“I smell a rat,” Starri said, his Asaric light grown busy with eddies and swirls. But he chuckled. “Where is he, my old raiding mate?”
Neve glanced back towards the hall and beyond to the woodland ride.
“Ah, so you’ve left him back there? I must go see him.”
Neve wondered what now to do. She nigh left her skin as a flame-headed Bellinn – Alfi – materialised just two yards in front of her. Mercifully, over the centuries he had gained some colour-sense; his bright orange shirt was worn with white chinos, not the clashing yellow silk stockings of before.
“Cesar says you’re to enter.” He led the way to the cottage.
Starri and Alfi had been friendly. But that woman who stood at the cottage door – Lord Zemowit’s get by the bright coloured lights that chased wildly around her – was certainly not. Neve’s inability to name her further annoyed her. “I allow you to pass,” she said through unmoving mouth. “But only because Cesar says.”
“I thank you,” Neve said, “—my lady.”
The woman stepped aside. Neve pushed at the door. It creaked as it swung wide. Inside was ill-lit, the windows small, and through them a sky turned dark. This room served as kitchen – to one side a wood-burning range, around it shelves of pots; a table stood in one corner, a copper wash-tub in another. Beside it, another door. Was Neve to open it? Did it give onto a room? At her tentative touch rippling lights burst forth.
And here were more Bellinn. Five variously sat or sprawled upon silk-draped divans, day-beds that made her think of Egypt and Turkey. She recognised Audri at once, and Oliba and Venga. But of the other two she wasn’t so sure: both women, both strikingly alike, and alike to Cesar; clearly her daughters. But where was Cesar, and where Regin-yorl, her grandfather?
She shuffled awkwardly, foot to foot, not knowing what to say in the aching silence, wishing one of the Bellinn would speak. Finally, when she thought she could bear it no more, Audri nodded towards another door. She offered him a twitch of a smile.
The door gave onto a bedroom. The curtains were closed, the embers in the small fireplace scarcely aglow. Yet despite the gloom her eyes went straight to the man swathed in blankets, asleep in the bed, his light so weak it barely was there.
Wrinkled and bearded, he bore no resemblance now to Eastan, the keyboardist of Wise Men Three, the man in the posters her mother had hoarded. Yet she knew he was Regin-yorl.
“Sit,” Cesar said with no form of greeting. She nodded to a three-legged stool by the bed. She sat opposite, on another.
And now in her presence, not filtered through a third person’s eyes, Neve could see that here, beyond question, was her Asaric source. But, oh, how she wished her own skin was this petal-fresh! And that her own hair would hang, as hers, straight as a curtain, and as lustrously black. But she did share Cesar’s full-lipped mouth, and the set of her eyes, though Cesar’s were emerald green. Yet there was no mistaking this woman for anything other than her grandfather’s mother. Even their chins were the same!
While Neve was wondering and marvelling the outer form, she too was aware of Cesar’s probing within her, an Asaric touch she wasn’t able to block.
“You are right,” Cesar said at last. “You are mine. But if you think he is your grandfather . . .” her eyes lingered on the sleeping form. “No, you are wrong.”
Both Raesan and Rat had told her, yet still this news crashed upon her and she had to cry, “No!” She then couldn’t find words, just a stuttered “But . . . ” She couldn’t find thoughts. She turned to look at the sleeping man, his mouth agape as softly he snored.
“No ‘buts’ will change it,” Cesar said, soft with compassion.
“Yet I am one of yours?” Neve could feel the tears welling. To come so far, all these months enduring the annoyance of Raesan because she needed his memories, then the search round the communes, and being fed to the grimmen, and everyone saying no, it cannot be him, and she’d been so insistent it was. It felt like an edifice of icing was crumbling around her. “H-how can you be certain?” Her words stuttered out.
“Because I know who your grandfather is. And he is not my Artred.”
Cesar smiled; everything a fairy grandma should be. “You know the name Hrafn Hauksson?”
“I know the name Aroddr Inn Hrafn, but . . . Oh.” She feared her head might split, so fast were thoughts turning – and did she think them or speak them aloud? “Hrafn, Rafn, Raven, Raun – and my grandfather gave his name as Rawn Edmond – though once he gave it as Rawn Aldmon.”
Cesar laughed: a light tinkering sound of silver in water – or was that the sound of her Asaric light, like a child splashing and spraying in a stream of delight. She said. “By the laws of this land, his name is Healdman. But your grandfather liked playing with puns; Aldman, Old Man, because he was to live for so long. But whence this Edmund? Perhaps he was thinking of Alan’s son.”
