Raesan stared with open mouth at Neve and Kazla, crumpled as they were into balls of laughter. “What’s so jigging hilarious, yeh? All I said was that we mustn’t mess up this mission else we’ll have to begin it again.”
As if cued, Kazla and Neve burst into the song of Michael Finningan’s whiskery chin: “The wind came out and blew them in again . . .”
“Yeh, and I thought you were scared of flying,” Raesan sneered before contorting round in his seat to turn his back on Neve.
“Thank you, Raesan,” Rat snapped at him. “She really needed that gentle reminder. Why do you think she was singing?”
The last twelve hours had been an escalating nightmare for Neve. They had spent the night in a cheap B&B, having arrived in Yarmouth too late for a flight. None had admitted the tensions between Rat and Raesan that ratcheted hourly – nor Neve’s increasing levels of anxiety as she anticipated the morrow’s flight – nor that they were to ‘illegally requisition’ the required helicopter. So why couldn’t they just take a boat; they’d seen several sea-worthy yachts in the harbour. Because, Rat and Raesan, together, had answered Kazla, Yalesham Sands was too far away.
It didn’t help to know that Raesan, alone, now controlled the pilot – one ‘Alastar Craig’, said his badge, a politely bored Dubliner. The take-off – a counter-intuitive vertical lift – had been the most terrifying experience of her life; never could she have imagined it worse. She quaked, wanted to scream, wanted to be out of there, safe on the ground and far away, even though, as promised, Rat wrapped his arms around her. He rocked her, like a mother clucking, while she buried her head into him. It was only once they were up in the air and progressing in a more logical, forward, direction that she forsook their shelter.
She tried not to think of where she was. Kazla helped, she chatted; and Rat so knowledgeable of all the same things that interested her – though not the embroidery. His sister teased him of that, that once there’d been a time when he’d worn makeup and silks. Neither Kazla nor Rat knew of Neve’s prior acquaintance with them. Thus, in little beadlets of time, she forgot her fear. Yet between the beads the string was still there – and again, with a shudder, her lungs gasped for air.
Raesan turned to face them again. Something Asarically passed between him and Rat.
“So have we horns?” Rat said.
Neve frowned. Now what had been said?
Kazla must have caught it. She laid a calming hand on her brother’s arm. “This is neither the time nor the place to lock horns.”
“Yeh, but I think he’s not referring to the rut,” Raesan said.
Neve looked from Raesan to Rat. Slowly their meaning permeated her brain. “If this is what I think it is, you can forget it. No one owns me.”
“Which is what I was saying,” Rat said. “Now do your job, Raesan, and keep control of the pilot.”
Raesan huffed and looked away. A quick rifle of the pilot’s memory had yielded the perfect story. On occasions Alastar Craig flew urgent supplies to the North Sea oil rigs. Back at the heliport the log said that’s where he’d gone. And for the duration of the trip Raesan would play the man’s memories as a loop, over, and over, and over again.
“Give us your ‘Pod,” Rat said.
Neve narrowed her eyes in query.
“Swap.” He held out his for her to take.
“You’ve . . .? But . . .” She again adjusted her concept of him. In every way, he was so unlike the other Bellinn she’d met. He pressed the iPod into her hand.
“We have friends,” he explained, a grin grown wide above his stubbly chin.
“Mine’s in the bag, with the laptop.” She gestured there.
She scrolled through his playlist, her own grin forming. Deep Purple, Traffic, Cream, Floyd, Hawkwind, ELO, Canned Heat, Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Blondie, Rush, Aretha Franklin, Sammy Hagar, Led, Hendrix and more and more and more. Even the Foo Fighters were on his playlist, Neve’s current favourite.
“Howlin Wolf!” Rat exclaimed. “She has Muddy Waters and Howlin Wolf. How old are you?”
“Rat!” Kazla thumped him. “No wonder you have no luck with women.”
“Yea, but . . . snap, though, yea?”
