Neve sensed the place long before she could see it. She checked it out on Google Maps on Raesan’s laptop. “Says here it’s a poultry farm.”
Raesan nodded up ahead. “Chickens have halos, yeh?”
They’d left Norfolk; they were into Cambridgeshire now, the one-time Fens. But the fens had been drained long ago and the land given to grain. The fields, dotted with their giant straw-rolls, stretched pancake flat to the unbroken horizon. Neve kept her eyes on that horizon. Rather that than to look at the dashboard and see what speed Raesan was doing. Yet she dared not complain, not after the trouble she’d had conniving him into bringing her here. Closer, and the humble glow became multi-coloured lights, like a festival with a laser display.
“How many?” she asked.
“I should know?” Raesan raised his voice above the sound of the road and his music. “They’re Zemowit’s get, yeh.”
“Well, could it be thousands?” Though in that portion of Eldsland she’d seen, in 1086, they’d not even amounted to ten.
“Na,” Raesan said. “Thousands aren’t possible, yeh. See, lots returned to the old lands, across the North Sea. North, yeh, when it’s east; you folks are funny. Then since the Oath there’s been no begetting and the lower nocks, yeh, they’re all long gone dead. Likely there are only the fourths and above – and you, yeh, the anomaly.”
“I’m a fourth,” she said. She’d lost count of the times. “How else could I join thoughts with Kazla and Alfeida? I thought you’d accepted that Regin-yorl is my grandpa.”
He glanced at her. “Lady, I said I could be wrong about Edmund. But that doesn’t make Regin-yorl your grandfa.”
“What have you against it being him?”
“You want the list? You could start with his dislike of women! Now be done, yeh, else you’ll be walking alone.”
She didn’t understand his sudden anger. And she didn’t like the implication. She saw again, from Kazla’s memory, of her finding Razimer in Arkona. “Look around, Kazla, everyone’s doing it.” She saw Razimer attending Regin-yorl, who didn’t like women. The disappointment suddenly stilled her.
“Are you saying he’s gay?” She had to ask.
“I said, be done.”
“No, Raesan. Was he gay?”
Raesan shrugged his nearside shoulder. “What’d you think? He never was seen with a woman, never succumbed to their charms. So now leave it, Lady, yeh, else I’m warning you, you will be walking.”
Never succumbing, not seen with women . . . but that didn’t make him . . . she couldn’t say the word. And he couldn’t be, anyway. He was her grandfather. Yet she couldn’t shake the memory of Razimer, Regin’s lieutenant, in pink silks and eye make-up. As much for distraction, she returned her attention to the map on the screen. She zoomed in.
“There’s a house behind that poultry farm. Bissen Hall. That’s where they’ll be. They obviously don’t know about technology.” She forced a laugh, zoomed in closer, changed the angle. “There’s what could pass as a linen line. Except now I’ve a perfect view of it and it’s not linen but banners hung from it. Like those displayed in Regin-yorl’s hall.”
“Yeh? Let’s see.” Raesan leant closer. The car swerved. A truck-driver, nigh-tailgating them, honked on his horn.
“Raesan! Just keep your eyes on the road!” she snapped at him.
“But those flags will tell us who to expect.”
“So I’ll describe and you can say. Though these pictures weren’t taken today. They could be several years older.”
“They’ll give us an idea, a warning.”
“Well, none of them have streamers like I saw before.”
“Well yeh, of course they’ve not. These will be post-Oath, won’t they. I mean, they can’t be from before, yeh, cos Zemowit denied his sons battle. Remember.”
“Yeh. Razimer the rebel.”
A rebel in pink silks and eye-liner, serving a man who didn’t like women. Was Razimer here, at this hippy-type commune? She wasn’t sure how she felt about that though her heart had decided. It jumped.
“There’s a dark green standard – it bears what looks like a moon and a star.”
“Feilan. He’s the lord here.”
“Problem?” Neve felt chilled by his tone.
“Lady, they’re all problems. Even his sister Kalina, yeh, and she’s the lady. But you wanted to come here. Still, no sweat, yeh, cos they won’t let us in. And you’ll be glad they turned us away. That Feilan, yeh, he’s not good with women. He’s not like me, yeh.”
“What, he doesn’t like loud music?”
“Violent,” Raesan said, not amused by what she had said. “Vicious, yeh. And he’ll kill to get what he wants. You still want to pursue this?’
