I knew where I was. In hospital. But how? And why? I rubbed my head. It seemed exceedingly jumbled. A nurse provided a name. Was it mine? It didn’t sound familiar.
“Miss Elvin is awake now.”
Who was she talking to? There was no one else in the room, as far as I could see. I picked up her thoughts: She wanted someone to come along quick; she needed to pee.
I said, “You can go. You don’t have to stay.”
At least, I thought I said that. Yet I heard no noise come from my mouth. Maybe it was only a thought?
But . . . I was so very tired. I absolutely must go to sleep . . . and in sleep, I dreamed what I now know as snatches from my dream-guide’s memory.
. . .
It’s gone! She can’t find it. Yet she buried it, she knew that she had: buried beneath her bedding as always she does. It can’t have slipped onto the floor, there to be mindlessly kicked into some far corner. Neither likely was a thiefling to slip a hand beneath the bedding without her knowing. So where was it?
“Mother,” she asks loudly so all should hear, “have you seen my carved rod?”
“I’ve got it,” the old lady Lifa admits and, bold as a warrior, holds it high.
My dream-guide is straight into her head.
“I didn’t get it as yours,” the old lady claims. “I rescued it from fire-pit. You must have dropped it when you moved in the night.”
‘Moved in the night’, that’s her way of saying ‘gone on an errand’, or ‘gone to the garth-house’. And it’s true, my guide did pay a small visit. But that rod went with her, and she didn’t drop it. And neither did Lifa rescue it—unless it was from her grandson’s hot hands.
She has found the full story in the grandmother’s head. Not long before waking, young Ulfkin had slipped his hand beneath her bedding, though his moves must have been kolsa-sleek. Yet his grandma, with age not sleeping so soundly, had noticed his moves.
“What’s that you got? Bring it, see it.” Caught fire-handed, he had given it over.
Lifa had cooed as she turned the rod, seeing the runes carved on it. Her hand went to her mouth. A gand-stangir. Powerful. She wanted it. Yet she knew what upset would flow from its keeping.
No choice, now, she has to admit she has it. But she’ll not allow my dream-guide to cuff her grandson again as she had last night. She allows the old lady’s lies to stand. She’s new in this family and already had one fight. As long as she has the rod . . .
. . .
The dream moves to later, maybe the same day. My dream-guide follows Eadkin into the off-room, hoping to find makings of breakfast.
“Ah,” he says, “two travellers together,” and hip-nudges her out of his way.
Her eyes watch how much he’ll take of the bread, her belly painful with its gnawing.
He laughs. “Here!” and pulls a second loaf, untouched, from an earthen pot. “Not used to stores, are you. Used only to having it brought. But go leaving food atop the pot, all sorts of thieves get it. You’ve a knife?”
She has, though it’s small next to his. His looks more of a warrior’s blade. She cuts the bread and cuts some cheese. The cheese isn’t hard like she’s used to but is soft, almost as butter; it hardly needs cutting. He watches her.
She asks him, “Why say you’re a traveller?” Last night when she searched his head she found nothing to say he has travelled beyond the local ports where he trades.
He chuckles. “See these shoes?” He pulls them down from a shelf. “Dragon-skin, them. Magical. There’s more ways of travelling than a sweat-and-blood horse or shank’s pony.”
“You’re a sorcerer?” Her eyes shoot wide. She hadn’t found that in him. But, son of the reputed galarr-kuna, she can believe it.
He laughs the more, hands up to shield off the accusation. “Nay, nary that. What, take me for a fly-dealer? Aye, well, maybe, in a way. Between you and me, I travel the between-worlds. You get what I mean? But I know that you do, since I snatched sight of that rod. A proper gand-stangir, that.”
But it’s—she bites back her denial. It’s just a rod that Nihel carved for her, and he was never a magician. He carved it while keeping watch beside his brother’s bed, her father, who then was dying. Herself, she was just a speck in her mother’s belly. And yet he had told her when he gave her that rod, before himself died, that it would protect her. Aye, she since had chortled on that: she might use it to poke out an eye!
“We’ll talk another time, eh?” Eadkin says and with his huge hands squeezes her shoulder. “Best wolf down that cheese. Our Syllan is calling. Don’t want her stamping, too, do you.”
. . .
It’s later yet, and by the way my dream-guide now is with Eadkin’s daughter, Syllan-Bote, I guess it’s still the same day. They’ve been cutting rushes, barefoot in the mud. She’s enjoyed it, enjoyed the way the warm mud squelches between her toes. All the more fun for it not being what a court-lady does.
