Rat tapped on Neve’s knee and signed for her to look at the speedometer. She peered over his shoulder – and fast looked away.
Ever heard of a speed limit?
Grey dreary road, with autumn’s red berried-hedges and orange oaks veiled by the day’s persistent drizzle. Though she was protected by helmet and leathers, and Rat in front of her, her jeans were soaked. Add-in the wind, and her legs were beginning to freeze.
Ten miles off destination and the traffic had grown. Rat cut back his speed. But Count Alan’s hunting park, Tree Brunna Chase, now was a gravel-works with its entrance squirreled away in a recently developed industrial estate; the roundabouts, feeder-roads and speed-ramps forced Rat to reduce his speed further. He stopped by a wide metallic gate, open but uninviting.
Neve looked up at the hoarding beside it. Why hadn’t she realised it before: Renegale Aggregates, the company her grandpa had chosen for his investments. And look what they’d done to what had been an historic site and ancient woodland. Wasn’t that proof he was dying, if not already dead. He’d not have kept quiet while they did this.
She leant over Rat’s shoulder. “I’m a shareholder of this.”
“Oh, a wealthy woman?”
“Comfortable, my solicitor says – as long as folk keep building houses and making roads.” She felt torn about that; that she should profit from this . . . destruction.
“But I doubt you being a shareholder gives you the right to go wandering around in there. So best we stick to the original plan.”
“I think it, I feel it, I am invisible.” She sighed out her reluctance.
“Come on, we’ve practiced, you can do it. For a woman who produced a plague of frogs, this is easy.”
“Toads, they were toads. And I was a child.”
“But you steamed your way out from under that dragon. You’ll be fine. I promise they’ll not hear or see a thing. Now, hold tight.” She was glad of the warning – and of the looped bar behind her that served as a back-rest. It saved her from flying off backwards as the bike leapt forward with sudden acceleration.
Invisible. No one can see me. I wear a magic cloak of invisibility. So how come she could still see Rat? He was meant to be invisible too. Kaz had tried to explain it: “You’re Bellinn, and Bellinn can see what Bellinn do.” But that was no answer. “It’s like our lights,” Rat said. “We can see them, but only because we’re Bellinn. Others can’t.” Neve couldn’t see it was the same thing at all but . . . I am invisible, no one can see me . . .
That driver in the towering lorry now labouring towards them certainly couldn’t. Rat cut out and around it. Water dripped from its sides, splashing her leathers. For several minutes after, Neve felt queasy from the thick diesel fumes.
They passed by ‘Administration’ – a square arrangement of porta-cabins. ‘Would All Visitors Please Report – Protective Hats Must Be Worn.’ Behind it, spread like a bridal-train, the car park awaited the posh cars of the bosses – so far there were only clusters of motorbikes, small cars and battered old bangers. Beyond the public face of Renegale Aggregates the metalled road was replaced by a rutted grit-track. A white hard-pan apron gave on to the diggings. Neve had seen it, bird’s eye, on Google Earth. It had looked desolate. Seeing it now, close to, on the ground, she half-expected to see the tiny blue blip of Dr. Who’s tardis, blatant in this post-apocalyptic landscape.
The road ran out. Rat pulled to a halt and took off his helmet. “Ahead, by inches, is the border.”
“So much for Bellinn being able to see – to me it’s just more of the ‘white’.”
“It’s there, trust me. And I’m guessing there’s a gate – they must come back and forth with groceries. Cesar mayn’t need food but the others do.”
How many others were there? Raesan had said of the Bellinn returning to Denmark and Poland, and beyond. Others, he’d said, had ventured off south and west, to Brittany, Wales and Ireland. Lirabien Marskonung had ferried them, but Lirabien Marskonung had been dead these past 700 years. She wondered, had he taken any as far as America.
“I suggest we leave the bike here and feel the way.”
Within a yard of leaving the bike Neve banged her knee. Wow! It was like someone had turned on the lights. Eldsland blinked into view, a green haven before her. She stared, enchanted: the last snip of Eldsland anywhere in the world, maintained only because Cesar was there. She grinned at the profusion of plants, all shades of yellow and blue, the bedstraws, hawksbeards, hedge mustard, burgloss and chicory, and loads of white umbellifers, all striving against the grass. Honeysuckle in twisted vines hung like tropical lianas from the wild cherry trees. The smell of it all in the spring must be divine. She’d not realised how much she missed these things, living now in a concrete town. And Rat was right, there was a gate, a simple five-bar affair. She started to climb it.
“Nej. I’ll open it. I’m not leaving the bike out here.”
But the gate was padlocked.
“If you bring it within the border . . .?” Neve suggested. Then she noticed an oddity. “The leaves aren’t turning!” Perhaps the herbage was dwindling some but the trees remained green. “That elm ought to be yellow by now, so too the birch.” Green-leaved trees and a rowan beside them with a head of red beads? “Yikes! This is all topsy-turvy.”
She climbed the gate. Rat followed. But turning back she held up her hands. “I need to do this alone.” She didn’t know how the meeting would go but, whichever way, it would be intimate. She didn’t want Rat party to that; he was still new in her life.
“Artred’s my mate,” he said.
“I know. I’ll call you. Just wait here. Please?”
He nodded. She smiled. He seemed perfect – yet he must have some faults. She wondered what he was hiding that she’d not yet discovered. He took her helmet, and kissed her forehead. But that wasn’t enough; he pulled her back and hugged her. And when would that buzz start to fade? She knew that it would: she’d watched enough movies and read enough books.
