Neve’s hopes flared. There was no mistaking that metallic scrape. Someone was fumbling to fit key to lock, and it wasn’t Alfeida.
‘Wh …?’ Alfeida started and left her mouth hanging. All three grimmen stared at the door.
It took Neve a moment to realise why their bewilderment. No sane Bellinn would enter here, not till Zelina had coerced the grimmen to sleep. That’s why the delay when she was brought here. Alfeida, Halftroll and Grissgrimmer had never known for that door to open. Perhaps they didn’t even know it was there; just a piece of wood in the wall. And now . . . this must have been as strange to them as an alien landing.
A lighter grey outlined the door. A fine line at first, it slowly grew. Neve silently urged the intruder to hurry while he still had the advantage of surprise – she prayed it was Razimer.
But the grimmen must have seen, as soon as she, the fracturing colours that replaced the grey. Grissgrimmer didn’t wait to know more. His reasoning faculties decayed to nil, he charged.
The dancing lights blurred in an arc across the width of the building. There was a bone-crunching smack as whoever it was hit the wall. Neve winced. The crystal-emitting intruder groaned and slumped to the floor. It was Razimer – she’d caught a glimpse of black leather. But he shouldn’t have come. He’d now die horribly, and because of her. Razimer her rescuer, food for Grissgrimmer. Her hopes lay as smashed as he upon the flagged floor.
The church door still gaped wide upon the cold night. It was letting in mist. Neve shivered, though her hopes grew anew. True, still locked in the cage, she couldn’t escape, but her tormentors, her would be sucklers and murderers, could. And wouldn’t that pay Zelina and her coterie for their treatment of these unfortunate inbreds.
A figure stood in that doorway, colourful lights dancing and changing, showing bright through the mist.
She too wore black leathers. And she held what Neve first thought was a staff – except it was topped by an almighty huge swelling. A mace.
Alfeida creased at her knees and crumpled into a heap. Neve had not see the blow, so swift. Halftroll howled. With a flea-like bound he collided with Kazla, legs wrapped around her, nails drawing blood. Neve drew back, not wanting to see. Yet she’d a feeling that Kazla could take care of herself. Razimer was her first concern. She strained to see into the shadows.
He lay, entombed, in a crystal. Images reeled, scenes from Disney’s Snow White. Yet that crystal didn’t protect him from Grissgrimmer. Neve turned away, hand to mouth to keep the bile down.
And the sun burst through the door.
Neve blinked, hid her eyes, heard only the sounds. A sharp thud, a long sough, a gruesome slur and a slosh.
“About bloody time,” she heard Razimer complain. “You were supposed to be with us.”
“I am, yeh. I’m here,” Raesan’s voice crackled with an emotion Neve couldn’t define. She knew her own emotion: relief as she watched Razimer extricate himself from beneath the fallen boar’s haunches.
“We came to rescue Neve. You two can fight later,” Kazla scolded her brother.
“The key. Alfeida has it around her neck,” Neve called to them.
Razimer laughed. “Nej. It’s here in my pocket.”
And now with the light, and that he was closer, she could see dribbling streaks of white on the legs of his leathers. He went to brush it but stayed his hand, pulling back fastidiously. Instead he fished out the key from an inside jacket pocket and dangled it in front of her.
“Stop playing,” Raesan snapped at him. “There’s only one me, yeh, to hold the grimmen away. And who knows how soon your lady and lord will be here.”
Neve’s legs refused her weight when Razimer opened the cage and helped her out. He had to catch her to steady her. The musky smell of him, his heat; she wanted to sink into him, never to move.
“A tad shredded,” he said having eyed the damage done to her. The bleeding now had stopped; the cuts were scabbing. “Oh, Lubschinka, so sorry we took so long. We had to find Raesan, push his car—and we’ve not been properly introduced. Razimer, but they call me Rat. Oh, but here, you are shivering. Take my jacket.”
She wasn’t shivering, she was trembling. But she welcomed the warmth of his jacket. And it smelled strongly of him, of musky aftershave, metal and oil.
“Alfeida drugged me,” she said – because she wanted to talk to him. “Dwindling-dwale, whatever that is.”
“Deadly nightshade,” Kazla answered. “But how she got it, that’s a mystery.”
Razimer shrugged. “Come in with the hay?”
“Is that what they sleep on? Hay?” Neve didn’t want to be against Kazla and Razimer yet she couldn’t swallow the outrage at such a notion. Vampiric their habits, but they still were the children of Svana and Snaebiorn, and that couple had known what would become of them.
