Neve crossed the fallen cracked-willow that served as bridge. Cesar had walked it without a break in her step but Neve was less certain. She heard the rhyme play in her head, ‘I’m a troll, fold-a-roll.’ She thought of the grimmen; memories of the Halftroll with his razor-sharp nails. But nothing nasty raised its head and she grinned at her silliness – then closed her mouth tight as a savage swarm of gnats was suddenly around her.
To the side of the path was a’speckle with gold-starred celandine, their dark heart leaves layered over deep moss cushions. But this was the wrong season! Blushing wood sorrel formed a carpet beyond them while ragged robins and campions raised their heads through a filigree of arching ferns. And everywhere was the white froth of cow parsley. But there ought to be trooping toadstools by now and lords and ladies, their phallic spires red-berried. There ought to be . . . oh, but what was that divine scent? It was the heady-scented honeysuckle that hung from above her.
“An enchanted land,” she breathed in awe.
“The dike around it gives some protection,” Cesar answered. “Or maybe the dike protects the world? It wasn’t always there. We weren’t always as impoverished as this.”
Neve thought back to that moat of glistening black mud that surrounded the island, not seen until at its edge, hidden amongst the stand of willows and alders that she’d seen from the hall.
The path soon followed beside a rill, like an overgrown trickle. Neve guessed it flowed from the well and fed into the Linn. She’d not thought of it before but now she wondered how the three wells of Tree Brunna could exist. They had to be rain-water fed. She imagined the rain trickling slowly through the ‘gravel hills’ that rose either side of the Linn. But rather than seep further through to the chalky subsoil, the water must then hit an impervious layer of clay – formed from millennia of post-winter flooding. She nodded to herself; yea, that would explain it.
Beside her the rill’s bed was pebbled, its song silver-sweet. Cesar stepped over it. Neve followed – and stepped into sun-lit glade. Willows encircled the well. Neve turned and turned, looking at these willows hung with their decaying grey webs of women’s wishes.
“The villagers still came to here till these past fifty years,” Cesar said.
“Amazing.” She’d known nothing of this. “Yet I lived no more than two miles away.” Why hadn’t she at least heard talk of it?
“Your grandfather kept your grandma away, and she wasn’t locally grown.”
“No, Irish traveller, part Rom.”
The logs Neve had seen through Ingvilda’s young eyes were no longer there – that would have been truly a miracle. Instead was a solitary stump. Neve couldn’t guess its age, its wood barely visible for the moss.
“Sit,” Cesar said.
A second stump grew out of the ground.
“Illusion,” Cesar said to Neve’s wide-eyed look, a smile wide on her face as she sat.
The spring’s welling water drew Neve’s eyes. The water was held by a rough-made curb of moss-covered chalk-stone. The water flowed into the rill through a slim gap in the ring. Such a precious magical place; how could there be gravel-working so close, nearby. And that spring’s constant motion was mesmerising.
“My scrying well,” Cesar said. “In here I saw Hawk, and I knew.” She sighed. But then her fingers flicked the memory away. “You want to know of your grandfather. Why he deserted you.”
She did, but the anticipation was tinged with anxiety. Now she knew who he was, she couldn’t understand why he had deserted her grandma, her mother, and her. It seemed the greatest possible betrayal; he had loved, so loved, her grandma.
“I set my son no example,” Cesar said. “I broke with the Oath as soon as sworn. But in truth, I never did swear it. Why would I, when I’d just found my Inn Hrafn again. Before – when he first held this land – Inn Hrafn had had a mortal wife, a young girl from Daneland. But this time Inn Hrafn, Hawk Oddsson, wanted no other but me. But he did want a son. How could I deny him that after the children I’d borne? So many babies, so many dead – this is our punishment, Nevey. We Asars live while our children die. Even our Lady Kerrid said it the same.”
“Do all Asars call Kerrid ‘Our Lady’? Only I’ve noticed . . .”
“Raesan hasn’t told you, has he? I want to laugh at him; I want to cry. Kerrid is ‘Our Lady’ because Kerrid’s our source. No, I don’t mean we other Asars were born of her here, after her banishment. No, all Asars were banished together. No, I mean before then. She was the source of all Asars before we were banished.”
