There was a smell. Musty. Memories of keeping white mice. Yet where was the food to encourage them in.
“It is the smell of human decay.” The voice came from behind her. Neve curled herself tighter, away from the bars.
“Shall I tell you how it happens?” It was Alfeida. Neve could see her as, cat-like, she prowled around the cage. Yet . . . where was her light? Had she withdrawn it? Or was it lacking in grimmen?
“I see you’re huddled into a ball,” the grimmen said with a glint of amusement. “Were I you, I’d stay tightly curled – my brother and Grissgrimmer won’t be long waking. But you’re thirsty, let me fetch you a drink.” Her words faded into the space behind Neve.
So there were three grimmen here in the church. But two for present were asleep and Alfeida was busy fetching what Neve assumed would be water. It ought to be safe to uncurl her cramped body. Though the cage was far from capacious, she had enough room to sit if hunched, her legs crossed in not-quite-perfect lotus-position. She shuffled round, too, so she faced into the church. Though she could see nothing but darkness, shadow piled upon shadow, the moon’s light scarcely reaching in. It was a hiding place for everything grim. What was that name Alfeida had said. Grissgrimmer.
Grissgrimmer, his name was enough to suggest cruel and loathsome. And who was this brother, as Alfeida had said. There’d been no brother at Regin-yorl’s hall. But then Alfeida had only been visiting there. She had lived here in the north, with Baran-jarl. But she was wasting time in thinking of them, she must find a way to escape. Razimer’s words had been kindly said but she couldn’t expect him to act upon them.
Alfeida returned. As she passed through the patches of feeble moonlight, Neve noticed the medieval clothes she still wore. Though she couldn’t distinguish the colours clearly yet the gown, definitely embroidered, seemed once to have been a fern-green. Its swish as it swept the stone floor sounded like silk.
Alfeida held up a chalice. “Not once in your life have you sipped from such ware.”
Neve said nothing, eyes keen on Alfeida’s hands as she reached through the bars to settle the carved-ivory chalice on the altar, within the bars of the cage. Dark stones were set round its belly. But what did it contain? Not water; the dark liquid within suggested red wine. Yet it lacked a bouquet.
“Coffee,” Alfeida said.
Twice now, her words anticipated; Neve slammed a lid on her thoughts. “It’s not hot,” she remarked.
Alfeida laughed. “And how am I to heat water?”
Cold coffee, yet there was a smell unfamiliar. Neve sipped it – and spat it.
“I made it too strong?”
“You put the whole jar in?”
“Of coffee, no. Drink it . . . I’ve nothing other to offer. Do you like my dress? I saw you admiring it.” She twirled, holding wide the long skirt. “See, it’s almost the same colour as your blouse. Bias-cut, see. But you’d know of such things. Bias-cuts cling. Makes sexy things.”
As she twirled, her skirt fluted. But Neve’s eyes were more on what wasn’t there. Parts of Alfeida were missing.
“Silk and nettle mix – almost as soft and as fine as the Cesars’ spinning. Silly Cesars. They’d have had more fun without taking turns. Isn’t it kind of Kazla to fetch me these things. Needles and cloths and thimbles and threads. She, herself, has forgotten to use them.”
Alfeida slowed her twirl to a still. She watched intently as Neve sipped the coffee. It tasted foul, far too strong, yet it was kind of Alfeida to fetch it.
“You’re a grimmen,” Neve said though she didn’t know why. Perhaps she needed to have it confirmed.
Alfeida curtseyed. “That is me.”
“How many are you in here?” Alfeida had told her but that, too, she wanted confirmed.
“I am one,” Alfeida said and again twirled.
“But you said of others.”
“So I did, so why ask.” She childishly chuckled. “There is Griss, my brother and me. But, lazy bones, they’ve not yet recovered.”
“I don’t suppose, while they sleep, you’d help me out.”
“You don’t suppose right. Though, as you see, I do have a key.” It hung on a braided cord around her neck. She held it up for Neve to see, swinging it, watching it dangle. “But you’d not like it at all if I set you free. Trust me. I’m the one with the brain.”
She was circling around the altar again. Neve could see her, over her shoulder, reaching up, straining to reach through the bars. She might have the key but the lock was set high.
