfire’s tires screeched. “Why don’t you ask?” he said without even a glance at her. “Sit on a question, yeh, it hatches into something other. You find your own answers, and they mightn’t be true.”
“It’ll wait till we’re home.” It was safer that way.
He asked the question for her, even as he was closing the front door behind her. “What were they prattling about, yeh, about me being evil.” And he answered, too. “They’re jealous, yeh, resentful of me.”
Neve mused on that while making the coffee. Jealous children in the playground, the teacher’s pet abused with names. Yet Raesan was no teacher’s pet. “Why are they jealous?”
“Well, cos they couldn’t Reconcile, yeh, and I could.”
She nodded acceptance of that. She could understand: the Asars had descended to Earth, begotten the Bellinn upon unsuspecting humans, and tainted their blood so they could no longer die. Living forever as outcasts of human society, what was the difference between them and Bram Stoker’s vampires? Then, to rub salt, the Asars had Reconciled and left the offspring behind. Yea, Neve understand; deserted by her mother, their resentment resonated deep in her heart. And she was one of them. Yet his explanation didn’t fit. Kalina had said it, that Neve didn’t know him, being born post-Oath. So whatever he’d done, it was before the Atonement.
“But, Raesan, if it’s only resentment, why say you are evil?”
“Well, yeh, but they see all Asars as evil – the Asars abandoned their children, yeh. And now the others are gone, and there’s only me, I take their wrath.”
“How awful, to pin it all upon you,” Neve said in sad-toned empathy.
Raesan hung his head, his light closed around him – just like a child seeking a hug to make it all better. Yet as she returned to the coffees she heard his sigh.
“Bastard!” She turned back to him. Though she’d not been deceived. “Trying to pull on my sympathies. Now you tell me the truth.”
He was hands-up. “I swear it, Lady, that is the reason. I’ll swear on whatever you want me to swear on. They take it out on me, ‘cos the others aren’t here.”
She’d have slammed his coffee mug down on the table, had the table not been her grandma’s. Instead she slid it towards him with a snarl. “The truth,” she demanded and left him to think on it while she brought life and light to the front room. She scrolled through her playlists, and hit on the one artist she knew he didn’t like. Gothic B-Damned. What a shame their medieval music reminded him, painfully it seemed, of the days before the Asars’ Atonement.
“You don’t believe me,” he accused from the doorway, his face folded into a sulk. “That noxious Feilan has tainted your head with his lies.”
“So prove that he’s wrong. Tell me.”
She waited. He said nothing, and instead of his usual restless pace he slumped into the recliner.
“I could continue this search alone,” she threatened. “There are trains; I know how to use them. There are taxis; I can afford them. But, Raesan, I would rather we did it together.” Was that enough pressure upon a lonely outcast from his only Bellinn friend? “So tell me, what did you do?”
“I didn’t do anything, and that’s the truth.” He buried his head in his hands, ears glowing beacon-red.
Despite Feilan’s recent accusation, she could easily believe he’d done nothing. Zrone had said the same of him: ‘Don’t-get-involved-Raesan’, he never does anything.
“So why didn’t you Reconcile with the others?”
And how was it done? Though at first she’d envisioned it in Star Trek style – ‘Beam me up, Scottie’ – yet the way Amphora had explained it to Guy, it was more a matter of perception. But then Amphora and Zadki hadn’t material bodies, they were illusions, whereas the Asars were firmly knitted into their fleshly forms. So did those bodies die? Her thoughts must have leaked. While speculating she hadn’t guarded them.
“Too many questions, yeh. How? I don’t know how. Ypsi and Zrone and . . . one moment around me, then . . . gone. I don’t know, yeh, but however it happened it didn’t happen to me. And for this, yeh, I’m blamed?” He hid his face again .
This time she could see he was crying. She chewed on her cheek. She hadn’t intended to push him to this. Whatever evil deed he’d done, he was genuinely distressed that he’d been left behind.
“Maybe you didn’t want to Reconcile?” she suggested. But she was no trained counsellor.
