The screech sounded from all around. A string of words followed that out-foul any heard on a battle-ground. They broke into sobbing. With sword swiftly drawn, Guy turned and pushed his way through the bushes. He must find the distressed damsel. He pushed through more, and more, and more bushes, entangled with woodbine and briars. Bewildered, he turned and turned. Now he had lost where he was. Alone, in a nursery of elms. And the lady’s deep sobbing came from all around.
Then, beyond a sucker-formed screen, he saw there was a clearing formed in the shade of wide-grown hornbeam. He pushed a way through, and faltered, denying what his eyes then saw. Black hair streaming against pale naked skin.
Sword high, he charged, no matter that she held the superior position. He didn’t stop to think what that meant. She must be Gunnhild. Must be the nun. The abducted lady of the abducted Count Alan. Guy tugged at his cloak while he ran. The securing band snapped and let it free. Folded and heavy, he hurled it. It slammed into her face. It knocked her sideways. She screamed, a shrill piercing of ears. And finally realisation stopped him. Something wasn’t right here.
She crouched, naked, his bundled cloak untouched beside her. That was one thing not right. And her face . . . what was it? Something familiar. Blide, she looked much like Blide. Except she was younger, scarcely more than a child.
He still was staring when his companions crashed through the elm-suckers and into the clearing.
“You can stop your laughing,” the man Guy had taken as her attacker snarled at Nihel. “Just undo these wretched knots will you.”
Belatedly Guy took in the whole of the scene. The man propped at the base of the hornbeam, his arms bound behind him, forest-green breeks in intimate disarray, the pink of his shirt, rose-and-silver brocade, a-clash with his hair and his scarlet complexion, was the sought after Count Alan.
While Guy still gawped, Hawk scooped up the cloak. Yet when he tried to wrap it around her, the naked lady stepped out of reach.
“I thought her . . .” Guy still grappled with the astonishing likeness.
“Aye,” Hawk agreed. “This Bellinn lady could pass for our Blide.”
“We came to your rescue,” Nihel said, still chuckling. “But I see you’re quite enjoying yourself.”
“Enjoying?” Count Alan snapped, no relief to his complexion. “Even without the breaking of vows . . .” He spluttered in anger.
“But she is pretty,” Nihel teased, fingers now busy with knots. “What say we take her back to Richmond for Ribald? Indeed, we could take one for each of the men. Gifts indeed from their lord.”
“There will be no taking of me.” The young Bellinn had gathered her clothes and was across the clearing before any could move. Yet she stopped just beyond their immediate reach and wound herself round with a length of foxglove silk, fastened with the largest pearl-headed pin Guy had seen.
“Togrim! Starri! Skrauti! Audri!” Her unmelodic voice split the air. They were not her sobs Guy had heard. “Here, my brothers! I’ve caught me some mortals.” She laughed.
Her brothers must have been near, for without rustle, snap or hesitation they stepped into the clearing. All young like the woman, their long spears levelled at Guy and his companions. Bright tipped, those spears, and sharp, clearly steel. So much for the banishing power of iron. But what of it. Guy’s bravado rose. The Bellinn weren’t dressed for the forest or a fight, all fancy in their silks and bejewelled. And he had five to his party, with his own sword already drawn.
Trusting the others to follow he picked his target and lunged and slashed down. His blade fell heavy against the Bellinn’s wisp of a spear. Yet that spear didn’t shatter. Instead the Bellinn laughed at him as he fell in inelegant sprawl amid broken leaves.
But he was straight to his feet – yet he wasn’t, he was still on the woodland floor. He could not move, as if the earth itself were holding him down. His companions too: Toli, Nihel and Hawk were solidly stuck. Their antics in trying to free themselves would have been comic, at some other time.
“Some rescue,” Count Alan said with a skyward glance.
“Really, Vyvain.” The smallest of the Bellinn shook his head, as in despair yet his tone was teasing. “Can we not leave our sister alone for a moment? And what were you doing with him?” With his long glint-headed spear he feinted a jab at Count Alan’s groin.
Vyvain shrugged. “But he’s wealthy, Toggy.” Her hands were busy, tying her hair with golden ribbons. “Besides, Young Cesar refuses to lay him. So I thought . . .” She left tying her hair to saunter away to the most-thickly gold-encrusted of the brothers where she languidly draped an arm around him. “I thought I might acquire some pretty jewels, same as our Skrauti.” She fingered a garnet-and-gold brooch that fastened said Skrauti’s heavy silk cloak. Dark red, thickly laid with gold embroidery, half-circular cut and fashionably long, Guy couldn’t put a price to it. It must have cost the Bellinn a fortune. No wonder he wore it despite the heat of the day; who would leave it to be stolen. “But,” Vyvain’s tone changed, “that Breton bastard wouldn’t perform. Reeking angel-seeker, as warped as my father.”