“You were going to tell me about the decay,” Neve said, to draw her back where she could see her. Her eyes were adjusting now to the dark though the body of the church was still blurred by shadows.
“Oh, so you are a new-form?” Alfeida giggled. “Must be a new-form else you’d already know.” Slowly, with relish, she licked her lips.
Neve shuddered, though she’d known, even back in the hall, what her fate was to be. She must find a way to escape. But for now she was happy to keep Alfeida talking. It gave her time to assess – should any plan form.
“You’re illegal,” Alfeida taunted.
“Is it my fault if my parents . . .”
“Fucked? Oh, but you don’t like that word? Me neither. Swiving is better. Swive, it sounds so sexy. And it’s not my fault that my swiving parents begot me like this. And they did it full-knowing, just as yours did.”
“Not the same. My mother didn’t know, I’m sure.”
Alfeida laughed, harsh and abrupt. “But we all of us knew. Denied us, that Oath; denied us our babies. Eida—” She suddenly burst into a blubbering sobl. And two moments later she stopped. That abrupt.
“Well my mother wasn’t there for the Oath,” Neve persisted. “She was born just fifty years ago.”
“Two newborns then?” Alfeida brightened. “And you brought her here too? But who was the Elder Eldern made you?”
Neve stumbled at the term Alfeida had used. Alfeida sighed. “Your mother’s begetter?”
“I don’t know. That’s why I’m here. I’m looking.”
“You think our Halftroll is yours?” Alfeida chuckled, taunting. “But he lost that part of him, may be two hundred years. Poor little fellow, lost all chance of swiving.” Alfeida’s face fell glum. It seemed she might cry again. She was manic in her change of emotions. But she merely shook herself, like a dog out of water, and laughed once again. “Ha-ha,” she now was dancing, holding her skirt like a little girl playing the fairy. “Newborn knows nothing. Ha! Newborn knows nothing. What delight to tell her, innocent newborn with blood all oozing. Now listen,” she stopped and turned sharply on Neve. “Hear that?” She stood, head atilt in theatrical listening. “Boom, boom, boom.” She perfectly mimicked the beat of Neve’s adrenaline-forced heart. She sucked on her lip making clear her intent – once she had finished with her playing.
“See,” Alfeida said in another snap-change, “we Bellinn are not pure-made. We are flawed. Neither left nor right, black nor white, clean nor dirty, wanting nor ever, ever satisfied. Do you remember how it is to be satisfied? In a man’s arms? Eida . . .” She sighed with longing. Then dismissively shook her head and drew in a deep breath. “See, we Bellinn – and that’s you too – are made partly of immortal, angelic Asar. And partly of dusty, dirty mortal. And the mortal part dies. And it dies and it dies. While the angelic part does all it can to hold on. It shuffles the flesh. Makes the best of what’s left. So now what’s left is the angelic part of me.” She turned to show Neve her back.
Neve had already caught sight of it, though now she could see it more clearly. Beyond her ears no head existed, as if as an infant she’d been strapped to a board. She was like that, pancake flat, all the way down.
“I’ve lost my pieces,” she said, motioning downwards. “Front and back. But I don’t eat so I don’t shit. And I don’t drink so I don’t pee. And who wants to fuck with me? No longer Eida.” She paused as if she’d shed a tear – yet her eyes remained dry. “Now only Griss will have me.”
“H-how long?” Neve asked.
“I don’t know years. Sometimes they bring us fresh blood, but it’s never bubbling with sparks as is yours. Eighth and ninth and tenth nocks, those. And what good are they; they don’t sustain us.”
The missing children, lost on the moors. That would explain it; brought here to feed with their blood the grimmen children of Svana and Snæbiorn. Neve shuffled back from the bars. But that then placed her too close to the back. She’d rather have space there at her blindspot.
Of a sudden Alfeida clapped her hands. But Alfeida was so changeable Neve took no notice – until she heard movement down by the church door. It was the drag of something heavy. And that something was breathing, a creature, alive.
