I woke to half-light, Arvina’s voice in my head telling me she hadn’t yet told me of Togrim. I must return to my sleep.
“Can’t you just tell me? Now that you’re talking, at least in my head.”
She made noise like being strangled. I think it translated as ‘Arghh!’ Too much to tell. I can only think you a few words at a time.
True, this was the longest speech she yet had made. But now I was awake, I wanted to be up and moving. Those first two weeks here I’d been like a bed-bound granny; too many hours dumped on that hard hospital bed, sandwiched between a plastic-covered mattress, starched white sheets and leaden blankets. I didn’t care what she wanted; I started to move. But got only as far as to swing my legs round and sit up.
You will sleep, she said. And she did mean it.
I managed a glance at the clock on the wall above me before sleep again took me. 5:00 am.
. . .
Eldsland. Tree Brunna. And everyone’s heading to Regin-yorl’s hall. So what’s happening there? All Arvina knows is that Cesar has called for a meeting. She looks around, trying to spot Inga.
Most of the Bellinn here are against her, but Inga, the youngest of Cesar’s Elds-kin, is her friend. A lower nock than Arvina, she’s teaching Arvina the craft of spinning. But what they spin isn’t hemp, nor flax, nor wool. It’s from a plant that grows only in the Eldslands. It weaves as soft as silk and dyes as bright. They call it Eldspin.
Arvina strains on tiptoes to see over heads. Inga ought to be easily seen, always wearing a fillet of flowers. But Regin-yorl’s hall now is brimming with Bellinn. A few faces she knows but many still are unfamiliar. Then . . . with a smile she beckons and waves as Inga squeezes her way through.
“What’s happening?” Arvina asks her. “What’s this about?”
Inga shakes her flower-ringed head, she doesn’t know either. “I’ve not seen it like this since I was a child. Then it would be for Lord Zemowit’s visits. But he’s long gone with the other Asars.”
The other Asars. But not Cesar. Cesar’s still here, a story that Arvina now knows—Inga is a wondrous source of the gossip that goes the course. Cesar didn’t leave with the other Asars at the Atonement; she stayed to be with Hawk Oddsson. That Hawk, a mortal, now is aging, yet Cesar remains here. And so she will, even once his days are done. She’s vowed she’ll stay to be with her son Hrafn.
“Begotten after the Oath,” Inga told her of that in scandalised tone—then blushed when she realised it applied to Arvina as well.
Now from somewhere outside comes a brittle sound. Like thunder, Thor stamping. A clash of swords and spears against shields. Arvina hears someone shouting, “Rummra, rummra!” Make way for the lord.
She looks at Inga, prompting for whatever information, no matter how meagre. Inga shrugs. “Just Ragen Jarl and his Stoats.”
Yet Arvina has seen Ragen Jarl enter this hall many times now with none of this hoo-ha. So what’s going on now?
He enters, in procession as if he is king. The babble of Bellinn voices break into silence so absolute it’s almost painful. Not one Bellinn light flares or balloons. All are held respectfully close. He steps onto the dais—the bigger pipes and the drums are set behind him, ready for when the musicians use them. His Stoats array themselves around him. One, the Crystal Fold, allows his hand to caress the god-drum. For a moment Arvina’s eyes stay on him.
“Ease your hearts,” says Ragen Jarl. “I come not to speak of war. Yet it hurts me as much to say . . . yet I must. As you know, two of our kin are absent this hall, and have been so these two years back. I’ve no need to name them, you know who they are.”
They might know, but Arvina does not.
“Skrauti and Togrim,” Inga whispers.
“Sons of my mother,” Ragen Jarl says. “Sons, both, of Harold Godwinsson.”
Arvina slaps a hand to her mouth. Too late, her loudly breathed gasp rattles the quiet of the hall.
But Harold was not your mother’s father, Ragen Jarl says, alone to her. It was Amblushe’s son Luin cuckolded Edgiva’s lord. We both, you and I, know that.
Aye, Arvina knows it, and so, too, do most of the Bellinn here. But not the world beyond Tree Brunna. To them, her mother is Harold Godwinsson’s daughter. Even his sister, Queen Edith, believed it. But not Le Roussel and his brothers, they knew the truth of it.
“There has been fighting,” Ragen Jarl says in tone disapproving. “Rebellion. Trouble in Normandy. They were told not to go, yet . . . Skrauti ever has been sword-greedy. Though it’s dubious this time he went purely for plunder—though, as we all know, our Skrauti does like to glitter. Nay, by my honour, this time I swear he had some fly-spun plan in his head.” Ragen Jarl sighs, and draws in his breath before he says more.