Toggy laughed. “Contradictory, my sister. Rauf performed at least the once at Ma Cesar’s hands. Else we’d not have you as a troublesome sister—”
“Enough!” Skrauti cut across their talk in a voice anvil-hard. “Intruders, mortals. They’re to face Regin-yorl for judgement.”
“Not le Rous,” a purling voice said, and all turned to look.
Despite what he’d already seen of these Bellinn, Guy’s jaw dropped. Nothing seemed right of this woman. White hair, and pale bony face, her eyes showing as green pools in the snow, she ought to have been a hag. Yet she bore a child’s bloom to her skin, the blossom of apples in spring. Then her white cloak wasn’t of silk nor brocade nor of fur but of feathers. Feathers! Guy thought that only the stuff of nursery-tales. A swan’s wing stood proud as a collar, enfolding. Such a cloak ought to have softest skin as a lining. Yet as she moved she exposed a lining of inconguou chequered cloth, yellow and red, probably linen. Beneath, scarcely glimpsed, a bright tartan band, hung with tassels and jewels, bound tight her hips over a shift of sheerest silk. That shift obscured nothing. Guy forced his eyes down, following the trail of colourful embroidery that cascaded and gave weight to the hem. But when was this ever a fashion, and in whose court?
“I want him, this Alan, King’s Counsel,’ she said. “He is kin of mine.”
~ ~ ~
Guy recognised this stretch of the chase. He had seen this same tree-hugged hill from the Oddssons’ gatehouse, had seen how the tree-cover thinned as the land swept down to the Linn. Except where had been open grazing, a lawn for the deer, now stood a high-thatched long hall such as those few remaining on the Danish held Hreppessey. Behind it was a veritable village of Easterling-type longhouses, each with its own enfenced yard. And, as if in mock of an east-set church, to the west, set in its own post-defined yard, stood an ancient building, a barbarian temple. Beside it rose a sky-scratching pole topped by . . . what was that? A wheel. A crow perched upon it. Two steep mounds shared the enclosure. Haugs, he had heard them called. But these weren’t earth-covered. No, one was white from the chalk of its making. The other – glazed darkly. Guy swallowed, remembering talk, remembering tales. That glaze would be blood, from the blood sacrifices. Blide hadn’t warned him though he ought to have known: Eldsland was entirely heathen.
He’d no time to see more. The Bellinn brothers jabbed at him, goading him into moving faster, directed inexorably to Regin-yorl’s hall. Dimly he noted his lack of rebellious notions. But that merely added to what was, overall, oddness.
A dry moat surrounded the hall, not seen till upon it. A plank bridge crossed it. The hall opened towards the hill, away from the village, and away from the temple. Everything opposite to the Christian world. Two beasts guarded the door, giant carvings of wood, realistically painted. Impossible, yet he could have sworn the bear moved. The other, a wolf, seemed to eye him, ready the moment to pounce. And all the while from within, the sound of women singing.
Angelic their voices singing in rounds. He strained to pick out the words but they stopped before he was able. Instead was a drum, its beat slow and ominous; strength-sapping, rather would he face a charge of Breton-bred horses.
“All blame is mine,” Hawk said close in to Guy, the first words spoken since their capture. “No sooner into Eldsland than . . . this.”
“And I am the trained knight, I ought to fight. The shame is mine.”
“You both are wrong,” Nihel said over his shoulder to them. “Was I who allowed Alan out of my sight.”
“Will there be more naked ladies in there, do you think?” Toli asked. Guy turned and glared, not close enough to punch him.
At the door of the hall his feet faltered. He wanted time to take it all in, to make sense of what his eyes were seeing. A dance of lights. Not torch- or fire-light, these lights had colour. Blues and greens of every cast, aswirl like water disturbed. He remembered now, he had seen similar lights flitting amongst the trees. Seen them amassed around his captors, thought them a trick of the sun through the leaves. But where was the sun in this windowless hall?
Were they angels, these Bellinn with their singing and lights? Hadn’t Amphora too been amid a bright light. But if they were angels, then angels of a different hue. But no, it could not be. Flesh and blood, Blide had said. Beside him, Hawk seemed as bewildered as he.
Guy squinted, trying to see through the lights to find Count Alan. There, he spied him across the far side of the hall, shepherded by the swan-lady and two other women. He wanted to go directly to him but a crowd of women gaggled around the door. Such colours they wore. Such flimsy gowns! Their hair, left loose and uncovered, floated around them. And all of them young. Guy tried to ignore his stirring below; they were heathens all.
