Somewhere in Regin-yorl’s hall lay hidden a clue to the Cesars Riddle. If Neve must die, then she would know first the answer. She recalled the scene Raesan had given her many times over. Count Alan, anguished, confused. Gunnhild, his wife, pregnant and in the company of her grandmother and source, ice-blonde Amblushe. The selfish, traitorous, gold-dripping Skrauti with his brothers, corralling the mortals, Guy, Toli, Hawk and Nihel. Then . . .
A commotion beyond the door. She knew it was Zemowit’s prism-lit entourage arriving. She knew Kazla would be eagerly seeking her brother; a silent grouch: if only he’d set aside his weapons they could travel together. But this time Neve didn’t join with the sister. Not now she’d met with the brother, alive in the flesh. He was too much a distraction.
Now into the hall, and onto the dais, and Zemowit scanned the hall, chin lifted to see over the heads. “Amblushe . . .? But what … what are you doing here?”
And the simpering Amblushe, “My granddaughter, Zem. Would you have yet more war in your lands?”
He snorted disdain. “Such is the nature of man. And rather have boys fighting boys and men fighting men than to have them between them batter their elders. Herm?”
“Yet he gainsays and forbids us to fight,” said a quiet voice from amongst his own children. Neve suspected Zemowit was not to have heard it. Alas for the hush.
Zemowit turned on him. “A lord does more than to feed his host; he protects. He protects his wilful sons from decapitation – a fate more final than losing a limb. Though, unfortunately, my lady does not say the same. Too enamoured is she of warriors. And where is she? Where’s Cesar?”
It was Amblushe answered him; said with spite. “She’s likely sitting by her well.”
Neve had been too busy seeing the smirk on Vyvain’s flushed face. Now, though locked into a cage set atop an altar, with three grimmen waiting to sup her rejuvenating blood, she slowly repeated Zemowit’s words. “Unfortunately, my lady does not say the same. Too enamoured is she of warriors. And where is she, where’s Cesar?”
Raesan had told her of the Asaric lords and their ladies, how together as partners they had protected the Eldslands assigned to the care. Two hundred Asars in all had been banished, though an uneven distribution of sexes meant there were not quite the one hundred pairs. Raesan had named some. Jiar and Kerrid. Freilsen and Ardhea. Urinod and Amblushe. He’d said that’s why Zemowit had queried Amblushe’s presence at Tree Brunna. She ought not to have been there, but south of the Balkans with her lord Urinod. But with all his talk of lords and ladies, Raesan hadn’t even mentioned Zemowit’s partner. His lady was Cesar. Note that – Cesar singular.
Yett Neve had seen three Cesars: the Young, the Mother, the Old. And she wasn’t alone in being deceived by whatever their trickery. Ingvilda too had seen them as three.
Neve recalled something more – better to review memories than to dwell upon her grim execution.
Joined with Guy’s thoughts, she was following Hawk through the trees of Count Alan’s Tree Brunna Chase, not yet aware they were into Eldsland. From ahead they heard what soon was revealed as Count Alan’s adamant refusal. “Never-never-never-never-never.” And bursting upon the clearing – she’d been surprised that Guy had taken it all in his stride; different tomes, different mores – there had been Alan, naturist-naked and tied to a tree, a woman bestraddling him – language cesspit foul – and grinding against his groins.
There had been banter, Nihel amused by his brother’s distress. Nihel with his Bellinn lover, Alan not long advised of his and not understanding. He had thought Vyvain a demon, a succuba, a nightmare to ride him.
Neve had wondered how old this seeming teenager sylph. She could have been as much as six thousand years old. Yet by her keen resemblance to Hawk’s sister Blide, Ralph de Gael was probably her father. Which meant in 1086, she’d have been the fourteen years old she had seemed. And disturbed from her game she had called for her brothers. “Togrim! Starri and Skrauti! Audri! I’ve caught me some more.”
“Vyvain! Can we not leave our sister alone for a speck?” Togrim had teased her. “What are you doing with him?” He nodded his rusty-haired head towards Alan.
“He’s wealthy,” Vyvain had shrugged – and with belated modesty removed herself from Alan’s lap, a length of silk suddenly wrapped sarong-like around her. “And since Young Cesar is refusing to lay him, I thought . . . well why not. I might receive some pretty jewels for it. But,” she changed from kitten to bitch, “the bastard Breton won’t oblige. He’s just like my father, the demonic angel-seekers.”
“Self-contradictory, my sister,” Toggy had laughed. “Your father must have obliged Mother Cesar – at least the once.”