He raised his head, his eyes hard upon her. “You think that?” Clearly not pleased at her suggestion.
“I don’t know. Perhaps there was someone here in this world who you didn’t want to leave?”
He shook his head and again looked morose.
“So how about the Asars? Was there one you’d rather not be with? Zrone, maybe?”
“Perceptive, yeh, to note his dislike of me,” he said without raising his head. “But, na, you’re wrong. Zrone and me, we’re powers, see – he fire, me wind. Once Reconciled we’ d have served our Primes. We’d have been like worlds apart.”
“Fine. So have you problems with a wind-Asar?”
Oops! She had touched on a truth. His light snapped to a tight gold sheath, briefly seen. Then he blinked out of sight.
But the next morning when he joined her, too late for breakfast though Neve still sat at the table, his light was his usual yellow shimmer. Whatever his secrets, she allowed for now they’d remained his. She wanted to keep the mood light. She showed him a copy of the Domesday Book. He pushed it away. She persisted.
“Here, see? Bissenheath. That’s the village nearest to Feilan’s commune. In 1086 it was held by Count Alan. Why does that not surprise me.”
Raesan shrugged. “Count Alan held lots of land in East Anglia.”
“In Lincolnshire too. In Candleshoe wapentake,” she said though she’d a feeling she talking aloud to herself. “But it’s a complicated system, what with sokelands and berewicks. It’s not easy to follow. Why couldn’t they have had simple manors as they did the south? Yea-yea, no need to answer, I know; it’s because Suffolk-through-Yorkshire was all former Danelaw. Still, my bet is that we’ll find the Candleshoe commune somewhere on Count Alan’s land. By the way, did you know he held grandma’s land too?”
“So that proves it then, doesn’t it, yeh. Count Alan’s land would have passed to Edmund.”
“No it didn’t; he was illegitimate. It passed to Alan’s brothers – Nihel and Stefan. And from Stefan’s son to the Breton dukes. That’s when Edmund became a pirate.”
“Corsair, you said.”
“And what’s a corsair if not a legalised pirate? And what’s more, ‘Edmund the Pirate’ had hair as red as the lady’s he served, and she was known as the Flame. So, there, proof. He can’t be my grandpa. My grandpa’s hair was as dark as my own. Darker.”
For once Raesan didn’t argue. His morose mood held.
“So I’m marking every place on this map that Alan once held. That should help narrow the search – since, according to you, you don’t know where the place is.” It would have helped to have a map of the wapentake boundaries for Lindsey. She had one for Yorkshire found on the Net.
“They’re Skrauti’s,” Raesan offered in monotone. “The Lindsey commune, yeh. Skrauti’s Land.”
“Oh, so that much you know?”
He didn’t answer but scraped back the chair, upped to his feet, yanked open the door to the utility room and the garden beyond. Incongruous with the scent of flowers and the laundry products, he snarled back at her, “Can’t you have pity, yeh? You heard what they said at Bissen; they’ll kill me.”
She ignored his plea. It was unlikely anyway since he was an Asar and they merely nocks.
“I’m taking an overnight bag,” she said. “Though it shouldn’t take us above the day but you never know where this might lead. Hey, we might hit jackpot, we might find Regin.”
“Yeh, and you might listen,” his voice trailed in from the garden.
Then Regin could tell her where to find Constance. Maybe it wasn’t her mother in New Zealand. And she’d take her copy of Domesday Book; it was more informative than anything she’d found on the Internet, and easier to access. She would spend that evening in charging batteries: music, laptop – her tolerance levels. And she’d try not to worry about what fiendish deed this ‘demon’ Raesan had done.
~ ~ ~
Skrauti’s Land was one more box-filled field along the coast road. The boxes were caravans, though other fields sprouted brick-built chalets. Raesan pulled his car into a lay-by. Without the roar of the engine and the wheels on the road, Neve could hear the sea as it crashed against a shingle beach, somewhere hidden behind a seawall.
“You’re sure of this, yeh?” Raesan asked her.