One started again to sing. But what language was this? None that Guy knew. Not Dane.
Another Bellinn woman started, repeating the words from the start. So it was to be another song sung in rounds. But this wasn’t sweet. Without knowing the words, he knew it a taunt. A third voice, a fourth and a fifth joined in. Soon a barrage of voices, all in that same jeering tone, hard and sharp. They filled his ears, threatening, unmanning, and directed at him. As at his capture, his feet refused him. He felt himself shrinking. But it was an illusion. He of them all ought to know of illusions, he’d had experience of them with Amphora. But why was he standing, why was he not a worm in the dank ground?
As the chant stopped so their hands started clapping, taken and multiplied by all in the hall. Feet stamped. The drummer joined in. When all else stopped that drummer thumped on.
A jab twixt his shoulders. Guy stumbled, scattering the women. Light-swathed, they drew back. He recovered balance, and though he seemed to have covered no distance he found himself now in front of the high seat. Wide pillars framed it, carved with intertwined beasts like those he had seen at the lodge. But here their clarity was obscured by the hundreds of nails driven in. Banners hung from the rafters deep into the pillar-formed recess. Not the colourful banners that hung elsewhere in the hall. Black, every one of them. Black, with a wide-horned bull’s head white upon them. The standards of Regin-yorl and his men. Some bore additional designs on them. Beneath them, plain carved wood, blackened with age, awaited the throne of Regin-yorl. As yet empty.
He and Hawk, Toli and Nihel, were variously pushed and prodded to move along. This was not their destination. At least not yet. They were steered to where Count Alan was waiting. Then pushed further, to crowd into a dark crammed corner beyond the Bellinn lord’s throne.
Yet as they passed Nihel snatched a few words with his brother. “Does she know?”
Of all the things happening, this puzzled Guy more.
And Alan’s answer: “So distressed. You see her?”
Guy followed their gaze. There was a young woman, part-hidden behind the swan-lady. She, alone of those in the hall, wore her hair wrapped in a wimple. She trembled, Guy could see even from that distance. Her face was drained, ashen-white.
“Why did Hegrea not tell her?” Count Alan asked, anger ill-masked.
“But she only told me because of Atall.”
“Hegrea would say nothing,” the swan-lady broke in with a sneer. “She still wants to thwart my Luin.”
“But the shock.” It was clear now who the focus of Count Alan’s anger. The Bellinn swan-lady. “And what of the child?”
“The child! You fool, couldn’t you wait? Vilhjalm soon will be dead and the danger passed. Now this. And you,” she pointed at Hawk. “Bringing a mortal, bad enough, but one who stinks of angelica?”
Their talk had drawn the other women, women brightly garbed like sprays of spring flowers who openly leered. They whispered, giggled, and touched each other in mock of their unhidden design. Never had Guy felt such fear of a woman. What would happen when they ventured sufficiently near?
But their intent was broken when the monotonous beat of the drummer was joined by a piper, and the piper by a zither, and the mood turned festive. Hands again clapped, feet tapped, but now as a prelude to dance. Guy’s shoulders sagged as the heightening tension suddenly ceased.
“Blide was saying – Sir Guy?” Toli tapped Guy’s shoulder to recall his attention. “She was saying as Eldsland is an illusion. That we see only as we believe. So, Sir Guy, can’t we believe we’re in a warm tavern with lots of warm ale?”
Nihel answered for Guy. “Alas, it’s only the Bellinn can create the illusion.”
“You seem to know much of these Bellinn creatures, Lord Nige. I wonder, do you know who this swan-lady?” Guy asked him. “She seems not to like me. That remark of the angelica?”
“I have not met her. Yet by Hegrea’s description, I’d say that is Amblushe. Hegrea tangled with her long centuries ago. A devouring mother, she called her. She tired to kill Hegrea. Hegrea had to flee the attack.”
“An incident involving her son Luin?”
“You could say it was so,” Nihel chuckled. He seemed entirely changed from when they first met earlier that day. “Amblushe’s son Luin begot his first child upon her. He begot his last upon our Lady Gunnhild’s unsuspecting mother.”
“Lady Gunnhild, I keep hearing the name, but who is she?” He had never heard talk of a woman involved in Count Alan’s life.
“Gunnhild? Truly, you do not know? Ah, but you are too young, I suppose. Gunnhild is the cuckolded daughter of the old English king.”
“King Harold. Harold Godwinsson.”
. _____ .
Next episode, 9th April: This Talk Of Grimmen