And since Young Cesar is refusing to lay him . . .. And what had Alfeida said of them? “Silly Cesars. They’d have had more fun without taking turns.” And Toggy had said of Vyvain’s mother: Your father must have obliged Mother Cesar. Vyvain was the youngest of the Cesars’ brood, conceived when Ralph de Gael held the Chase. But de Gael had been exiled for wanting too much, and the Chase given over to Alan instead. So then it was Young Cesar’s turn. That was clearly how the game was played: the three Cesars taking turns to seduce the holders of Tree Brunna Chase. But why?
She returned to the scenes in Regin-yorl’s hall. She fast-forwarded memories until . . . Ah! And here the Cesars arrived and caused a stir. Zemowit glared at them. Them? But he has only one lady. Neve mentally squinted, the better to see them.
All three wore the same cloak of green Elds-spin, soft and fine like webs around them. Yet there was a difference between them. A matter of fading. Old Cesar’s cloak was more a sage-green; Young Cesar’s, spring-grass.
Then . . . there! That’s what she’d seen, and yet had missed. That move of Old Cesar’s, her hand brought up and wrapped high around her arm. And in that brief moment, before again covered, that glint of gold. And now Neve knew what it was. Hawk had worn the same. A gold armband. And he too kept it covered. Wise when Hawk was only the huntsman. The rings given by a Hring-jarl weren’t rings for the fingers, nor yet rings to hang upon a sword’s guard. Neither of those were easily seen. No, these were rings to be proudly displayed – upon the arm. For it marked the bearer as more than a trusty valued fighter. It showed he was beloved of his jarl.
Now Neve knew why Hawk had looked so intently at Old Cesar. He had seen the same. But why was she, in turn, looking intently at him? Had she seen his arm-ring? Had it flashed its presence from beneath his sleeve?
But as Neve watched him his attention moved, now to Young Cesar. And why not, when Young Cesar held such beauty. Sleek as a panther, hair black as the night, face fair as the apple tree in blossom. She looked like an advert for every conceivable beauty-product.
“Now all are here,” Zemowit started into his speech. But Neve had heard it several times over. She fast-forwarded to the disturbance that had briefly broke out between the Cesars and Amblushe.
“And what right have you to bring her here?” Old Cesar had snarled at the visiting lady.
Neve had assumed she referred to Gunnhild, but apparently not.
“If you have not the time nor inclination to be the lady of your lord, too busy with your game, then why should she not.” Amblushe’s eyes, ablaze, had glanced at her daughter Zelina, wistfully gazing at Zemowit, her tongue wetting her pink pouting lips..
Neve’s own shrill of pain, so fierce it pierced through her ears, abruptly returned her to the cage, church and grimmen. Too late she snatched her hand away. Already the flesh was shredded, her blood dripping.
“But you ought to take a medical course,” she jeered at the razor-nailed imp. “Learn more of anatomy. Then you’d not miss the veins.”
Alfeida swiped at him. “You were supposed to bleed her before she woke.” His body flew wide in an arc, his vicious-nailed hands still clutching the bars. There was a clatter of iron as his body slammed into the bars. Alfeida glared at him from beneath newly-formed Neanderthal brows before turning a murderous eye on Neve. Then she stomped away, back into the shadows. There came the rasping sound of metal on wood, a groan and a click. Now what was she doing?
Neve thought she saw a line of light – or rather grey, two shades lighter than night. The line became wider. Neve held her breath. She couldn’t believe it. She dared not to hope. But that rasp, that could be a key in a lock. That creaking now, surely that was the church door opening. But strain her eyes, Neve still couldn’t see what was happening. She heard a heavy slam of wood hitting wood. Again a key turning. And Neve’s hope sank. Whatever the noise, it wasn’t Razimer keeping his word. There’d be no rescue party.
But thank the heavens Neve’s back wasn’t turned to the nave.
At the first sight of Alfeida helling out of the dark with a pole held before her, Neve flattened herself to the floor of the cage. Just in time. She managed not to be skewered. The pole whizzed above her head, brushing her hair.
But now with her feet against the bars, Halftroll was at them. He grabbed the left foot and yanked upon it. For a tiddler, he was unnaturally strong. His nails sliced through Neve’s flesh. Warm blood trickled, ticklish wet rivulets over her soles. But he wouldn’t have her right foot as well. She drew up her knee, aimed and kicked. For which effort she received a violent shudder that shot from her foot to pelvis to spine to jar and jerk her head, neck and shoulders. She’d missed the imp and kicked a bar.
That same bar was in the way of her claiming her foot. That miniature monster was still blood-letting and supping upon it. And now what was he doing? No! How gross. He was sucking her toe. The third along. That imp’s attentions bordered upon unwanted eroticism.