“What, sure of the place, or that I want to go through with it?”
Wrong thing to say. He looked sharply away.
There was no gate to the caravan site but a sign announcing ‘No Vacancies’. No vacancies, yet with no sign of life. No cars. No rubbish. No open windows. This was September. The children were back at school but there still were late holidaymakers around.
“There’s a building at the back of the caravans. It’s probably pretending to be the site’s clubhouse.” She turned the laptop so Raesan could see. He deigned a glance before he again turned away. She went on regardless. “But unlike Bissen Hall there are no banners flying. Any suggestions of who we might find?”
“I’ve said haven’t I. Skrauti.”
Neve didn’t much rate what she’d seen of Skrauti, back in Eldsland circa 1086. But she’d not be put off; neither by that nor by Raesan’s constant glances in said direction, anxious fingers drumming the steering wheel. He seemed less than enthusiastic about the meeting, his light an agitation about him. Neve wondered the state of her own.
“What about his brothers,” she asked. “Starri wasn’t it? And Audri and Togrim?”
“Toggy won’t be here, he went to Brittany.”
“With Edmund?” she asked, keen to keep him talking now he had started.
“With Lirabien Marskonung. Listen, yeh, the last I knew, Dove was here too, so . . . so just take my word and don’t mention Lirabien, huh. He’s not that long dead. Their son Dofni, yeh, he’s likely here too.”
“Right, I’ll remember. And thanks for the warning.” It was not her intent to cause upset – except with Raesan. “Seems you know more about this commune than you’ve admitted.”
“I know enough, yeh, that you don’t want to enter. Nevey, listen, they . . . they won’t know anything. You don’t need to talk to that Skrauti.”
She ignored him, his words born of panic. But what had he done to so offend Skrauti? “Who’s Skrauti’s lady?” she asked.
He inhaled deeply, unable to hide the ensuing tremor. “Geirrida.”
“Then let’s go meet them.” She gathered her breath, a mental gird of her loins. “And please, Raesan, remember the story. I’m looking for Regin-yorl because he might know where Grandpa Edmund is.”
“Protecting Regin-yorl’s reputation?” Raesan sneered. “Or afraid to accuse him outright?”
It was her turn to refuse an answer. She looked away.
~ ~ ~
The weather was the coolest it had been all month – which might explain the Bellinn’s black coats as the men gathered around Raesan’s car. Long dusters, as in the Spaghetti Westerns. And if not that then black leather jackets. One, as outstanding as a sombrero at the North Pole, wore sweatshirt and jeans. As for their battered straw hats and wide-brimmed leather-affairs, they seemed ill-matched. She recognised the brothers Eilif and Eirik; they’d been with Gudrum around his camp fire on the eve of the Ethandun battle. Eilif had a violin in one hand, a bow in the other; wraparound sunglasses held back his dark hair. Raum, too, was there, a staff in his hand, his old pennant in tatters tied to it.
No doubt by design, Skrauti was the last to appear – in navy pin-stripe ‘city suit’, pink shirt and a narrow burgundy tie. Geirrida, finger-grooming her long black hair, held onto his arm. Neve sarcastically thought it for balance: the lady wore four-inch stilettos. But apart from those, her outfit was classic couture: a white linen dress and jacket. She dripped pearls. Her lips were painted cherry-red.
“Well,” Skrauti said, his eyes lingering on Neve, “what the hell have we here?”
“I’m with her, I’m only the chauffeur,” Raesan scrambled to say.
“Kathlin at Bissen Hall said Regin-yorl might be here. Is he?” Neve asked blithely as if unaware of the weird situation. “Only I’m hoping he’ll know where Edmund is – Count Alan and Gunnhild’s son. You remember Gunnhild? She stayed with Amblushe at Tree Brunna while she birthed the child.”
“Edmund, hmm?” Skrauti stroked his chin while he pondered. “Okay, to you I shall speak. But not to your sidekick. You can stay. Get out of the car so that Raesan can drive the hell away. Hear what I’m saying, Raesan?”