“Hush, Lubschinka. The hay’s not to sleep on. Alfeida uses it to make little nests for her brother. Halftroll likes it; it’s a kindness.”
Razimer’s arm remained around her while he spoke. Her light swirled and swelled. She tried to still it but it wouldn’t respond. And she was keenly aware of Raesan watching her.
But so much for escape. No sooner out of the church than a mass of lights emerged from the mist to form a dazzling arc before them. Rat beside her seemed not to care. He carried on walking, Raesan and Kazla, as well. But Neve, as she tried to lift her foot, found it was stuck as good as nailed. Frantic, she looked about her for help.
“Hey, Lubschinka, we’re standing here with you,” Rat said as he backed to be with her.
But did he realise Zelina’s control of her? Raesan, too, moved in closer to stand beside her. Rat moved her away.
“Eida,” Zelina ordered, “lock the door.”
Rat handed him the key as he passed. And having locked the door, Eida came to stand with them.
“Oh how dreary,” Zelina said. The mist was beading her silk nightie. Caught in the light of the rising sun, she looked like a Christmas fairy. “You think your small number can defeat me?”
Neve hadn’t realised it was a battle.
“Release her,” Rat demanded.
Zelina laughed. “You are making demands of me? You, a warrior-child. You are nothing.”
Rat curled over, hugging his belly. Kazla was quick to his side.
Lord Zabos reached for his lady’s arm. “Remember who fetches our food. It does not do to harm him. And harm him, you harm Kazzy too, and she has such wonderful tits.”
“Can you think of nothing other?”
“But isn’t that why you chose him over Baran?” Kazla bantered.
Zelina ignored her and answered her lord. “We don’t need Rat. Baran can do everything he does.”
“But Baran, my lady, has no means of faring.”
“Huh,” Kazla scoffed. “So now who is it being single-minded.”
“Pah,” Titling spat. “I’ve had enough of all this,” He strolled across the open arena in front of Zelina to swell Neve’s and Rat’s small numbers by one. His fists stuffed deep into jeans pockets and wearing a hoodie, he looked like a belligerent urban youth. So when would the fighting start, Neve wondered. And what would be the weapons.
“Raesan . . .” Zelina’s eyes fixed on him as if she’d only then seen him. “Tell me, you evil, life-hating demon, why should we suffer you to live?”
“Life-hating?” Tythwar strutted out from Zelina’s Bellinn, a finger pointed at her. “You talk of him life-hating? And how many lives did you take last night? Because you are jealous of people who have children. So now go strike me down too.” He continued walking, to stand now beside Rat. Gudrum separated out from the others, too, to follow him. Neither Stoat stood close to Raesan.
Zelina’s mouth twisted, but that’s all that she did. No attempt to control them.
Neve, encouraged by their disregard of Zelina, spoke up. Friggle Jacks, yeah, why not have her say before Zelina packed her back into the church. “I’ve had plenty of time to think about this. Why you threw me in there, and why you hate Raesan. Your mother was wrong to bring you here; she ought to have left you with Urinod. Amblushe came to protect her granddaughter, not to unleash you upon Zemowit.”
“And what could you ever know of it?”
Neve wasn’t deceived by Zelina’s languid sneer. She’d seen how Zelina drew back at the mention of Zemowit. “I know you were jealous of Cesar – you and your mother both.”
“Why would I be—”
“You wanted to bed him. Let your mother be his lady, as long as you could bed him.”
Words, no more than words. Yet there was Zelina biting her lip, a glazing of tears in her eyes. Who needed swords and spears when words could worm deeper, disturb dusty cobwebs, release the memories of thwarted desires.
“He refused you,” Neve said though she hadn’t the evidence.
“That’s not true! No, he wanted me. And so happy we would have been together, except for him.” She pointed at Raesan, her baby-thick lips now twisted. “Him and his Guy and their dragon, taking my Zemmy away before . . . before . . . no children were made.”
Neve watched as no one rushed to comfort their lady despite all must have seen, as she had, that Zelina’s distress was genuine. Zabos stepped back and stared at her. Baran looked away. Svana looked awkward, eyeing from Zelina to Neve’s little following. She detached herself from Zelina’s Bellinn and came to join Kazla and Rat. “How are they, did you see them?” she asked. “How is my daughter, how is my son?”
“Still alive,” Kazla answered.
“It would be a kindness to kill them.” Svana sniffled. Neve bit back her comment that it might have been better not to have made them. And Snaebiorn, the guilty father, came to stand with her.