A grin broke Neve’s face as she repeated the name given: Hrafn Hauksson. “So my grandfather was Hawk’s son, is that what you’re saying? Hawk Oddsson, the huntsman and park-keeper for Count Alan?”
Cesar nodded and smiled. “Healdman, a ‘keeper’.”
Neve wanted to laugh, to giggle, exclaim. Her grandfather, Hawk’s son? But this was the last thing she’d expected. She had to cover her mouth to hold in the excitement – for there still was Artred, Regin-yorl, and he still lay dying beside her.
She thought Cesar was Asarically talking with him. She no longer seemed aware of Neve. But no, her eyes were inward focused; she was seeing far into time. Neve’s presence had stirred memories; her lips showed them not to be sweet. Neve said nothing, but waited. She wanted to ask of Cesar’s game, but it wouldn’t be polite. Yet . . . she grinned again. Cesar, this Cesar, was her great-grandmother, and Hawk the Hunter was . . . her great-grandfather! It would take an eternity for that to sink in; she doubted she’d ever casually accept it.
Cesar’s eyes resumed focus. She turned them to Neve. “I have found in you what you learned from Raesan.” Neve hadn’t been aware of this second probe. Her grin disappeared. “I found too that you know of the game I was playing.”
“Not much of it,” she said, though she was glad of this chance to discuss it. “I know that you took three forms – the true you and two illusions. And I figured the rules. The young-form seduced the lord of the manor. Pregnant, she then became the mother-form. That forced the previous mother to become the crone, and the crone to become young again. The crone-turned young then seduced the next lord of the manor. And so it cycled round.”
“Circles and cycles are so hard to break,” Cesar said in wistful tone. “It all worked fine until there was Hawk.”
“Because you were playing the crone-form, and Hawk had eyes only for the young.”
Cesar sighed. “Could I blame him for that? And yet he was the purpose in my playing the game. But you worked all that out by yourself? How much we are alike: both taking enjoyment in ravelling out puzzles. Yes, I was right to invite you; I like you.” She glanced at the door. Neve guessed the implication: that there were those outside she liked less well.
“I’d say the game began with Inn Hrafn – Aroddr Inn Hrafn,” Neve said.
Cesar grinned. She’d a very wide mouth. But the grin disappeared, and she shivered violently. Her light froze around her and clouded. A few very small eddies remained but barely visible beneath the murk-turned surface. “I’m sorry,” she said.
Neve didn’t know why the apology. She waited; what else could she do.
Cesar reached for Neve’s hands, taking them both in her own. “I need your touch; healers, we Silver Folds – though some things can never be healed. So he returned, yet the memory remained of his death. That’s when it began, when he died. Have you loved? Oh, you have that ahead. My child, his death tore me, it shredded me; I couldn’t endure it. Artred, there, pulled me out of the flames – I wanted to go with him, leaping upon his funeral pyre. And how pointless would that be? An Asar, I’d have been born again, all but immediately. How can I describe it? In my anguish and grief I was split; split into three forms. See, you were wrong: they were not illusions. All three were me.”
She released Neve’s hands and sat back. Her tremors had calmed, her light again flowed. She deeply inhaled, and wiped at a tear. This woman, thirteen thousand years old, still was human in her emotions.
“Yes, Nevey, all three forms were me – though others, like you, thought them illusions. That Raesan . . . Amblushe . . . most of the Bellinn – but Zemowit knew. It was after that he forbade his people from joining in battles, though he had never approved, even before.”
Why hadn’t Neve guessed it? It was the distress of Inn Hrafn’s death that had torn Cesar apart, remaking her into three forms. But why should she have guessed it; her passion was history, not psychology.
“Asta was our only child.” Cesar had opened so far, now it seemed she must tell it all. And Neve would certainly not interrupt her; she wanted to know it all. “Asta, our beautiful Asta. But Asta produced only one son. Oliba – and he wasn’t Inn Hrafn reborn. So we thought, if we lay with the sons of Inn Hrafn, one by one through the generations, we must catch the son who was him reborn. Our Lord Starri was begotten by Inn Hrafn’s son Arnfast. But he wasn’t the one either. Then Arnoddr and Arngrimr both gave me daughters. With Arngeirr Arngrimsson there came Audri. My Hapful Audri, he’s a good boy. Then Vether, he was the last of them; Hawk’s father got him upon my young form.”
