Up! Come on. Up-up-up! They’re here, they’re waiting.
I squinted against the sun’s light, streaming in through the blinds. But . . . hold. No, wait. No way, I distinctly remembered closing those blinds. What time was it? Maybe the domestic had been in; maybe she’d opened them.
My body pulled me out of bed—but I wasn’t properly awake! And it still was early. I wanted to sleep. But I wasn’t allowed it. I looked at the clock on the wall. Only one hour since last time I woke.
“Arvina! This isn’t funny.”
Come on. They’re waiting. Let’s go!
They? I’d thought it likely I’d see Gamal today but . . . they? Who was the ‘they’ who was with him?
Arvina scarcely allowed me time to grab slippers and dressing-gown, so determined to have me moving. Not for the first time I was glad this wasn’t winter. Glad, too, the grounds couldn’t be seen from the road. It’s not that I’m a fashion-slave, not like some of the kids at school, the Valley Dolls. But . . . PJs and a dressing-gown? Okay, so flashed up with brilliant orange that drab wouldn’t look so bad. It might even pass for workout gear at a gym. But that dressing-gown? Yea, as Gamal had said, I could start a new fashion. But not with those slippers. Was them that bugged me most. Shapeless. And over-big.
Despite it was early, the side door was unlocked. Perhaps it served as the staff entrance. I padded out. I crunched over the gravel. I greedily breathed in the air. Arvina allowed me that. Enjoy it; it’s going to be a hot day. The birds were loud in their hallelujahs. Then Arvina regained her control and compelled my body to move. Fast. Faster than I cared for across this terrain and in those slippers. The small square of lawn this side of the building wasn’t so bad. It was negotiating that screening band of trees. As soon as through, she ran.
I had visions of a movie cliché. Was the original in Gone With The Wind? There’s him running towards her, arms out with intent to embrace. There’s her, ditto the same. The comedic version would have them miss their targets and carry on running. But I wasn’t watching a movie. And it was my body hosting the romantic heroine; my body running. And now barefooted.
Arms slapped around me. Arms held me close to his body—so close I thought I might meld with him else be squeezed right through him. I imagined emerging the other side. That would be good. I then could say ‘Hi’ to Gamal while the lovers did their joyous reunion thing. But I was too thoroughly joined to my body and so was Arvina and so I had to endure their embrace. But that wasn’t all of it.
Finally sated—or so I hoped—by this body crushing, the kissing began. I hadn’t much by way of romantic experience. I’d never been kissed, not seriously, not beyond an explorative peck. I was the witches’ daughter, a redhead to boot. I wasn’t romantic material. But I could no longer say that. I now was thoroughly slobbered.
Yuk! Do you have to do that with your tongues? You know how many germs you could be passing? At least ask him, first, where it’s been before you. But she was too busy sucking and eating and slavering to take notice of me. And he did taste kinda nice. Pepperminty. Mouthwash? I bet his dentist loved him.
And then—the ultimate horror—something was moving in his trousers. Kinda growing and . . . No! I didn’t want to be here, in this increasingly intimate clinch with him. I fought my mightiest to be free, not only of him but of her. If, for just a fraction of a nanosecond she would release my body, I could extricate myself and jump far away. I could hide behind Gamal till the lovers had come to their senses. Now her lover was pressing even harder against me. I wanted to scream: Excuse me, but I’m not a pole dancer!
Maybe Gamal was picking up my distress—bless the man, kiss his feet. He coughed. Loud and grating.
“Toggy? Toggy! You’ve done the ‘pleased-to-see-you’ bit. Now put her down.”
It was Arvina who dropped the clinch—or at least she disengaged tonsils and eased a millimetre away. Freed from that lip fest, I realised now how it had hurt my jaw. I wanted to work it, to free-up the cramped muscles. But she still had control of me.
I thought, Can’t you send me away to oblivion while you get on with this part? I mean, must you have me as witness? I wouldn’t have minded so much if I fancied him but . . . a boy who wears his hair in a ‘pixie’ cut? Okay, maybe not boy as such, but he didn’t look much older than maybe late teens. Yet I knew him to be a thousand years old. That boggled my brain, so soon after their snog.