Arvina doesn’t know how much her fellow Bellinn get of what he is saying, of the troubles outremer. She, of course, being resident at Richemont all those years knows all about them, their origin, the politics of it. It’s the ongoing discord between Duke Robert and King Henry, sons of the Bastard, the quarrel of which shall rule where. And now good King Henry has finally triumphed. Yet that’s not recent. That’s old news.
“They have returned,” Ragen Jarl says. “Unharmed. Not as much as a finger lost. But they were not wise in which to support, and now they’ve been labelled as traitors. Outlaws. Outside of laws not acknowledged by Bellinn. But—regardless—if found their lives will be forfeit. Off-headed. Cesar and I have talked about this: What to do with these two . . . troublesome ones? Dare we risk our own discovery by hiding them here—for it won’t be only Skrauti and Togrim, then, who are branded as traitors. Our Elds-kin, in our entirety. And the Oddssons. And I would not choose death upon those who have served us. Whose long-fathers are the fathers of many amongst us.”
He sounds exasperated and wearied. And having spoken, he now holds quiet. To allow the Bellinn time to fully get what he’s said? Allow them time to find their opinions? To then agree or disagree with him? Arvina doesn’t envy him, sat twixt the fires, honour-bound to support and protect his brothers, yet sworn to protect and defend Tree Brunna, home of his Elds-kin. How can he do both?
Around her a murmur begins, and grows. Around her, a few, then many, heads nod. Around her there seems to be agreement. But around her, too, many are glum. It’s no easy decision for any to make. Arvina is exempt. She’s not of their kin.
“So be it,” Ragen Jarl says and nods to his Stoats.
. . .
Arvina isn’t the first out of the hall, but she’s not the last either. She’s been waiting on Inga—who insists she speaks with her brother Vindalf. Vindalf is one of Ragen Jarl’s Stoats. Tired of the waiting, and they still talking, Arvina calls back to Inga, “I’ll wait across by Cesar’s well.” That’s their usual meeting place, where they’ll sit to spin and usually to chat.
Outside the hall, the guarding bear growls as Arvina passes it. It does that every time—she’s been told it’s because she’s not kin. And every time she wants to pat it, like the bear is a dog. But she wisely refrains.
She’s still looking back at the bear when a force stronger than the fiercest wind sends her tumbling—whoosh, off the brim of the bridge. She thuds into the moat burying herself in the deep accumulation of leaves. She recovers breath and tries to get up—only to find she can’t move for the weight that’s upon her.
“Hey, soft landing,” says whoever this is whose body is pressing hard against hers. She can’t see much of him. His Bellinn light, his brown eyes, his dirt-smeared face. Never has she met a Bellinn before who’s this dirty. He looks like a gangrel, long on the road. And he stinks.
“Who the jerk are you?” she asks just as he asks her the same though less offensively said.
“I asked first,” she says.
“Togrim,” he says. “Though to my friends— and I’m happy to number you first amongst them—I’m Toggy.”
“Arvina,” she says. She likes how he’s short-worded.
“Oh, and look who is here!” a woman’s voice sounds from above them. Vyvain.
Arvina recognises her from the arrogant tone. Memories reel: Vyvain has been loud in her scorn of Arvina and her mother, Gunnhild. Inga has explained of it: Vyvain had yearned for Le Roussel, and maybe she’d have had him too, but for Gunnhild. Resentment is large in her. Moreover, shortly after the Atonement, this Vyvain went missing. Disappeared. To return some four years later more bedrizzled with glitter than Skrauti ever has been. Aye, and Arvina knows whence that gold, though she holds her tongue on it. And Arvina also knows she can’t stay here at Tree Brunna much longer. She fears she’ll blurt the truth of it, else some higher nock will fetch the tale straight from her head. Yet to leave here means losing its otherwise safety. She’s been delaying on it, these past few weeks.
“My beloved brothers,” Vyvain jeers. “Two eyes each given and still no wisdom between them.”
“Vyvain. By God’s Blood, but it’s grand to be greeted so lovingly,” says the other brother, Skrauti.
Arvina can’t yet see him, herself hidden beneath this Togrim. Slight of build, there’s no fear of him crushing her. And in truth, she’s somewhat enjoying the heat and the closeness of him—if it weren’t for the unwashed scent of him . . .
“Up!” a stern voice commands. And Arvina sees the first glint of hard metal. They surround her and Togrim with their spears: Ragen Jarl and his Stoats.
“It hurts me to do this,” says Ragen Jarl. “But the Elds-kin are agreed on it. You’ve built your garden; now you have to leave here.”
“Na-na-nah, you can’t mean that,” Togrim’s quick in. “But I’ve only just met her and . . . Besides, it’s him. By Thor’s Sweaty Bollocks, it is.” He points at Skrauti, somewhere above them. “His misty notions go right over me,” so he claims.
Next episode, Body-Gate