“Not quite,” Neve said. “I see no Talking Heads.”
“Found them on yours.”
He couldn’t have heard more than the opening ‘boom-boom’ of the base when there he was, strumming an air-guitar.
“Frustrated rock star,” Kazla said.
Neve watched. She knew exactly which track he had found, though not a sound escaped the headphones, buried beneath the giant issued mufflers. It was that rhythmic nod of his head. She wasn’t surprised when the lyrics kicked in and Rat sang along. By the time he sang out, “Psycho Killer, qu’est que c’est,” she too was shuffling her shoulders in time to the beat.
“I thought you didn’t like to dance,” Raesan jeered, having glanced round at them.
“I said I didn’t like nightclubs, being all squashed together.”
“Yeh? Well you’re not complaining now, all squashed up next to him. And what is that noise? Sounds like a part-strangled hen.”
“So it might, but that’s how Dave Byrne does it.” She laughed. “His school choir turned away for being off-key, would you believe. Yet he’s a musical genius.”
“Genius? Huh,” Raesan scoffed. “The man can’t hold a tune.” He harrumphed loudly, his back again turned to them.
“Hey, idea, idea!” Rat said when the song was done. He grabbed Neve’s head in a rugby tackle, ruffling what showed of her hair. “Let’s form us a band. The Jomsborg Rats, how’s that? And Neve, you can make us my stage clothes. All sexy silks, all clanking-heavy with jewels and gold thread. Now come, don’t say you’d not like it.”
“What’s this, another excuse to wear makeup again?” Kazla said. “Not that you wear it like Kiss.”
“No, more like Eddie Izzard wears his, and I notice you’re a big fan of his. Besides, it was the fashion.”
“Besides, Eddie Izzard is funny. And it would help if you could play some kind of an instrument other than air.”
“And drums don’t count?”
“That would be novel,” Raesan said without turning round, and for a moment Neve thought he was making a joke of drums that could count. “You don’t get many front-men, yeh, playing the drums.”
“Dave Clark,” Kazla said but Rat ignored her.
“Talk about bringing us down,” he snarked at Raesan. “I’m trying to keep your beloved from worrying.”
“Yeh? Well she’s not my beloved.”
“No, of course, I was forgetting. Has he told yet you, Neve, of that old bird he nested with?”
Raesan swung round in a flash. “You say more . . .”
“Oh, what’s this? So you haven’t told her. Sweet Horses! And I thought Huat weird, sticking his hand in a fire to impress our Lady. But you . . .” Rat shook his head, disbelieving.
“I’m warning you, yeh.”
“Oh? And what’re you going to do?”
“Just remember you’re only a fourth from source.”
“Yea, but at least Zemowit was a source. Unlike you.”
“Please,” Neve begged. “Don’t rile him. Not here.” She imagined the damage done by Raesan’s light if it galed. Her fears exploded and trampled over her. Rat’s arm was immediately round her, though still he ranted at Raesan.
“You’re not even a source. So what are you, a gelding? Or maybe you fathered a heronry?”
Raesan squirmed in his seat. Neve didn’t know what this was about but she wanted it stopped. She pleaded, please, as she slipped her arms under Rat’s to nestle against him.
Rat patted her shoulders, her back, her head. “No fret. He’ll do nothing. He needs my help to find the dragon. Besides, being the windy type, he’s scared to be there with all that sand. Besides,” Rat shrugged, “his stupid Asaric killing-tricks won’t work on us Bellinn. But for you, and only for you, Lubschinka, I’ll zip it.” He closed his arms around her.
“Boys,” Kazla said. Neve couldn’t see her, but she knew from her tone she’d looked away in disgust.
~ ~ ~
At last the helicopter landed. Dumpff, straight down. Neve scrambled out, a thousand thanks to be safe on the ground. But her legs were weak and her knees wouldn’t lock; she scarcely could stand. While she recovered, she scanned the island. It wasn’t as she’d expected. Raesan noticed her look and openly gloated. Where was the wave-scoured sandbar? Why did it look no different from when they’d buried the dragon here, merely a few missing chunks from around it? The grasses still grew, a myriad of flowers speckled throughout them. She could have happily idled here, in the warmth of the September sun.