Alfeida grinned. “Now would you like that I unlock your cage?” She dangled the key, dancing the while. “Grissgrimmer, see, still has his parts. And it would so please him to have a fuck of you – oh, sorry, you don’t like that word. Don’t shy away, he’s to have your body when we’ve begun. See, Grissgrimmer can’t suck. Can’t suck but can fuck. And poor, poor, poor, poor, poor Griss, he’s lost his wits. Griss!” She called to the grimmen still hidden. “Grissgrimmer, my beauty, come see tasty lady.”
Despite the snuffling and snorting, still Neve expected this Grissgrimmer to have retained his man-form. She yelped, belly heaving in nausea when she saw he was a boar. And Alfeida had said of . . . swiving?
“He used to be our swineherd,” Alfeida explained.
Grissgrimmer lumbered in and out of the shadows, the slivers of moonlight silvering his bristles, and stopped to root in the rubbish around Alfeida’s feet. Neve stared at his tusks that glinted like copper. But even they were malformed. Like a pair of goat’s horns tucked into his long-snouted mouth. And he was not small. As Alfeida fussed him around his elephantine ears she’d no need to bend.
“Vilbrad, his brother, used to tease him,” Alfeida said. “Teased you, didn’t he,” she said to the boar. “Said he’d rather swive on his pigs than to pay heed to a woman. Though Groa was kinder – wasn’t she kind to you, Griss. Groa said he only swived on his pigs because he was ugly. See, no woman would have him.”
Alfeida looked up as if expecting Neve to comment. Neve said nothing, she was thinking. If she could persuade Alfeida to unlock the cage, could she then race the length of the church, to the door? Yet to what effect when that door was locked. She had glimpsed a second key, part-hidden in Alfeida’s cleavage, but it was doubtful that was the required key for that door.
Alfeida returned to her teasing, key held up for Neve to see. “Shall I let him at you? You’ll have great fun, fucking together. Look at this, see.” She shoved him with her foot until he had turned. “There.” But Neve couldn’t look. “Have you ever seen their like? Like a couple of bulging bolsters, these.”
No, this couldn’t be happening. It was worse than a nightmare. And the pig stank! Neve drew back from the bars, a frantic hand ran through her hair.
“You’ll be all right though,” Alfeida assured her. “His pizzle’s not screwy. Look! It’s still like a man’s.”
Neve couldn’t turn her head entirely. She didn’t trust the taunting dancing fairy. But neither could she look where directed. She had visions of Farmer Bradstreet’s hunter, every summer pastured out in Blythe Meadows. She remembered wondering how the stallion had dragged that thing through nettles and thistles without neighing loud with its pain. No, not even curiosity could tempt her to look. She shuddered, arms tight-wrapped about her. She rocked, to the pit of her belly feeling sick.
Alfeida slapped the boar’s rump. He waddled away. “He’s not yet ready for you. Wait till he’s had a good sniff.”
Neve closed her eyes, her arms now cradling her head. Please. Please, just make it all go away. But it stayed and worsened, as with a crash something landed atop the cage and a sharp-nailed hand clutched into her hair. Neve screamed and batted the hand away.
Alfeida laughed. “Now we’ll have sport, now Halftroll’s awake.”
Neve scarcely dared look. The creature – no, that was unfair, it wasn’t a creature; Halftroll was a man, very small. He looked every part the folkloric elf as he sprawled, face-down, on the cage, arms through the bars, trying again for Neve’s hair.
“Do you like what he’s wearing?” Alfeida asked as if this were an afternoon tea. “I made those for him. Kolgrima thinks she’s so clever at making but Halftroll’s my brother and so I insist.”
The little man’s tunic – the same fern-green as his sister’s gown – was fancily embroidered around neck, cuffs and hem. Beneath it he wore baggy sand-hued breeches of silk. “That’s fine embroidery,” Neve remarked. She didn’t want her cage unlocked; she must flatter Alfeida and keep her sweet.
“It’s not as fine as once it was. My eyes are going,” Alfeida confided. “You never know what’s to go next. See Halftroll? His eyes used to be darkest black-brown, and now they are gold. But isn’t that strange? He never used to have that beard either.”
“But I thought it only the Asars and their sons who couldn’t grow beards.”
“No, you misunderstand. See, centuries he always could grow a beard – though he shaved it. Only now, see. they won’t allow him a knife. Not that he needs one. Have you yet felt his nails? Nice and sharp, he’ll open you up. You won’t feel a thing.”