But now they’re sat on the bank by the bridge cleaning their feet, at least enough to wrap again and put on their shoes. At the suddenly-heard though not-so-distant rattle of harness and arms, she feels Syllan stiffen. But she doesn’t need Syllan’s leaked panic to know this bodes ill. Two young women . . . and two or more horsemen.
Syllan’s first to her feet, more used to these clammy wrappings. By the time my dream-guide joins her, the men are emerging from an elder-and-thorn hedge that hides that stretch of road and muffles all sound. A wolfhound, all gangly legs and scrappy fur, trots alongside them.
“Who . . .?” she asks even while taking the names from Syllan’s head.
“Our sheriff, foul man, and we’re shut in his arms,” Syllan silently mouths, her face hidden from the men behind the piled high bundled rushes now in her arms. “That with him is son of my soon-to-be neighbour. Brun, the sheriff’s reeve.” Syllan sounds distinctly ruffled.
Though it’s the first time met, my dream-guide takes an instant dislike to the sheriff. Big, pasty, old, his hand resting on his sword’s pommel; a mace, hung from his saddle, resting against his leg. Both men glitter with brocaded bands though are otherwise soberly dressed. The younger—the thin-lipped reeve—has purple stains around his mouth.
“Ah!” the sheriff’s voice booms across the distance, laced with a forced good humour. “The very person I seek.”
His words startle my dream-guide, yet it’s me who has heard that recently said though I don’t recall the where, the who or the why. Regaining calm, she plays to his words, looking back across the common, like surely he’s not speaking to her? They’ve had no dealings; they’ve only then met.
“If it’s to ask of my wedding . . .” Syllan offers.
But the sheriff snorts derisively. “And I’d come half across county for that, eh? No, my reeve informs me we have additional heads at Failans hall. This young one with you. And another I’m told is her mother.”
My guide decides now is wiser to turn full around. She briefly dips her head.
“Look up at me.” His tone, though not friendly, isn’t quite a command. She obeys.
He pulls in his lips—pale, fleshy—and chews upon them, his leather-gloved hand up to cover it. Did he intend the impression of thinking? Aye, and she knows what he’s thinking. He’s wondering what to do with this parcel of worms. He’s more than a little afraid of her and her mother.
“The stolen nun’s daughter,” he says with disgust.
She says nothing, waiting for him to declare his intent. Clearly, he’s not come this distance simply to pass the time of day. There’s been no introductions; no polite ‘you’re welcome to stay’.
He shakes his over-large head. “No, I am not happy. When was last you went to church, eh? Which church was it, and when? Come on, say up quickly else I’ll have to believe you’re constructing a lie.”
“Not since a fortnight back,” she admits though even that’s not the truth. Truth is she has never as much as entered a church—one of Stefan’s many complaints of the Bellinn at his court: they refuse the Christian faith. “It was Count Stefan’s chapel at Richemont,” she compounds the lie.
“Count Stefan?” he queries as if he didn’t already know.
“Stefan. Comte de Penthièvre. Comte de Tréguier. Lord de Richemont. He is my guardian.”
“He knows you are here?”
“He knows we were to return to my grandmother’s family. He lent us an escort. He’ll know which hall once that escort returns.”
“I think he will not,” the sheriff says. “Your Lord Stefan, ‘comte-de-dumpte’ has now departed overseas, with his wife. Still, I expect someone will run the message to him, eh? But Richemont and Brittany, they’re not Norfolk. You understand me? This is my county. My land. My people. And it is my God-given duty to protect them from . . . what? Apostate nuns? Is that what she is, your mother?”
Well might Syllan visibly squirm with cheeks a fierce-red. Yet my guide refuses an answer.
“I shall be keeping my eye on you,” he says. “I expect to see you in church. REG-U-LAL-LY. Which is your church, Syllan? Aldebur? Eh? Or do you use Calestorp?”
“Aldebur,” the reeve, Brun, answers for her.
“Aldebur it is, then. And if you fail to appear there, irreligious daughter of an apostate whore, your comte-le-protecteur will protect you no more.”
My dream-guide doesn’t like this man and now is in a cold sweat. Perhaps it’s that which wakes me.
I open my eyes. And there’s a familiar face looking down at me, glossy-black hair scraped severely back. But I cannot put a name to her.
Next episode, Broken Water