She might have said more, but the flow of her words was broken by the stirring of Artred-Regin. Neve thought he would wake. But he merely turned.
Cesar sighed. “They are so long in dying, as if they would squeeze the last jot of love from us, and leave us as husks. A good thing, this Oath, with no more begetting. He never recovered from the death of his daughter.”
“Gudrum and Tythwar told me – though I still believed him my grandpa. But why did you continue the game when the Oddssons no longer held the land. Why play the game with the earls?” That made no sense to her.
“Because by then the game had taken a life of its own. We couldn’t stop it. And these other two parts of me didn’t want to be banished. My Lord Zemowit complained. He likened me to Amblushe; he called the Gate! But insult me if you will, we couldn’t stop it.”
“Yet you did stop,” Neve said. “Since here you are a single form. So what happened? I know that Young Cesar refused to lay with Count Alan.”
“She was young, he was old – and he reeked of angels. Besides, he had his Gunnhild. Oh, how Amblushe did smirk over that. ‘Try to get near him now, with his devout angel-seeker.’ Christian prayers are like acid upon us. But you must know that.”
“I think prayers have lost their power these days.” Though, she remembered, it had been a prayer that had held Raesan away. “The old Christians have gone,” she amended.
“It may be so – though you’re only a fourth nock, it wouldn’t affect you as . . . vilely. So, next Amblushe abducted her granddaughter Gunnhild – to protect her, she said, now that she was pregnant. And that, too, was my doing, she accused me – because of the well. But our charms were intended only for Blide. We always looked after Inn Hrafn’s family. But Blide married well in the end.”
Neve titled her head as in prompt.
“Our saviour, Saint Guy,” Cesar said.
Neve was pleased to hear that. “I’ve had Raesan’s memories of the abductions. First Gunnhild, then Alan who’d come seeking her, then—”
“Yes, then the mortals, Hawk and Guy and his squire, and Nihel. We’d seen Hawk reflected in the well. The others had mocked me. But they didn’t know it was him, and I did. Oh, but useless, it was useless. For until the young-form had taken Alan’s child I was stuck at being the crone. Nevey, I tell you, I was desperate. Hawk was the one I’d been waiting for. My child, I hope you never experience this pain; the ache of it, never relenting. And there he was, my Inn Hrafn reborn, and I couldn’t be with him.”
“Yet you say his son is my grandpa?”
“Oh, I know what you’re asking. And I’d like to tell you that my heart healed me. But that’s not how it was. Two hundred years these other two had lived independent of me. They clung to their cloaks. They’d not relinquish their independent existence. Yet they were nothing without me. Nothing. We fought. Huh, we fought, yes, we fought. And don’t believe it was done without pain. The young one was the worst, showing me over and over Inn Hrafn’s dead body, hacked, destroyed, scarcely him. No, don’t ask me more of it.”
The ice and the tremors had returned. Neve offered her hands though her hands seemed so little to offer her healing and comfort. “But you did it,” she said. “You put your self back together.”
Cesar nodded, taking a while to quieten and again find her voice. “It was while Hawk was away with Guy, laying the dragon.”
“And at the Reconciliation, you didn’t go.”
“Nevey-Neve, how could I? My heart was locked here, with Hawk. And so it still is. I shall never leave this land – never. My Hawk now is dead but some day he will live again. I must keep watch for him.” Cesar abruptly looked up.
Neve, too, had heard it. A voice, it was Rat. He was outside with Starri. She heard Starri call for Vigot and Oliba to join them. “Look! See who’s here.”
“You want to know of your grandfather,” Cesar said. “And Razimer will want time with Artred, here. They once were so close, though never were equals. How could they be? So much to separate them. But come.” Cesar stood, gathering her green cloak about her. “We’ll allow the men their time together. We can continue our talk at the well.”
Neve didn’t object, she was glad to be on her feet and walking; glad to be out of that gloomy room where Artred lay dying and not once waking. Rat caught her hand as she passed, gave a querying look.
“You were right,” she said. “Not Artred.”
“Are you . . . ?”
“I’m fine.” Her legs were shaky but only from sitting so long. And she still had many questions to ask. Why, if Cesar had lived so close to Grandma Phoebe’s house, had her grandpa deserted them – her grandmother, her mother, and her too? And where had he gone? Where was he now?
~ ~ ~
Next episode, 31st December (New Year’s Eve): This Must Be The Place.