Neve gulped, though it answered her one thing. They’d not gain her blood through vampiric fangs. It would be an opening of veins using Halftroll’s nails.
The bars rattled. Halftroll leapt down off the cage. Neve breathed relief, though she wondered how short-lived that would be. The little man bounced as he touched the stone floor. He couldn’t have been more than a half metre tall yet– as far as Neve could see – he was perfectly formed.
In the silence Neve sought for something to say. She must keep Alfeida talking. If she couldn’t devise a plan of her own then the more time given, the more chance of someone – Razimer, please – coming to aid her. Yet how likely was that? And one person alone couldn’t save her from this. She regretted now her insistence that Raesan wait in the car. What was he doing? Did he guess at her fate? Had he given up waiting? She felt for her mobile in her pocket. At least she had thought to charge it. But what use was that when the Bellinn would turn away any who might respond to her call? And anyway, who to call? Not Raesan, he hadn’t a phone. Her uncle? Gosh, no, she couldn’t worry him. No, if she called at all then it must be the police. And where was her laptop? She’d not realised till now it was gone. She tried to remember when last she had it. When she entered the hall. Someone had taken it. Yet what use would it be to her now. And at best she’d get a poor reception; that dongle was so temperamental.
She yawned, her head feeling kind of mussy, her eyes unusually heavy. It must be the lack of air in this place. She yawned yet again – but Halftroll soon woke her.
He leapt, this time, onto the altar, straining to reach her through the bars. And now she could see those lethal nails. Ten little razors upon his two little hands. She scooted to the far end of the cage – but he was already there, reaching and catching her jacket. She yanked it away, ripping a length off the sleeve. Beneath it her blouse-sleeve hung in ribbons, Her arm stung. Horrified, she saw her blood beading. As a creature demented, Halftroll leapt around, rattling the bars as he howled. Alfeida danced, her hands excitedly clapping.
Their racket disturbed the boar. With plaintive bellow, he charged down the aisle. Head lowered, he smashed into the altar. Above him, the cage violently moved.
Neve braced herself, expected to fall. Yet the cage rocked itself steady. And if only she was just that little bit smaller, child-size would be best. She then might find some place in this cage away from their reach. She hadn’t the eyes to watch all three grimmen, though as yet Alfeida wasn’t a problem, content to watch and gleefully laugh. It was that demented Halftroll, racing round the cage, arms in and grabbing from every which angle. He was so quick, she couldn’t keep up. She felt his nails and heard the rip as he shredded again, this time down the back of her jacket. Her back felt suddenly cold and she could feel the blood trickling – though it wasn’t enough to excite Grissgrimmer. The boar lumbered back up the nave.
Halftroll grabbed a handful of hair and relentlessly pulled until her eyes watered. Her hair wasn’t long, she feared for her scalp, too close to those nails. Already it stung. But she couldn’t allow him to pull her closer. What if he caught those nails on her throat.
Distracted by her struggle with Halftroll, she’d forgotten, for the moment, where Grissgrimmer was. She was reminded when the entire edifice – cage and altar and the walls around her – suddenly shook. The boar was more like a bull as he hammered out of the shadows, trotters ramping towards her. Neve feared for the impact. Would the altar crack? Would the cage be thrown from its perch?
An earthquake of Richter scale 8 rocked her. Such violence tore Halftroll’s grasp from the bars. He hurtled towards the eastern wall. Neve winced at the crack as his body hit stone. But at least now he was out of her hair. Now there was only Grissgrimmer to harm her. The boar reared before her, a stinking, slobbering beast. He slapped his trotters onto the altar. Could he climb? Please don’t let him climb. The stench of him, close, was eye-blinding. Not the natural pig-smell, of that she’d been used. Whatever this was, she was gagging.
And Halftroll sprang up from where he had landed. He was a flea, jumping from floor to cage-top. And there, again, he was catching her hair. Much more of this, she’d be bald.
Then Alfeida, clapping and dancing, suddenly stopped. Something had happened, something was changed. What was it? Neve could feel, around her shoulders and back, every fine hair was standing erect.
Alfeida wrapped her arm around the boar’s shoulders. Yet she looked up at Neve. “Feeling sleepy, yet, baby?”
