Skailton Hall. Neve tried to date it – thirteenth maybe fourteenth century – but her eyes skidded off to the church set behind it. Original, unaltered Saxon – or ought that to be Dane. A squat little building, stone-built with slate roof, and three tiny windows set high, it looked more a stronghold than church. Only its bell-arch betrayed it. There wasn’t a bell.
Chickens pecked in the scant grasses around her, trying to trip her as she made her way to the hall. She noted the outbuildings; incongruous slate roofs topped wattle-and-daub walls. She peered as she passed the one open door – it hung aslant from rusted hinges. A flash of metal within. Two motorcycles, black but heavily chromed. Big machines packing deep panniers intended for travel – else for the residents’ grocery shopping. Too soon the hall loomed above her. Three storeys straight up, then the steep pitched roof reaching yet higher. There was no visible door. Perhaps it was hidden some place at the back. What she knew of these early halls, this ground floor would be like a basement, used for storage and stabling.
She found the door. She’d have seen it sooner had her eyes not been taken by those black-and-chrome beasts. Stone steps, hugging the building, led up to a high-set entrance, obscured when standing too close beneath it. The steps were shallow, as if intended for children. The door was wide. Oak, iron-studded, bleached almost white by the glare of seven centuries of sun. To its left narrow windows reached the full two storeys. Such luxury, those, when first installed. Neve took a deep breath . . . there was a smell she wasn’t now used to: wood burning. There was another smell too – besides that of warm hay. It took her a moment to realise . . . it was that of a freshly killed chicken. It ought not to have puzzled her, the number of hens, no longer laying, she’d killed, gutted and plucked – then very long steamed, for old birds, elsewise, were inedibly stringy. She took a second deep breath, and a last minute rehearsal of her story.
The door, Hammer Horror heavy, opened at her second knock.
For a moment her story escaped her. Worse, she could think of nothing to say. In truth, she could have fallen through the steps with surprise.
“Eida,” she weakly squeaked out his name. But Eida was one of the Cesars’ brood. He belonged in Tree Brunna, not here. “Ah!” she exclaimed as her wits and reason returned. “You’re here with Alfeida, of course.”
It was the wrong thing to say. His face clouded with sadness. She thanked the Fates for the movement behind him. A door at the far end of the wide corridor, pushed slightly ajar.
“Who’s this?” asked the man. He revealed himself: slender, blond, and dressed, in contrast to Eida’s rugby shirt and white chinos, in a thigh-length tunic, embroidered with multi-rayed suns that could have been flowers, perhaps common ragwort. He wore an array of sheaths and pouches suspended from his low-slung belt. Neve hardly noticed the black long-sleeved t-shirt and dark denim jeans beneath it.
“She seems to know me,” Eida said with a shrug.
“Don’t know her,” the sun/flower man said. Neve desperately tried to put name to face.
“She’s Bellinn,” Eida said.
“Of course she’s Bellinn; am I blind. Who are you?” he finally addressed her. And she had his name now.
“Nineve. From Brittany. Though lately of Cornwall.” She graced her words with a passable French accent, unable to render the Cornish. “I know Eida from Tree Brunna. I was visiting when news came of Cnut-king’s death – that day when Amblushe abducted our Count Alan, remember? When our Saint Gui appealed for help in laying the dragon. You must remember me?” But had Tythwar been there? She thought possibly not.
“I’ve never seen you before,” Tythwar denied her.
“Ah, I remember now. You weren’t there at that time. Though I looked for you, knowing you were one of Regin-yorl’s Stoats.”
Tythwar glanced at Eida. Eida gave a short shake of his head.
“Matters not,” she pressed on with the story she had rehearsed. “I am here spreading the word. Count Alan’s son – Edmund Gunnhildsson – has decided all communes should be brought into the twenty-first century. It is time, he says, to install all services. Sewers – flush toilets, imagine that. Electricity, phone lines. Just think.” She gave her most dazzling smile, doing her utmost to enthuse with her words. “You may then have computers, and connect to the Web. You can communicate with your siblings around the world. Iceland no longer will be a harsh journey away. I’ve brought an example. Though I’m unsure how good the connection.”
“It, um, sounds interesting,” Eida said. “Though Rat and Kaz might know more of these things. Perhaps you ought speak to our lady.”
“She’s busy,” Tythwar hissed at him. Then whispered in his ear though Neve could still hear. “Spells. You know.”
Eida flashed a force smile. “As Tythwar says, our lady is busy. A spell of lady’s work, hay? You’d best wait in the hall until we can fetch her.”
Neve wanted to grin. Her story had worked, she was in. She was led into the hall, to wait.