Neve wasn’t sure she understood. She remembered back to 1086, with the acid-eaten body of Guy laid on the mud-shore before them. She remembered the look on Gabriel’s face. Again, she heard him say to Kerrid, with deepest respect, ‘Dominatrix . . .’ Lady – Queen.
“Kerrid is the source of the angels as well?” Her jaw dropped.
Cesar laughed; an echo of the spring as it welled. “You truly are mine, a nock of my blood, so quick to grasp. But your mother should have told you. And my son should have told her. I am not pleased with him.”
“Well I would have known more had Raesan not snatched away Kerrid’s book from me. I found it.” She said nothing of how and where.
“Oh, I’d say that Raesan was right to do that – though never did I think I’d say that of him.” She shook her head, her lips pressed in despair. “He wasn’t much liked, you know. And that long before the Atonement. We Asars all have done things we’d prefer to hide—”
“For which you were banished?”
“You’ll not trick it out of me, nock of mine; no, we Asars seal our lips upon that, so don’t try. No, I was referring to these years we’ve lived here in human bodies, making human mistakes as all humans will. Do not think we’re not above it; we are the worst. But when we’re faced with it, we don’t deny it. Bellinn and Asar, we are family, all from one source. So we bear the heat and we admit whatever we’ve done. But not Raesan.”
Whatever Cesar’s memories of him, they so agitated her that she had to sit quietly until her light again settled.
Neve prompted her, “So what did he do?”
“What, indeed what. He made of Hegrea a liar – just to save his pretty face. Nevey, Asars do not do that. With any other, an Asar can see into their heads, unless wilfully closed. But no one can see into an Asar’s unless invited. It was unforgivable of him. So I take it you don’t know of him and the bird?”
“Razimer mentioned something – of a heron?” Neve frowned. The significance had been lost upon her. She hadn’t understood Raesan’s violent reaction, though she’d known it was something more than just jealousy because of her attention to Rat.
“Ardhea,” Cesar said.
“I’ve heard him mention that name several times. She was lady to Lord Freilsen?”
“An Asar – but unlike other Asars, she was cast down in the form of a heron. But, an Asar, she could cast a convincing illusion. So she hung upon herself the illusion of Kerrid – it’s a long story: something she did long before she met Raesan; it was done first for Lord Freilsen.”
“And Raesan met her and thought she was Kerrid and fell in love?”
Cesar nearly choked on her laughter. “No, I tell you, the fool was already in love with Kerrid – besotted, obsessed. We never could understand it, what it was with Raesan’s so-called ‘affections’ for Our Lady. But that we could forgive him. Who amongst us can control our heart? But he lied and denied it. We do not lie, we Asars, not to each other. And once a lie is found . . . how then can we trust that person again?”
Neve knew on the journey home she’d be thinking of every lie he had told her but for now she held back. It was her fault anyway; she’d been a fool to trust him. But then she had wanted so badly to know who was her grandfather. And Cesar’s game had teased her till she had to unravel its mystery. But to remember how she’d defended him, even praised him, to both Lord Skrauti and Lady Zelina. Guilt flushed her face. With head hung low, she confessed it to Cesar.
“Hush, child, you spoke in good faith. It shows only the goodness of you.”
“Shows my naivety. Even after I realised that he’d been clinging to me because I look much like Kerrid, I still believed his every word. You know he tried to kill Razimer – or at least tried to bury him forever.”
“You’re young, Nevey, you’ll learn.”
“I want to shrivel up with shame.” And now she was angry at herself.
“It’ll pass. And I was supposed to be telling you of your grandfather.”
Neve nodded. Rather that than to twist her innards with self-accusations.
Cesar took a moment to gather her thoughts.
“Your grandfather, yes. I thought, if I must wait for Hrafn to again be reborn, over and over, then at least let me have our son as company. Besides, the Oath was only then sworn; our child would be no younger than Gunnhild’s. And a child of the second nock would live 6000 years. That was 6000 years my son would be with me.”