Now said, Neve admitted, she’d been feeling sleepy for some time now. She’d thought it the lack of air. And the boar’s smell didn’t help. Yet she had nursed Grandma Phoebe through years of COPD and she knew how it was to struggle for breath and this wasn’t it.
Alfeida giggled. “No, it’s that dwindling-dwale. Don’t want you struggling – might lose us some blood. Griss! Get down from there. How endearing, he’s slavering. He’s ready. Can you smell him? I have only to turn the key to the cage.”
She would know nothing, deep into oblivion, of that she was thankful. But why had Zelina done this to her; what had she ever done to Zelina? But no, this wasn’t revenge, it was nothing personal. It was merely the lady providing food for her people. It just so happened the people in question inbreds, decaying. And the food was the blood in her veins. She drew in her knees and folded her head and shoulders over, to be away from the bars. But what difference when Alfeida had the key. And whatever this dwindling-dwale was, it was making her drowsy, sinking fast into sleep. The grimmen had drugged her, put in the coffee so eagerly made. How long before she slumped, fully sleep? And then they would have her. She hoped she’d sleep through it. It then wouldn’t hurt. That would not be so bad. But she was suddenly alert as Halftroll yet again swiped.
There were no sleeves to her jacket. Beneath it her blouse was mopping up blood. Bizarrely, she remembered science at school: And here we see capillary action. She laughed; she now was as mad as the grimmen. Blood slicked her arms, her shoulders, her back, seeping from a hundred tiny incisions. A full Asar, so Raesan had said, would stop bleeding in moments. Perhaps left undisturbed, her wounds, too, would seal over before much fatal blood was lost. But the smell of that blood was an amphetamine for the imp-like Halftroll. No brain, Alfeida had said. Neve took that to mean he was unable to reason, nothing left now to control his base instincts.
Hunched in the cage her mind wandered, perhaps the effect of the drug. Sometime, somewhere long ago, she had read that when hope is abandoned, when fate is accepted, then does peace come. Nirvana, she thought. Wasn’t that what Buddha was saying, for what is hope if not desire. Neve felt herself chuckle, but she was detached from it. Hope, Pandora’s final curse on mankind. And the sad thing was, no one would even notice her gone.
A voice answered that, at the back of her head. And what of Uncle James, he would notice her death. Though he’d say what the hell she was doing hiking alone on the moors. He’d not know the truth of it. And Crabby Cox, too; she’d fold her arms over her chest and declare with a satisfied nod, “Well, that served her well.” As for Nerys, she’d hope for a less noisy neighbour.
But what of the people who mattered – her mother and grandfather. They never would know that she’d met her death while searching for them. And now she never would know if her grandpa was Regin. And she’d never unravel the Cesars’ riddle. What had Alfeida said of them? “Silly Cesars. They’d have had more fun without taking turns.”
Silly Cesars . . . Alfeida’s words played over. Well, as soon think of that than the fate that awaited. There was something she’d not picked up on before. That time when Eida and Alfeida were arguing of whose family to live with. Alfeida had accused the Cesars’ brood of being arrogant. A fault, she had said, of their English fathers. Yet Vyvain’s father had been Breton in origin, and Harold and his brother had strong Danish ties. These men weren’t English. That wasn’t what these fathers had in common. What they had, one after another, was the right to Tree Brunna, that portion of land shared by Eldsland. Ralph de Gael, and his father, Earl Alfgar, Harold and Gyrth, the sons of Godwine – and before them Inn Hrafn and his descendants, the Oddssons. Inn Hrafn, founder of the Arnlings of Tree Brunna. Inn Hrafn, Hawk’s his ancestor.
Halftroll would not leave her alone, his fingers scraping over her scalp, tearing her out of the reverie. And that wretched gloating Alfeida, like a fairy still dancing round and teasing. And Grissgrimmer, the Bellinn in boar-form, drooling, his wee piggy eyes fixed upon her. All three were waiting for her to slip into sleep.
Well, they’d have a long wait. She now was alert, her mind woken from its stupor by the thought that she’d found the key she’d been seeking. The key to the puzzle of the Cesars. And though she still didn’t know why, she still was convinced that solution would point her direct to her grandfather.
~ ~ ~
Next episode, 29th October: Zemowit’s Lady