Music. Loud. The drums thrum through me. They stir my blood, they make me move. How can I sit still? But tapping my foot, clapping my hands, that’s not enough. I glance at my mother—No, that’s not my mother! She looks nothing like. But whoever she is, she isn’t looking at me and that pleases. I’m up on my feet and weaving my way to where the others are dancing, away from the fire-pit, the tables and door.
I stay away from the mist-wreathed ‘white wasps’: two women, nasty creatures, seductive to men, spiteful to women. How do I know that? And how know their names that reel through me—Atall and Zelina—and that they’re scornful to me and my mother? Regardless, I find a space far from them.
But now I’m directly in view of the lord’s high table. That’s not by intent, by Johan and Jove, it is not. For that delivers me plain in sight of my mother-who’s-not-my-mother. Her disapproval plays loud in my head. I ignore it, now music-taken.
I care nothing for pipes, it’s the drums. That god-drum, that big drum; it holds me and sways me and lifts up my feet. I jump—I can’t help it. I swirl and stamp. The drums take me to some joyous place, nary a care. I dance, whirling about me the rune-rod. I’ve become unseeing of the men who number most of the dancers; unseeing, too, of those mist-haloed beings that sidle between them. I’m not with them, I’m alone with the music. The music and me.
My mother’s discomfit sounds again, doubly thick with disapprobation. I can feel her invisible hands as she forces my head to flex around, to look at Stefan. More memories flood me. Stefan, lord of this feast and this hall, my guardian since Uncle Nihel died eight mournful years back. Stefan, devout and cerebral, more of a cleric than a warrior-lord. How well he and my mother are suited—except, though Stefan tolerates the mist-haloed beings in his hall, he doesn’t approve them. And now he has issued an edict: Within the week, all must be gone.
As I turn my face sharply from him I raise up a curtain between us. I have that ability. Ethereal, yet that curtain forms a wall as impenetrable as that raised between this hall and Hindrelagh. Ethereal, yet full-real to me. And I grin, to be no more wound about with their disapproval.
This is our last night in the hall, my mother, myself and these others—Stefan at least has the grace to feast us. It’s their last night in the world of men, but not mine. My mother-who’s-not-my-mother won’t allow me to go off with them to their various homelands. She has other plans for us, plans I’ve had no part in the making. Plans I don’t particularly like. And now tears well though I try to stop them. How dare I have tears to ruin this night when all I want is to dance and be happy.
Metallic fingers, hard and cold, encircle and close on my arm, unregarding of my flesh. Those fingers drag me from the dance. Pointless to struggle: I know that grip belongs to Hegrea. And I know no one will notice what’s happening here, for Hegrea has powers far beyond me.
Away from the crowded fire-warmed hall the night air slaps me. I stumble backwards, released from her grasp and the god-drum’s hold. A stone wall catches me.
“Never have I known a more ungrateful child in all my years.” Hegrea now becomes a ghostly vision in the moon’s light. She growls at me, “You should not even exist, begotten after the Oath. And you complain you haven’t a will of your own?”
“I’ve said nothing. I’ve kept my complaints to myself. And neither am I a child. Since a few months back I‘ve been of age.”
Hegrea has no need to snort her derision, I feel it cutting through me, mocking at my naivety.
“Fool! You don’t need to voice words. We all can see them, clear as log-sparks in the night air. Aye, so you don’t want to go to Brittany with your guardian. Well that I do understand and with that I can sympathise. He makes little secret of what he’ll do with you there. Consigned to a convent, out of his way, sorted for life. Aye, unjust, isn’t it, when your brother Edmund is to be made his man, knighted, girded and besworded. Unjust that a Bellinn knight might exist where a Bellinn woman might not. But that’s the world we live in, child. What have I heard you call it? This world of men. Aye, how rightly said. And you know nothing of it, yet.”
I try to speak but Hegrea won’t have it. I have memories of knowing her all my years yet I’ve never seen her angry like this. She exudes a light that roars like a fire around her, though within it she remains pale as a moon-kiss.
She shakes her head at me, her anger cooling. “Yet you and your mother, you refuse to flee with your nearest kin. There, amongst them, at least you’d be safe. There you could dance—dance till you wear your feet to stumps. But, nay, nay, not her, not you, for you neither like Atall and Zelina, and no doubt many others. I shan’t ask you why. You might have to think of a reason.”
I try to cut in a word. Yet even as I open my mouth I’ve forgotten what I would say.
“It was your mother gave you life after the Oath,” she says. “We owe you nothing. She is all that you have. Unless you want the life that Stefan offers. Nay—is it nix? Then you’ll accept what your mother has for you. And, for Hlæfdi’s sake, do be careful with that stick!”
“It’s a rod,” I snap at her. “A gift from Nihel. Jealous?”
“What, you think that compares with what Nihel gave me? How much you’ve to learn, little one. Now, you think on what I’ve said, of your choices.”
Choices? Huh! I have none.
It seems Hegrea is all angered-out. And now she speaks directly into her head. I, too, find it unjust. I, too, am grieving for Nihel. Grieving, too, that now we must leave what once was your father’s hall. But, child, you know such things must be accepted.
“Will it be so tragic to go south with your mother?” she asks, again resorting to mouth-speech. Tenderly, with a pale hand, she strokes my tear-stained cheek. “Though I confess, child, I’ve not her confidence in her family, that they’ll be as willing to take her in as when her own mother took her there in need of shelter. Yet at least there you and she will still be in the ‘world of men’, which seems to be what the both of you want.”
She reverts to head-speech. But I have to strain to hear her, her voice now fading. Listen, and remember. As well as your mother’s, you are and always will be Le Roussel’s daughter.
. . .
A spectral light seeped through the curtains. It was coming on dawn. A dream, but not one I’ve had before. And it had left me with several questions—of the ‘Bellinn’ this Hegrea mentioned; of the mist that haloed the musicians and singers, most of the dancers—my dream-mother, her kinswomen, all aglow with coloured lights like they’re Christmas tree fairies. And there in that dream I was holding a wand; waving it, whirling it around me.
I strained to look over my shoulder at my shelf, my cabinet of curiosities. But that wasn’t enough, I had to hold it. For a long, long time, I sat on the edge of my bed, just looking at it.
Nyd Is Hægl . Rad . Wynn Rad Eoh Tir Os Nyd N.I.H. Could that be ‘Nihel’? Could this really be the same wand as the one in my dream?
I shivered, my stomach churning. For if that dream were in any way real . . . what of that other dream, of being decapitated?
Next episode, All This G’Boody