She turned back to the laptop. Raesan had laughed at her for using what he said was outdated gadgetry. He mightn’t know how to use it, but he knew what was available. “If it works, why fix it,” she’d answered. Though the connection frequently faltered.
“There’s another dark green – looks like wide horns in white. Could it be one of Regin-yorl’s Stoats?”
“Na, theirs were all greys and blacks. But white horns on green, yeh? That’ll be Klaka’s.”
“Have I met him?” She didn’t remember the name.
“Na. But if he’s here then Kyrri and Gamal will be here too. One’s a red chevron, the other’s a black raven, yeh, both on white. Do you see them?”
“Yep. Easier to see than the green. Are they bad news too?”
Raesan pulled a face. “Klaka, yeh, he’s short on light – head department, yeh. But he makes up for it in brawn. And Kyrri, na, he’s a hailstorm in summer.”
“And Gamal?” she prompted when he didn’t provide.
“You saw Huat, yeh? Well Gamal is similar. And if Gamal’s here then so will be Hemeng. yeh, his son. Do you see a rayed sun on blue?”
She saw it. Hung on the line with the others, it was the only one in vibrant colour.
“Hemeng might help you,” Raesan said. “So that’s it, yeh, only the five?”
“No. Three more.”
“And here I was thinking, Lady, we might yet dare to breathe. So, Dezil’s here, yeh? Two horseshoes beneath a small rayed sun. Blue ground.”
“Likely you’ll get along with him – horse-trader, yeh, till this last century. I suppose he’s had to seek out his mother for safety. That’s Kalina. He might help, if Feilan allows it, yeh – once he knows you’re Rom-stock. Who else is there?”
“Two more, both diagonally divided, blue and red—”
“One with Thor’s hammer, the other a horn? Salvi and Samos. Salvi, yeh, he’s a thorn in Feilan’s side, but Samos is so-so I suppose. So that’s it, yeh? And we’re nearly there. I won’t mind, yeh, if you ask me now to turn around. Nevey, these Bellinn aren’t going to be good with you – and that’s before you meet the women. There’s no telling which of those will be here.”
“I’m not changing my mind.” Though she was worried of possible violence.
“Don’t you fret, Lady.” He forced a chuckle; he sounded more anxious than her. “I won’t have anything happen to you. Though there’ll only be me against eight.”
“But there’s only Feilan who’s a second nock.”
“You’re trying to cheer me, yeh? Well, we’re here.”
Alongside the road was high chain-link fencing topped with barbed wire. Within, surrounded by patchy dry grasses, were ranks of weather-dulled wooden buildings, louvred vents set high in their walls. But she couldn’t yet see the old hall, And those coloured lights were no longer so bright. Retracted and faded, they must have sensed them coming.
A single barrier the width of a lorry and then some abruptly broke the perimeter fencing. To the right was a security intercom.
Raesan laughed – yet Neve could see how he trembled, his light pulled in tight. “High wire fences, then this, yeh. Anyone could sneak under.”
“Yea, but it means they only need monitor this one place.”
He stared at the intercom.
“Press the button. They’ll speak,” she said.
“Huh. If you say. Are you sure, yeh, you don’t want to turn around?”
“Press it, Raesan.”
“Yeh-yeh, I’m doing it, I’m doing it.” He took a deep breath, reached for the button and buzzed.
“Well, that’s it. Guess we can go now.”
“No, Raesan. Try it again.”
“Nevey, yeh, they don’t need that button to know that we’re here. They’re not going to answer so let’s go.” He started to put the car in reverse.
A woman’s voice blared out of the intercom. Neve was surprised no icicles formed on the metal. “Raesan. Greetings. What do you here?”
“I’m here peaceful.” He raised both hands, held in the two-fingered peace – but then he reversed it. “But since you’re nothing but jacks and I’m the ace, you can let me in anyway, yeh. Or should I drive straight through your plasterboard barrier?”
“Raesan!” Neve chided.
“Who is the woman?” the voice asked, sharp as a deep-frozen blade.
See, I told you, Neve said. They don’t know who I am. I can say I come from Wales or something. They won’t know I’m illegal.
Yeh, maybe if you’d ever learn to close your head. But if I can take from you, yeh, then so can Feilan and Kalina.