She had expected with a thirteenth century hall to find a wide fireplace set against a wall. But she’d misjudged the age, as she’d have realised had she taken more note while outside. No chimneys. Instead, as with Regin-yorl’s hall, the fireplace, a solid stone hearth, occupied centre-floor. And, too, as with Regin-yorl’s hall, a raised dais was set at the far end, with two throne-like chairs framed by pillars ornately carved. With those features noticed, Neve paced – though her eyes still chased to take in more details.
On cold winter mornings the sun would have streamed through those tall narrow windows. But now was late afternoon, and in autumn, and despite the fire’s light the hall was gloomy. She looked up at the rafters. They, like the hearth and the dais, could have been lifted from Regin-yorl’s hall. She thought how amazing, she was here seeing this, not as before through the eyes of another. This was a real eleventh century hall. She didn’t notice the voices – until she stopped pacing.
At first all she heard was a rhythmic sound, like a chant, muffled and too softly spoken to distinguish the words. But as her ears peaked she heard words that were names. If she concentrated she could, just, discern them: William Bibcock, Sandra Whiskard, Nathan Whiskard . . . on and one, reeled the chanted names. And, as accompaniment, she also could hear a mechanical sound. It kept the same rhythm, it was almost hypnotic. Her eyes felt heavy. They started to close.
But they shot open again. She spun round. A man stood at the north door (though it opened onto the same wide corridor).
“Gudrum,” she gasped, a hand to her chest.
“Apologies,” he said. “No intent to startle.” His smile was calming, disarming. And his clothes, arctic camouflage she noted wryly, had from an Army and Navy Surplus Store. “Eida tells me you’ve come seeking Lady Zelina.” She could see Eida and Tythwar lurking in the corridor behind him. “She’s busy.”
“Yes, I’ve been told.” So the lady here was Zelina, Amblushe’s daughter. That surprised her. Had she not inherited her mother’s land in Romania, Bulgaria, the Ukraine or wherever. Evidently not. “But tell me, Gudrum, are you the lord here?” He ought to be. He’d once been a king.
His smile changed to a grin. “Hardly, no. That will be Zabos. And don’t let him hear you mistake me for the lord. But I came asking if there’s anything we can . . . supply. For your comfort.”
A comfy chair would not go amiss. There were none in the hall, apart from the thrones, only the trestle-type benches and those mostly stacked.
“You could answer me a question,” Neve said, a thrill of excitement making her bold. Gudrum-king, here, within touching distance! But here were Gudrum, Eida and Tythwar, and they’d all been close to Regin-yorl; it was an opportunity not to miss. “I am puzzled. Here I’ve been visiting the Bellinn communes on this mission from Edmund Gunnhildsson. But as yet I’ve not encountered Regin-yorl. You were his lieutenant, I know, so perhaps you’d know where he is. Has he gone to Iceland with Groa?”
“No, little Breton Nineve, I can say categorically he isn’t in Iceland. But why your interest?”
That was the big question. And had she the habit of nibbling her nails she might have revealed how much it unsettled her. “I believe he could be my grandfather.”
“That is unlikely,” Tythwar said as he walked from the doorway slowly into the hall.
“Though admit it, she does bear a resemblance,” Gudrum answered him, pre-empting what Neve had planned to say. “But, no, to our knowledge Artred begot no more after the deaths of Syena and Gyrenod – and that was before the Romans came here. Isn’t that right, Tythwar? Angeln, you were here before us. You’ve known him the longer.”
“No, I think you’ve misheard me,” Neve cut between them. “I was asking after Regin-yorl. He had his hall at Tree Brunna.”
“And I, too, was speaking of Regin-yorl.” Gudrum said. “But his true name is Artred; Artred of Costs Isle.”
“Then Regin is only a title, a byname?” Had Raesan told her as much? She couldn’t remember. But no, he’d said only of Arthur.
“Regin, Jarl, what’s the difference, the name means to rule. And so Artred did. He had ruled over that portion of Eldsland since . . . oh, I don’t know, since long before Angeln or Dane came to this land.”
“And young Gudrum should know it – isn’t that so?” Tythwar said with a slight chuckle. “Didn’t you have to wheedle and deal with Regin, just to have that land to give to Oddr.”
Oddr, she knew that name though she couldn’t immediately place it. Then it came to her. But that was Aroddr, not Oddr. It was that time she had joined with Hawk’s thoughts as he studied the Arnlings’ frieze that ran around Regin-yorl’s hall. Aroddr, Hawk’s ancestor. Arnssholm had been his family home, lost to Erik Barn, King of Danes. But Hawk was insistent, the saga-band had recorded the names wrong. It ought to have been ‘Aroddr and Arnorr’, not ‘Inn Hrafn’, Arnorr had been wounded, he’d died, while Aroddr had been banished and forced into exile. Aroddr then had joined with Bagsecg-king. He had fought beside Gudrum. It had been Gudrum-king who’d given Tree-Brunna Chase to Aroddr. But of course. It was now making sense, the pieces slotting to place. She wanted to laugh. That portion of Eldsland had overlain Hawk’s ancestral holding, and Hawk’s ancestral holding was amongst the land granted to Count Alan after Ralf de Gael’s rebellion of 1075.