“Rune-caster,” Arvina said—using my speech organs to sound her voice. “May I remind you, you still owe my kin my blood-fee.”
“And may I remind you, I have already acquitted myself of that. Is it my fault the dolt . . . . Pah!” He threw up his hands and turned away.
“So what did happen?” Togrim asked now they had finally broken the seal that had, for that overlong while, held like super-glue.
Freed from the clinch, I now found myself walking—gently strolling—his hand holding mine. I wanted to glance to see where Gamal was but I wasn’t allowed it. Though I could hear his feet rustling the longer grasses where he was walking. Giving them space? Or was he keeping himself away from Arvina lest she lashed out?
“He took me,” she said. “In Norwich. Piled me into his boat and—”
“Now hold just there!” Togrim stopped her. “And just what the glewin were you doing in Norwich? All those years safe with me in Tree Brunna . . .”
“I was buying silks,” she said, a sharp turn to him, a vicious bite—any closer, he’d have lost his head. “You know, as well any, that since the Atonement the Eldspin harvests had gone from poor to almost nil. You wanted me to wear linen, and wool? But neither did you want me to get the silks how most Bellinn got them—by providing the sheets.”
Was that a euphemism, like being the village bike, or the squaddies’ groundsheet?
“I would have gotten,” he said. “had you asked.”
She scoffed at that. What, send a man to buy fabrics for her frocks?
“I had several linen breadths off the web, several of wool as well. I took them to Edward Byrd—you remember him? Nah, likely not. He used to deal with us Bellinn weavers; took our linens and wools and allowed us his silks. No taxes, all under the counter. We got our silks, he got the finest weavings this side of China. And that’s where I was—at Edward Byrd’s hall—”
“In Norwich? At the market? Right in clear view of the castle? And whose castle was it? Only the freaking sheriff’s! Only freaking Hugh Bigod’s! Only Guillan’s freaking brother! Were you out of your head?”
“Why? As far as any knew, Guillan was dead. And Hugh didn’t know me—he’d never met me. And even if had, he’d have been expecting an old woman in her thirties. And there was me looking like I’m still sixteen.”
“As still you do,” Toggy said with a loving glance at me—talk about a quick change. Though, yuk! Fingers-down-throat job.
I suppose he was now sucking up to her, having annoyed her, complaining she was where she shouldn’t have been—implication: whatever then happened was all her own fault. Despite I wanted my body back, I was quite enjoying this mini soap opera playing out before me. But that didn’t last.
“But, Toggy,” Gamal said. “This isn’t Arvina, not her body. That body belongs to Arwen Elvin.”
Thank you, Gamal. I wondered if he could hear my thunk-to-him thoughts in that telepathic Bellinn way. But he must have been able to, since he was a Bellinn and Bellinn can hear everyone’s thoughts. Unless they screen them.
Toggy hadn’t a face nor a nature that ever could sneer. Even so, the look he gave Gamal was loud with silent deprecation. “Nah, you’re wrong, Gamal. I don’t care what you say. This. Is. Arvina. And I can prove it. Arvina has a birthmark. On her right butt.”
But I was powerless. Oh, pray, pray, pray, that the ground opens up and takes me away. Which of course it didn’t. But neither, as it turns, was the event as entirely embarrassing as I’d anticipated. True, Arvina flashed my butt, but she did so discreetly, with the greatest of modesty. My face didn’t even flush red.
“But . . .?” Gamal seemed as surprised as was I. I mean, I knew of my birthmark. But I didn’t know of hers.
“I haven’t always been as lucky as this in finding a body,” she said. “Not all are as malleable, to mould themselves to me. Moreover, it’s taken . . . lifetimes . . . to perfect the art. But now, I have to say, I am happy with this one., If she’d allow me, I’d take it totally. Especially now I have Toggy to hand. But you wanted to know what happened with Guillan? Best you sit—aye, you, too, Gamal. It’s best that I let this flow through your heads.”
Next episode, A Distant Parting