He could be right, but she had to risk it. She noticed a hawk in the sky, too big for a kestrel. It was quartering the neighbouring field. She wondered wryly who it represented, Raesan or the Bellinn within.
Anyway – Neve felt the slight shuffle of his shoulders – if you’re not illegal, yeh, how can you ask after your begetter? Thought of that, huh?
He did have a point.
“She’s a friend,” he said into the intercom. Then, with a glance back at her, he added, “We’re trying to find her begetters.”
There was a moment of silence, then a man’s stern voice. “You come to insult us? We keep track of our gets.”
All the same, the barrier lifted.
Raesan stared at the opening. Neve had to prompt him to move.
A slabbed concrete road took them into a car-park, a black 4×4 the only vehicle, parked tight in a corner behind the long wooden buildings, the supposed chicken sheds. The other three sides of the car-park were fenced high in weather-board, the gate only discernible by its Norfolk-latch handle protruding.
“Effective, yeh,” Raesan remarked, though his voice sounded flat. “Wooden buildings, wooden boards, nothing seen from the road.”
“Hmph. Till the advent of satellite and digital cameras.”
He killed the engine and his music. In the sudden quiet she could hear someone playing something vaguely folksy on guitar.
She nodded to the gate. “Shall we?”
He pulled a face.
“Lord Feilan invites. It would be impolite to turn around now.”
He still was reluctant to move.
The sight beyond the gate stayed Neve in her tracks. It wasn’t the hall, late Georgian at a guess though she couldn’t see much of it. It was its once-elegant balustraded terrace, now crisscrossed with washing lines. Only here weren’t the standards she’d seen on Google. Here were lengths of batik and tie-dyed cotton, drying.
“Wow!” They seemed to breathe enthusasm, so bright. She wanted to look closer. These weren’t the cheap tie-dyes that filled the shops in the 1960s and ‘70s. These, skilfully crafted, reminded her of an exhibition at the V & A she’d visited with the school. Japanese Noh theatre costumes. These were of a similar artistry.
Raesan nudged her. To the west of the house, and set a little way from it, the Bellinn were gathered together for a barbecue lunch. The music had stopped. Neve’s eyes ranged across them.
How easily they would have passed for hippies on the streets of Cambridge or at a craft fair. Except those days were gone. Hippies now were old, while these were young. Yet they made a glorious sight, the women in strappy white tops and long full skirts of oranges, yellows and reds. And ribbons, bright ribbons everywhere. And beads. The men were more variously dressed. One in an Australian bush-hat, bare-chested with jeans tattered and faded. Another, Gamal, his name came immediately to mind, sported a loose navy tunic, caftan-type, that reached to his ankles. It was belted low and an assortment of pouches hung there.
Lord Feilan came to greet them. Unmistakable, with that face and his predatory gait, he was well named for the wolf.
“Raesan,” he said as he approached them. “Didn’t I tell you evil bastard never to cross my path again.”
“It’s Neve . . .” Raesan stuttered, head turned to seek her.
Feilan turned to her, too. But she’d sealed her thoughts and he gained no entry. Denied, his eyes travelled her body instead. Never in her life had she felt so exposed.
“Who’s your lord? Your lady?” he asked her. “Who allowed you to travel with him? Weren’t you warned?”
“I have no lord,” she answered. She’d not be intimidated by him. “I belong to no Bellinn community.”
“A free traveller, eh?” He called over his shoulder for Dezil.
Dezil, the one-time horse-trader, separated out from the group and sauntered, fully at ease, to join his lord. Cream striped granddad shirt and baggy brown cords, a neckerchief tied round his neck. It was too stereotypical; he could have been an actor playing the part.
“You’re of the travelling community?” he asked her.
She thought it best to answer with truth. “My grandmother was a Carpory, Irish. But her mother was Rom. My grandfather, the one I seek, travelled with them.”
Dezil nodded. “I knew the Carporys. I met them a few times at the fairs. But, though many a Bellinn accompanied the travellers in times past, there never was a Bellinn travelling with them. Not that I know.”
Though many a Bellinn – but she’d thought her grandfather unique. Why hadn’t Raesan said? “When did you last see them?” she asked.
“The Carporys?” He drew in a breath, whistling it out between his teeth. “The queen still was young.”
“Wrong century. Victoria. Look, you shouldn’t be travelling with this . . . He is the anti-god. You know what that means?”