“Listen,” he said. “If things look even a miniscule risky, you call me. We’ve no guarantee Cesar’s brood will be friendly, and I want no repeats of Skailton.”
“Cesar’s my source, Regin-yorl is my grandpa; I’ll be fine.”
“Well, just don’t try to be brave. And I still query that last.” He held her hand, refusing to release it until she was too far away.
Alone now, she walked the woodland ride. She’d seen it on the map, it wasn’t so long, yet it seemed to take her for ever. She didn’t mind, it was pleasant. The track itself was rutted but not at all mired, though the grasses alongside it were wet. It was overhung by an unseasonably leafy canopy, making the ride a magical tunnel. A blackbird started from the brambles beside her. A few paces more and a stoat or a weasel, or maybe a mouse, rustled deep in the leaves. Ivy laid thick on that side of the track. She smiled. She’d be happy to dwell here and never to leave. It reminded her of childhood stories, of Hansel and Gretel, and Babes in the Wood. She half expected a gingerbread house – or to see the Seven Dwarves. But no, that would be too much like Halftroll. She wished now she’d not thought of it. How safe was this walk? That rustling in the undergrowth, was it a mouse – or a pack of vampiric grimmen?
Ahead, thick purple-blotched stems of hemlock hid a turn in the track. Unexpected in a clearing beyond it, was Oddessey Hall.
All her life she’d heard tell of this place. But though everyone talked of it, no one had seen it. She had imagined it a fairy place, the haunt of elven folk – unreal.
This was real. It looked Tudor-built with small glazed windows and tall twisted chimneys that showed red against a now-cloudless sky. Two wings stretched out, as in a brick-formed embrace; between them, the entrance with its gothic-arched door. It all was in excellent repair, as if some lord still lived here.
The paved path to door whispered a greeting. But the only life she could see were a matching pair of clipped box trees. They stood as sentinels either side of the door. It was all very odd. Despite the high maintenance, the hall looked deserted, the Tudor-glazed windows showing black from within.
She knocked at the door. It was the polite thing to do and an ornate knocker had been so provided. She waited. Although she listened intently there was silence within. Somewhere a crow cawed. In the trees other birds chirruped. She knocked again.
A twisted iron handle lifted the latch hidden within. With barely a push the door swung open. “Hello?” There was no answer. She looked behind her before venturing in.
Whatever she had expected, it wasn’t this. A long wide corridor opened before her. She had a sudden sense of déjà-vu; doors – two to each side – opened off it. A fifth door stood at the end. The door nearest, to her left, was open a crack. It seemed to invite her. She pushed it wider. Nothing sprang out at her. She peeped in and . . . eyes wide, she stood transfixed.
She hardly could form the words in her head. This was no Tudor-built hall. It was a mead-hall, a Viking jarl’s mead hall, and she’d seen it before. Nothing had changed except that its entrance had moved. The rest of the hall had been built around it. See, there was the Arnlings’ saga-band still encircling the walls. Banners still hung from the rafters. There was Rat’s: grey and black horns with long hanging streamers. And there, Skrauti’s red dragon. She turned, slowly. There, the carved pillars that framed the raised platform. And there Regin-yorl – Artred, she must remember that now – had perched on the platform’s edge with Rat and Gudrum, Eida, Eilif, Eirik and Raum, because Lord Zemowit had claimed the yorl’s high seat.
Yet there had been some changes. Look how brilliantly lit the hall, with sunlight streaming through the high glazed windows. It warmed the rushes that covered the floor. Her feet released the sweet aroma, masking the smell of split mead. There now was a fireplace, too: stone, ornately carved, tall and wide, on the north wall. She guessed it was Elizabethan. At its centre, a blazoned shield bore not the Mercian knot that Count Alan had long ago used, but the Arnling’s eagle.
She stirred herself into action. Admiring the hall wouldn’t find her grandfather or Cesar. She found the stairs. But the upper rooms were bare boards and rafters. Spiders were the only inhabitants there. She returned down the stairs but could find no way into the wings; perhaps they’d been built just for show. A second door along the corridor gave onto the hall – just as at Skailton; that’s where she’d seen this arrangement before. The two opposite doors led to the sleeping quarters of Cesar, and of Regin-yorl and his men. They too were empty. She tried the fifth door.
~ ~ ~
Now her head was totally boggled.
The hall was surrounded on all sides by densely grown trees, filtering the daylight and admitting no rain. That’s what she’d seen on entering the clearing. Yet here she stood, her back to the back of the hall, with an uninterrupted view of green pastures cut by a river. That river was the Linn; it ran through Dowsingham too. Willows clumped upon its banks. To the west was a veritable thicket of alder, willows and ash. She ought to have seen rust-coloured trees, yet everywhere was thinly greened as if it were spring.
She stared at that thicket, and squinted and blinked. Yes, she was right; she had seen a cottage – reed-thatched, a herb-garden around it; smoke rose from a chalk-built chimney. She grinned. She had found the Bellinn! Alongside the garden was parked a red 4 x 4. And soon her eyes were seeing more: a light – two, three – Asaric, Bellinn, close to the cottage. One slowly resolved to a man.
He walked towards her along the path, a staff in his hand, his faded red jeans and sleeveless denim at odds with the long sheathed seax fixed to his belt.
“Starri.” His name spilled from her lips.
“Lord, if you’ve a mind to stay living. Neve, is that your name? I’m hearing it loud. I see you’re Bellinn, but . . . why are you here?”
“I want to see Artred,” she blurted.
~ ~ ~
Next episode: Cesar