“But what of your other sons? Skrauti and Togrim couldn’t have been born long before Rawn.”
“You think I’d want Skrauti keeping me company? By everything rich in the heavens, that one stinks of his father. The Godwines were . . . let’s say ambitious and leave it at that. Skrauti was plotting before he was out of his diapers, the destructive imp. No, I was glad when he travelled north. And Toggy . . . we cannot laugh every day; something he has yet to understand. Besides, truth is, I wanted Hawk’s son with me, no other. But when do we ever get what we want. You might remember that as you live your years. I swear it is part of the curse laid upon us.”
“I thought the curse lifted with the Atonement.”
“Lifted – for those who returned. No, Hawk had his son, but that son was a ganger. You know what that means? Oh, he stayed a while with me, while he was the park-keeper here. But then the Bretons left and he didn’t much care for the Lancastrians that followed. He joined Edmund – Gunnhild’s son. They sailed the high seas for a while as pirates. But in time, in his wanderings, he met with your grandmother, Phoebe Carpory.”
Cesar stopped – to gather her thoughts or her breath. Neve felt no need to interrupt; she’d rather the story flowed as it would. Yet it did seem odd that this woman, by appearances no older than her, should be telling of her grandparents meeting – and her grandfather was that young woman’s son. She supposed, as the centuries passed, she’d get used to these oddities.
“How could I chide my son, Nevey, with the example I’d set? He ignored the Oath, though he knew full well what he was doing was wrong. He came to me after, tearing his hair. But Phoebe so wanted a child and Phoebe was aging, time running out, it would soon be too late.”
Again Cesar paused. Agitated, now by the story she told, her light had closed like an ice-coffin around her.
She sighed.“Our children are punished for what isn’t theirs – unto the seventh generation. We cannot stay long with mortals; we do not age, and people notice. My son, your grandpa, knew this. He knew soon he must leave his beloved forever. He thought, with the child, she’d feel his absence less keenly.”
“But my mother was thirteen when my grandfather left! He stayed around for a while.”
“He wanted to be sure that Connie would look after his Phoebe. Connie was a good girl then, he was proud of her. But he didn’t tell her what she was, and he should have. He did that girl wrong.”
“Where did he go, when he left?” It was the one thing she most wanted to know. Where was her grandfather, this Rawn Hauksson?
“For a while he returned to me here. And wasn’t his mother’s domain conveniently placed for him to keep an eye on his Phoebe and Connie? As it’s been conveniently placed for me to keep an eye upon you – till you moved and caused us a panic. I sent Hegrea to watch you. She wanted to be rid of Raesan when she first saw him there, but he then disappeared. A burr, that one, impossible to be rid of; he returned. So I kept Hegrea there; I wanted you protected from him. But that’s a step aside from your grandfather’s tale. But I wanted my son here with me for thousands of years; he gave but a few. Your mother Constance . . . she fell into bad company. Wild, he called her. It wouldn’t have happened if only he’d told her. But it was too late then to say – you were already swelling her belly.”
“My grandma told me enough of my mother, I can guess her behaviour. But you’re saying he still was around?” She said nothing of what she’d now learned of the Watcher; she still was digesting that.
“Your grandfather needed to ‘organise things’ so he said. He wanted to arrange your education, and to make sure that you wouldn’t want for money. He also had to wait until you were of an age to be left in your grandmother’s care. Again, he was wrong to do that. I told him, ‘Bring her here, bring her to me.’ But no, he wanted Phoebe to have someone to love – because then he robbed her of her daughter.”
Neve stared, disbelief and anger warring. “My grandpa took my mother Connie away?”
“He said, ‘to keep her from further trouble’.”
Neve didn’t how to feel about that, except now she was crying. “Where’d they go?” But she already knew the answer.
“To the far ends of the earth, he said. He’d found someone with a boat who was to take them far across the sea. He said he’d be back before you’d grown to a woman.” Cesar shook her head and spread her hands. “I don’t know. You tell me where he is.”
~ ~ ~
Rat brought the last of the cases down the narrow stairs. “I’m glad we’re flying. At least that restricts how much luggage.”