Zelina’s distress must have hit deep. For, as Neve now realised, she could again move. While she waited to see if any more would shuffle their alignments – Hrogn, and Sobek, the twins’ sea-faring father, also joined her – Neve took a step forward of those who supported her.
“Raesan wasn’t alone in helping Guy,” Neve went on. “So why do you accuse only him of evil? You mightn’t know it, but if Raesan hadn’t helped lay that dragon, Skrauti would have had you all killed. Isn’t that right, Titling?” She glanced back to where Titling stood like a child amongst Regin-yorl’s warriors.
His voice was as small as his stature. “I didn’t agree with what he was after.”
“No, no Bellinn would. To kill the king and take the throne, To reveal to all the presence of the Bellinn. Yet he thought, by that uncloaking, to make you strong. He couldn’t see how the Church would have slaughtered every one of you. How do you breathe when decapitated, how to heal when charred in a fire. No, we Bellinn are not immortal. Merely rapid healers.” She glanced at her arm. “But thanks to Guy and his dragon you were saved from all that. They brought about the Atonement, the Reconciliation, so the angels were no longer against you, no longer sparking the Church.”
“Fool!” Zelina spat; Neve was surprised she’d taken so long to react. Was it because she’d lost two more of her coterie; Thorelf and Hvitha now stood behind Neve. “There was no joy in that day. Those angels took my Zemmy away. But him, your hero, he didn’t go. No, he stayed to taunt me just with his presence. And now it’s time for me to tell you. You know why he didn’t go? I doubt that he’s told you. Because he so hated our Lady-Queen, he wouldn’t go serve her. Oh yes, condemn me for killing, but just look at him. He stands against every living thing. Or hasn’t he told you the truth of our Queen?”
“He’s told me why he failed to Reconcile, and it wasn’t for his hatred of Kerrid. It was for his love of her. He loves her too much, it hurts to be with her. Now it seems you both are suffering with the same pain. Yet here you hate him and must revile him. An Asar-full, you cannot control him as you do with these others. As for me, I do not know why you want to be rid of me.”
Neve stood as a stone in the flow of Bellinn who now came to support her. Zelina was left with only Zabos and Baran, Heitha and Saukkolfr.
“Clever,” Zelina said, watching her numbers diminish. “But you ask why I hate you? Because you were born after the Oath. Why should you live when the Atonement robbed me of the chance of children?”
“I did not ask to be born.” And how weary she grew of saying that. “And if you so resent my living, you might consider helping me. I came seeking your help to find my grandfather. I need to find him to find my mother – who doesn’t yet know what she is. And what was your answer, how did you help me? You locked me in there with your decaying beloveds. You think my blood will refresh them for long? It’s you, the fool; it’s their mortal parts dying, not the Asaric. But you, like them, have lost your brain. You’re not thinking. And while you detain me my mother could be spreading illegal-born Bellinn all round the world.”
Murmurs of agreement rose from behind her. Though still there were three second degree knocks ranged against her, and two third degrees, she doubted they’d be able to feed her again to the grimmen. Her supporters included three second nocks, eight thirds, six fourths, and Raesan. Her side was the stronger. Zelina knew it, she was shaking.
“You’d better go, you and Raesan,” Zabos told her. “Go, before she gets me to change my mind. I never liked the killing, either.”
As Neve turned to find where Raesan was, Rat caught her hand. “Come on, Lubschinka, let’s move.”
“No, wait!” Zelina shouted and held out her hand. But she’d lost her power and Neve and Rat walked away. “This talk of yours, of electric, technology. . . I am interested.”
“Shame,” Neve said. “It was a deceit.” Yet it did remind her of the laptop. Where was it?
Beside her, Kazla tapped on a bag. “Boriana knows my interest; she brought it to me.”
“But if you want the technology, I can arrange it,” Neve said, calling behind her.
“I cannot say without we all agree it.”
“I’ll give you my number,” Neve offered despite the discouraging scowls from Rat and Raesan.
“Give it to Baran. He knows of such things.” And Zelina turned her back on Neve’s small party.
Neve felt an arm snake round her waist. She thought it was Rat but it was Raesan. So where was Rat? He couldn’t be gone. She wanted to thank him, both him and Kazla. She looked around but could see neither one. The mist was thickening around her leaving only Raesan.
“My car, yeh, it’s just around the corner,” he said.
But she didn’t want to leave without a word to Razimer.
~ ~ ~
Next episode: Raesan Romancing