“No, he stays with me,” Neve interrupted. She needed Raesan where she could see him.
Skrauti’s hand began to motion, his mouth began to say. But all that stopped at the sound of the clubhouse door slamming.
Neve recognised the woman there framed, dressed in pedal-pusher jeans and a skimpy white top. Dove. After all these centuries, she still looked too young to be a mother. Assumingly, the young man beside her was Dofni, her son. He reminded Neve of someone once met, though she couldn’t remember. Then in a snap it came to her. The summer term she was fourteen, she’d gone on a school trip to the Royal Norfolk Show. A mostly agricultural affair yet there’d been various street entertainers moving around. And that’s where she’d seen him; a wild-haired magician in garish coloured gear. The colours were gone; now he wore a black leather jacket. But that wild hair remained.
“Ah, Raesan, ungreetings!” Dove said. “Good men die while the foul survives. What are you doing here with your stench?”
“He’s here to deliver this lady.” Black duster-coat undone and swinging, naked chest shining, he looked in his mid-teens. Yet Neve had seen him, if only in the thoughts of Eida; she knew who he was. Harri, Eida’s father. He pushed up the wide brim of his black leather hat with his staff. “I don’t know this lady might be, but I do know that Raesan’s now leaving.” He opened the passenger door to indicate that Neve should now exit the car.
“I’ll go,” Raesan said.
“No.” Neve remained in the car. “You stay. I’ve words to say to this Skrauti.”
“Lord,” Skrauti corrected her.
“Lord of a coven, maybe,” she conceded, “but not of a kingdom.”
He knew what she meant, clear there in the worry-lines now marring his brow. She watched as the muscles around his eyes tightened.
“Oh!” she exclaimed with wide-eyed innocence. “Have I said too much? These good people don’t know about that? That even as Lord Zemowit was bringing us word of Cnut-king’s death, you were plotting?”
Skrauti feigned nonchalance, he shrugged. “That was a thousand years gone.”
“What was a thousand years gone? And what’s this of plotting?” The newcomer had to be Gisl; Neve could see her likeness to Harri, a sharing of delicate facial features. She had, overall, a Victorian look, in primrose lace blouse and gold taffeta skirt, cinched tight by a wide azure belt. Dofni moved closer, his arm snaffling her waist. She flashed him a smile.
“It’s long ago-gone.” Skrauti flicked a dismissive hand. “It was nothing, just Raesan’s friend stirring.”
“I mayn’t like Raesan,” Gisl said with a look directly at him. “Indeed, I thought it the sewers again. But neither am I keen on you, Lord Skrauti. So what’s this about? Dark Lady, do tell. What dirt can you dish upon him?”
Neve had only spoken in defence of Raesan, now she regretted her words. It wasn’t as if she knew the truth of Raesan, perhaps these Bellinn were right to scorn him. Yet it did remain that, a thousand years past, Skrauti had been wrong to be plotting. So, still playing the innocent, Neve ploughed on.
“It was that time when Lord Zemowit came to Tree Brunna, to tell us that Cnut-king was dead and there’d be no invasion. You remember it? Skrauti didn’t like that news, it grossly upset him, and I wondered why. Then I happened to overhear him talking. It seems he’d been plotting to overthrow the Norman king in the brouhaha that the invasion would bring.”
Heads snapped round to look at him. The dark Yarisul. Lady Geirrida. Her daughter, the petite Dalla, dressed all in white, who now was pushing her way through the men . . .
“Couldn’t help but hear,” she said, a sarcastic smile offered to Skrauti. “But who’s this stranger come loaded with dirt?”
“Nineve,” Raesan answered for her. Herself, she’d given no thought to a cover story. “She’s Breton, kin to Gudrum – they both share Uadnis as source.”
“I was visiting Tree Brunna that day that Amblushe abduction young Gunnhild,” Neve picked up the story.
Dalla eyed her suspiciously. “Anyone remember seeing this . . . Nineve there?”
“I was getting somewhat deep into—” she raked her memory; who was there who now might be dead else long overseas.