She wanted to ask more but now other Bellinn were crowding around her. Barely noticed, they’d entered through both north and south doors. But now as the last entered she saw who was left there, framed between door-jambs. Lady Zelina and her lord.
“Tythwar. Always the chatterer. Indiscreet,” Zelina said. Ice blonde like her mother, with baby-thick lips, and wearing . . . was that a pink nightgown? Neve bit her lip not to chuckle. Silky, voluminous – and semi-transparent. But the effect of its delicate pink was destroyed by the blood she wiped from her hands. “Can you not see? She cannot be of your jarl Regin’s begetting. She’s a recent hatchling, not yet fifty years old.”
“You’re wrong in that,” Neve said though she softened the denial with a respectful bow. “Do you not remember me? That day your mother abducted Gunnhild?” She had to keep talking; the more she could say, the more convincing would be her claim. “But of course, such confusion, what with Vyvain thwarted in her designs upon Count Alan, and the mortals taken by her brothers, then Lord Zemowit’s visit as well, and our Lady-Queen and her Lord descending on wings. A memorable day, how easy to forget me. And I, like you, did not belong at Regin-yorl’s hall.”
“You were with Raesan,” Zelina said with a cruel curl of her lips.
“I was visiting Raesan,” Neve corrected. “I was not with him. We hail from the same region. Lord Freilsen’s and Ardhea’s Breton-land.”
“Zabos?” Zelina turned to her lord.
Zabos shrugged. “I never remember faces. I only look at their tits.”
“So crude. Why do I persist . . .” she punched him low in his guts. He creased, face reddening – which clashed with the orange silk of his shirt.
“So,” Zelina returned her attention to Neve. “Assuming you are as you say, what do you here?”
Neve repeated her story of Edmund, that he wanted to install services, to bring the communes into the twenty-first century. She didn’t know how many other communes existed on land formerly held by Count Alan, but she knew of three. And those three had no means to communicate with each other. Her story was sound.
“Edmund says he’s had enough of everyone glum and hiding away while they wait for their death to come. Lady Anwen is so excited. She has sent me out to spread the word.”
“Lady Anwen?” Zelina queried.
This was the one weakness in Neve’s story, but she could blag it. “Anwen, lady of the Cornish commune. I’ve been recently with her.”
“You are a liar,” Zelina said. “Hegrea is Lady of the Cornish. She fled to there when I ousted her from here in the north.”
Ignoring the danger, Neve feigned a laugh at Zelina’s ignorance. “But if you had access to the Web you would know. Hegrea died, more than a hundred years since, in 1878. I was with her. The new lady is Hegrea’s daughter, begotten by Nihel, Count Alan’s brother. Such a romantic story. The first man she’d loved since Arith rescued her from your brother and mother.”
“You’re a fast liar, I’ll grant you that,” Zelina said. “But I’ve now had time to visit your head – not so easy to block while you babble like that. Is it. Dear. And I hear Raesan’s voice loud in there. As I said,” she addressed the Bellinn around her, “she is newly hatched.”
Gudrum placed himself between Neve and Zelina. “Newly hatched, but it’s hardly her fault; it was her father ignored the Oath. We none of us have asked for this life.”
Zelina smirked, a glance shot at Zabos. It seemed as a signal. The Bellinn divided.
Most – particularly the immediate offspring of Zemowit, but also most of the higher nocks – gathered around their lord and lady. A few, lesser nocks, moved closer to Gudrum. Amongst these, Neve noticed, stood Razimer. By the black gear that he wore, leathers and boots, she’d say one of those bikes she had seen belonged to him. He moved to stand closer to her, nigh touching. She caught a deep musky tang of aftershave, but now wasn’t the time. Besides, his sister, kitten-faced Kazla, then slid in between them. She had certainly embraced the twenty-first century. Facial piercings on eyebrows and nose, her lips a very loud red. Both these at odds with the flouncy floral-print dress that she wore. Sleeveless, it revealed a tattoo. A vine of bindweed trailed her arm from shoulder to wrist. Cutesy Victorian fairies straddled the bell-flowers and curled upon the heart-shaped leaves. Kazla leant-in close. “A man in Sheffield does them. You like?” Uncertain what her opinion, Neve nodded.
“What, a rebellion?” Zelina stuttered a laugh. “But come now, you’d not deny Snaebiorn and Svana this chance of their children’s renewal? Eida?” She turned to look at him, as yet undecided which side was his. “Eida, wouldn’t you welcome your darling all fresh and fleshy again?”
A cold spasm shivered through Neve as she realised what Zelina was saying.