And again Alfeida tried to spear her upon her long stick. It missed her by millimetres, catching and pulling her hair.
“You’re not tall enough,” she taunted the backless, increasingly Neanderthallised Alfeida. “And your angle is wrong.”
“It got you to stick out your leg, though, didn’t it. You won’t be able to retrieve that again.”
Neve had to stay down else she’d be spiked by the pole – it was probably a broom handle – but the cage wasn’t big enough. It hadn’t the length. Head or feet, one or the other must brush against bars.
But, saviour: the pole dropped to the floor. No, alas: Alfeida had rushed to join her brother. And where was the porker; when was he to join in the feast? Why couldn’t they just kill her with knives and be done. Why must they taunt her.
She spat at them. Then while they were distracted, with a quick twist she had her foot back in the cage. She pushed into a sit. “Ha!” she sneered at them.
“Ha!” Alfeida was off to fetch the pole. Neve dived again.
Oh, and now here was Grissgrimmer, his slaver-slicked snout pressed to the bars, tongue straining to reach her. Neve couldn’t remember what last she had eaten but whatever it was, was no longer inside her. And the foul pig, Grissgrimmer’s snout was right in it and licking.
“Hold there!” Alfeida said.
Neve tried to see what she was up to but the imp’s scything hands on the bars had higher priority. She kicked at them. He held. She kicked again. But in such a cramped space, her kicks lacked definite force. And she should have been watching Alfeida instead.
The pole hit her straight in the head.
Neve howled, anger raised to nth degree. She sat – that kept her feet out of Halftroll’s reach – and waited for the backless grimmen’s next attack. This time she was ready when the pole came at her. Neve caught it and wrenched it free of her hands. Ah, shame, Alfeida wailed. Now to see how she liked it with the pole’s roles reversed. Neve batted at the screeching backless Neanderthallising grimmen. Ha! And she the one with the brain?
Yet she had the sense to slip down fromGrissgrimmer’s back. The boar’s tongue curled around the bars. His tusks bashed against them. It was almost tuneful.
Oh, and now Halftroll was again atop the cage. But the pole was too long to use against him. He grabbed yet another handful of hair. By now Neve was resigned; she let him have it. She wouldn’t need it once dead. And in some vein, why bother to fight them. If she did manage to knock all three grimmen senseless, she still couldn’t escape the cage. She had to face it, there was no hope in this situation.
No hope, yea, but that hit on her head had totally riled her and she wasn’t one to meekly lie down. Knocked some resolve into you, eh, Nevey? she heard Grandma Phoebe’s voice say.
Yea. Why make it easy for them. She rammed the pole hard into Alfeida. With an outraged shriek the dancing grimmen slid to the ground.
One down. But what was the boar doing? She couldn’t properly see though . . . she shuddered. Memories of Jazzy’s over-affectionate dog making those same jerking rhythmic movements. And again she ducked as Halftroll took a new swipe.
And now Alfeida was back on her feet and, despite her increasing lumbering form, fairy-like skipping down the aisle, to slip again into the shadows. And again came the sound of a key in a lock. She must have had a cupboard down there. Probably where she kept coffee makings. That would explain the second key round her neck. And what now she would bring.
Neve heard the pad of her feet. She steadied the pole, held down at an angle, ready to break the new charge.
But the imp – so much for a bundle of instincts, no ability to reason – in defence of his sister had grabbed the pole, his arms and legs now clasped around it as if he intended to shinny up it.
Well, ha! He caught the full load of the water intended for Neve.
Alfeida screamed her frustration. She snatched the imp from the pole and threw him with curses far down the nave. The commotion disturbed the slobbering boar. He dropped down to his trotters and trotted away, snout to the stones and sniffing like some kind of obsessed bloodhound.
Neve breathed her relief. Though for how long this reprieve.
Alfeida circled the altar, hands clasped behind her, innocence itself. “Just you and me now,” she said.
Neve didn’t wait to see what she intended. As she came again in front of the altar Neve readied the pole. And jabbed.
But the grimmen was quick despite her rapidly Neanderthallising form. She had seen what her brother had done. She copied. Knees clenched to the pole, inching her way, closer and closer. Neve was ready to push the pole with a jerk when . . . a cock of her head. Alfeida was listening.
The grimmen’s lip lifted. She wrinkled her nose. She squinted into the distant darkness. “What was that sound?”
Neve wondered the same. It sounded like feet crunching across grit-strewn paving. It had come from outside, by the door.
~ ~ ~
Next episode: A Division Of Bellinn