She didn’t mean to glance at Raesan, that seemed to shout of her doubts. But he had taken a couple of steps away and his movement attracted her. His light was solid gold about him, his posture stiff and erect.
A woman joined them.
“Lady Kalina.” Raesan bowed his head – a wonder the gold didn’t split.
Neve didn’t need prompting to do the same though it seemed awkwardly anachronistic.
Lady Kalina, alone of the women, wore a gown in medieval style – though it, too, was batik patterned. Yellow raindrops splattered from shoulder to thighs, there to stream into an orange-red lake that pooled around the hem. The same colour flowers were set in her glossy black hair, and repeated again in her jewellery, amber set in chunky gold.
“I see in your face, you don’t know of this demon,” the lady said, breaking the spell cast by her appearance.
“I know well what he is,” Neve said in defiance.
“What he is, but not what he did.’ Lady Kalina wove a figure of eight as she prowled between and around Raesan and Neve.
“I know he helped bring about the Atonement,” Neve answered the challenge.
Kalina laughed. “Did you hear this little naïve Nineve? She says it was Raesan brought about the Reconciliation.”
“Helped,” Neve amended, aware that his help had been reluctantly given.
There was cackle from those still by the barbecue. Raesan’s light became but a sliver. Neve had never seen it so thin.
“You’re an illegal,” Kalina stated, her arm now entwined with Feilan’s. “Begotten after the Oath. That so, my dear?”
Neve didn’t answer.
“Well, it’s either that or you’re as evil as he. And I don’t see that in you. Do you, Gamal?”
Gamal regarded her, his deep blue eyes boring into the depths of her. “I see an artless child, asking to be rescued from him.”
“I don’t deny my birth. I seek my grandfather,” she said.
“Who is . . .?” Lord Feilan prompted.
When as a child Neve had need to lie she would cross her fingers behind her back. She wanted to do that now. Instead, she curled them into a loose fist. “Edmund fitz Gunnhild.”
“He was born after the Reconciliation,” called one of the women still by the barbecue; Kathlin, the name came. “I was at Tree Brunna when Amblushe stole Luin’s child Gunnhild from the angel-seekers.”
“I was there too,” Gamal said.
“And I was not?” Lord Feilan snapped. “It might be a thousand years gone, but I do remember it. We visited on the matter of Cnut’s abandoned invasion – though why my father must chose there—”
“For his lady Cesar,” Lady Kalina cut in. She made it almost a yawn.
Feilan responded, his back shown to his lady while he further considered his guest. “So you are Edmund’s grandchild? Dezil, did you know that Edmund travelled with the gypsies? I’d not heard that said of him. I thought him a pirate.”
“Look, it doesn’t matter what Edmund is or was,” Neve said before Feilan could throw further doubt on her quest. “All I’m asking is if anyone knows where I might find Regin-yorl? He’s sure to know about Edmund.”
“You might try the Lindsey commune,” Kathlin said and received a harsh look from Feilan.
He turned back to Neve, another harsh look flicked at Raesan. “Don’t take him there, unless you want to be dead.”
“She doesn’t need him.” She turned to see which man had spoken. Black tunic-shirt, faded black jeans, Doc Marten boots and a “Kiss me Quick” hat. He was sunshine after Feilan’s threatening shadows. His name came to her just as he said it. “I’m Hemeng. I’ll take you there.”
“You and whose vehicle?” White chinos, leather jacket, naked chest . . . Kyrri, Raesan supplied the name.
“She ought to stay with us,” Dezil said.
Neve tried not to look at the circle now forming around her and Raesan. All men. All hard-muscled but for Gamal and Hemeng.
“I’d like you to stay,” Gamal said. He sounded sincere.
“She’s seeking her grandfather,” Hemeng said. “Let’s first help her with that.”
“And you reckon you can fight me for the vehicle?” Neve looked from Kyrri to Hemeng. No, Hemeng wouldn’t stand a chance.
“Where in Lindsey?” she asked Kathlin through the circle of men.
“Candleshoe. South Riding.”
“You stay with us.” Lady Kalina said, insistent.
“I thank you. But I do first have to find my grandfather.”
“Then don’t go with him. Raesan. You’re post-Oath, you don’t know him.”
. _____ .
Next episode, 1st October: Skrauti’s Land