“I thought I recognised you,” Harri pre-empted her. “You were with my son Eida, getting frisky.”
Neve smiled. Though he’d tried to trick her, it couldn’t have worked better. “No, that was Alfeida.” And she must have been there, for how else would she know.
“And what, exactly, did you hear our Lord Skrauti say?” Geirrida asked, voice and face tight with concern.
“Oh, that while all attention was on the Dane-king Cnut, he would slither and sneak and kill the Norman king.”
“As you have said.” Geirrida’s eyes stayed upon Skrauti. “Say more.”
Neve suddenly wished she were Christian, to pray to their god. Would Odinn help her with this? She beseeched him. And, oddly, a strange calm swept through her, inspiration-infused.
“You understand, I wasn’t party to his plans. But he said he would claim the throne, as Harold-king’s heir. Then . . . but this I must have mis-overheard. He was to reveal, to all, our existence – we Bellinn. For only then, so he said, could we celebrate our powers – it’s never been known, we’ve remained always hidden.”
Each part of her words was greeted by hisses and gasps and murmurs. None of these Bellinn looked friendly at Skrauti. She told herself she’d done the right thing. Yet it all was so long ago, it seemed wrong to rake it up now. Yet the man wasn’t sane, at least not at that time. And now she’d said this much, she ought to continue.
“He wasn’t thinking logically – not acting in anyone’s best interest, not even his own. Just think, he’d have weakened the country’s defences just at a time when they most were needed. We Bellinn aren’t enough in number to hold a defence. And I doubt that the full-blooded Asars would have sided with him, with Skrauti I mean. He’d have brought us all to an end. Those angel-speakers with their holy water, they’d have destroyed us. As well that Zemowit didn’t hear of it.” Zemowit had been in favour of the Dane-king, so what she’d said of defences may not have been relevant. Yet there was no denying the effect his plot would have had on the Bellinn.
“It’s not true!” Skrauti blustered while trying to laugh.
“Witnesses?” Geirrida asked, raising a brow.
Now Neve was in a fix. She had to name at least the one else Skrauti and the others would call her a liar. Then who knew what they’d do. So much for her quest.
“Titling,” she offered. “Zemowit’s son. And Drifa. He had approached them, discussed it, but they wouldn’t support him. I don’t know of others. Perhaps his brothers.”
Despite the barrage of accusing eyes, Skrauti said nothing. The moment dragged on. Awkward. A scraping at Neve’s nerves. She had to break it.
“So don’t any of you point a finger at Raesan. Whatever he’s done, he hasn’t threatened to expose you, not in the way of that one. No, rather, by helping Guy, Raesan helped heal the rift that had for so long set the Asars, our sources, apart from their kin.”
“Oh hooray for the Asars,” Skrauti jeered. “And what about us, left behind? Had my scheming worked, at least we could have enjoyed our sojourn. Instead we must hide.”
“Enjoyed?” Geirrida spat. “This Breton nock has it right with what she has said. We’d have all been dead. Destroyed by their holy water, by their prayers and exorcisms. They’d have crucified us. And she is right. Nothing that Raesan’s ever done has been for personal aggrandisement. You disgust me, Lord Skrauti.”
Lady Geirrida’s sneer bounced off the hard caravan walls. No one spoke – until Geirrida again turned to Neve.
“Well, I am surprised you need Regin-yorl to tell you where your Edmund is. He and Gunnhild went to Brittany.”
“Well, yes, I know that’s where he went,” Neve hurried to say – another part of her story not anticipated. “But he’s not been seen nor heard there these past three centuries. Are you saying that Regin-yorl isn’t here?” She made an act of scanning the Bellinn.
“Try up north,” Dove said and glanced a moment at Raesan. “I heard he went there with Heitha. But if he’s there now . . .? It was around the time that Groa went to Iceland and that’s long ago now.”
“North is a wide place,” Neve said hoping for more.
“There’s a village close by St. Keldred’s Well. Ask Raesan, he knows it.”
. _____ .
Next episode, 8th October: Purple Crocodiles