“A dragon stirs beneath those flowers,” Rat whispered into her ear. “And should she wake . . .”
Neve needed no telling; she’d seen the beast. With a grimace, she pushed away the memory of the barbecued worm – it was replaced by a fleeting scene of the combined armed forces, all out with their guns, while Skimaskall breathed her fire upon them. No, they’d no time to waste.
There was grass and flowers – in places – but the island still was a construction site, and bigger than it had seemed on Google Earth. To east and west the turbines’ towers stretched up to the sky; Neve felt like a mouse beside an elephant. And though she’d not even guessed at their presence from the shore, there were two giant cranes of a size she’d seen only in movies. To their west were the management offices: porta-cabins stacked two and three high. Beside them was a solitary blue porta-loo.
Rat nodded towards a coffer dam, a few feet of unfinished turbine projecting above it. “Number five?”
“That’ll be her,” Neve agreed. “Best we find a way up and over.”
“You three go, yeh,” Raesan said. “I need to be stay here with our pilot.”
No one disagreed. They might complain about Raesan but, despite the verbal scrapping with Rat, he had kept his word and kept Alastar under control for the flight. He, the pilot, was the one weak link in their contrived story, that, in passing the island in their yacht, and seeing all work had stopped, they had taken the opportunity to browse around (a shame they hadn’t a boat, though they fervently hoped to remain anonymous). But the story could be easily blown. The pilot could counter-say that, yes, he had ferried them out here, and yes, they had dug in the sand.
A ladder gave easy access to within the coffer. There all sound was muted, the wind unnaturally calmed. Rat performed his metal detection, treading the ground in ordered, segment-by-segment, fashion. Though several times he had Kazla and Neve laughing as he whirled his arms to regain balance atop the uneven piles of sand. At the landward side of the turbine – “Shiver, shiver, shiver!” – he held up his hand. But when he tried to map the area, it turned out to be a long narrow strip.
“The cables to carry the electricity back to Yalesham,” Neve said. The collecting house was still under construction, landward of the turbines.
“So Raesan’s wrong of where she was buried,” Rat said. “There’s no trace of treasure buried here.”
Neve started to frown but then exclaimed, “No, you’re right. I remember now, her pit was dug in a hollow. This tower merely snips at the edge of it. We need to be outside the dam, not inside it.” She didn’t wait for the twins to digest. She was up the ladder, over and down.
The Aquilergy map had misled her with contours that made the shallow dip look considerably deeper. She stood where she thought the pit ought to be. Rat joined her.
“Oh yea, we’ve got it now, baby. Or is that the effect of you standing close tor me?”
She punched him. Though it was scarcely a touch, she’d never done that to a man before. “Dig,” she said to cover her embarrassment.
But first they needed the equipment they’d left at the helicopter.
“I’ll go,” Neve offered.
“No you don’t. Not alone, to him,” Rat said. “Besides, it’s too much to carry. I’ll come with you. Kaz can stay and mark the spot.”
Raesan looked worried as they approached, his light drawn in tight. “Don’t you move that dragon, yeh, you’ll have her awake.”
“Oh? And how do you suggest we lower her without actually moving her?” They’d gone over the plan at least five times.
“But that’s down, yeh; down’s okay.”
“Oh good,” Neve said, her tolerance stretched.
“Raesan, man, you know the plan. We mucky-soil-types, Kaz and I, will scoop out the earth from beneath the dragon. Then, with lack of soil, down, down she goes – soil and treasure descending along with her. Any queries, have we? Like to voice them, now?” Rat’s tolerance, too, was snapping.
Raesan seemed confused: whether to shake his head, no, at no questions, or to nod that that’s okay. “Yeh, well, that’ll keep her clear of future disturbance.”