You should go, a voice whispered in her head. Close your head tight and go. We’ll cause a diversion. She guessed it was Razimer: he was urging, too, with his eyes.
She glanced at the doors. Whichever she used would be no easy dash. The bulk of the Bellinn stood between those doors and herself. Then to flee the village – at what distance would she be safe? But Razimer was right, she should run. She planned out her strategy, though she’d never been much of a hockey player. A sweep around that knot of Bellinn, a cut through those two guarding the south door. And it had to be that door, it was nearest the front; to use the north door would only entangle her.
She started to move – and found that she couldn’t. It was more than her feet glued to the floor; it was her muscles, they refused to obey her. It was the same in her nightmares. Then the grimmen would come and carry her off to their dank, dark cave to work foul things upon her. She didn’t know what the foul things for she always had woken before that began. But there’d be no waking from this for she wasn’t asleep. Come on arms, she urged. Come on legs, you can do it. And while she uselessly struggled, Zelina watched her, baby-pink lips a’smirking.
“Oh dear. Look at our newborn. Not the strength to move? Can you not put a foot in front of the other? Such a shame. And here were these heroes wanting to help you. Razimer, Tythwar, and . . . yes, sweet loving Eida – you’d like to take her to your darling? Yes, of course you would, now. And Gudrum, you can help too, since you showed such concern. You can take her out to our grimmen.”
What to do; she could do nothing, not even to scream. This was her nightmare repeating over, but now it was real. Zelina controlled her. She couldn’t as much as turn to those men Zelina had named. To be given to the grimmen . . . to feed them. Whatever the details of that – she dreaded to think – at least these ‘heroes’ were against it. Yet none were high nocks; fourth, them all. So what chance when pitted against six, she had counted, six second-degree nocks. And those six supported by another ten who were thirds.
Razimer, by far the brawniest of the four, picked her up and slung her over his shoulder. Except that she had a brain that was thinking and seeing and smelling and hearing, she could have been a straw-stuffed doll. And where was he taking her? All she could see was Eida’s bare feet and the floor. Wherever it was, she prayed Razimer wouldn’t drop her as now they descended the sharp stone steps. If only she could speak but that, too, was denied her. She knew a moment of hope. There was the open door, there his bike. Would he take her, and together, escape? But no, it seemed he, too, was in the lady’s thrall. Indeed, her guard seemed like zombies, not a word passed between them.
He finally stopped walking. Where was she? It had grown dark, she could see. Was it nightfall already, or did storm clouds cover the sun? Hanging over his shoulder, she could see only the ground. She heard, then, the turn of a key. By the sounds, it was an old heavy lock. There was a pause. She heard a scurry of feet, saw the hem of Zelina’s pink nightwear, heard it swish. Was she now to have a reprieve? She saw Zabos’s Sinbad trousers made of printed cotton with colours colliding, and his satin-slippered feet. Someone provided a torch, heavy duty, its beam wide and bright. But that was soon swept from her sight.
Then Zelina’s voice. “They’re sedated now. You may enter.”
She heard the door open with an echoing groan. That and the lock were clues to this place: stone-built, ancient, and hollow. The store beneath the hall? Yet the very stores in it would muffle the sounds. Then she realised. It was the church!
Cold horror filled her. Alfeida, Eida’s own lover, now ageing, decaying, a grimmen, was kept locked alone in the church. But no, not alone. For Zelina had said of children. Children. How many children had Snaebiorn and Svana? But it was inhumane to keep them locked up. Yet, grimmen; she remembered what Raesan had said of them. Inbreds, horror-movie ugly – and after her blood.
Razimer? She pleaded his help as the dark of the church closed around her.
Constrained, the same as you, Lubschinka.
His tenderness, evident, caused her to swallow and fetched a tear. And now the panic was rising, threatening to suffocate. She could feel the sweat trickling while in her belly the nausea was swirling.
Hold out, Mine Maþm, as long as you can. Though I can’t promise if others will help.
She heard their four pairs of feet padded across the stone floor. So they weren’t just to dump her. But where . . . ah, to the far end, to the altar. She felt a cold touch. Metal? Iron bars? A cage had been set atop of the altar. Gudrum and Eida pulled and pushed at her, manoeuvring her unresponsive limp body. Then another’s hands – Razimer’s – gentling her into a curled ball position. Stay away from the bars.
She looked at him, appealing with her eyes.
As helpless as you. And if you do not survive, I regret . . . we should have met sooner.
She heard the rasp of metal on metal as Tythwar closed the cage door. She heard the snap of the padlock locking her in. Helpless, she listened to the sound of their feet on the floor. She couldn’t see them though she knew where they were – returning to the church door that was hidden behind her. All she could see, in the far fringe of their torchlight, was the high narrow window set in east wall, and no light showed through that. No light at all.
. _____ .
Next episode, 22nd October: The Grimmen