“It’s your sister, not m—” Neve halted mid-denial. “Okay, some of it’s mine. And you’re over your sulk?”
“The passports came through. That was the deal.”
They had sat in that photo booth, one after another, experimenting with holding their light tight about them, expanding it, dispersing it, trying to hide it, until finally the machine had spewed out sharp-focused photos. Even then Neve didn’t know if the passport office would accept them. There had been a certain deceit in Rat’s and Kazla’s accompanying papers and after Cesar’s talk of Raesan, Neve wasn’t happy about it. Though as Kaz said at the time, “We’re not lying to Bellinn. No Bellinn work in that office.” Rat had crossed his fingers, his eyes and his legs while muttering some ancient incantation. He wanted their applications rejected. He wanted to buy a yacht. He wanted them to slip into New Zealand the same way as Rawn and Constance had.
Neve did a last minute check of all things electrical. Then Rat came behind her and powered the computer. She half-heartedly scowled at him. He accessed iTunes and scrolled and selected – oh what a surprise – Talking Heads. He chose the track, This Must be the Place, and sang along to it. “Home . . . is where I want to be . . .”
“Is this appropriate just as we’re leaving?” Neve asked.
“For the sake of my sanity, please change the record,” Kaz shouted from the utility room.
“But listen to this; these words are bang on. ‘Did I find you, or you find me . . . If someone asks, this is where I’ll be.’ And the drums, I love the drums!”
“No, Led’s the best for drums,” Neve said. “John Bonham’s Moby Dick.”
“Dah! No words. Though I’ll grant you it for Led’s Whole Lotta Love.”
“What happened to your love affair with Deep Purple?” Kaz asked, now coming to join Neve and Rat in the front room. “It always used to be Deep Purple-everything.”
“Flight of the Rat?” Neve laughed.
“Ian Paice, now there’s a drummer.” Then Rat turned to his sister, “Run, run, run, Kaz, come on, catch up. My last passion was Rush.”
“Neil Peart on drums. Hemispheres,” Neve said.
“Farewell to Kings.”
“If it’s going to be like this all the way . . .” Kaz good-humouredly grumped at them – just as the familiar sound of a certain car engine roared and stopped outside.
Their bantering abruptly stopped. As one they looked towards the window and the road beyond. Neve’s heart and belly turned – Raesan in his saffron yellow Spitfire.
“I’ll go,” Rat said and was already at the front door.
“No.” Neve gently moved him aside. “This is mine to confront.” She took a deep breath before opening the door to the street.
“Hi!” Raesan said without leaving the car. The roof was up but the window was down.
Neve’s hands came to perch on her hips.
“Don’t do that, yeh,” Raesan said. “She used to do that.”
Neve dropped her hands to her sides. Besides, arms akimbo wasn’t her style.
“I came to say goodbye. Thought you’d like to know.”
Neve said nothing. She just wanted him to go.
“I have flaws, but I’m not a killer,” he said.
Neve narrowed her eyes as she looked at him. But still she said nothing.
“I, um, I thought . . .” he heaved a sigh. “I thought when I start doing that it’s, well . . .time I went home, hah? Don’t want me to be the demon they say of me, hey.” He tried to laugh.
“Home? Where’s that, Iran or some place?”
“Na, I mean ‘home’, where I belong, with the folk I belong with, yeh. I’m returning to my –to the Asars’ domain.” He nodded as if to confirm his words, wound up his window and, to Neve’s relief, roared away.
Neve nodded too. Rat was right in playing that song. ‘Home is where I want to be, but I guess I’m already there.’ Home is to be with the folks you belong with. She sighed, ridiculously happy. They’d already made plans for when they returned from New Zealand – maybe by yacht. She’d then sell the house. She, Rat and Kaz would join Gudrum and Tythwar and buy a small-holding close to Tree Brunna. It would not be her grandma’s old place; Starri had already bought it. And then if Rat should decide to go a’ganging alone, at least she’d always have family close by her. She just hoped Regin-yorl Artred would hold off his dying till then.
~ ~ ~
Don’t miss the first episode, posting 7th January, of an entirely different story:
The Roots of Rookeri