“No, Raesan, not that alone.” How many times must she go over this with him. “It’ll be the archaeologists who ensure no future disturbance.”
“Dah!” Raesan waved her away. “Whatever you say, yeh.”
“Trust us,” Rat said. “The plan is sound.”
Back at the hollow, Rat marked out the area. Then he and Kazla started to dig, one each side of the dragon. Neve wanted to help but Rat refused her. They dug out two trenches.
“How deep did you say they buried her?” Kazla asked, her voice muffled by the surrounding soil. Neve peered over the edge to see her. “Don’t get too close! It’s gravelly sand, it’ll easily give.”
“Glacial deposit,” Rat said, his voice even more muffled. “Part of the North Norfolk Ridge.”
“You know of such things?” But he couldn’t have heard; her words were a whisper.
The twins continued to dig. The excavated sand, piled atop the dragon at the centre, grew to be a veritable knoll. But that was a crucial part of the plan. Its additional weight would help lower the beast.
“Struck gold!” excited, Rat called. “You want it?”
This was the tricky part. It would do no good simply to retrieve a few pieces of gold, Saxon-crafted. They must take it with sufficient soil bedded around it. The fact the island, in places, was churned and turned, due to construction, could only work in their favour.
Neve lowered a tray down to Rat. It was stopping to buy these supplies that had delayed their arrival in Yarmouth. It seemed Friday afternoon was not a good time to be swiftly in and out of the out-of-town DIY retail warehouses; it seemed 90% of the local population were preparing for their various weekend projects. But now, because of the delay, speed counted for all. And yet this was a delicate operation that couldn’t be hurried.
“Up,” Rat called to her.
The tray was heavier than expected, laden with the carefully transferred pieces of gold and sand.
“Those trays need retying,” Rat said. “Was a mistake to rely on Raesan’s skill with knots. Throw down another; I’ll re-knot it before using.”
Neve felt like a fisherman hauling her catch. She saw tiny glimpses of gold hiding at the heart of the sand-formed clods. Her fingers itched to ferret it out, but that would have spoiled everything. With a sigh of reluctance, she set the tray a safe distance behind her and waited to haul up the next. All but a few pieces would be used to seed the soil away from the dragon, that disturbed by construction between pit and coffer.
Rat filled ten trays with the treasure provided by the Breton Count Alan. Neve eyed it with awe; chalices, plates, candle-holders, caskets, chains, many with precious stones studded, and from what she could see, their crafting exquisite. This would be the greatest treasure trawl ever known in the UK, bigger even than Sutton Hoo. And that without touching what was still buried beneath the dragon. That must be left in place to hold Skima safely in slumber.
“My turn now,” Kazla said. “I’ve enough here to fill ten longboats, never mind your trays.” She kept Neve busy moving more treasure while Rat made a start on burrowing under the dragon.
Raesan sauntered over. “What’s the delay?” He peered into the trench where Rat was working.
“No delay,” Neve said. “Just look at this treasure.”
“Yeh,” Raesan said. “I’ve seen it before.”
He strolled back to the helicopter. Aquilergy had constructed a proper landing-spot here. That had been a surprise though it oughtn’t to have been.
She turned back to the dig, excited at what they’d achieved. It was going well, exactly as planned.
But what was that sound?
At first she had to strain to hear it. But it rapidly grew. It sounded like something grating, like hard-soled boots on gravel, crunching. Beneath it, around it, as if it were holding it, there was a deep rumbling. Its meaning, belatedly, lashed into Neve. Her belly leapt to her mouth. Beneath her feet the sand was moving. She’d no time to panic. She threw herself wide of the trench – just as she started to slip with the sand.
Friggle Jacks! Was that Skimaskall stirring again? Had Rat and Kazla accidentally disturbed her?
She watched as the sand-formed knoll between the trenches started to sink.
~ ~ ~
Next episode, 3rd December: To Bed With A Dragon